Saturday, October 6, 2012

Johnny Richards: Big, Brash and Bold Sounds


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


“There has been much talk in recent years about the close relationship between jazz and what is usually called classical music (or sometimes, "serious" music, as if jazz musicians were kidding). They're coming closer and closer together, this talk usually goes. It's getting so you can't tell where one leaves off and the other begins, somebody says — wistfully, as if it were sinful or something to be ashamed of. And then somebody else — me, if I'm part of this familiar conversation — asks what all the sad words are about; why such viewing with alarm; why the dissatisfaction; it's music, isn't it?

Johnny Richards doesn't do much talking about the relationship, close or distant, between jazz and the classical traditions in music. He just does. He composes and arranges, and when he can, conducts. The strongest arguments, one way or the other, are on music paper or in performance.”
- Barry Ulanov, Jazz author and critic

“The two characteristics of Johnny Richards that usually come first to my mind when his name is mentioned or his music is played is fervor and tenacity. … Johnny Richards is a writer who likes to challenge his men and himself through a wide range of sounds and colors and he usually finds the sidemen who can fulfill his designs.”
- Nat Hentoff, liner notes to Wide Range

“Richards always painted with bold strokes, applying his considerable training and knowledge to create a variety of orchestral pictures.”
- Burt Korall, liner notes to My Fair Lady [paraphrased]

Johnny Richards was one of the more progressive-minded arranger of the 1950s and '60s, turning out big, heavily orchestrated scores with a sometimes unabashed use of dissonance and a good feel for Latin rhythms.

Richards was born in Toluca, Mexico in 1911, as Juan Manuel Cascales, to a Spanish father (Juan Cascales y Valero) and a Mexican mother (Maria Celia Arrue AKA Marie Cascales), whose parents were Spanish immigrants to Mexico. He came to the United States with his parents and his three brothers in 1919.

The family lived first in Los Angeles, California and later in San Fernando, California where Johnny, and his brothers attended and graduated from San Fernando High School. In 1930 Richards enrolled at Fullerton College where he received formal training in music.

He started writing film scores, first in London in 1932-1933, and then in Hollywood for the remainder of the decade, as Victor Young’s assistant at Paramount while studying composition with Arnold Schoenberg.

Forming a big band in the 40s, he had trouble finding musicians who could cope with his involved scores, so he gave it up to write for Charlie Barnet and Boyd Raeburn's forward-looking band.

Oddly enough, considering the reputations of both men, Richards' contributions to the Raeburn library were pretty, romantic, woodwind scores such as "Prelude To The Dawn", "Love Tales" and "Man With The Horn".

Hardly a commercial success, Richards was nevertheless a musical, if sometimes misused asset to any employer.

He also arranged a string album for Dizzy Gillespie in 1950, along with recording dates with Sarah Vaughan, Helen Merrill, and Sonny Stitt. His most famous association was with Kenton, with whom he started arranging in 1952. His collaborations with Kenton on the albums Cuban Fire! and West Side Story are outstanding examples of Richards’ work. 

Richards continued to lead his own orchestras in 1956-1960 and 1964-1965, recording for Capitol, Coral, Roulette, and Bethlehem, and co-wrote one of Frank Sinatra’s signature songs, "Young at Heart."

He died in 1968 from complications arising from a brain tumor.

Of his time with Stan Kenton’s orchestra, Michael Sparke has written in his Stan Kenton: This Is An Orchestra!:

"Rendezvous at Sunset (originally titled Evening) reflects the romantic face of Johnny Richards, and is one of the loveliest original ballads in all of jazz. Whatever the mood, Richards' music post-Cuban Fire has substance and symmetry, and nobody wrote more effectively for the French horns within a jazz framework. Towards the end of Richards’ arrangement of I Con­centrate on You the horns rise out of the orchestral timbre in a truly gorgeous surge of sound. (A talent not lost on Kenton when it came time to forming the mellophonium orchestra in 1960.)”

Michael’s book also contains the following observations about Johnny’s writing by three members of the Kenton orchestra.

[Trombonist] Don Reed noted that "Stan liked Johnny Richards. I think he was Stan's favorite arranger, but those scores were so demanding physically on the band, because the trumpets were constantly screeching. Every­body was playing loud all the time, long sustained notes that blared, and the arrangements didn't swing.”

And Phil Gilbert [trumpet] is typically blunt: "Richards was a highly educated musician with great orchestrat­ing skills, but he was also very disturbed and drank heavily. Cuban Fire was his best, and he wrote some nice ballads like The Nearness of You' and The Way You Look Tonight' with no explosions or head-on colli­sions. We did not enjoy his Back to Balboa charts at all. I hated them. Too hard, and to what end? Uniting those tunes with Latin rhythms was no help at all."

On the other hand, Jim Amlotte [trombone] was unexpectedly positive: "I really liked those Latin charts on 'Begin the Beguine,’ 'Out of this World,' and so forth. Johnny Richards is one of my favorite composers, but his music taxed you to the end. To Johnny, nothing was unplayable, and his music was challenging: very, very challenging. Richards put his arrangements together so well. Some guys will say there's too much tension, but this is what I like. Some things are going to swing, and some things aren't, but as long as there's a pulsation, that's enough for me. They don't all have to be Basie-type swing."

There is a published biography on Johnny by Jack Hartley entitled Johnny Richards: The Definitive Bio-Discography [Balboa Books, 1998], although copies of it may be difficult to locate.

Thankfully, Michael Cuscuna and his team have made Johnny’s long-out-of-print recordings available on a three disc Mosaic Select set [MS-017].

The booklet that accompanies the Mosaic Select set has a good detail of information about Johnny and descriptions of his writing some of which is excerpted below.


© -Michael Cuscuna/Mosaic Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Recorded from 1955-1966, the Mosaic set is comprised of music from six albums recorded under Johnny’s name: Annotations of the Muses, Wide Range, Experiments in Sound, The Rites of Diablo, My Fair Lady - My Way, and Aqui Se Habla Espanol/English Spoken Here.

In his notes to Annotations of the Muses, John S. Wilson wrote:

“It might seem to be belaboring the obvious to say that what you hear on this record is music.

Yet an essential point of this composition by Johnny Richards is that it is just that — music, without qualifications: not jazz nor what is sometimes called "serious" music (as though this music were always unbearably solemn or no other music could be considered to have any intellectual merit) nor a violation of one by the other.

Annotations of the Muses is a composition which draws on several musical roots. There are jazz elements in it but they appear as natural developments, not the graftings of a desperate plastic surgeon. There is even more evidence of "serious" music but it is used purposefully, gracefully, to make a point rather than an impression.

The unique flavor of this work derives from the skill with which Richards has made use of both jazz and "serious" elements without seeming awkward or ostentatious in his treatment of either one. There is a homogeneity of conception whether the means by which it is expressed are tightly grouped, accented woodwinds with a flavor of Hindemith, or canons and rounds, or a solo trumpet with a steady 4/4 beat.

What Richards has achieved by this blending is a lighthearted vitality, a form of lyricism with guts which could scarcely be brought about by any other integration of instruments or styles. He has, to begin with, a woodwind quintet for which he has written with that mixture of merriment and brooding which seems inherent in woodwinds. But the quintet is simply a starting point for it soon expands into a nonet which plays with a pulsing beat.

That the quintet should provide a foundation and that the nonet should have a moving beat are factors which reflect, as any honest musical composition must, something of the composer. Johnny Richards has run a musical gamut from serious composition to movie music to jazz writing of the wildest stripe. If his past has any connection with his present, it must be assumed that Annotations of the Muses is a synthesis of the more vital elements of all the areas in which he has worked. In this suite he has stripped himself of any extreme attitudes which he may have felt forced or drawn to use in the past — the form for the sake of form which crops up in much serious composition, the emptiness that keeps movie music from intruding on plot-centered sensibilities, or the hair-raising appeal for attention with which he ventured into the jazz world.

But Richards has put this experience to advantageous use. For, in this case, there is certainly form but it is judiciously selected form, useful only insofar as it has pertinent meaning. There is flexibility, that sinewy feeling for modulation which is the essential tool of the composer of film music. And there is the organic appeal of the subtle jazz musician's attack.


This is quietly convincing music which is — in the best sense — unpretentious. It sets out, with directness and honesty, to charm the listener. Because it is counting on charm, any false note, any obvious reaching for effect, would be its undoing. And so it introduces itself politely but in familiar vein with genial five-art counterpoint and, in hostly fashion, settles the listener comfortably before leading him on into some animated, varied and occasionally adventurous musical exposition. There is revealed in this process warmth, logic and a notable absence of condescension in any direction. The charm shines resolutely through.

Burt Korall wrote the insert notes to Aqui Se Habla Espanol/English Spoken Here and offered the following comments about Johnny and his approach to music.

“Today, many streams of musical thought pour into the main flow. The world is smaller; a trip from the familiar to anywhere on the globe, a matter of hours. Because of this, our existence has become far less closeted than in times past. We are increasingly exposed in mass media to the people, pulse and melodies of other lands. The result is the mixing and mingling of diverse heritages, increasingly reflected in music composed and performed, here and abroad.”

The maker of music, Johnny Richards feels, should bring into play expressive structures, regardless of source. With jazz as his base, he has given this concept life, having created a library for his orchestra that is a true reflection of his stance, "...there are so many wonderful sounds and multiple rhythms elsewhere in the world that we...can make use of," he has said. "We can learn from them all. People in other areas swing in so many different ways. Swinging, after all, is not unique to jazz. I've been delighted, for example, to see jazz musicians in the past few years finally trying to swing in 3/4 and 6/8. So many meters, so many tone colors have been in existence for hundreds of years, and it's about time we got around to them."

For Richards, composing and arranging are continuing exploratory and illuminating processes; he moves more deeply into himself and the multiple materials available to him. An optimistic man, he retains great enthusiasm for his work. It remains at the center of his life. He writes as he feels he must, sometimes at great cost. This form of integrity has inspired his musicians; they stay with him, answering his call, whenever he can field an orchestra. Richards' music challenges, sometimes wilts them, but never bores them. Moreover, they are provided freedom to add something of themselves to his compositions.”

In his Postscript to the Mosaic set, Todd Selbert observed:

“Of the five genius big band composers and arrangers who emerged in full bloom in the 1950s — Gil Evans, Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman and Johnny Richards — Richards is the forgotten one. When Richards is remembered, it is for his works for Stan Kenton and not for the recordings of his own bands. So it is hoped that the recordings at hand — the earliest of which were recorded 50 years ago — help to remedy this neglect. It is inconceivable that music so brilliant has been out of circulation for so long. …

Richards formed a new band in spring 1957 and the recordings herein cover the last and most fertile decade of his abbreviated career. They are a treasure. The music is at turns passionate and fiery, romantic and melancholic and, above all, majestic. One of its characteristics is its wonderfully deep and visceral bottom, achieved not only through the French horn, tuba and baritone saxophone that had been utilized by Evans and Rogers but extended by bass saxophone. Tympani and piccolo are rarely heard in the jazz orchestra, but Richards incorporated them and they added texture and color to his music. He introduced unusual time signatures and authentic Latin and African rhythms to big band jazz. But the key ingredients in Richards' orchestrations are his gorgeous voicings and development of melody through harmonically-sophisticated and sublime counter lines.”

In order to provide a sampling of the rich texture of Johnny Richards’ orchestrations, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles in association with the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities at StudioCerra has selected as the audio track to the following video tribute The Ballad of Tappan Zee, a movement from Johnny’s suite saluting the beauty spots of America that is a moving solo vehicle for alto saxophonist Gene Quill.”

[Click on the “X” to close out of the ads should they appear on the video.]