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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 7

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 capable of.

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 1930s.

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 saxophones.

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 Band.

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 Orchestra.

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.

(c) La Scena Musicale