© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The following excerpts are from Pat Dorian and Matt Vashlishan’s extensive 2020 interview with tenor saxophonist composer-arranger and band leader Willis “Bill” Holman. The talk with Bill is primarily on the subject of Jazz tenor saxophonist John Haley “Zoot” Sims [1925-1985] although it gravitates toward a discussion of Bill’s approach to arranging for much of the second half of the visit.
It was conducted by telephone with Bill in April 2020 from his home in Hollywood, CA under the auspices of East Stroudsburg University, which is the home of the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection,
The full interview appears in the Summer/Fall 2020 issue of The Note Magazine and you can make a contribution in support of the Foundation that underwrites the magazine and the collection via this link.
Bill and Zoot are two of the universally recognized giants of the Jazz scene during the second half of the 20th century. There’s nothing like a Jazz musician who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to describing what makes a cohort’s approach to the music significant and special.
© – Pat Dorian and Matt Vashlishan/esu.edu, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
PD: Can we start out with how you first found out about Zoot? You revered him. You were both on the Kenton Orchestra in the late spring of 1953 when he was 27 and you were 26.
Bill Holman: Well I first found out about Zoot by hearing Woody Herman’s record “I Told Ya I Loved Ya, Now Get Out” [recorded October 19, 1947, in Hollywood]. I haven’t heard that thing in many, many years. There was a solo break [where everybody stopped], and the tenor player played this two- or four-bar break and it just put me away. I wasn’t even playing music at that time. I was studying engineering at UCLA. I wasn’t much of a player yet but that little break really got to me and I never forgot it. I never dreamed that I would meet and be friends with the guy that did it. Several years went by when I was learning how to play and starting to write, and I finally found out who it was who played the solo on Woody’s record. So I started listening to all the Zoot that I could.
PD: Yeah, that’s great. I have that recording here, do you mind if I play a little of that Zoot solo and see what you think of it?
PD: [Plays recording] It’s very relaxed.
BH: Yeah, you know as far as I can remember I never heard a saxophone sound like that. It was a Lester Young influenced sound. But I was listening to Dexter Gordon and Coleman Hawkins and Zoot was just different. It was even different than Prez [Lester Young], whom I heard a lot of. There was just something that really connected with me.
PD: Beautiful, because right around there in 1947 you were turning 20, which is that pivotal age where you find your own thing and keep going with it.
BH: I was on Charlie Barnet’s band in 1951 and we played the Apollo [Theater] in [Harlem] New York for a week. That may have been the first time I heard Zoot in person. Just watching him play and watching him when he wasn’t playing on the stand, he had what I felt was a fierce expression on his face. Even though I still didn’t know him, I was afraid of him. [laughs] I didn’t want to offend him in any way, so I didn’t talk to him until I went back to New York on Kenton’s band [spring 1953] and he was playing on an off night at Birdland. I naturally went down to hear him and made up my mind that I was going to meet him and introduce myself.
On the break I went over and said, “I’m Bill and I’m playing with Kenton.” And to my surprise he was very friendly! He was a really warm and friendly guy behind that fierce expression. So I said, “Why don’t you come over to my hotel room?” He was on the break, so we went over to the hotel and got high. He was expounding on what a great thing it was for two people to meet and to bond over smoking dope. He was just really a pleasure to be with. When I heard a couple of nights later that Stan Kenton was talking to him about coming on the band, I was just beside myself. And it finally happened! He showed up and remembered who I was from our first meeting, and I was determined to become friends with him. It was very easy, because he was very welcoming. When he first joined the band we were traveling in busses. He would wander up and down the bus aisle singing little ditties. He did one to a Lester Young solo. He wrote lyrics to it: “My name is Zootie Sims… I play the saxophone… Hello! Hello everybody, hello!” All kinds of things like that. Zoot was just happy, singing songs and cracking jokes. The usual feeling on the bus was one of resignation. 200 miles to go today… , etc. Most of us just said, “OK, let’s read a book or something.” Zoot was having none of that. He wanted to live his life even though he was on a bus. Later we were traveling in cars. I was driving one of the cars, and Zoot got into my car. I think it was Lee Konitz, Zoot, Bobby Burgess and myself in my car. It was a good group because we all loved each other. We could talk about anything musically or personally or whatever.
PD: Without interstate highways as well.
BH: Yeah. The Europe trip eventually came up [August-September 1953] and in Germany we all bought cameras. Germany was the place for cameras. Every time the bus had a rest stop we would pile out of the bus and take pictures of each other. Zoot had a Rolleiflex and he was out there shooting with the rest of us.
In a concert in Berlin, Zoot was wearing his space shoes. They were specially made shoes built around the mold of your foot. They looked really funny. Between one of the tunes, Stan came over to Zoot and said, “Jack, I don’t want you to wear those shoes on the [band]stand anymore.” So we finished the set and went out for an intermission and Stan was talking business with a bunch of Capitol Records executives. Zoot goes right up to them and said, “Stan, what do your shoes cost?” Stan says, “Not now Jack, I’m busy.” Zoot said, “I want to talk about it now. What do your shoes cost?” Stan said he didn’t remember, and Zoot says, “Well my shoes cost $80,” which at that time was a pretty stiff price for shoes. I don’t know how it went on after that but the fact that Zoot busted up one of Stan’s business conferences about his shoes tells you how he was.
Stan always called Zoot Jack [Zoot’s given name was John], It was maybe a little too light to call him Zoot.
PD: It almost sounds like when Zoot would bang heads with Benny Goodman in Russia.
BH: Well [laughs], a lot of people did that!
PD: I see the concert in Berlin was at the Sportpalast [Sporthalle] on August 27, 1953. [The Kenton Band with Zoot featured on an improvised solo, Bill, and a remarkable personnel appeared in the 1953 German film “Schlagerparade” (“Hit Parade”), filmed on August 27,1953, at the Sporthalle in Berlin. A two-minute video segment is viewable on YouTube at “Stan Kenton: Berlin, 1953.”]
BH: When we got back from Europe we were traveling on the bus and we had a bus accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on November llth. We rear-ended a truck and several people got hurt. The road manager got hurt, and the whole trombone section had facial injuries so they couldn’t play. When we got to Cleveland, Stan said he wanted to have a rehearsal because he had to have Bill Russo contact some trombone players from Chicago to fill in. Of course they didn’t know the book, so he wanted the rehearsal. Of course Zoot says, “Well, we know our parts, why do we have to rehearse?” Stan says, “Because I said so, Jack.” So Zoot just keeps saying, “Why do we have to rehearse?,” over and over and wouldn’t back down. So Stan finally said, “I think you should give your notice.” Zoot said, “OK, you got it.” Two weeks later he left. On the night that he left, I gave my notice. I didn’t see myself having much fun after Zoot left. I returned to LA. and to scuffling.
MV: Did you ever talk about saxophone playing, sound, concepts or playing music with Zoot? Or were your discussions purely based on non-musical friendship?
BH: No, I’m not a good communicator. Whatever Zoot wanted to talk about, that’s what we talked about. It wasn’t usually about music.
MV: You wrote a tune called “Zoot” for Stan Kenton’s band, correct? How did that tune come about? Was it through a conversation with Stan or Zoot? What was your inspiration for it?
BH: Stan told me that he wanted me to write a chart for Zoot. That’s all the guidance he gave me. I didn’t talk to Zoot about it because I was on a tight rope with Stan about writing. I wanted to write swing charts, but Stan wanted more progressive jazz. I wanted to swing more. I didn’t want to go too far in my direction to make Stan unhappy, so I tried to find a middle groove. I had been trying to do that since Stan started buying charts from me. I wanted to satisfy us both if possible. But I was young and didn’t really know. I wrote what I thought would be an attractive thing for Zoot and suitable for Stan. It went OK except when I was riding back from the first rehearsal with Stan where we played it, he said, “That was a good chart, but it was a little like Basie wasn’t it?” And I responded, “Well, not knowingly but I know it had to swing because it’s Zoot Sims.” We let it lay there but I was very happy and proud to have Zoot playing a piece of mine. [Eight live recordings of the Kenton Band performing “Zoot” between July and November 1953 are available.]
PD: The next topic I have here is that you were with Les Brown with Zoot on March 19, 1959 on a recording session in Hollywood. Does that bring up any memories?
BH: I do remember doing those things. I wasn’t a member of the band, but Les had been making some records with jazz players and Zoot was one of them. Another was Frank Rosolino. I wrote the charts for Zoot and Frank.
Those records never did really well. They were something a little different than what Les Brown fans were used to buying. [The session was released as “Jazz Song Book” on the Coral label and also featured clarinetist Buddy DeFranco.]
PD: I see in the Jazz Discography by Tom Lord that you arranged for a December 4-5, 1957 session for Gerry Mulligan’s Octet which was released as “Gerry Mulligan Songbook Volume 1.” It was a band with Zoot and Al Conn, Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, and no piano but Freddie Green on guitar.
BH: Yeah, originally the idea was to record that in L.A. When Dick Bock called me, that was the plan.
PD: Dick Bock from Pacific Jazz Records?
BH: Yeah. We were going to use bass and drums and no guitar. But one thing led to another and delayed it, so long that Gerry had to go back to New York and he took the charts with him and recorded it with all New York people. That made me happy because at the time I would rather listen to New York people than L.A. people. We added the guitar, which was probably Gerry’s idea.
PD: It’s five saxes, guitar, bass and drums: Lee Konitz, Allen Eager, Zoot and Al, Gerry Mulligan, Freddie Green on guitar, Henry Grimes on bass, and Dave Bailey on drums. [Al Cohn performed on tenor AND baritone saxophones!] That’s exciting. For a lot of the sax music that Al wrote for just saxophones and rhythm section, like “The Sax Section” [LP recorded in 1956] and so many other things he did, here are Bill Holman arrangements of Gerry Mulligan tunes with those icons of saxophone. I imagine you were really in seventh heaven with that.
BH: Yeah, to work with Gerry’s tunes and knowing that Gerry was going to be conducting the session and playing on it made it very attractive to me.
PD: Do you still have those arrangements or did they go to the Smithsonian?
BH: Gerry kept them. They could be in his collection in the
Library of Congress.
PD: Something that you were very generous with was the music for the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection Zoot Fest performance that Matt and Bill Dobbins conducted of “Hawthorne Nights.” Can we skip forward just about 20 years from the session in 1957 for Gerry Mulligan in New York and head to Los Angeles in September of 1976? How did “Hawthorne Nights” come about?
BH: [American jazz impresario] Norman Granz had called me and wanted me to write an album for Basie. I got to know Norman at that time and thought that now’s the time to hit him up for a Zoot album. I asked him about a record with Zoot and a big band, and he said, “I would love to do a record with Zoot, but not a big band.
Can you do it with a smaller band?” So I said, “Sure.” I was going to jump at the chance to do it any way that I could. The name comes from a travelogue where they will say “Paris Nights” or something like that to sound mysterious. They use a name and add “nights” to generate some kind of atmosphere. I called it “Hawthorne Nights” because Zoot grew up in Hawthorne, California. So I was implying soft summer breezes and palm trees and dancing girls in Hawthorne, which never happened! I assembled a band and told Norman that Zoot and I figured out a tentative instrumentation that we both agreed on.
I’m not entirely happy with the record. The tempos were a little too fast and I thought the rhythm section was pressing too hard. But we got it done. In the process and during one of Zoot’s solos I heard something wrong in the band, so I stopped the take. Norman took exception to this. It was probably the worst thing I could have done to stop the band while Zoot was playing.
My experience as a conductor on a record date was that if you hear something wrong, you stop it so you can make it right. Norman was really offended by that. I have been told that after that, Norman was always talking about what a phony I was and what a bad arranger I was. But I got past that.
MV: Do you remember how you selected the tunes?
BH: Zoot had one that he wrote, “Dark Cloud.” He sings that. I don’t really remember the other tunes…
MV: “Main Stem,” “More Than You Know,” “Only a Rose,” “Girl From Ipanema,” “I Got It Bad,” and there’s another original of yours besides “Hawthorne Nights,” called “Fillings.”
BH: I think Zoot requested “Ipanema.”
MV: Did you write “Fillings” specifically for this date? Or was it something from somewhere else?
BH: No, it was for the date. It was a takeoff of “Feelings” which was a big tune at that time. I called it “Fillings” as in a Lower Slobbovian version of “Feelings.” I was thinking of the language spoken by the downtrodden residents in the fictitious country of Lower Slobbovia, one of the regions created by Al Capp for his hilarious hillbilly comic strip ‘”Lil Abner” [published 1934-1977]. The residents had a mock Russian accent and were always changing vowels around, thus “Feelings” became “Fillings.” [The profound political implications that Capp was communicating can be found online. Start with “Wikipedia Lower Slobbovia.”]
PD: Oh, that’s a great story! I remember around 1975 this Brazilian singer named Morris Albert had a hit with “Feelings.” That’s great!
Just to clarify the timeline here, you did the Count Basie LP called “I Told You So” which was recorded in January of 1976 and “Hawthorne Nights” was recorded eight months later in September of 1976.
BH: A word about that Basie album – one of the tunes I wrote on there I called “Told You So,” which is the way that saying comes out a lot of the time. A lot of people don’t bother saying, “I Told You So.” They just say, “Told You So.” That was my thinking. One day I get a call from Norman. He said, “About that tune, the saying is ‘I Told You So.'” So I said, “Norman, in colloquial English sometimes we take words out and take shortcuts. That’s how that sounds to me. ‘I Told You So’ sounds very formal and rehearsed.” I couldn’t sway him. So the record name came out as “I Told You So” and the tune itself stayed as “Told You So.”
PD: You copyrighted it as “Told You So” so he couldn’t change it?
BH: That’s right.
PD: Who is Alfy as in “Blues for Alfy” that is on that same record?
BH: I was dating a woman named Ruth Price at the time [mid-1970s] and that was the name of her dog. [Ruth Price (b. 1938) continues to have a remarkable career in Los Angeles as a singer, lyricist, and founder/owner of the nonprofit jazz club the Jazz Bakery, which she opened in 1992. In July 1994, she sang on three tracks on the CD “Herb Geller Plays the Al Cohn Songbook” by the Herb Geller Quartet, released in 1996 on the Hep label in England (Hep 2066). One of the tracks features her singing the lyrics she composed for Al Cohn’s “High on You.” In 2020 she carries on while presenting live jazz throughout Southern California, most recently in Santa Monica at the Ann & Jerry Moss Theater (Jerry Moss is the “M” in the legendary A & M Records). Bob Dorough & Dave Frishberg’s CD “Who’s on First?” was recorded live in Los Angeles at the Jazz Bakery in November 1999 for Blue Note Records with Ruth as the announcer. For more about Ruth, visit https://jazzbakery. org/about-us .]
PD: Johnny Mandel wrote a tune about Al Cohn called “Here’s to Alvy” and I wasn’t sure if it was a similar thing.
BH: Also, Mandel wrote a tune about Al called “El Cajon.” That’s a district out here in California. [When said with a Latin inflection] it almost sounds like Al’s name.
PD: That’s right and Dave Frishberg wrote lyrics for it. Speaking of Al, would you like to talk about him at all? I notice you arranged for Al on LP’s for Woody Herman, such as “Third Herd” in 1954. Both of you also wrote for the Maynard Ferguson “Birdland” volume one and two in September of 1956. You were both arrangers on several recordings that you did not play on, which demonstrates your additional expertise at arranging while you were both tenor players at heart.
BH: I didn’t know Al as well as I knew Zoot. I had heard about Al or read about him in Downbeat Magazine or other places. I listened to his writing a lot. He always gave me the feeling that I could do this. His writing always sounded so natural and unforced. To me it had a heavy Jewish content. F minor was his favorite key. He wrote several charts that I listened to a lot that were all in F minor. I got to know him when I went back [to New York] in 1960 to work with Gerry Mulligan and the Concert Jazz Band. He was such a wise man along with his great playing and writing. I was like being in heaven hanging around with those guys.
I heard that Al was a big W. C. Fields fan. So when he was playing a club out here I went up to him and with no introduction or anything I said, “Sneed Hearn.” Without any hesitation he turns around and says, “Mahatma Kane Jeeves.” [For these “unwashed” and neophyte interviewers, it was an illumination to find out that Sneed Hearn and Mahatma Kane Jeeves were but two of the bizarre names that W.C. Fields concocted for characters in his movies.]
PD: That reminds me of the joke about the coat check person in the Indian restaurant, “Mahatma Coat.”
BH: [laughs] I’ve never heard that! Mahatma Coat, oh man, that made my day!
I made Al laugh one time in Germany. A group of us were walking around in Cologne. We were doing a production for the radio network.
PD: Featuring Al, right?
BH: Yeah, we were wandering around not paying attention to where we were going. And eventually somebody says, “Where are we?” and I say, “Right here!” And that broke Al up and I was very proud of that.
PD: Our dear departed friend Wolfgang Knittel from Delaware Water Gap transcribed your arrangements from that date and we have some titles here: “Some Other Spring,” “Woody ‘N You,” “Autumn Leaves,” “High On You,” “Good Bait,” and “Love For Sale.” I’m glad you mentioned that date featuring both Al Cohn and Sal Nistico.
BH: Another thing about that production was that I had not been playing much. The producer suggested I bring my tenor and play a bit. I’m thinking, “Me? Play with Al and Sal?” It sounded like a terrible idea but he insisted. So I went and did it anyway and didn’t sound as good as they did but I did it. I loved both of those guys. It was a real knockout to work with them for a few weeks.
PD: We were able to play some of those arrangements adjusted for Wolfe’s local big band here, JARO [Jazz Artists Repertory Orchestra]. Wolfe used one French horn, four saxes, trombone, bass trombone, three trumpets and rhythm section.
BH: So he transcribed the charts from that production?
PD: Yeah, Al was living here and Wolfgang worshipped you. Wolfe would get up every day and arrange for the jazz festival we do every September in Delaware Water Gap. He would transcribe a year’s worth [a 45-minute set] of pieces he wanted to play with his band. It is amazing the output he produced. I used to joke he would take the day after the festival off and the day after that would start the arranging for 363 more days until the next festival.
It looks like the WDR gig was in Cologne, Germany in 1987 [WDR is the name of the renown jazz radio orchestra in residence since 1946 at the West German Broadcasting Corporation headquarters.]. Was Mel Lewis there with you for that gig?
BH: Oh yeah!
PD: “Tenor Reunion” they called it [June 12,1987, which was eight months before Al’s death]. The tunes were “Pilgrim’s Pride,” “Good Bait,” “Woody ‘N You” Al Cohn’s “High On You,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Love For Sale,” and “Moon of Manakoora.” [This project also featured Sal Nistico, a tenor saxophonist, and like Al, a Woody Herman Thundering Herd alumnus.]
BH: I have to comment about Mel Lewis being there. He was on most of my productions. The band had a percussionist, but often they had to hire a drummer to come over from the states to play for the two weeks. I was tight with Mel, and we got him on almost all of our productions. It was really a help. He was just so musical and able to control the band and was able to help me with his musicality. He could offer punctuation points as the piece transitioned, and he could remember it. People often talk about Buddy Rich as being an “instant sight-reader” … Mel could do that, too. Just once through a piece and he could remember all of it. He had a very good idea of the chart after one run-through. We were also friends and I enjoyed the companionship.
PD: He was on Kenton’s Orchestra several months with you. I know he was there after you for the “Cuban Fire!” LP [May 1956]. You two go back such a long way. Do you have any comments about Phil Woods? He was so close to all of you and he is one of the founders of our Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection.
BH: Well there’s no need to talk about Phil’s playing! Everybody knows what he can do. He was a really energetic tough taskmaster. I remember there was a break on one of the tunes and Phil played a solo break that was a little bit out and the whole band flubbed the re-entrance. We stopped and I told the band something about this and that, and I told Phil, “Please be kind,” meaning please help us out a little bit on the breaks. All Phil said was, “Pay attention!” Well that was that!
PD: Was this when you arranged for recording sessions that Phil played on for Jackie Cain [the “Bits and Pieces” LP, recorded in March 1957] or for Charlie Barnet [the “More Charlie Barnet” LP, recorded in September 1958]?
BH: Oh no, this was in Germany in Cologne .
PD: So this was when you did some arrangements featuring Phil for the WDR?
BH: Yeah, I did a lot of things over there.
PD: I didn’t know there was a date specifically with Phil.
BH: Yeah, I think there were a couple of them. That’s where I met Phil. I didn’t know him before that.
MV: Did you write anything specifically for him? Or was he playing pre-existing charts on this date?
BH: No, I wrote all these for him. I called him and we talked about tunes.
PD: I have the tune list here now: Phil’s tune “Quill,” “Round Midnight,” “Speak Low,” “Springfield Nights” Parts 1-3, “We’ll Be Together Again,” and “When the Sun Comes Out.” Was “Springfield Nights” the same type of reference as “Hawthorne Nights” since Hawthorne was where Zoot grew up and Springfield [Massachusetts] was where Phil grew up?
BH: Yes it was. I don’t remember much about that concert.
MV: I’m wondering if “Speak Low” was a different arrangement than the one from your earlier big band recording. Did you arrange that more than once?
BH: Yeah, it was different.
MV: If we could switch topics now, I was curious about some of your writing and education background. You speak about Gerry Mulligan a lot. As far as writing and arranging, who were your major influences? You reference Mulligan in terms of form, but who were your three major influences? What major things did you pick up from people that helped shape you as a composer?
BH: There were a few people that I knew about. I didn’t get any direct musical ideas from them, but I was a big fan of the early Basie band in the ’30s and ’40s. I didn’t know who the arrangers were but I thought they were really great. As it turns out a lot of those charts were head charts that the band made up themselves. I knew about Eddie Sauter [iconic arranger] from the one record he made for Benny Goodman [probably recorded in 1940]. That stood out to me. Gerry had a big hit with Gene Krupa’s band in 1947 and that thing lasted on the radio for a couple of years called “Disc Jockey Jump.” It was played all over the place. That was my first exposure to Gerry. I liked that chart and made a note of him, too. He came to LA. in 1951 and that’s when he and Stan connected.
Gene Roland, who wrote a lot of music for Stan, was a good friend of mine and one night at my house I was playing some records for him. I put on a thing that was a dub of a chart I wrote when I was at Westlake College of Music. It was a kind of linear thing. He jumped up and said, “I think this is what Stan is looking for!” Apparently Stan was talking to Gene about changing the style of the band a little bit, things like getting away from harmonic structures and leaning more towards melody. Gene took this record to Stan while I was on the road with Charlie Barnet and he told him my story. Stan liked it and they arranged for Stan and me to meet. When I got back in town I went to his place and we talked about music. He suggested I write a couple of pieces for the band. I said, “Sure.” I went home and wrote some charts immediately.
I was so impressed with this situation that I overwrote the charts. They really didn’t hang together. I took them to rehearsal and we made a mutual decision that they weren’t what he was looking for. I thought to myself, “Well, that cooks me with Kenton.” He was rehearsing a new band [late 1951-early 1952], and they needed a new tenor player so I auditioned and got the gig as the tenor player. So I said, “Oh good, Stan and I are back on again!”
Once I was on the band I couldn’t think of anything to write. I kept thinking about the difference between Stan’s conception and mine. I couldn’t figure out a way to make it work at both ends. So I didn’t write anything for a longtime. Stan kept encouraging me saying, “Holman, when are you going to write something?”
Several months went by – this is where Gerry comes in again. He had written eight or 10 charts for the band. Some of them were hot jazz and some of them were danceable. We played quite a few of the dance charts every night. I got to study his voicings, harmony, and the form of his charts. I was getting acquainted with what jazz charts sounded like. That gave me the confidence that if he could do it, then I will try.
I wrote a piece for Don Bagley called “Bags” [recorded 19 times, the first of which was a live recording on January 15, 1953, followed later in the month with the studio recording]. Stan liked it and said to keep on writing. I started writing more and more, and more of them were accepted and the band liked them.
MV: You mentioned you had this chance to study Mulligan’s writing. Were you studying scores or parts, or was this purely you listening on the gig and paying attention to what was happening?
BH: Just by playing and hearing what everything sounded like and getting an idea for how the form felt.
MV: You studied composition at the Westlake College of Music, right? Is that where you got your initial understanding of writing and harmony?
BH: Yeah, I studied arranging there. The organizer of the school envisioned turning out proficient commercial musicians that could play or sing in any kind of band. He said one of the best doubles you could take up is to sing the third part in a vocal group. There were a few of us into jazz and we didn’t want to hear about any of that! That was the aim of the school, though. What usually happens is the jazz group will form as a sub group, which is what we did. The head of the school did not conceive of musicians being composers, he just wanted a well-rounded student.
PD: Were there any teachers at Westlake that you feel worked out well for you?
BH: There was a teacher named David Robertson from Massachusetts. He was a genius. He could hear things and knew ahead of time what you were doing when he heard one of your pieces. He was great and so far ahead of us that a lot of times we didn’t know what he was talking about. I imagine private lessons with him would have been a real plus. We were all on the G.I. Bill and we didn’t want to go through the red tape of getting another teacher involved since we were already enrolled in a certain schedule. I eventually ended up studying privately with Russell Garcia. He wrote an arranging book that is geared toward being a successful working musician [“The Professional Arranger-Composer,” a compilation of Garcia’s assignments from the late 1940s at Westlake, published in 1954]. He didn’t talk about jazz much. But later it turns out that he did have a jazz conception all his own, it just wasn’t mainstream. Those were my two favorite guys.
MV: So it seems as far as jazz writing goes, you were relying solely upon your life experience and what you could learn from these situations, not necessarily formal instruction.
BH: Oh yeah. We all had a lot of jazz records and that’s where you learn a lot of stuff. As far as I knew nobody else in L.A. was really trying to write jazz inspired music. Everybody in L.A. was concerned with studio work. I was kind of a loner.
PD: The Westlake College of Music in Hollywood was very new when you were there. It opened in 1945 and was the first jazz academic institution in the country, opening around the same time as the Schillinger House of Music [started in Boston in 1945, becoming the Berklee School of Music in 1954] to offer a college diploma that offered a curriculum in jazz. It became a prototype for jazz education in other schools.
BH: Yeah, I went there in early 1948 for a couple of years.
MV: I always wanted to know your thoughts on the process of writing and arranging back in a time when there were no computers or communication. You had to write a chart and send it in the mail or take it to a rehearsal without really hearing it. The process was much slower and I imagine it was more difficult. Can you say anything about that?
BH: Well, things haven’t changed that much for me. I don’t write on a computer so I can’t play things back. I still write with a pencil and a large eraser! That was one of the reasons I started my own band. I wanted to hear my music not too long after I wrote it. I wanted to hear it at the right tempo! I would send things off to bands, and I would hear it two years later on the record, and they were invariably too fast. Some of the leaders would make adjustments, like Woody [Herman]. He felt no embarrassment about changing a chart or adding something to it. Stan didn’t do that, but he always played the tempos wrong. So I started my own band to hear my music the way I wanted it. But the actual writing part is pretty much the same.
[Six weeks later, on June 11, 2020, Bill told Pat that Woody Herman performed Bill’s 1953 big band composition “Prez Conference” live for over a year, yet when recording it for the LP “The 3 Herds” on May 21,1954, Woody changed the title to “Mulligan Tawny” and inserted a Gerry Mulligan-esque introduction with a prominent baritone sax part. There are two Al Cohn classics on the same LP. In addition, 10 years later, when Woody Herman recorded Bill’s very up-tempo and rollicking arrangement of “After You’ve Gone,” Woody added an “interesting” and very slow and mournful clarinet melody at the beginning and end of the arrangement. As documented by several sources, during this mid-day recording session on November 22, 1963 at Phil Ramone’s A & R Recording Studio on the 4th floor of 112 W. 48th Street in New York, Woody and his band members were informed that President Kennedy had just been assassinated. After recording Bill Chase’s eerily mournful arrangement of “A Taste of Honey,” it was decided to end the session, whereupon several band members went downstairs to the legendary Jim & Andy’s jazz bar to process the tragedy.]
MV: Do you have any formal piano training?
BH: I use the piano, not exclusively but to check voicings and work out harmonic changes. I’m a lousy piano player. I never learned how to play but I got by.
MV: I want to ask you about two of my favorite records: “The Fabulous Bill Holman” and “In a Jazz Orbit.” I’m curious how those arrangements came about for those records.
BH: “In a Jazz Orbit” [recorded February 11, 1958, for the Andex label] was my second experience with a producer for Bethlehem Records. I was on a lot of small band dates for him, and we talked about doing a big band album and he gave me the go ahead. He said to write the music and we would discuss recording it after I wrote it. So I wrote and wrote and called him to ask when we could record. He said, “Well, things are a little shaky now, can we put it off for a little bit?” I reluctantly agreed and it went on and on and never got better. It became apparent that he wasn’t going to record it.
This had happened once before with my first record, “The Fabulous Bill Holman” [recorded April 25,1957, for the Coral label]. They promised and then never recorded it. With that one, drummer Shelly Manne had an arrangement with a label to make four jazz records and picked my band to make one of the four. So that was in 1957.
In 1958, I had all these other charts ready and went looking for a label. I was doing some vocal charts for a label, and I asked them one day if they were interested and they seemed like they were. They came to a rehearsal and they loved it. They said the band would sell itself, so we recorded it. Looking back at the personnel for those records, it looks like an all-star band, but I didn’t think of it that way. They were just guys that I knew and people who’s playing I liked and who could handle a recording date. It turned out well and it’s one of my favorites too.
MV: How and why did you prefer three trombones and later on add the bass trombone?
BH: Well it was just the norm at the time. That’s really it. Four Trumpets and three trombones.
MV: Was this before or after Kenton had a larger brass section? Was he the first to have 10 brass?
MV: Was he doing that around the same time everybody else was using seven?
BH: I think he had 10 when I joined the band. That was ’52. But jazz bands didn’t have bass trombones then.
MV: On the subject of writing, do you approach writing in any specific way, or is it just a matter of sitting down waiting to see what comes to you? Do you work on writing? I often read of people with formulas and pitch manipulation but from what I have read it seems you just write what you hear.
BH: I never had a system. A lot of times I just imagined playing a line. Boy, I thought of all kinds of things while you were asking the question and now I can’t think of any!
I just sat there and sang to myself. Some people showed me how to write a curved line on the staff paper as a guide and then filling it up with notes or something. But that didn’t work out much. A lot of my earlier writing was generated by my time as a player. I imagined melodic lines with my fingers on the horn.
Russ Garcia made me very aware of form and I’ve thought a lot about that. Not a waltz form or dance form, but the form of the music itself. How will it have a climax and an end and a curve? I try to keep form in mind and every day I would review what I wrote so far to keep myself in some kind of groove. Your mind can change quite a bit from day to day depending on what you think about, what you worry about, and how you feel. I became conscious of that and tried to make one day flow into the next day. Form is a big item for me.
MV: So if we look at two different records of yours, “In a Jazz Orbit” versus something like “World Class Music” with “St. Thomas” and those arrangements [recorded November 30-December 1, 1987, on JVC records], would you say that evolution was a natural occurrence or did you really try to grow and change with the world and the sound of jazz? Because you’re writing has really evolved yet it still sounds like you.
BH: I listened mostly to players that I liked. I liked to keep an improvisatory quality to my music. I want it to feel like a bunch of soloists. I would say the progression was natural. Even though I was listening to small groups, the soloists were my inspiration. As that music changed, so did I. Eventually I started listening to other music. I discovered the Bartok String Quartets and that turned me around. I imagine some of that crept into my decisions. I want the lead line to feel like whoever is playing it is just making it up. There’s a limit to how far you can take this of course, but I just want to make sure it doesn’t get too stiff.
PD: What did you like about Bartok?
BH: Oh, the music! [laughs] The quartets were just mind blowing … his music for strings and percussion and celeste as well. It was very much like jazz to me. It was people’s music dressed up behind some knowledge and it was just lovely. I first heard the string quartets on the road with Kenton because I roomed with Bill Russo and he had a portable record player. He had an album of Bartok String Quartets and it was just unbelievable to hear it at an early age musically. I didn’t get started in music until after I was out of the Navy. [Phil Woods often studied and referenced Bartok’s music, especially the six volumes of “Mikrokosmos” for piano and the six string quartets.]
PD: At the end of WWII?
BH: Yeah, July 1942 to July 1946.
PD: Did you do any music in the Navy?
BH: No, I was in officer training school for three quarters of it. Then when the war was over I flunked out of officer training school and became an ordinary seaman and served on a cruiser for three months. It was fun, I liked being on a ship and sailing on the ocean. I was close to home as well. Every few weeks I could visit home.
PD: Bartok died a month after WWII ended. He was composing right into the 1940s. He was alive during your early years in music. He included elements of folk music in his writing.
BH: It’s unbelievable how he could die penniless after writing so much great music. It just doesn’t seem like that could happen.
PD: And his funeral was attended by only 10 people! Speaking of the folk aspect of Bartok, when you are composing, does it always have to have the dance aspect? So much of big band music started out as dance music. Were you concerned about that or more of jazz as an art form? You also grew up in the swing era in the ’30s and ’40s.
BH: I’ve never thought about dance music. That seems to come normally to me. The bands like Basie that I have been inspired by seem to pick medium tempos for pieces and I liked it, so I would use it. I don’t remember anyone asking me for a specific dance chart. Stan had a bunch of dance charts, but after he liked my writing, he put me in the category above dance charts. Stan had different levels to categorize arrangers. I graduated from “rookie” directly into “jazz charts.”
PD: Bill you have been incredible for the better part of two hours!
MV: This has been a great experience. I think it is particularly interesting that for someone as influential and prolific as yourself, there is really no literal rhyme or reason to how you do what you do, which further illustrates how special your writing is. Some of the best writing is the stuff that “just happens.”
PD: It is really great to hear you speak about all of these things.
BH: It’s always a pleasure to talk about music, especially to people that know what I’m talking about! •
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