Life Is Good for Big-Band Composer Who’s Topping the Charts

<i> Zan Stewart writes frequently about jazz for The Times</i>

Bill Holman is an anomaly.

In an era when big bands are hanging on by their nails, and big-band composers with them, Holman continues to thrive.

In fact, he’s at the top of the charts.

Actually, Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” is now the No. 1 album on Billboard magazine’s pop and jazz charts. But Holman, 64, a Grammy winner, crafted six arrangements for the singer--among them “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Avalon.”

And there’s more activity. He’s writing an hour’s worth of originals and arrangements of standards for the West German Radio Network big band, to be performed in Cologne in November. And this year he has arranged a couple of selections for Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Orchestra, and orchestrated and recorded six tunes for a soon-to-be-released Chase Music Group album featuring vibraphonist Charlie Shoemake and singer Sandi Shoemake.


The hirsute Holman, who leads his large ensemble today at the Times Mirror Central Court of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is an artist blessed with good fortune: He makes what he calls a “comfortable living” doing what he really wants to do--composing and arranging for jazz orchestra.

He hasn’t always.

There was a period in the early ‘60s when Holman--who first established himself as a class writer with pieces done in the early ‘50s for Stan Kenton--was drinking a lot and working very little.

“The word had gotten out that I was loaded all the time and couldn’t be trusted, either musically or emotionally,” he says with typical candor. (Holman says he hasn’t had a drink since 1975, the year he formed his current band.)

Then in the mid- to late ‘60s, Holman did a stint of commercial writing for pop vocalists, including Diana Ross, the Fifth Dimension and the Association. “I was a businessman. I was into music the way so many people are in this town--for the money only,” he says.

He’s quick to point out that money does have its rewards.

“Those years of commercial writing bought me my house,” says Holman, who lives in an attractive home in the Hollywood Hills. “And during that period, jazz was barely hanging in, so I was grateful to have work that paid well. And to be wanted by anybody was kind of a kick,” considering his reputation for drinking.

These days, the assignments are much more to his liking, such as the Natalie Cole album, an Elektra Records session that’s a tribute to the singer’s famous father--singer/pianist Nat King Cole.

A call from Andre Fischer, Cole’s husband and the producer of several cuts on the album, led Holman to write most of the set’s big-band tracks. (There are several string arrangements by such notables as Johnny Mandel, Michel LeGrand and Marty Paich.)

“Andre, for whom I’d worked on an album by singer Diane Schuur, came over to the house and brought some of Nat’s records for me to hear,” Holman says. “I had varying degrees of freedom, though the original concept was to do the tunes in much the same groove as Nat had done them.”

The sessions were recorded in June, with Holman conducting, in Studio A of Capitol Records’ Vine Street tower. It was in that same studio that, in 1960, Holman recorded one of four records that document his ensembles, “Bill Holman’s Great Big Band” on Capitol Records. His most recent release is “The Bill Holman Band” on JVC.

Cole was a pleasure, says the writer, with gusto. “She’s a real performer. There were no hassles; she was willing to discuss the music, was very friendly and exceedingly good-looking. She’s a very good singer, and I really became a fan.”

Holman says he’s tickled about the album, though he points out that the tunes “that define the album are the string charts.” String orchestral backgrounds are heard on such songs as “Lush Life,” “Nature Boy” and “Mona Lisa.”

Is Holman jealous? Does he wish he had been given one of those succulent assignments?

“Yeah, but not at the expense of any charts” by Mandel or LeGrand, he says quickly, mentioning his deep respect for Mandel, who is renowned for his Oscar-winning tune “The Shadow of Your Smile.” “He’s made a lot of money making very good music.”

Holman might have made a more lucrative living writing for film or TV--as has Mandel, a ‘50s sidekick from the Los Angeles jazz scene.

And although Holman has done occasional orchestrating for film scores--including “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling” and “The Marrying Kind”--he resolved long ago not to pursue soundtrack writing as a career.

“I decided not to go after work where you write a little Mozart, a little Gay ‘90s, some rock ‘n’ roll here,” he says. “Instead, I stuck with my music. I just wanted to see how it would develop.”

It definitely has developed, not only from a financial standpoint, but more important, aesthetically.

Holman, a native of Orange County, began concocting big-band arrangements in high school. He contributed his first major works to Kenton’s orchestra in 1953, and then went on to write for most of the top jazz big bands--including those of Count Basie, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich and Severinsen. It was his arrangement for Severinsen of a version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” that garnered Holman a 1987 Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement.

A barometer of just how much Holman’s music--which swings in a very distinctive manner--has evolved is his own view of it.

“I used to think my music was very simple,” he says, chuckling. “I thought of myself as the common man’s jazz writer.

“I know different now. The music is much more complex. I wish it weren’t. Maybe it would be a lot more understandable to a lot more people. But that’s the direction it took--I’m often seeking to do something I haven’t heard before--and I’m stuck with it. I wish I could get the same musical message across in simpler terms, say, three notes instead of 10, but I don’t know how.”

Difficult music requires regular rehearsal, Holman says, and the leader gathers his men to run over the material every Thursday at Musicians Union headquarters on Vine Street in Hollywood. It’s an act that, like the music Holman writes, sets him apart from many other musicians and composers.

“To take three precious hours and to rehearse a band at the funky union would be, for most people, an admission that things were not going well” financially, he says. “But to be doing it on a steady basis for years, most people wouldn’t even like to admit they had that much time to spare.”

Holman makes the time. “Gigs are great,” he says, “but the music is why people become musicians in the first place, and we’re supposed to take every chance to play good music.”

Is Holman happy with his lot in life?

“I have no regrets,” he says simply. “It went the way it went, and that’s good enough.”

The Bill Holman Orchestra plays today at 1:30 p.m. at the Times Mirror Central Court of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Admission is free. Call: (213) 857-6000.