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Maestro of Jazz : Composer Bob Florence dreamed of becoming a concert pianist until he discovered the joys of writing for bandleaders and singers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Zan Stewart writes regularly about music for The Times</i>

“Hard left.”

That’s the direction composer-arranger-bandleader-pianist Bob Florence says his life took when he was a student at Los Angeles City College in the early ‘50s.

“I had been heading toward becoming a concert pianist,” he said the other day. “I had been playing piano since I was 4, and had been performing concerts since age 7 or 8, though I also listened to jazz and pop music.”

Then at L. A. City College, Florence needed additional units and serendipitously enrolled in a class in orchestration and arranging from Bob MacDonald, a noted Southern California music instructor who later directed the jazz program at Valley College in Van Nuys. To his surprise, Florence found that he had an affinity for jazz-based composition.

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“I discovered that writing was really fun,” Florence recalled. “There was a band at L. A. C. C., and I could hear my music played, and it was really rewarding. Later, I was able to learn by trial and error, hearing a band play my charts at the musicians union. So I just kept going.”

You could say that. Florence, 60, of Westlake, who leads his Limited Edition big band this afternoon at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has by now written about 500 arrangements for such bandleaders as Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, Harry James and Si Zentner, and such singers as Vicki Carr, Julie Andrews and Ann-Margret.

About half of these he has knocked out for his own bands, which he has led intermittently since the early ‘60s, and with which he’s recorded half a dozen albums. The most current of Florence’s CDs are “Jewels,” a reissue anthology just out on Discovery Records, and “Treasure Chest,” another collection of originals on USA Records.

Florence also still plays the piano, mostly as an accompanist to singers such as Andrews and Carr--he just returned from a weeklong engagement with the latter at New York City’s Blue Note jazz spot--or with his Limited Edition. He used to play with a trio, but that’s now pretty much stopped, he said.

As far as enjoyment goes, Florence said he couldn’t choose between playing or writing: “Whatever I’m doing in the moment, I’d rather do.”

Originally influenced as an arranger by Duke Ellington and then later Bill Holman and Bob Brookmeyer, Florence’s tunes range from the deceptively simple, like the breezy and bright “Willowcrest” on “Jewels,” to the more arcane, such as a samba version of “Moonlight Serenade.”

His compositions for his band tend to be long, he said, because “when you have the luxury of taking the time to write something, you tend to develop it, have it go someplace.”

Florence likes humorous titles. These include “Afternoon of a Prawn,” “Nobody’s Human,” and “The Industrial Strength Stomp.”

This has been a good year for the musician. He’s about to arrange two or three selections for Carr’s next CBS International album, and in November, he will travel to Japan as Andrews’ accompanist.

This year has also been thumbs-up for Florence’s band, which includes such regular members as trumpeters Steve Huffsteter and Warren Luening, trombonist Rick Culver, saxophonists Bob Militello and Kim Richmond, and drummer Steve Houghton.

The ensemble worked recently at Catalina Bar & Grill and the Moonlight Tango Cafe, where it’s scheduled for another date, not yet set.

Florence likes the outdoor Times Mirror Central Court at the County Museum, where the band has played on two previous occasions. “The guys can all hear themselves, and the audiences are terrific,” he said.

He has had longtime fans, but perhaps none so prominent as pianist-composer Thelonious Monk. In the ‘60s, Monk took part in a “Blindfold Test” with Leonard Feather, the Times jazz critic, which appeared in Down Beat magazine. In the test, Feather played anonymous records for Monk, including Florence’s version of Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser,” taken from the bandleader’s debut LP, “Here and Now” on Liberty Records.

Monk commented, “It was crazy. It was a bunch of musicians who were together, playing an arrangement. It sounded so good, it made me like the song better! I’ve never heard that before . . . but I’d say it was top-notch.”

When reminded of Monk’s praise, Florence said, “That was lovely, and I was thrilled.”

Bob Florence’s Limited Edition plays from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. today in the Times Mirror Central Court, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Free. Call (213) 857-6115.


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