Thursday, May 24, 2012

Pete Rugolo’s Sensibilities

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Pete Rugolo was a soft-spoken, self-effacing man, which may be one of the reasons he has not been given his due as the pioneering jazz composer he was. Kenton managed to be a controversial figure for the scope of what he attempted, which was often denounced as pompous. And it could be, particularly in its later manifestations. But the band for which Pete first wrote had a blazing quality, particularly in its slow pieces, which a lot of young people found moody, almost mystical, and melancholy, an emotion appropriate to the fragile years of adolescence.”
- Gene Lees

Every so often, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles enjoys revisiting with one of its heroes.

It is our way of saying “Thank You” to those who helped make our entrance into the joys of Jazz possible.

Such reconsiderations are especially pleasurable when we can do so through the perspective of the late Gene Lees, whose writings on Jazz collectively form one of the great gifts to the music and its makers.

Imagine our delight, then, when we uncovered the following essay by Gene on arranger-composer Pete Rugolo whose sensibilities brought us the brilliant music he wrote for both Stan Kenton’s and his own orchestra, Miles Davis Nontet’s  Birth of the Cool when he served as the head of Jazz artist and repertoire for Capitol Records and a whole host of marvelous movie and television music.

© -Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“I've told this before, but this is how I met the man. If you have reached "a certain age," as the French delicately put it, sufficient to remember the big bands in all their brassy glory, you will recall how the true believers would cluster close to the bandstand, listening to soloists whose names we knew, while the mere fans — some distance behind us — did their jitterbug gyrations. Since I was always one of these ardent listeners, I never learned to dance worth a hoot. But I heard a lot of good music. …

Yet another of the bands I admired came through, playing in the red-brick Armory on north James Street [in Hamilton, Ontario where Gene began his career as a newspaper reporter on the Hamilton Spectator]. As usual I was standing in the crowd of listeners near the bandstand. I was startled to find that the young man (older than I, but about thirty-three at the time) standing next to me was the band's chief arranger, whose bespectacled face I recognized from magazine photographs. I got up the courage to tell him how much I admired his writing; which had grandeur. He was polite to me, and suggested we go up to the balcony to listen. We sat through a long evening looking down at the band and discussing the music. Maybe I don't even know how much I learned that night.

A few years ago, I was at a party given by Henry Mancini. I found myself in conversation with one of Hank's closest friends, Pete Rugolo. I told him the story about the arranger and said, "Do you know who the arranger was, Pete?"

And he said, "No."

And I said, "You."

"Pete Rugolo was the architect of the Stan Kenton band," said one of Pete's friends of many years, composer Allyn Fergu­son, who also wrote for Kenton. Among other things, he wrote Passacaglia and Fugue for the Neophonic Orcherstra. "Pete had the academic background that Stan lacked."

And of course it was the Kenton band I was hearing the night I met Pete. That had to be in 1948 or '49, because Stan broke up the band in '49 and Pete went out on his own, at first as an a&r man with Capitol Records. He would have a place in jazz history if only because he is the man who signed the Miles Davis group that featured writing by John Lewis, Johnny Carisi and most of all Gerry Mulligan to record a series of "sides" for Capitol.

It occurs to me that I already had met Kenton when I met Pete. That must have been in 1947.1 held my first writing job at a broadcasting magazine in Toronto, and for some reason of union politics, Kenton was not allowed to make a certain radio broadcast. I was sent to his hotel to get his side of the story, and I imagine that I was. as a serious fan of that band in its main Artistry in Rhythm period, rather in awe at the idea of meeting him.

I knocked on his door, and he answered, fresh out of the shower, naked but for a towel around his waist, still drying his hair. Since he was about six-foot five, with a long, handsome, craggy face, a semi-nude soaking wet Stan Kenton was a figure to conjure with. He invited me in, I did my interview, and left. I think I was nineteen. It was about twelve years later, when I was editor of Down Beat, when I met him again. He said, "Hello, Gene, nice to see to see you again." So help me.

"Stan could do that," Pete said.

"The only other person I ever knew with a memory for names like that," I told Pete, "was Liberace."

Stan Kenton was an enormously nice man. I mentioned this to arranger and composer Bill Kirchner, who said, "Everyone I've ever known who played in that band said the same thing. Even Mel Lewis, who was, as you know, a man not easily pleased."

The relationship between Rugolo and Kenton has been compared to that between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn ."That's what they all say, "Pete said. "I really don't know how close Strayhorn was with Ellington. But I think it was similar because Stan never had time to write any more. Every time we'd get to a hotel for a few days, we'd find a piano and discuss different arrangements. We'd call it making menus. He'd say, 'Well, we'll start off with eight bars, and then we'll do this or that.'
We wrote a few tunes together. Collaboration was one. Most of the time he just let me alone. He said, 'You know what to do.'"

On Christmas Day, 2001, Pete Rugolo turned 86, though he looked far younger than that. He is a soft-spoken, self-effacing man, which may be one of the reasons he has not been given his due as the pioneering jazz composer he was. Kenton managed to be a controversial figure for the scope of what he attempted, which was often denounced as pompous. And it could be, particularly in its later manifestations. But the band for which Pete first wrote had a blazing quality, particularly in its slow pieces, which a lot of young people found moody, almost mystical, and melancholy, an emotion appropriate to the fragile years of adolescence.

Pete was born in Sicily in a little mountaintop town near Messina called San Piero.
Another pioneering jazz writer of the 1940s, when the music was expanding its harmonic and rhythmic language, George Wallington, was also born in Sicily. He first studied piano with his father, who was an opera singer. His name was Giacinto Figlia, and the family moved to New York from Palermo when he was a year old.
Pete's family made the move when he was five.

"The only thing I remember about it is seeing the Statue of Liberty from the boat," Pete said. "We didn't stop in New York. We went right on by tram to Santa Rosa, California, where my grandfather was, my mother's father. He came years before we did. And he bought, like, a country store up by the Russian River, Santa Rosa, Sonoma County. When he had enough money, he sent for his children, two sons and a daughter, my mother. My dad had a degree as a stone mason, but when he came here he couldn't get work as a mason. My uncle was a shoemaker, and he taught my father the shoe business. He had a little store in Santa Rosa, and when he repaired shoes, they were like new. It was just a little busi­ness. We were very poor people. My dad finally bought a little house. My mother worked in a cannery. We all worked. I remember picking hops in the fields. And apples. There were a lot of Italian people in Santa Rosa.

"I walked a couple of miles to school every day, and then started playing all the instruments. My dad would fix people's shoes and if they couldn't pay him, they would bring him things. Someone brought him a mandolin, and I started playing the mandolin. One time I got a banjo, and I started playing that. And then somebody, who must have owed my dad a few hundred dollars, brought a beautiful grand piano. I learned to play by ear. I would play these Italian tunes, O Sole Mio and things like that.

"There was a little town near Santa Rosa called Petaluma. Later on I would hitch-hike to a teacher there for piano lessons. She taught more or less from the jazz books.

"I went to high school and junior college in Santa Rosa. From there I went to San Francisco State College to be a teacher. I never thought I'd make a living in music. I studied classical piano for the first time. I had to play some Beetho­ven for my graduation. I went for four years, got my B.A. I played in dance bands in San Francisco. My favorite piano players were Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. I played at Sweets Ballroom, where every week they would have a name band. Benny Goodman came in with Harry James playing the trumpet. Sinatra came in singing with Tommy Dorsey. We would play the first couple of hours and then we'd hear Duke Ellington or Jimmie Lunceford or Gene Krupa. I remember giving Gene a couple of arrangements.

"I learned the hard way, and I got to be pretty good, I must say. Everybody wanted to use me to play piano in dance bands. In those days in San Francisco, what they called tenor bands were quite popular. I had to play like Eddie Duchin and people like that. I didn't go for the Freddy Martin type things. Gil Evans was my favorite band."

Gil Evans had a highly regarded regional band that played in a Benny Goodman style. It was heard on the radio.

"I liked Fletcher Henderson," Pete said. "Eddie Sauter was one of my favorite arrangers. And Bill Finegan. They were to

One of the best things on the band that I have read is in a liner note by Pete Welding for a reissue CD that he produced, Kenton: New Concepts in Artistry in Rhythm. Acknowledging the later criticisms of Kenton, Welding wrote:

"But the 1940s and most of the '50s belonged to Kenton. His was one of the most vital new bands to have emerged during the war years and, as the decade advanced and put behind it the hit-oriented vocals and novelty fare that initially had enabled it to sustain itself, its music became ever more venturesome in character as its approach was more clearly defined. This stemmed almost solely from Kenton, through the many attractive themes and striking arrangements he fash­ioned for the band and . . . through supervising . . . the other orchestrators who from the late '40s contributed to its book."

"A lot of the things in the book I did not write," Rugolo said. "Stan wrote Artistry in Rhythm, although I did different arrangements of it. He'd been using it as a theme, the slow version. I did Artistry Jumps. Stan wrote Concerto to End All Concertos and Opus in Pastels." Indeed, Kenton wrote and arranged a lot of the material that defined the band by the mid-1940s, including Eager Beaver, Painted Rhythm, Collaboration, Theme to the West, Minor Riff, and Southern Scandal. 'They were all things he wrote before I joined the band," Pete said. "I wrote Elegy for Alto and a lot of things. I wrote most of the original tunes for the band.

"We were supposed to record Ravel's Bolero. But we couldn't get a copyright clearance. Stan said, 'Can you write a new bolero?' So I wrote Artistry in Bolero. Ten out of twelve things in those albums are mine."

One of the things he wrote was an arrangement of Benny Carter's Lonely Woman, featuring a trombone solo by Milt Bernhart. He also wrote an arrangement on All the Things You Are for June Christy. The tune itself is beyond the scope of her chops, and the boodly-oo-debe-bop scat solo in the up-­tempo second chorus is particularly inept. But then my views on scat singing are by now a matter of record. He also wrote a piece called Three Mothers, a sort of homage to Woody Herman's Four Brothers. The players were Art Pepper, Conte Candoli, and Bob Cooper. Bebop was in full flower, and Pete sounded very much at home in it.

Kenton had an acute ear not only for arrangers, Bill Russo and Bill Holman among the most important, but for players. The alumni included, as well as those already mentioned, Stan Getz, Eddie Safranski, Kai Winding, Shelly Manne, Laurindo Almeida, Conte and Pete Candoli, Maynard Ferguson, Shorty Rogers, Lennie Niehaus, Frank Rosolino, Sal Salvador, Bill Perkins, Lee Konitz, Richie Kamuca, Herb Geller, Zoot Sims, Stan Levey, Bill Perkins, Charlie Mariano, Carl Fontana, Pepper Adams, Red Mitchell, Jack Sheldon, Bud Shank, Rolf Ericsson, Jimmy Knepper, Al Porcino, and Red Kelly. A lot of these men also played in the Woody Herman band

There was no great love between Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. Because I liked both men, and Woody was almost a father to me, I tried to soothe things, telling each of them (I lied) something nice the other supposedly had said about him. It didn't work; they either knew each other too well, or they knew me too well. Bassist Red Kelly, one of those who worked in both bands, proposed a theory. "They didn't trust each other," Red said. "Woody didn't trust anything that didn't swing. Stan didn't trust anything that did."

Shelly Manne was quoted in Down Beat as saying that playing drums with Kenton was like chopping wood. Al Porcino, one of the greatest of lead trumpet players, was yet another of those who had played in both bands. A legend has grown up around a remark attributed to Porcino. Stan would sometimes give pep talks to the band. In one of them Stan said (and he had a wonderfully sonorous voice), "We've had the Artistry in Rhythm orchestra, we've had the Innovations in Modern Music orchestra, we've had the Neophonic Orchestra. We've got to try something new."

From the back of the band came the slow bored voice of Al Porcino, "We could try swinging, Stan."

Bud Shank told me a few years ago:

"I had and still have a lot of respect for Stan. He really encouraged the guys in the band to do whatever their thing was. I was hired to be lead alto player, not to be a soloist. That was Art Pepper's job. Whatever your position in that band, Stan encouraged you to do your thing.

"But that band was too clumsy to swing — because of the instrumentation and the voicings. On the other hand, the sounds that came out of it were big noises, really impressive. That's what that band was all about, making those really big noises. As far as swinging, it never did swing. Maybe it wasn't supposed to. I don't know. There sure were some players in it who swung.

"The Contemporary Concepts album, with those Bill Holman arrangements — that's one of the best big-band albums I've ever heard."

And, with Mel Lewis driving the rhythm section, it assuredly swung.

Confirming Bud's statement that Stan let the musicians do their thing, Pete said: "We played a lot of theaters in those days. Stan needed a fast opener. He'd tell me things like that. He changed hardly a note of what I did. He paid me so much a week. At first it was fifty dollars a week, or something like that, but he never said, 'You have to write so many arrange­ments.' When we traveled I never had time to write. But when we'd get to L.A. I'd write five arrangements. I learned to write pretty fast in those days. One tune a day.

"I traveled on the bus. We had to pay for our own room and board. We were on the bus a lot, playing one-nighters. We'd play one place and the next night we'd be two hundred miles away. I loved playing Canada."

"Yeah, that's where I met you. You were so kind to me."

"I'm glad. I think all the people I met were nice to me. I met Duke Ellington. He would talk to me. In fact he'd call me at four o'clock in the morning and say, 'When are you going to write something for me?' I couldn't write for him. He was my favorite, and I'd think, 'What if I write something and he doesn't like it?' The other guy I did the same thing to was Frank Sinatra. I got to be a buddy of his. I kept company with him, especially during his bad years when he couldn't sing. He was always after me to do an arrangement for him. And I could never do it. He was my favorite singer, and I thought 'Suppose I do something and he doesn't like it?' So those two, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra, I could never write for them. Anybody else asked me, and I would do it. Charlie Barnet. Whatever they wanted. But those two, I never could force myself to write for them.

"After Stan broke up the band in '49,1 stayed two years in New York. I went to work for Capitol records, producing. I recorded all the Capitol people that came to town. In those days, New York was wonderful. It had 52nd Street and all the jazz. I did some arrangements. I wrote for Billy Eckstine. All the good singers liked my work. A lot of artists were coming into New York to record. Capitol had an office there. I did Mel Torme's first things, Blue Moon. I found Harry Belafonte singing some place, and signed him. He could sing jazz, but he didn't sell and Capitol let him go. He became famous singing calypso. We've remained friends.

"I produced the Miles Davis sessions they later called Birth of the Cool. I didn't make that name up. I heard them rehearsing down in the Village one day. I liked the idea of this band, so I signed them. We made some dates. Nobody knew it was going to be that popular until Capitol released it as The Birth of the Cool.

"It was a thing we all loved doing. We had all those good players, like Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz. Capitol put the records out, and the musicians started collecting them. I produced them all. I stayed in the booth and I really was tough with them. I made them do things over and over until they were just right. Stan taught me that. Stan would take a half hour tuning, making sure everything was just right. We really spent time on things, and that's why those records are so good."

"What is remarkable about that Miles Davis band," I said, "is that it only ever played two public engagements, a week at the Royal Roost and a one-nighter at Birdland, and made what was collected into one ten-inch LP, and it has had this immense influence on American music."

'That's right," Pete said. 'The musicians bought the records. It was word of mouth."
It is a more than likely that without Pete Rugolo, those records would never have been made.

He also produced — and wrote — a considerable number of the Nat Cole records, including one of the most famous of them all. "I did about forty things for Nat. For a couple of years, I did all his things. One of the things I was proud of was Lush Life. When it first came out, Capitol didn't like it. They didn't release it for a whole year. They finally put it out as a B side on a real commercial tune. And people started really liking it. That was the first recording of the tune. Billy Strayhorn gave it to me. He said, 'I've got a tune here. I wish you'd show it to Nat.' I loved the tune. I made like a tone poem out of it. I made it about twice as long. But for a long time I got criticized for it.

“Nat was so nice to work for. He never told me what to do. He would give me a list of songs. I knew his keys. And then we'd do a record date two or three times a year. We'd do something here or something in New York. He let me write nice things. I wrote some pretty string stuff. "

Pete wrote for a dizzying variety of singers during his Capitol years, including the Four Freshmen.

"They came to my office in New York," he said, "and they sang Laura for me and a few tunes and I loved them. I talked Capitol into signing them. When I came back out here, I got together with them. They liked the sound of Stan's trombones. So I talked them into recording with five trombones. I wrote the arrangements, I conducted, I produced it. We called it Four Freshmen and Five Trombones. It made a big hit. Later on we tried it again, but it wasn't as successful. I was close friends with them. They were all wonderful guys.

"When I moved here to L.A. from New York, I went through a divorce. She took every cent out of the bank. When I arrived, I didn't have a nickel. I stayed at June Christy's place for a while. I got a call from a publisher, Mickey Goldsen. He said, 'Pete, you know, your royalties are really good. If you want, I can give you so much a month until you get settled.' I was looking for work. I was ghosting, I was writing things for Les Baxter for fifty dollars an arrangement. I did a whole album with Yma Sumac. I was doing a lot of things for Ray Anthony. So when Mickey Goldsen called me, he said he could give me $200 a month to live on. Many years later he told me, 'Pete, I have to tell you. That was Stan's money. He was supporting you.'

"Stan published my songs, and he got the money back in time, but Stan did things like that. Stan had a couple of publishing companies with Mickey. Mickey said, 'Stan was the one. He wanted me to take care of you.'"

(Mickey Goldsen headed Capitol's publishing division during Johnny Mercer's presidency of the company. Later he set up his own publishing companies, under the general head of Criterion Music. He has a considerable jazz catalogue, including many works of Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. He is probably, along with Howie Richmond, the most respected publisher in this business. Howie is now semi-retired, but Mickey is still very active, working ever day and playing tennis every morning. And he is eighty-six.)

"For a while I was an a&r man with Mercury," Pete said. "Stereo was just coming out. I did an album with ten trom­bones and two pianos. Then I did ten trumpets. I took all the famous trumpet tunes and made arrangements. Then I did one with two basses. I was allowed to do anything I wanted to. I produced Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington.

"I got a call from Johnny Green, who was head of music at MGM in those days. They were making a movie with Mickey Rooney playing the drums, called The Strip. I wrote sort of a jazz score. That was my first movie. I got to meet Joe Pasternak, who was producing all the musicals, and I did all the Esther Williams pictures. I stayed almost five years at MGM.

"Then one day I got a call from Stanley Wilson at Univer­sal. They said they were doing a TV series with Boris Karloff called Thriller and they thought I'd be good for that kind of score. They wanted a real kind of modern score. So I went to Universal and I did the pilot and they really liked it a lot. I met Roy Huggins, who became a very dear friend, and he used me in everything. I did The Fugitive theme and the music and everything Roy Huggins did. And I did other things at Universal. I stayed at Universal for fifteen years. I did one show after another. I wrote, like, forty minutes of music every week. I don't know how I ever did it. I learned to write real fast! And I never had an orchestrator. I orchestrated all my own music. I did a lot of those movies-of-the-week, as they called them. I did some of the Hitchcock TV shows."

"Were you and Mancini at Universal at the same time?"

'Yeah. By then Hank was doing movies. He didn't do any television then. He'd already done Peter Gunn. We were very dear friends. We had dinner together, we liked to cook together. For a long time he never got the credit he deserved. It went to Joseph Gershenson at Universal. Hank would get an orchestration credit. Gershenson would take the music credit. That was going on a lot in those days."
I said, "Hank did things like Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the royalties are still coming in. As Hank said, 'Movies are forever.'"

"Oh sure. I was griping all the time because Roy Huggins wanted music under everything, fires, machine guns, wrecks. And I was saying, 'I don't have time to write all that music!' But now I'm so glad I did, because the residuals are by the
minute. And they took time to do, automobile races, and all that. Now I'm glad I did it"

I asked Pete, who retired some time ago, if he could, in so storied a career, cite high points in his life and work. He said:

"I wrote a lot of television shows. I did movies. I did some jazz albums for Columbia Records. I'm very proud of all the things I did with June Christy, Something Cool.
"And the years with Stan. They were wonderful. Stan was wonderful. We were very close friends, almost like brothers."

Some years ago, Henry Mancini went to the mountain village where his father was born. The road was rough and danger­ous. There was no hotel in the village, and he and his wife turned around and went back down the mountain. Now, Hank told me, a freeway ran to the village, and it had evolved into a ski resort. He said it's where the Italians go to ski.

Pete made a similar pilgrimage, but in his case to the village in which not his father but he was born. Again, the road up the mountain was dangerous. And again, there was no hotel, and he never did find the house in which he was born. He and his wife Edie told their driver to turn around, and they went back down the mountain. They went on to Messina.

Sicily was far in Pete's past."

You can listen to an example of Pete’s writing for television on the audio track to the following video. The tune is entitled The Teaser and it would be played for the short “teaser” action you see first at the beginning of each Richard Diamond Private Detective television show starring actor David Janssen.

The Teaser is a stirring example of Rugolo’s thrilling Latin Jazz. Larry Bunker plays both bongos and (later) vibraphone. The irrepressible Bud Shank plays the Jazz alto solo. Buddy Collette and Bob Cooper are briefly heard on flute and oboe respectively.”