Q & A: Bill Holman — Composer, Arranger, Bandleader

January 31, 2011

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.

DH: 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.

Quotation of the Week: Mark Twain

January 26, 2011



“We often feel sad in the presence of music without words; and often more than that in the presence of music without music.”

– Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)


To read more Quotations of the Week, click HERE.

Picks of the Week: Jan. 25 – 31

January 25, 2011

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

– Jan. 25. (Tues.) John Pisano Guitar Night features the always compelling playing of Anthony Wilson in the downstairs lounge.  Upstairs, the jazz voices take over, with the Peter Eldridge Group and Dollison & Marsh’s Vertical Voices.  Grammy nominated pianist Geoff Keezer provides his usual scintillating accompaniment.  Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

– Jan. 25. (Tues.)  Itzhak Perlman in Recital. The masterful veteran violinist is accompanied by pianist Rohan de Silva in a program of music by Leclair, Saint-Saens and Beethoven.  Disney Hall. (323) 850-2000.


– Jan. 25 – Feb. 6.  (Tues. – Sat.(6)).  “Hair” The definitive musical theatre work of the counter-culture sixties, filled with memorable songs, from “Aquarius” and “Easy to Be Hard” to “Frank Mills” and “Good Morning Starshine.”  Segerstrom Concert Hall.  OCPAC.   (714) 556-2787.

– Jan. 27. (Thurs.)  Jorge Drexler.  Oscar-winning (for “Al Otro Lado del Rio” in The Motorcycle Diaries) Uruguayan singer/songwriter Drexler makes his first L.A. appearance since his sold out concert at Disney Hall three years ago.  Skirball.   (310) 440-4500.

– Jan. 27. (Thurs.)  The Frank Marocco Quartet.  Accordionist Marocco affirms, in every performance, the tonal warmth, harmonic richness and articulate swing that he can generate from his too often maligned instrument.Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.

– Jan. 27. (Thurs.) Luther Hughes & the Cannonball Coltrane Project. Bassist Hughes and his companions revive the music from one of great jazz classic albums.  LAX Jazz Club at the Crown Plaza LAX.  (310) 258-1333.

Julie Kelly

– Jan. 28. (Fri.)  Julie Kelly with the John Heard Trio. Kelly singing is one of the Southland’s vocal jazz blessings, whether she’s tip-toeing through bossa nova or applying her rich sound to an intimate ballad. Charlie O’s. (818) 994-3058.

– Jan. 28. (Fri.) Ernie Watts. Everyone’s a-list, number one saxophonist, Watts delivers on all counts – tone, imagination, drive and the utter uniqueness that all great jazz players possess.  Steamers (714) 871-8800.

– Jan. 28. (Fri.)  Ron Stout. Bearded Ron Stout, whose easy transitions from jazz soloing to adept section playing have made him one of the Southland’s most in-demand trumpeters, shows up for an infrequent appearance in the spotlight.  He’ll be backed by the sterling trio of pianist Tom Ranier, bassist Pat Senatore and drummer Kevin Kanner.     Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.

– Jan. 28 – 30.  (Fri. – Sun.)  “A Chorus Line.” Winner of nine Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize, A Chorus Line, with its memorable music and stellar dancing, is one of the great musical theatre pieces.  If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t miss this rare opportunity.    Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts (562) 916-8501.

– Jan. 28 – 30. (Fri. – Sun.)  Robben Ford/Roger Kellaway Band.  Guitarist Ford and pianist Kellaway, each a unique and very different jazz stylist, get together for what should be a fascinating musical encounter.  Vocalist Anne Kerry Ford adds her richly personal way with a song.  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

– Jan. 29. (Sat.) Karsh Kale & MIDIval Punditz.  Indian music goes strikingly contemporary with the electronic fusion of tabla artist Kale.  He’ll be joined by his frequent collaborators MIDIval Punditz, guitarist Chris Buono, ghazal master Vishal Vaid and electric violinist Dorian CheahRoyce Hall.  (310) 825-4401.

– Jan. 29. (Sat.)  Alan Paul. Manhattan Transfer’s Paul takes a break from his ensemble responsibilities for a solo turn.  He follows his partners Janis Siegel and Cheryl Bentyne onto the stage at Vitello’s (818) 769-0905.

Ed Shaughnessy

– Jan. 30. (Sun.)  Ed Shaughnessy Quintet. Veteran drummer has demonstrated his versatility with everything from avant-garde jazz to a long stint in the Tonight Show band.  This time out he applies his two bass drum percussion magic to his own quintet. The inimitable Bubba Jackson Hosts.  KJAZZ Sunday Champagne Brunch.  The Twist Restaurant in the Renaissance Hollywood \Hotel.  (562) 985-2999.

– Jan. 30. (Sun.)  Los Angeles Master Chorale: London Bridges.  L.A.’s always adventurous voices reach into the deep, centuries old English choral music tradition.  They’ll sing works by William Byrd, John Tavener, Benjamin Britten and more.  Disney Hall (323) 850-2000.

– Jan. 30. (Sun.)  Mozart Classical Orchestra.  A Happy Birthday tribute to the MCO’s namesake.  Ami Porat conducts the Mozart Symphony No. 36 (“Linz”), Il Re Pastore Overture and the Violin Concerto No. 4. (with violinist Roberto Cani).    Irvine Barclay.

– Jan. 30. (Sun.)  Sing! Sing! Sing! “Let’s Face the Music of Irving Berlin.  Judy Wolman leads an all-join-in celebration of the extraordinarily rich Berlin musical catalog.  Sing! Sing! Sing!.  Keyboard Concepts.

Bill Holman

– Jan. 31. (Mon.)  The Bill Holman Big Band. Holman’s arranging and composing have stamped him as one of the true poets of big band jazz.  His too rare appearances leading his own group are as fascinating to the musicians who play his charts as they are to the audiences fortunate enough to hear them.  Don’t miss this one. Vitello’s. (818) 769-0905.

San Francisco

– Jan. 27 & 28. (Thurs. & Fri.)  Bobby Hutcherson celebrates his 70th anniversary with his quartet and the unique sounds of special guest Anthony Wilson on guitar.  Yoshi’s Oakland (510) 238-9200.

– Jan. 29. (Sat.) Lizz Wright. The singing of Wright is deeply rooted in gospel, and she moves freely across blues and rock, as well, adding spice and substance drawn from her affection for, and skill with jazz.  Yoshi’s Oakland.

(510) 238-9200.

New York

Randy Weston

– Jan. 25 – 30 (Tues. – Sun.)  Jacky Terrasson Trio.  French pianist Terrasson applies his crisply swinging style in a trio setting with bassist Ben Williams and drummer Jamire WilliamsVillage Vanguard.  (212) 255-4037.

– Jan. 25 – 30. (Tues. – Sun.) Randy Weston and African Rhythms.  At eighty four, pianist/composer Weston continues to explore (and discover) the rich connections between jazz and it African roots.  He’s accompanied by bassist Alex Blake, percussionist Neil Clarke, drummer Lewis Nash, (Tues. – Fri.) and saxophonist Billy Harper (Sat. & Sun).   Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola.  (212) 258-9800.

– Jan. 25 – 29. (Tues. – Sat.) “Hub Art: The Music of Freddie Hubbard.” The late, great trumpeters music is performed in authentic fashion by Nicholas Payton, trumpet, Javon Jackson, tenor saxophone, George Cables, piano, Dwayne Burno, bass and Lenny White, drums.  Birdland.   (212) 581-3080.

– Jan. 27 – 30. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Tony Williams Lifetime TributeJack Bruce, bass and vocals, Vernon Reid, guitar, John Medeski, keyboards/organ and Cindy Blackman, drums get together once again to revive the extraordinary fusion sounds of the Lifetime.  The Blue Note.  (212) 475-8592.

– Jan. 28. (Fri.)  “Girls Gone Mild” With Rebecca Martin, Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens.  Three gifted jazz canaries introduce their new trio.  Backed by Chris Tordini and Larry Grenadier on basses, with Martin and Stevens playing guitar, ukulele, etc. and Parlato doubling on percussion, they’re explore everything from standards and originals to brand new material. Cornelia St. Café (212) 989-9319.

Randy Weston photo by Tony Gieske.

Live Jazz: The Patrick Williams Big Band at Vitello’s

January 24, 2011

By Tony Gieske

“Aurora” was not named after Aurore Dupin, Baronne Dudevant, better known as George Sand, as one would no doubt expect. No, it was in fact a richly imagined jump tune by Patrick Williams, of whom we all know who that is.

Patrick Williams

Since his flawless, boisterous and wonderfully precise band, which even had a French horn section, was performing at Vitello’s this past Friday, the listener would be unlikely to  confuse its output with the kind of cues Williams tosses off in hundreds of scores for screens big and little, gathering awards both nominated for and won.

Bob Sheppard

A television score would never let loose such flawless, boisterous and wonderful soloists as alto man Tom Scott, tenor and soprano sax man Bob Sheppard or trumpet players Warren Luening and Chuck Findley, or trombonists Andy Martin and Bob McChesney. To a man, their work was richly conceived and packed with invention.

Chuck Findley

And although Williams’ writing is well aware of most everything that can be or ought to be done with a full size jazz band, he lets you know that without imposing all of his knowledge on you at once. He nevertheless disperses a full ration of arresting colors and innovative shapes.

Peter Erskine

Even if there were to be a clumsiness here and there (as there never was), the quick-witted drumming of Peter Erskine would not allow it to reach the ear. You couldn’t ask for a more musical — or a more propulsive — drummer. The way he backed Sheppard, I thought, fit like a well-tailored dinner jacket.

He was a tireless engine behind the full band, yet Erskine easily damped down the volume and united with unerring bassist Jim Hughert for a couple of charts that had a sauntering Count Basie flavor.

The slow and romantic “Song for a Pretty Girl” brought out a tenor saxophonist who knew — like Luening and McChesney — how to play a melody. No matter how many arpeggios he threw in, every note was full and had a beginning, a middle and an end. And while I was looking to see if that was Ben Webster on his shoulder, I missed his name.

[Editor’s note: The tenor saxophonist was Jeff Driskill.]


Photos by Tony Gieske.  To read and see more of Tony’s essays and photos at his personal web site click HERE

Live Jazz: Brad Mehldau and Friends at Walt Disney Concert Hall

January 23, 2011

By Michael Katz

Pianist Brad Mehldau brought an estimable quintet to Disney Hall Friday night to perform compositions from his Night Rider album, backed by a chamber orchestra conducted by Scott Yoo. The combination of jazz and orchestra always presents challenges to both musicians and audience, as traditional soloing and interplay within a small group becomes subject to a broader and more lush combination of strings and horns. Mehldau’s compositions and arrangements were noteworthy as much for the juxtapositions of his multi-talented quintet as for the compositions themselves.

Brad Mehldau

The material in Night Rider is evocative of the mysteries of a journey. Its themes are elegiac, the presentation influenced most directly by the use of dual percussionists Jeff Ballard and Matt Chamberlain, augmented by the steady backing of bassist Larry Grenadier. In the brief opening number, “John Boy,” Ballard and Chamberlain were out front, the former on a tiny bongo, the latter on an enlarged wooden snare drum, establishing a bright, tabla-like rhythm evoking the hopefulness of the journey’s outset.

Joshua Redman

Featured soloist Joshua Redman had an extended run on the following number, “Don’t Be Sad,” which exemplified both the advantages and pitfalls of orchestral backing. The chamber orchestra’s lush accompaniment spread  beautifully through Disney Hall, but Redman’s expressive tenor work struggled to be heard, a problem the group seemed to tinker with to increasing success as the concert went on. His soprano work on “The Falcon Will Fly Again” was clear and crisp. The higher tonality seemed to stand up more effectively to the orchestral background, and worked in counterpoint to Ballard and Chamberlain, who were back on the smaller drums after alternating on the larger drum sets.

Mehldau’s own playing on these compositions was an expressive stream of consciousness. The themes of mystery and self-discovery leaned toward the hypnotic; they were reminiscent at times of the orchestrations of Maria Schneider, though more focused on the quintet up front.   “We’ll Cross The River Together” opened up the second set with a full orchestral treatment, but pulled back this time to give Redman more space on his tenor solo, which floated beautifully through Disney Hall. The climax of it was the sweetest sound from a tenor this side of Charles Lloyd, and made you want to hear more of Redman at this venue in a pure jazz setting.

Chamberlain and Ballard returned again to the smaller, brighter percussion instruments for “Capriccio,” with Ballard on tambourine, for a brief, Spanish-influenced turn. The highlight of the evening for Mehldau fans was the pure trio performance of “Into The City,” which gave bassist Grenadier a chance to stretch out as well.  Mehldau’s playing continued in the manner of the project as a whole, evocative of mood though not establishing many clearly lyrical progressions.

“Old West” featured an extended dual interplay between Redman on soprano sax and Mehldau on piano, and Mehldau stretched out for more elaborate harmonies on the closing “Always Departing/Always Returning.”  The capacity crowd at Disney Hall rewarded Mehldau and company with a prolonged ovation, in appreciation for virtuosity spread through permutations of jazz quintet and chamber orchestra.


Photos by Tony Gieske.

Quotation of the Week: Lady Gaga

January 22, 2011



“Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams.  If you’re wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn’t love you anymore.”

– Lady Gaga


To read more Quotations of the Week, click HERE.

Live Jazz: John Pisano’s Guitar Night at Vitello’s with Larry Koonse and Tom Warrington

January 19, 2011

By Don Heckman

Last week, John Pisano’s Guitar Night celebrated its 14th anniversary of bringing weekly guitar jams to the Southland’s jazz audience.  And last night, Guitar Night kicked off its 15th year with the kind of evening that has made this long run series into such a vital jazz destination.

In addition to the sheer musicality that always takes place, Guitar Nights are always memorable for the relaxed intimacy of the setting, as well as for the spontaneous way in which the music unfolds.  All of which was present in the musical dialogue between Pisano, Larry Koonse and Tom Warrington.

John Pisano

The three players took a casual position on stage, standing throughout rather than sitting on stools, interfacing with each other in a way that underscored the conversational qualities of the music.  Some numbers seemed to have been chosen in advance.  Others were clearly on the spot decisions.

Larry Koonse

The opening choice, “I Remember You,” set a communal pattern that would continue throughout the evening’s wide array of song selections.  In addition to individual soloing from all three players, many of the tunes featured intriguing, improvised counterpoint between Pisano and Koonse.  Memorable, in some respects, of the interaction that often took place between Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, it was a fascinating display of the sort of creative musical interaction that takes place too rarely in today’s technique-oriented jazz soloing.

Tunes such as “Estate,” “My Foolish Heart” and “You Must Believe In Spring” provided opportunities for Koonse to reveal the lyrical phrasing and flowing harmonies that are among his finest qualities.  Listening to his range of skills – from balladry to the groove playing of “How Deep Is The Ocean” and “All Blues” – it was easy to understand why he has become such a much-preferred, first-call guitarist.

Tom Warrington

Pisano, in his familiar fashion, played a Boswellian role with his guest, opening the way for Koonse’s expressiveness.  But he did so with the subtlety of a master, adding his own understated, but compelling solos while aiding bassist Warrington in driving the rhythm forward.  Warrington was equally supportive, while soloing with the articulate authority and imagination that are his stocks in trade.

It was, as I said earlier, a characteristically engaging Guitar Night.  A perfect ramping up for what this listener hopes will be many more years of this appealing jazz franchise.  Next week, Pisano’s Guitar Night guest will be Anthony Wilson.

Photos by Bob Barry.


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