© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Unless you were based in or around the greater Los Angeles area or had ready access to it, the name “Bob Florence” [1932-2008] may be a relatively obscure one.
This feature, as well as, an earlier one about his Name Band 1959 album, along with a few more to follow is intended to rectify this lack of awareness by shedding some light on Bob’s 50-plus year career as an original and brilliant big band composer-arranger.
Because of its long history as a recording mecca for instrumental and vocal artists and commercials for television, radio and other media, Los Angeles has always had a large number of resident musicians with professional reading and improvising skills of the highest quality.
In addition to this vocational involvement, many of these studio players also enjoy moonlighting in the many big bands that have long been a feature of the L.A. Jazz scene.
Obviously the economics of maintaining large orchestras commercially have changed dramatically over the years since their heyday in The Swing Era, but the desire to play in these big band settings still prevails even though the performance venues might be limited to the occasional appearance at a festival or concert and the even rarer participation on a recording.
Generally, what it takes to make it happen is a skilled leader with a book of interesting arrangements and a willingness to make the necessary sacrifices to bring the musicians and the music together.
Enter pianist Bob Florence.
Thanks to a series of excellent insert notes that populate Bob’s recordings written by Jazz authorities including Pete Welding, Herb Wong, James Liska, Michael Stephans, Kirk Silsbee, Phil Norman, Bob himself, and musicians who performed in his bands including drummer Nick Ceroli and baritone saxophonist John Lowe, we are fortunate to have observations and commentaries which illuminate Bob’s unique qualities and skills as a big band leader and composer-arranger.
Fortunately, too, the dozen plus recordings by the Bob Florence Big Band [later called the Bob Florence Limited Edition] are still available through online retailers such as Amazon,resellers on eBay and https://www.discogs.com/artist/2443230-The-Bob-Florence-Limited-Edition.
Although few and far between, testimonials about Bob and his music can also be found via internet searches such as the following by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen which was originally published in the March 1, 2009 edition of the. JazzTimes.
“Although Bob Florence was not one of the names that I’d heard of growing up in Nanaimo, Canada, he was an artist whose incredible legacy permeated much of my mother’s record collection, through the likes of Harry James and Count Basie, in addition to the classical piano repertoire she played. All of that music I find so present in Bob’s tender touch and spirit.
It wasn’t until 2003, when Bud Shank threw us together onstage in a faculty jam session at the Port Townsend workshop, that I personally met and experienced the artistic brilliance of Bob Florence. I had called a standard, “Alone Together,” and wanted to play an uptempo duo out front with my pal Alan Jones. Bob sat pensively at the piano, with his eyes tightly shut, while we carried out our quasi-masculine trumpet-drum battle. When he came in on the bridge, laying down the now legendary “chord of doom,” it was clear the heavyweight in the room was Bob. After we finished, he simply stated, “I’m getting too old to comp for each bar that’s flying by so I just came up with a chord that works over the entire bridge.” And indeed it did!
From that moment on, as many in the audience will remember, we established a mutual personal and musical admiration for life. Playing together whenever we could, we kept in touch by phone and e-mail and even enjoyed a cherished wedding celebration in British Columbia, where Bob performed a song written for me, lovingly titled “My Sunshine Connection.”
He and I stayed in contact until he fell ill with pneumonia, leaving this Earth only five days shy of his 76th birthday. I find it hard to adjust to the idea that he is actually gone. I could always count on a message or a call just at the moment when it felt like we’d been out of touch too long and needed to reconnect.
During a discussion about how to avoid making enemies, Bob came up with one of my favorite sayings, which wasn’t “life is short,” but rather “life is long!” I’m struggling to agree with this statement at the moment, wishing he were still here, especially after watching videos from the beautiful tribute concert his extraordinary band, Limited Edition, put on in his honor at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood last June. The piano parts were replaced by guitar, a reminder of Bob’s absence represented by the empty piano chair.
For me, his solo-piano discs, released in 2001 and 2005, are particularly poignant, bringing back fond memories of a beautiful musical moment I shared with Geoffrey Keezer, who was crashing at my apartment in New York while based in San Francisco. Geoff was scrambling to get out the door while I was listening to a cut from Bob’s Another Side. An hour later, he still hadn’t left the apartment - we were both glued to the stereo as we sat immobilized with tears in our eyes. We felt like we were listening to a personal concert being played just for the two of us, providing momentary solace in a crazy world, which perfectly exemplifies how I feel about Bob. He was so open to the entire world around him, always finding something special about everyone and everything that crossed his path. Bob once said, “I’d hate to be thought of as a total jazz musician; my personal tastes are so wide-ranging.” Perhaps this is what I loved about Bob from the outset and what brought us together so quickly, turning our brief musical time together into an effortless and highly enjoyable adventure.”
The liner notes from the Here and Now LP by Anthony Corbett is an earlier indication of Bob’s developing talents.
“For twenty-eight of his thirty-two years, Bob Florence has been seriously involved in the making of music. At the beginning, of course, his efforts did not extend beyond the practice of scales on the piano. in his native Los Angeles. By the time he had spent two years at Los Angeles City College, though, he knew his direction: seri-ous jazz composition and arranging. With this album, Florence may be said to have reached a destination.
Robert MacDonald, with whom he studied basic writ-ing fundamentals at LACC, recalls the young music student. ‘‘When Bob first came to City College)’ MacDonald said, ‘‘we on the music faculty recognized him immedi-ately as a very talented young pianist in the legitimate or concert field. By the time he’d completed two years there, we all felt that he was one of the finest concert pianists we had come across. Then one day during a summer session, he asked me if he could play piano in the band, which was basically a jazz unit. This bowled me over because | never suspected that Bob was interested in jazz. But it turned out he was playing some jazz piano and had a jazz record collection. Anyway, that was the beginning:’
After two years of studying arranging at LACC, Florence ventured into a music world that, to be frank, did not await his arrival with bated breath. Competition was tough, and at times, cutthroat (it still is), so the aspirant invested in further study of composition with the celebrated Dr. Wesley La Violette, mentor of many of today’s most accomplished jazz composers and instrumentalists .. Shorty Rogers, Red Norvo, Jimmy Giuffre, to name a few. In the meantime, Bob had organized that indispensable arranger’s crucible, the rehearsal or ‘‘kicks”’ band. All you need to start a rehearsal band are cooperative musicians to play your arrangements and a dime to call the musicians’ union for a rehearsal hall reservation.
The Florence crew proved a huge success. Soon, the weekly three-hour sessions in the union building were attracting small but discriminating audiences. Word of Florence’s gutsy writing spread through the jazz community of Los Angeles, and musicians soon were vying for chairs in the group.
Of the persuasions in his writing, Bob says, ‘‘I’m very impressed with the work of such men as Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Holman, Bill Finnegan, and Al Cohn. But sometimes I feel I’m more influenced by players than by writers. Take Bill Perkins, for example, who is one of my favorite tenor players. In some of the things in this album, I had him directly in mind as I wrote; for some other charts it was very hard for me to write them without having a specific player in mind. And I find I am also influenced that way by players who are not necessarily jazz players, either. Bob Edmondson, who is in the trombone section here, is a good example of this. | don’t mean he doesn’t play jazz, but he is much better known for his straight section work, which is faultless.’
Basically, the same principle applies to the recording of this LP. It, too, is the product of much rehearsal by the musicians who play in it — as the clean, precise execution by all concerned attests. Says Florence, ‘‘The only sight
reader on the date was guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and he’s a reading whiz, anyway, so it really didn’t matter.’
Regarding the album as a whole, the composer is characteristically matter-of-fact. “‘The band is made up of the standard 8 brass, 5 saxes, and 4 rhythm (the guitar is not used as a rhythm instrument). Form is extremely important as evidenced by Here and Now which is written in strict sonata form.
There are two ballads in this set —the standard, Dream, (one of Florence’s favorite tunes, according to Bob MacDonald, and Melanie, an original piece, so titled in honor of his infant daughter. ‘‘They’re both very slow;’ Bob points out. ‘‘One reason | particularly like Dream is because there’s no motion at all; it just drifts along. There’s a somnambulistic quality about it. The tune is built on half-notes and whole-notes. Everything is sustained. There’s so much room for development in it. One point you may note: After the ensemble tension, Harry Betts’ trombone solo has a very relaxing effect. That’s Tony Terran playing the trumpet obbligato:’ Bob confessed this track was the hardest selection in the album to play because of the long, sustained notes.
‘‘Now, Melanie,” he explained, ‘‘is rather dark and pretty straightforward. Just a mood, really. That’s ‘Perk’ playing the tenor solo, and Tony Terran is playing the melody solo on flugelhorn?’
In the opening shouter, The Song is You, Florence indicated the bass and drums interlude. ‘‘They’re just playing time with nothing else going on;’ he said. ‘‘This makes a nice change of pace from all the shouting:’ The
tenor sax soloist is Bob Hardaway; on trumpet it’s Tony Terran.
It’s That Waltz Again has solos by altoist Bud Shank and tenorist Perkins. The title was inadvertently bestowed on the once nameless ¾ time piece by ‘‘Bones’’ Howe, sound mixer on the date, who would call through the talkback mic every time Bob beat off the number, ‘‘It’s that waltz again:” Comments the composer, ‘‘This is a non-funky or non-gospel waltz. Just a tricky thing. The linear writing is expressive of how I feel about everything musical.”
Thelonious Monk’s Straight No Chaser is wheeling-and-dealing like Broadway at 11 p.m. “‘You can hear Frank Capp playing the melody at the beginning.’
observed Florence. ‘‘This is one of the catchiest tunes in a long time. I felt it was one of those tunes which you feel that you want to hear over and over, so I wrote it like that. Actually, the construction of the tune is unusual for a blues; it consists of 2 six-bar phrases rather than the usual 3 four-bar phrases.” Herbie Harper plays the jazz trombone solo — the only one in the album, by the way. The lead trumpet work is by Johnny Audino. Bud Shank plays the alto sax solo. Incidentally, he also played lead on most of the other tracks.
Gee, Officer Krupke, from West Side Story, is ‘‘just fun, ”Florence says. Here is humor with bells on. Tenor soloist Perkins quotes from Reveille, and later on, the band ‘‘marches’’ with a Dixieland swing, and over all this trills the impudent piccolo, Florence remarked that he wrote this arrangement some years ago — before he penned the chart on Up A Lazy River recorded on Liberty by Si Zentner’s orchestra. (It was a notable hit arrangement.) The alto solo is Bud Shank’s. But the last eloquent word belongs to the bass trombonist, Gail Martin.
Fughetta, as the title indicates, is a workout in counterpoint. ‘It’s just the first part of a fugue, the basis of one,’ says Florence. It strikes one as a real opportunity for the composer to indulge a little in contrapuntal calisthenics.
A shimmering cloak of many colors is the closing Here and Now. ‘This is in real, strict sonata form. Actually, it’s the type of thing I haven't heard done very much,’ says Bob. He added that he felt the composers of the so-called Third Stream (i.e., those attempting to marry jazz with “‘legitimate’’ concert music) merely try to combine surface elements of both musical idioms, but in so doing they fail to create music that is true and profound.
It has taken Bob Florence a substantial decade to make his mark in jazz, at least so far as the jazz public is concerned. (The musicians had his number all along!)
In the interim, he has become a considerable commercial success arranging music for such notables as the aforementioned Si Zentner and singers Lena Horne, Bobby Darin and Vikki Carr. In the jazz milieu, he has written for the bands of Harry James, Louis Bellson, and also for Nancy Wilson. And, with this album, Bob Florence’s own jazz mark is due rather special notice.”
Johnny Audino, Jules Chaikin, Tony Terran, Tom Scott (trumpets), Bob
Edmonson, Herbie Harper, Gail Martin, Harry Betts* (trombones); Bud
Shank**, Johnny Rotella (alto saxophones); Bob Hardaway, Bill Perkins
(tenor saxophones); John Lowe (baritone saxophone); Tommy Tedesco
(guitar); Buddy Clark (bass); Frank Capp (drums); Bob Florence (piano,
*Tommy Shepard replaces Harry Betts on Gee, Officer Krupke,”’ ‘‘Melanie,”’
‘Straight No Chaser,’’ and ‘‘Here and Now.”’
**Bud Shank appears by arrangement with Pacific Jazz Records
Produced by Bob Florence
Recorded at United Recording Studios, Hollywood
Engineer: “Bones” Howe
Cover Design: Studio Five
LST-7380 Available also in monaural LRP-3380
You can listen to Here and Now via this link which you cut and paste into your browser -