Pete Rugolo: Arranger crucial to both Miles Davis and Stan Kenton
Wednesday 19 October 2011
When he joined Stan Kenton's band as an arranger in 1945 Pete Rugolo became the first in his trade to be regularly acknowledged in public. Arrangers had until then always operated anonymously in the engine room of a band, but whenever Kenton introduced a piece to his audiences he always gave Rugolo credit for what he had written. And so he should have done, for Rugolo established the character of the band, inventing a medium that Kenton labelled "Progressive Jazz".
"Pete was one of the first to apply an extensive symphonic or non-jazz compositional technique to the jazz orchestra," said the wordy but worthy composer Bill Russo.
Rugolo remembered those early years. "I guess that an arranger's idea of paradise is some place where he can write anything he wants to and still manage to make a living. That's why I felt like I was walking through the pearly gates when, fresh from the army, I went to work with Stan Kenton. Not only could I arrange the way I wanted to, but I could even compose originals and know they'd be heard. To make the situation more unbelievable, Stan never said, 'Don't do it this way' or 'Don't do it that way.' He was willing to try anything so long as he felt the writer really meant what he was saying."
Establishing the Kenton style was one of two major things that Rugolo did for jazz. The other was to bring before the public an obscure band from the late '40s that became known as"The Birth of the Cool." It was anine-piece led by the trumpeter Miles Davis and it changed the whole direction of jazz in terms of style and harmonic progression.
When he left Kenton in 1949 Rugolo worked for two years as music director for Capitol Records in New York.It's amazing that he managed to persuade such a commercially minded company as Capitol to record the Davis band, for it had had virtually no public exposure and no prospect of selling many records. Indeed the company may have had second thoughts because they didn't issue any of the groundbreaking recordings until a couple of years later. They have since remained constantly among the best-selling jazz records of all time.
Rugolo moved from Sicily to San Francisco with his family in 1921, getting a BA from San Francisco State College in 1938. He then enrolled in Mills College in Oakland, where he studied music and gained his MA under the composer Darius Milhaud, who was on the faculty of the college.
He was still in the army when he sold his first arrangement, "Opus A Dollar Three Eighty", to Kenton. Kentonhired him at $150 a week in November 1945 and they stayed together until1949. Many people considered that Rugolo's era produced the greatest in Kenton's music.
"Progressive Jazz", in which medium Kenton's was the only band, was by definition bombastic, unswinging and extremely loud. Kenton's jazz had Wagnerian pretensions and Rugolo was its most brilliant and precise orchestrator. In the first signs of post-war youth rebellion, his fans loved Kenton's musical detonations. "When you played for Kenton he just wanted louder, louder, louder," was how the trumpeter jack Sheldon summarised the music.
Until Rugolo joined Kenton the leader had himself written most of the musical library for the band. Rugolo's talent was so great that it needed a different language. Kenton gave way and Rugolo became the dominant voice of the band. He was a master of compressing an expansive symphonic writing style into the limits of the three-minute record. It was Rugolo also, who discovered the young Canadian trumpet virtuoso Maynard Ferguson and persuaded him to join the band.
Whereas Kenton had always favoured grandiose titles for his compositions ("Concerto To End All Concertos"), Rugolo's names for his own hits were more mundane and included things like "Minor Riff", "Monotony", "Interlude", "Collaboration", "Conflict", "Lament" and "Impressionism".
Jazz fans divided exactly into love or hate of the Kenton-Rugolo music. There was no in between.
In 1950, when Rugolo left New York for Hollywood, he found himself financially strapped. Kenton told him that royalties from Rugolo's compositions were pouring in and paid him a monthly cheque. It later emerged that this was untrue and that the money came from Kenton's own pocket. Rugolo was able to return the favour in 1979 by helping out with the medical expenses during Kenton's final illness.
After his time with Kenton, Rugolo became the first of many jazz musicians to make his name writing music for films and television. He rose to the top of his field and won a shower of Emmy awards and nominations and glittering Hollywood prizes. He wrote innumerable film and television scores, most notably the themes and music for the Sixties series The Fugitive starring David Janssen and The Thin Man, which featured Peter Lawford.
Rugolo recorded many albums during the 1950s. They were notable for the characteristically glittering orchestrations and were often designed and used to demonstrate high-fidelity equipment in the home. Others were more obviously gimmick-laden – Ten Saxophones and Two Basses and Ten Trumpets and Two Guitars speak for themselves. Although there were good recordings that featured the finest of the West Coast jazz musicians, the impact of Rugolo's music under his own name lacked the fire of his work for Kenton.
Peter Rugolo, arranger, composer, bandleader: born San Piero, Sicily 25 December 1915; married Edye (two sons); died Los Angeles 16 October 2011.
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