By Don Heckman
Bill Holman – Willis to his friends – is making one of his too-rare performances with his big band tonight in the up close and personal environs of Vitello’s. For fans of big band jazz, it’ll be an opportunity to hear some music from a composer/arranger who is arguably one of the unique masters of large jazz ensemble writing. It would be a fair bet, in fact, to say that virtually every arranger/composer of big band music who has arrived on the scene in the past five decades displays, to a greater or lesser extent, some influence from the Holman canon of airy, linear, instrumental textures. Last week, Holman – whose conversational style is as relaxed and occasionally wry as his music – talked about the course of his six decade career.
DH: Let’s start with the Willis connection. Your fans obviously know you as Bill. But most of your friends and acquaintances use Willis. What’s that all about?
BH: Well, I didn’t like Willis when I was a kid, so I just let everyone assume my name was William. And I went by Bill. When I went in the Navy I had to use Willis for the first time. But I still went by Bill. Then one of the other players in this band I was with found out it was Willis, and he used to call me that to tease me. It gradually spread. And now it’s the name that most of my friends use. But I like it either way.
DH: You were pretty young when you went into the Navy around the end of World War II. But you’d already taken your first steps into the music world, right?
BH: Sort of. In junior high school, they gave everybody a musical aptitude test, and I did well on it. So in a few weeks the band director came around and said would you like to play clarinet in the band. I said sure, and that’s when it started. I had lessons on sax, but the ranking music teacher in Santa Ana was a trumpet player, so he gave me some bad information. But he was the only guy around at that time.
DH: Around Santa Ana, that is? So you’re a southern California native.
BH: Yeah. From Olive, actually, which is a little town in Orange. Not exactly a hotbed of jazz.
DH: Did the jazz bug get you when you went into the Navy?
BH: Well, I’d been toying with the idea of a music career, for all the wrong reasons, while I was in the Navy. I’d been studying engineering at Colorado, so when I was discharged in ’46, I went to UCLA to continue the engineering thing. But all the time music was in the back of my head. And one semester at UCLA studying engineering decided me. I’d gone down to Central Avenue a couple of times to a place called Jack’s Basket Room. The second time we went down there, I took my horn, and got to play and started meeting some of the guys. And I heard about this music school that Britt Woodman was going to, and so I went and checked it out. And then I had to convince the Veteran’s Administration that I wanted to change from engineering to music. It was a struggle, but I finally prevailed. I got into the Westlake College of Music, met some more people, started getting some work.
DH: That’s when the writing and arranging began?
BH: Yeah. I’d been listening, from when I was a kid, to all the radio disc jockey shows. They were all big bands and I got interested in them. But I wasn’t inquisitive enough, or ambitious enough to start writing on my own. I figured I just didn’t know how. So when I went to school, I learned a few things that had stopped me, and I started writing a lot, right away. Because I had this big band vocabulary stuck in my head.
DH: What did you like that you heard?
BH: Eddie Sauter. Fletcher Henderson for the Goodman band. And a lot of other guys whose names I didn’t know. I used to wonder who wrote the Basie charts, until I found out that a lot of them were head arrangements, from the late thirties and early forties. And I was pretty impressed by the Claude Thornhill band, even before they started doing the bebop things that Gil Evans wrote. When I went out to hear that band, I flipped out. I’d never heard a band sound like that.
DH: And your own writing? Where were you going with that?
BH: I was writing Latin charts for several Latin bands in town. They were all swinging at the time. And I was writing them for ten dollars, copied. This was ’49, ’50. And writing swing charts for rehearsal bands. But mostly I was just kind of hanging out, and doing a lot of playing. Then I got a chance to go with Charlie Barnet, which I jumped at, because I’d always liked his band. He had all his old things, and things from his bebop band and some newer things. Great charts by Neal Hefti and one by Al Cohn. And it was fun to play that music, even though the band wasn’t the greatest. It got me out traveling. I made my first trip to New York with that band.
DH: But the breakthrough really came with Stan Kenton. How did that come about?
BH: When I was going to Westlake College I’d done a thing ‘12 Tone Blues.’ I guess every young guy writes a 12 tone blues, just to prove it can be done. So I made a demo of it. I played it as a gag for Gene Roland, because he’s such a meat and potatoes guy. I thought he’d find it funny. But he said, ‘My God, this is what Stan is looking for.’ Because Kenton had been talking to him about a more linear approach for the band rather than that up and down stuff they’d been doing. So he took the record to Kenton while I was on the road with Barnet.
DH: Not exactly what you expected when you played it for Roland.
BH: Right. But Stan liked it, so Gene set up an appointment. I went up and talked to Stan. He said, ‘This is great. You doing anything more like this?’ And I said, ‘Uh, no. I’m trying to write more swinging, real jazz charts.’ And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you write a couple of things for the band.’ So I did. He was putting together a new band at the time. I did a couple of things, took them down to rehearsal, and they were terrible.
BH: Terrible. I was just overreaching something terrible. The charts got dumped and never heard from again. But then he needed a tenor player for the section. And Dick Meldonian, who was going to be the lead player, recommended me. And I got on the band as a player.
DH: So you came at it from the inside the next time?
BH: Sort of. Stan kept encouraging me. ‘When you gonna write something, Holman,’ he’d say. But I didn’t know what to write for his band. I didn’t know how to do the stuff that they had been doing. And I knew he didn’t want straight out jazz charts, because he kept harping about not wanting to sound like Tommy Dorsey. Gerry Mulligan had written some nice charts – 8 or 10 – for him at the same time. Some of them Stan liked, some of them he didn’t. But I learned a lot from playing those charts. As far as learning how to put together a professional artistic chart. Voicings and changes and forms. So, after about eight or nine months, I started writing again. Stan liked the first two things, encouraged me to do more. In the meantime, I’d written a chart on “Star Eyes” And it was so full of lines and everything, that Stan said it sounded like a merry go round.
DH: But those ‘lines,’ that linear quality, that contrapuntal feeling, has been one of the characteristics most associated with your writing. How did it come about? Mulligan’s writing had some similar qualities.
BH: For me, writing lines for jazz charts just seemed to happen. The things that Mulligan brought in for the band were his typical style. He hadn’t brought in ‘Youngblood’ yet. But by the time he did, I had already embarked on this linear kind of writing. I think Gerry went to the end thinking I had gotten it from him. And I did get a lot from him, but not necessarily that.
DH: Did you have any sense that what you were doing was something new, something different from the usual big band jazz writing with their thick chording?
BH: Actually, I was kind of surprised when people began saying this was another way to approach jazz band writing. Because to me, until somebody pointed it out, I didn’t think it was that different.
DH: But it was. And even though you’ve done a lot of writing in different areas – for pop groups like the Fifth Dimension and the Association, to mention just a few – it’s still your big band writing that keeps grabbing people’s attention. Not just for Kenton, but for Woody Herman, Terry Gibbs, Buddy Rich, even Basie. And, of course, your own band.
BH: Yeah, aside from the pop stuff, it’s pretty much been the main thing.
DH: Do you feel there’s still life in the big bands’ instrumentation? In the big bands themselves?
BH: Hard to say. There’s no opportunity to make a living. That’s for sure. The only people who have bands now are writers. I could conceive of a smaller band – the eleven or twelve piece bands eventually coming around. But for me there’s still interest in what I’ve been doing. I get feedback from that big band instrumentation.
DH: So the bottom line here is that, after writing big band music for more than sixty years, it’s still what fascinates you the most.
BH: Yean. And not just me. Guys keep writing for that big band instrumentation, so it keeps on living. Even though no one’s saying the big bands are coming back. But, I’ve got a big library of music for the big band I have, so what am I going to do, dump it? I don’t think so.
DH: Let’s hope not. And let’s hope there’ll be a lot more opportunities to hear you, the band and that book in action. Great talking with you, Willis.
Photos by Tony Gieske.
In addition to tonight’s performance, the Bill Holman Big Band will also appear at the All Star Spring Jazz Fest at Vitello’s on Sunday March 13.