The Arranger, Part 2: The Masters by Paul Serralheiro
/ April 3, 2003
As we saw last month, the development of jazz styles would not be possible
without the contributions from arrangers, who mark the music as much as its
composers and instrumental soloists. The demands on the arranger are greater
than those on the composer, however, simply because the arranger must be a
skilled orchestrator and conductor as well as a competent composer in his own
right. Leonard Feather in his Book of Jazz pointed out that even when the arranger is scoring a melody created
by another writer, he may invest it with all the qualities of harmonic and
rhythmic subtlety, or variations on the theme, that lead to the creation of a
successful jazz performance. Thus, in effect, whether he wrote the original line
or not, the arranger is also a composer. The converse is not true.
Jazz arranging's first major
stylist is Don Redman, who wrote for Fletcher Henderson's band in the 1920s when
it featured Louis Armstrong. It could be argued that Redman was as significant
an influence on jazz as the band's celebrated soloist. His distinction is due to
his initiating a formula later taken up by his boss Fletcher Henderson, which
was to divide the voices of the jazz band into distinct choirs: saxophones and
brass. The cue for this kind of 'arranging' of voices came from symphonically
oriented musicians such as Paul Whiteman and his orchestrator Bill Challis in
the 1920s, who combined jazz rhythms and melodies with an orchestral concept.
Known as 'symphonic jazz,' it had a far-reaching impact on twentieth century
music, both in the United States and abroad. Fletcher Henderson's use of the
distinct saxophone and brass groups later delighted mass audiences, when he
wrote for Benny Goodman's orchestra in the 1930s.
The next great arranger was also
a great composer. Duke Ellington (1899-1974) continued with the split choir
formula, but contributed a highly original approach to chord voicings and tone
combinations, making use of the wide range of possible sonorities available
through the brass mutings and sound effects his extraordinary musicians were
A relevant side-bar to the
arranging practices of the time is the story of one Elmer Schoebel, who in the
1920s transcribed the mainly three-part harmonies of recordings of dixieland
master Jelly Roll Morton for the Friar's Society Orchestra and the Midway Dance
Band. This documented the very inventive but flexible and unwritten arrangements
of the earlier dynamic style of interplay among musicians in a jazz band. Other
arrangers of the early decades of jazz include Glenn Miller, who, despite some
stiff writing for his own group and the Dorsey band, contributed very swinging
arrangements for groups led by Ben Pollock and Red Nichols in the 1920s and
Equally stiff, but nonetheless
popular, were the arrangements of Gene Gifford for the Casa Loma Orchestra in
the early 1930s.
Much more interesting were the
popular contemporary arrangements being written by Benny Carter and Edgar
Sampson–the first with his own band, the second with the Chick Webb Orchestra.
Like Fletcher Henderson, both eventually contributed to Benny Goodman's book
during his reign as king of swing in the 1930s. Both could write music that
really swung, and Carter was particularly adept at scoring for
Also working marvelously in the
relative obscurity that is part of the arranger's lot was Sy Oliver, the
principal writer for the Jimmie Lunceford band from 1934-39, who later also
wrote for Tommy Dorsey. Playful, dynamic and inventive handling of articulation
and rhythm were his trademarks, as well as smooth glissandi in the saxophones.
His style had a controlled aspect that differentiated it from that of another
swinging band of the time, the Count Basie Orchestra, whose arrangements–based
on boogie-woogie 'riffing'–were often worked out aurally.
Among other arrangers of this
time, one should mention Mary Lou Williams, who wrote for Andy Kirk's Twelve
Clouds of Joy with distinct voicings that were linked to herb blues and
boogie-woogie piano style. The 1940s were a turbulent time, with the war, the
musicians' strike and recording ban, which all but killed the big band. The
small combo thrived, however, and the simpler writing allowed for
experimentation with the basics of composition: melody, harmony and rhythm.
Thus, bebop rose from the ashes of swing and a new way of hearing jazz
sonorities also emerged.
Some of the new trends of the
1940s were audible in the work of Julliard-trained Eddie Sauter, who had
previously worked for Red Norvo and Benny Goodman. Writing for his own band
co-led with Bill Finegan, Sauter moved away from a 'call and response'
organizational principle to explore parallel melodies, conceiving the music
horizontally rather than as vertical blocks, as had been the case with swing.
Other trailblazers at this time were bandleader Boyd Raeburn who used French
horns, bassoons and other symphonic instruments. Experimentation with strings
was a feature of the work of arrangers for the Stan Kenton Band, i.e., Pete
Ruggolo, Bill Russo and Bob Graettinger–the latter was the most daring, writing
jazz suites in several movements. Claude Thornhill's band also moved in new
directions with the charts of its most notable arranger, Gil Evans. Evans'
genius for tone colour and texture later saw its full fruition in his
collaborations with Miles Davis in the late 50s. He then went on to explore
jazz-rock fusion until his death in 1988.
The bebop strain of jazz arranging that developed in the late 40s and into
the 50s focused on medium-sized and big band charts of bebop themes. The West
Coast version of this essentially East Coast phenomenon was represented by Gerry
Mulligan, while prominent East Coast examples are Dizzy Gillespie and Tadd
Dameron, both writing for the Billy Eckstine Orchestra. Dizzy eventually set up
his own short-lived band, which delved into Afro-Cuban rhythms, with pieces like
Cubana Be Cubana Bop, composed and arranged by George Russell, a writer
who also distinguished himself as a jazz theorist, writing the bible of the
evolving modal approach, The Lydian-Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization
for Improvisation. Some
impressive Latin-jazz writing for big bands also came from the pen of the
Cuban-born New York resident Arturo 'Chico' O'Farrill. At the same time, some
big band arrangers continued working in more swing-oriented directions, notably
the Basie band's Sammy Nestico, Neil Hefti and Ernie Wilkins. Relatively
traditional lines were also followed by the Belgian Fancy Boland in his
collaborations with bebop drummer Kenny Clarke in their Clark-Boland Big
Eclecticism and pluralism have
reigned since the 1960s, with music ranging from a conservatism encouraged by
jazz education programs that train arrangers in the historical practices noted
above, to the iconoclastic free jazz and the exploratory writing standards set
by artists like Charles Mingus and collectives like the Jazz Composers'
Orchestra, with arrangements by Carla Bley and Mike Mantler. Also noteworthy are
the eccentricities of Sun Ra and his 'Solar Arkestra' and the Art Ensemble of
Chicago. These experimental visions have inspired a number of Europeans, like
Alexander von Schlippenbach and the Global Unity Orchestra, Barry Guy and the
London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO) and Holland's ICP (Instant Composers
Pool), led by Misha Mengelberg. A middle ground is trod by Maria Schneider and
her Visions Orchestra in the USA and Matthias Ruegg's Vienna Art
The latest novelties include
reviving retro string stylings–such as those of Claus Orgerman in his recent
scoring of ballads for Diana Krall–and the interfacing of cutting-edge
electronics and traditional big bands, as Tim Hagans and Scott Kinsey did in
their collaboration with the Norrbotten Big Band released in 2002, 'Future
Miles.' This all goes to show that arrangers continue to contribute to the
development of jazz by creating stimulating settings for musicians to refresh
the basics of their art.