Of the dozens of fine composers and arrangers to come out of New England, none was ever more accomplished or more prolific than Ralph Burns, who left indelible marks on music in America from coast to coast and not only in the jazz idiom.
While with Woody Herman in the 1940s, Burns contributed hits such as “Bijou” and “Northwest Passage” to the band’s book. He was the anchor of a composing/arranging staff unsurpassed in big band history. Among his colleagues were Nat Pierce, Neal Hefti, Shorty Rogers, Red Norvo, Bill Harris, Terry Gibbs, Jimmy Giuffre and even Igor Stravinsky, who was inspired to compose the Ebony Concerto for Herman after hearing some of the works Burns had done for the band. Burns was impressionable himself, and often stayed up all night listening to records of Stravinsky, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.
According to British jazz journalist Steve Voce, Burns was befriended by Alexis Haieff, Stravinsky’s protégé, and he studied composition and orchestration with him. It was to serve him well, for Burns went on to be not only a jazz figure to rank with Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans, but also to become one of the finest orchestrators of popular music.
Burns kept busy with writing, never short of work throughout the better part of 60 years, manuscripts for a projected musical on his desk when he died. His skills were directed at chamber composition, jazz writing and at enhancing those who performed the great American songbook. He was matchless, and it is certain that the timeless nature of his work will ensure its survival along with the best of Ellington and Strayhorn, whom he so much admired.
Outside of his legendary work with the Woody Herman band, Burns played a major role in the musical scores for some of the biggest hits on Broadway, including Chicago; No, No, Nanette; and Sweet Charity. His Hollywood work included Cabaret and a collaboration with Jule Styne and Barbra Streisand on Funny Girl. He received Oscars for Cabaret in 1973 and All That Jazz in 1980. He won an Emmy in 1980 for Baryshnikov on Broadway, and a Tony in 1999 for Fosse. He won a second Tony and a Drama Desk Award posthumously in 2002 for a revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Ralph’s masterpiece was “Summer Sequence,” a 20-minute suite introduced to the world by Herman at Carnegie Hall on March 25, 1946. “That was something I wish I could remember more,” said Burns years later. “It was a thrilling night. The band was at its absolute peak. We thought nothing of it at the time, like a baseball team that went on to the World Series.”
(Photo courtesy of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University)
Boots Mussulli was a world-class jazz player, and over the years he worked with Mal Hallett, Teddy Powell, Vido Musso, Charlie Ventura, Gene Krupa, Herb Pomeroy, and most significantly, the Stan Kenton Orchestra. But Boots Mussulli’s greatest musical accomplishment didn’t happen in an international jazz club or in a New York recording studio. Mussulli orchestrated his musical miracle right in his hometown of Milford, Mass. The Milford Area Youth Orchestra, founded by Mussulli and band manager Leo Curran in the mid-1960s, stands as one of the most remarkable achievements in New England jazz history.
Mussulli and Curran’s dream of a local orchestra of youngsters ages 10-18 performing difficult, complicated jazz arrangements came true, thanks to their hard work and Mussulli’s creative approach to scoring the music with challenging parts for the older, more accomplished players and easier ones for the less-experienced members of the orchestra. Practically all in the greater Milford community thought well of the enterprise, but few could anticipate the musical level the youngsters would achieve.
The skeptics were plentiful as the orchestra prepared for its appearance at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival in January 1967. Globe jazz writer Ernie Santosuosso, who had heard an orchestra concert earlier in the year, put his reputation on the line by recommending the Youth Orchestra for a spot in the prestigious Boston event. People just couldn’t believe it. They said, “Come on! Young kids in the same venue as Duke Ellington and Thad Jones?”
By the time the smoke had cleared, Mussulli and his kids had shown the world what dedicated musical mentoring can do. Santosuosso was thanked by all, and Newport festival producer George Wein immediately stepped up to announce that he would be inviting the orchestra to his event in July.
The Milford Area Youth Orchestra did, indeed, play Newport that year, opening the Saturday evening session before an audience of nearly 10,000. “[The orchestra] played a recent Basie number, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, a blues, a Kentonish avant-garde number, and played them almost as well as any current big band,” Whitney Balliett wrote in The New Yorker magazine. “The soloists were nearly as good. Best of all were the passages in which the brass section, 18 strong, opened up. It was glory materialized.”
Although he was a fine pianist and an accomplished arranger, Nat Pierce is best remembered for his work with big bands. There was his own Boston-based orchestra in the late 1940s, his long association with Woody Herman, and his late-career powerhouse, Juggernaut, which he co-led with drummer Frank Capp.
Perhaps the best way to describe Pierce is to quote others who knew him, personally and professionally. Here are excerpts from the liner notes of the HEP Jazz reissue of the Nat Pierce Orchestra’s 1961 album, The Ballad of Jazz Street.
It’s hard to separate the man from his music. His playing was a mirror of his personality—warm and open. Nat’s chords provided a solid base from which anyone could feel free to go anywhere and still have a way back.
Nat was one of my earliest and strongest musical influences. While a student at Harvard in 1949, I would cut classes and go to the Mardi Gras club in Boston, where Nat rehearsed. I listened carefully to his writing and the jazz playing of Charlie Mariano. After Nat left Boston to go on the road, I formed my first band in 1952 using some of his guys. My musical career would not have gone in the direction that it did without my relationship with Nat and the players in his early Boston band.
I miss my friend, Nat Pierce. He won’t be calling me anymore at 4 a.m. and start our conversation with ’Eddie, my man.’ I won’t hear that wonderful piano again, the simple lines when he imitated his mentor/idol Count Basie, or when he played like himself, the wonderfully innovative pianist, Nat Pierce. There won’t be any more swinging big band arrangements for Woody [Herman], Basie and others. We won’t be hanging out anymore, drinking and talking the night through. And we won’t hug again. I’m sure he said when it was time to go, “This is really deep, really deep, Eddie.” I miss my old friend Nat Pierce.
Some eyebrows were raised at NEJA’s fall conference in Hartford when the Hartford Jazz Society nominated Gigi Gryce for the New England Jazz Hall of Fame. Gryce was from Florida and lived most of his adult life in New York. However, NEJA’s criteria for eligibility into its Hall of Fame includes those who spent a significant part of their lives in New England, and the case for Gryce’s inclusion was more than amply made in Rat Race Blues, the Musical Life of Gigi Gryce by Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald. The chapter titled “Education: Hartford and Boston,” zeroes in on the significance of Gryce’s years (1946-1952) in New England.
After completing a stint with the Navy, Gryce joined his sister Harriet and her husband in Hartford in 1946 and continued to spend time there even after enrolling in Boston Conservatory in 1947 on the G.I. Bill. His musical soul mates in Hartford included pianists Emery Smith and Norman Macklin, bassist Clifford Gunn and, especially trumpeter and educator Clyde Board. To quote a passage from Rat Race Blues:
According to Macklin and Smith, Board was very involved in music education in an informal manner. Gryce’s interest in teaching and developing young people would eventually result in a long career in the New York City public school system. The first seeds of his inclinations in this area may have been sown in Hartford through his relationship with Board.
In Boston, Gryce became a member of Musicians Local 535, which represented the area’s African-American musicians and a few white jazz players, too. He played second alto with Jimmie Martin and the Boston Beboppers, a remarkable rehearsal band at the union hall that included Jaki Byard, Hampton Reese, Sam Rivers, Joe Gordon, Lennie Johnson and Andy McGhee. Gryce also worked in Tasker Crosson’s society band and played with and arranged for Sabby Lewis, who led Boston’s busiest swing band.
During this period, Gryce’s talents were discovered by visiting jazz artists such as Stan Getz and Horace Silver, and Gryce became part of the Boston-New York jazz pipeline that dated back to alto saxophonists Howard Johnson and Johnny Hodges of a generation earlier. He was also part of key support systems that helped build the foundation for the music scene in Boston and throughout America in the 1940s and 1950s—the church, the public schools, the musicians union, the US military and the G.I. Bill.
Ruby Braff was already playing in Boston clubs as a underaged teenager in the early 1940s, and by the end of that decade was working regularly with established stars including Pee Wee Russell and Edmond Hall. His mainstream style with modern influences won Braff many fans, and in the early 1960s he began a long association with George Wein and the Newport All-Stars, touring the world. In later years, he worked extensively with Scott Hamilton and Howard Alden, and recorded numerous albums for Concord Jazz and Arbors Records.
On April 9, 2002, an ailing Ruby Braff—cornet in hand and walking cane by his side—delivered one of the most remarkable performances of his 60-year career when he helped the New England Jazz Alliance pay tribute to NEJA Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Hackett at Boston’s Tremont Theater.
Both the audience and the musicians with him on stage went away feeling they had experienced something special, historically as well as musically. In two remarkably spontaneous sets, Braff, sitting upright in a stiffed-back high office chair, set the tone for each of his renditions from the great American songbook with humorous stories and anecdotes pertaining to the songwriters, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Hackett and other great musicians he had known, and the pretentiousness often found in the music business. Braff truly enjoyed every aspect of the evening and asked NEJA to arrange a return engagement, which he planned to record.
Unfortunately for jazz fans everywhere, the 2002 concert proved to be Braff’s last public performance in America. Against doctors advice, he did a British tour that summer. John Fordham wrote in The Guardian: “He looked as if he couldn’t make it from one gig to the next. But the moment he lifted his cornet to his lips, all thoughts of frailty and mortality evaporated.”
At the Tremont Theater, Braff scolded Gershwin, Porter and Kern. “They die and they forget about you. I’ve helped keep their tunes alive, and you’d think they’d thank me once in a while. But they never call me.” Perhaps they have, Ruby.