Monday, September 26, 2022

Name Band 1959 - Bob Florence and His Orchestra

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“There was a time when the big bands were king, played to packed theaters and ballrooms everywhere, and whose nitely broadcasts were listened by millions. And not just the famous names like Goodman, Ellington and Basie, but less renowned bands who also enjoyed their share of the big band scene across America. Which is why Fresh Sound Records is helping to keep alive the sound of big band music in a special series of CDs dedicated to the rediscovery of many whose names are well known and others who never made the headlines, but whose music certainly merits their reissue. Some of the bands went on the road, others, like the so-called rehearsal bands, existed only in the studio, but their music was the thing!”

                                 - Jordi Pujol, Fresh Sound Records

“In the next few days, myriad obits will rightfully refer to him in terms of 'major figure' and so on and so forth," says Bill Reed, “however in my occasional conversations and dealings with Bob, I also found him to be sweet, funny, forthcoming, and just flat-out. . .nice. A wonderful and warm person, and a gifted musician and educator. His piano playing was always fresh and innovative, prompting younger musicians to seek him out."

- Excerpt from May 15, 2008 Bob Florence Obituary in

From 1953 until his passing in 2008, pianist Bob Florence [b. 1932] led a big band for which he composed and arranged music that had a consistent simplicity to it which may be one of the reasons why it swung so easily. It may also be a reason why musicians loved to play it.

The style of his writing had much in common with that of Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman, Marty Paich, Al Cohn and Bob Brookmeyer; it was very linear and the arranged lines [melodies and countermelodies] just unraveled and flowed in an unhindered manner.

Although initially it was one of the many rehearsal big bands that evolved throughout the burgeoning Los Angeles landscape of the 1950s, Bob’s big band ultimately became a successful performance orchestra at clubs, concerts and festival venues, almost exclusively in the greater Southern California area. Many of its members were accomplished studio musicians who couldn’t afford to travel due to the lucrative demands of such work.

One could think of Bob’s Big Band as the West Coast equivalent of the NYC Village Vanguard Orchestra without the permanent home base. It also resembles what today is now called The Vanguard Orchestra in that membership conferred a kind of status as being a big band musician of the highest order, the - CRÈME DE LA CRÈME. 

Of course, there may be other Los Angeles based big bands that might also merit such a designation including the Bill Holman Big Band, the Frank Capp-Nat Pierce Juggernaut Big Band, Louie Bellson’s Explosion Big Band, the Mike Barone Big Band and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra; of these only Bill Holman’s band dates back to the late 1950s when Bob Florence’s band first got its start.

Others who have led Los Angeles based big bands intermittently or more recently are Tom Kubis, Roger Neuman, Gordon Goodwin, Steve Huffsteter, Chris Walden, Scott Whitfield, and Kim Richmond.

The plethora of musicians in Southern California [at one time Local 47 had over 13,000 dues paying members in the union] makes it fairly easy to populate these large orchestras with talented music readers and Jazz improvisers, but the geographic sprawl that is the greater Los Angeles area makes it difficult to replicate a central location where they can demonstrate their skills on a regular basis equivalent to the Village Vanguard. 

In a career that spanned five decades, Bob Florence garnered national and international acclaim as a jazz composer, arranger, bandleader, keyboardist, accompanist, and educator.

He was a Grammy Award winner and received an incredible 15 Grammy Nominations and two Emmy Awards. 

Before his death in 2008, some of Bob’s more recent commissions included, “Eternal Licks & Grooves" commissioned by ASCAP and International Association of Jazz Educators honoring Count Basie, premiered in January 2005 at the IAJE convention in Long Beach California and “Appearing In Cleveland" commissioned by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute honoring Stan Kenton, premiered in March 2004 at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles, California, as well as many others.

Florence, a highly respected jazz educator, often served as clinician, adjudicator and guest instructor in college settings. In my conversations with him, Bob was a warmly engaging man who approached the act of making music with great humanity and humor.

Contained in one of the obituaries was this comment that beautifully describes Bob as many knew him: “In the next few days, myriad obits will rightfully refer to him in terms of 'major figure' and so on and so forth," says Bill Reed, “however in my occasional conversations and dealings with Bob, I also found him to be sweet, funny, forthcoming, and just flat-out. . .nice. A wonderful and warm person, and a gifted musician and educator. His piano playing was always fresh and innovative, prompting younger musicians to seek him out."

Florence wrote some of the most beautiful big band arrangements since Duke Ellington's, but many of them went unheard or unrecognized because of unfortunate bad timing. At a time when the market for big bands dried up, Florence discovered a passion for composing and arranging for large jazz ensembles.

So instead of getting the exposure of road shows, radio spots, and coverage on the Hit Parade, Florence had to resort to working with session musicians on their days off, for little or no money, or to applying his talent to more commercial material. Nevertheless, though Florence's work is scattered across hundreds of albums by dozens of artists; some of it is the most beautiful and delicate music ever written for big bands.

Something of a musical prodigy, Florence took his first piano lesson before the age of four and was performing at recitals at seven. Throughout his early years, he studied with the expectation of becoming a classical musician. 

While attending Los Angeles City College, he studied orchestration and arrangement with Bob McDonald, a college faculty member who'd written from Charlie Barnet and others years before. Florence was immediately attracted to working with a jazz-oriented group, and it led him to set up an informal band at college that met and performed his works.

At the time, L.A. City College's study body included men who would go on to become some of the most respected studio session musicians: Dennis Budimir, Herb Geller, Tommy Tedesco, and John ("Star Wars") Williams. 

Someone suggested Florence shift his band to the Hollywood Musician's Union local rehearsal hall, and he started a weekly session that quickly proved a great word-of-mouth success.

Session players were looking for an outlet for their more creative side, and Florence soon had ace musicians vying for spots in his group. One of the early members of this “kicks" band, baritone sax player John Lowe, still played with Florence until his death.

Florence toured with Alvino Rey, then wrote for Harry James, Les Brown, and others. He recorded a couple of albums for various labels, but in 1960, Si Zentner contacted Florence about writing for a new band he was forming. Florence went on to work with Zentner on 11 albums on Liberty and RCA. He helped Zentner score perhaps the last big band hit with a rockin' version of the Hoagy Carmichael tune, Up a Lazy River, in 1961, and a classic recording of Les Baxter tunes played by Zenter's band and Martin Denny on piano, “Exotica Suite."

From his work with Zentner, Florence became known by Dave Pell and others in Liberty's A&R shop, and through the mid-1960s, handled arrangements for scores of Liberty albums. He did several vocal group albums, including Great Band, Great Voices with Zentner and the Johnny Mann Singers, and Jazz Voices in Video with Dave Pell. He often worked with Liberty's leading pop vocalist, Vicki Carr, and he arranged a long and highly successful series of instrumental albums with saxophonist Bud Shank.

Florence wrote for a number of television shows, including “The Red Skelton Show" and “The Dean Martin Show." He reunited with Les Brown on an album for Decca, arranged a fine bossa nova album with Sergio Mendes (sans Brasil '66) on Atlantic, and worked with one of his idols, Count Basie, on an album of Beatles hits.

By the early 1970s, television and movies had become the focus of Florence's work, and very little of his work from this period can be found. Vicki Carr called him in 1973 to pinch-hit for her road band's conductor, and a one week engagement became a relationship that lasted nearly five years and took him throughout the U.S. and overseas.

In the late 1980s, he organized yet another group, The Bob Florence Limited Edition. The band's name referred to the small and elite group of session musicians who could master just about any material with little or no fuss. The band's album, Serendipity 18, received the 2000 Grammy for Best Jazz Performance by a Large Ensemble.

Thanks to the efforts of Jordi Pujol at Fresh Sound, we have an early sampling of Bob’s writing for big bands as contained in the tracks on Name Band 1959 [FSCD 2008; Carlton STLP 12/115] which was recorded in Hollywood. November 1958 at the Royce Hall Auditorium in U.C.L.A. 

Here are Jordi’s insert notes to this - what was a very rare LP - until this CD reissue.

During the late 1950s many so-called rehearsal bands appeared in Los Angeles. For the most part they blew off steam without being heard, and were appreciated by only a few fans who happened to know the day when the guys got together in the rehearsal rooms of the Musicians Union Local 47. 

The Bob Florence aggregation was one of the best of those bands, and jazz musicians on California's west coast had long been talking about it.

Florence first saw The light of day in Los Angeles in 1932, born to a musical mother who had once played piano in silent movie houses. Bob's precocious interest in music was quickly recognized by his aware parents especially his perfect pitch and before his fourth birthday they had organized the young boy's first piano lesson. His progress was so good that he gave his first classical recital when he was only seven years old, and he seemed destined for a career in the legitimate or concert field.                        

Later, at Los Angeles City College, he studied basic writing fundamentals and arranging with Bob McDonald, who'd once worked in the big bands of Glenn Miller and Bunny Berrigan. From around that point Bob's interest in jazz really took off, for unbeknown to his tutor, he was already listening to and collecting jaiz records, with Stan Kenton's powerhouse brand of music particularly fascinating the young student, as were the sounds of Duke Ellington and Jerry Fielding. As a result, the classical music thing virtually evaporated overnight, and it's interesting to note that together with Bob in the City College band were the likes of Lanny Morgan. Herb Geller. Jack Sheldon and Bob Hardaway. two of whom feature on this recording.

With a group of Jazz playing friends, the young Florence formed his first rehearsal band in Los Angeles in 1953 which proved to be enormously popular with the local jazz fraternity, especially among the musicians who would actually compete for a place in the band, (Let’s face it, jazz musicians are always the first to recognize talent when they hear it.) Bob kept the rehearsal band going periodically during the 1950s, which kept him busy writing. At the same time he worked briefly for Alvino Rey and Les Brown.

It was in late 1958 when Don Jenson, one of the people who began turning up at these rehearsal sessions, approached Bob with the idea to record the sessions you hear on this disc.

Bob did some arrangements for Harry James’ big band in the late 1950s and in 1961, Bob’s chart on Hoagy Carmichael’s Up A Lazy River became a big hit and helped propel trombonist Si Zenter’s band into the big time.

As a result the doors opened to Bob and he worked extensively in many fields, not only for jazz orchestras, but also for televisions shows, singers and other, more commercially slanted jobs. And that’s how Bob’s career in music has continued through the years. He reorganized the band at the end of the 1970s and it subsequently became internationally famous through recordings which have always maintained a high standard of excellence.

Bob’s musical philosophy is absurdly simple. He likes music that is joyous and he wants his audiences to feel happy. When interviewed he stated that he “... remembered hearing these wonderful orchestral outbursts from Woody Herman, Count Basie and the Duke. If you can lift the audience up out of their chairs a few times, you’ve done a good job.” However, he attributes his main influences to have been Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Holman, Bill Finegan and Al Cohn. For the most part, Bob’s writing is spare and economical (like his piano playing) and he leaves plenty of room for the soloists, with the accent placed on swinging hard, without constraint. Perhaps more than anything else, the Bob Florence trademark is an uninhibited spirit of joyous swing, the pleasure of living, albeit controlled and disciplined. The Bob Florence Feel, shall we call it?

But getting back to the recordings in question here: they were notable for two things. In the first place it was not only the Bob Florence Orchestra’s first venture into the recording studio, but it was also one of the earliest big band recordings ever to have been made instereo, the new thing at the time. The playing is clean throughout, the execution is precise (as always), yet the overall feeling is warm and swinging. The Bob Florence feel to a T. Some of the soloists here include altoist Herb Geller, tenor saxophonist Bob Hardaway, trumpeter Tony Terran, trombonist Herbie Harper on the first session and Bob Edmunson on the second, and the whole band swings through a marvelous selection of titles.

The opening track Little Girl was made famous by the Nat King Cole Trio, and is the only two with two alternate [and completely different] versions, and they feature the always impressive alto sax of Herb Geller. Pastel Blue stems from Artie Shaw and features some tasty clarinet by Don Shelton. Undecided was penned by trumper star Charlie Shavers and has some fine open horn by Terran. Southern Fried is associated with Charlie Barnet and also features Terran and from The President himself [Lester Young] there is Easy Does It where Bob Hardaway shines as does slide trombonist Herbie Harper. On Florence’s original Give a Listen Hardaway is again prominent while valve trombonist Enevoldsen demonstrates his mastery over the instrument. And that’s just to mention five tracks!

For Florence it was not just a case of nostalgia, but a demonstration of genuine love and affection on the part of he and his cohorts for the big band music of the previous era. What they were doing was giving a backward glance at the good musical things that happened way back, when they themselves were kids. The soloing throughout is terrific and it would be superfluous to mention them all, for the principal virtue of the band was its overall collective drive. And today, in 1993 [year of the CD release], Bob Florence is still fronting his own orchestra, bringing joy to the Los Angeles area big band fans.

“I love my band and spend every waking hour thinking about writing for it,” he once said in an interview.”

Bob, it shows,”

Jordi Pujol

Sound engineer: George Fields. 

Original 1958 sessions produced by Don Jenson. 

Produced for CD release by Jordi Pujol.

This CD is dedicated to Evelyn Florence.


Johnny Audino, Tony Terran, Irv Bush, Juiles Chaikin (tp); Bob Edmundson, Bobby Pring, Don Nelligan, Herbie Harper (tb); Herb Geller, Bernie Fleischer (as); Bob Hardaway (ts, cl); Don Shelton (ts); Bob Florence (p, arr); Dennis Budimir (g); Mel Pollan (b); Jack Davenport (d). Bob Enevoldsen (v-tb, replaces Herbie Harper on #8,9,20,21).

All arrangements by Bob Florence

Order information can be located by going here.

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