Ralph Burns, arranger and pianist, born in Newton, Massachusetts on June 29, 1922, has died on November 21 2001, aged 79.
Burns began playing piano as a child. He studied later at the New England Conservatory, Boston, but mostly educated himself as a jazz composer by transcribing and analysing Ellington, Basie and Goodman recorded scores.
As a student he lived in the house of Frances Wayne, already well-established as a big band singer, and her bandleader brother Nick Jerret. Burns then began playing piano with Nick in New York, where his career really began in earnest. He quickly found himself keeping company with such famous names as Nat King Cole and Art Tatum.
In 1944 he joined the Woody Herman band, togther with Neal Hefti, Bill Harris and Flip Phillips, Their arrival sparked off the new exciting Herman sound.
Ralph was a significant force in Herman’s new band, combining with bassist Chubby Jackson (who had persuaded Herman to hire him) and drummer Dave Tough to develop one of the most powerful rhythm sections of all time.
Among his early jazz compositions, The Moose and a vocal chart to Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe were recorded by the Herman band in 1945. He also wrote or collaborated on the sensational Northwest Passage, Caldonia and Apple Honey, later scoring Bijou as a vehicle for trombonist Bill Harris.
His music aroused the interest of Igor Stravinsky, so much so that Stravinsky immediately composed his Ebony Concerto, exclusively for the Herman band, who later recorded it.
Burns also worked in a small band with various Herman soloists including Bill Harris, and the saxophonist Charlie Ventura. Later on, he began recording on his own with, among others, Lee Konitz, Ben Webster and Billy Strayhorn.
From the 1960s onward, Burns successfully developed a career composing Broadway show music and writing movie scores. He worked with the stage productions of Chicago, No, No, Nanette and Sweet Charity. In 1971 he scored the soundtrack to Woody Allen’s Bananas in 1971 and went on to win an Academy Award for Cabaret in 1972. Then came Lenny, New York, New York, All That Jazz and Fosse.
On a visit to London in 1963, talking to Graham Collier, Ralph said, “I very rarely play now. Why should I when I can listen to Bill Evans? I also listen to the Al Cohn/Zoot Sims group and, of course, Miles. For arrangements there is naturally Duke Ellington. In fact, that is how I got started in Jazz arranging, by taking Duke tunes off the record and re-arranging them for local territory bands. I also like Al Cohn’s writing — and Gary McFarland writes very well. Orchestrally, I listen to everybody for ideas and entertainment.”