“Blues for Francine” (1987) Ralph Burns

“Blues for Francine”

Composed and arranged by Ralph Burns.

Recorded by Ralph Burns at Group IV Recording, Hollywood, California in February of 1987.

Ralph Burns, piano, conducting: Rick Baptist, first trumpet; Oscar Brashear, Gary Grant, Chuck Finley, trumpets; Alan Kaplan, Morris Repass, Charlie Loper, Lew McCreary, trombones; Lanny Morgan, Ronny Lang, alto saxophones; Pete Christlieb, Bob Cooper, tenor saxophones; Jack Nimitz, baritone saxophone; Dennis Budimir, guitar; Chuck Berghofer, bass; Larry Bunker, drums; Gene Estes, vibraphone. Alto saxophone solo: Joel Peskin.

The story: Composer/arranger/pianist Ralph Burns (1922-2001) was one of the most talented musicians to emerge from the swing era. In his post-swing era career, he successfully made the transition from writing for big bands and moved easily into the world of Broadway stage and Hollywood film music. In addition to being a highly skilled arranger, he also had the gift of melody. One of his first compositions was the ethereal “Early Autumn,” written for Woody Herman’s band and the tenor saxophone soloist Stan Getz, which is posted elsewhere on this blog. He also composed and arranged “Bijou” as a showcase for Herman’s mid-1940s trombone soloist Bill Harris. (At left: Ralph Burns in the 1940s.)

I am citing here parts of the biographical essay Gene Lees wrote about Ralph Burns. The entire essay originally appeared in Lees’s Jazzletter in the 1990s. “Ralph Burns was born in Newton, Massachusetts, on June 29, 1922. The family name was originally Byrnes, but such was the prejudice against the Irish in America then that his grandfather changed it to the Scottish spelling. The family was in real estate. ‘I was the black sheep,’ he said. He began playing club dates with older musicians, at which time he discovered marijuana. ‘That was the time when only musicians smoked grass,’ Ralph said. ‘But nobody else in the high school did. The high schools were clean.’

Ralph attended Newton High School, another of whose students was the young man who later became a notable jazz baritone saxophonist, Serge Chaloff. ‘I was about a year ahead of him. I knew him, but I never used to pay any attention to him then, because he was kind of like a nutty kid.’ (A bit later, Burns would encounter Chaloff again, in Woody Herman’s band.) Excepting Stan Getz, Chaloff was the most notorious bad boy in the history of the Herman band.”

“Ralph attended the New England Conservatory for the year 1938-39 but, perhaps more significantly, he studied piano with Margaret Chaloff, Serge’s mother. One of those ‘classical’ musicians who have had a significant but unsung influence on jazz, she trained a lot of excellent pianists (who eventually played jazz), including — after Ralph’s time — Michael Renzi, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Steve Kuhn, Richard Twardzik, and Dave Mackay. A characteristic of her former students tends to be a warm, golden tone. Kuhn says that a lot of established major jazz pianists would consult her when they passed through Boston. Mike Renzi once showed me one of the secrets of what I think of as the Chaloff tone: a way of drawing the finger toward you as you touch the key. ‘That’s one of her things,’ Dave Mackay said. ‘And if you use a very light arm, you can execute with very clean articulation and rapidity.’ ‘She was wonderful,’ Ralph said. ‘I loved her. She was a great teacher and a wonderful woman, a lot of fun.’ 

Madame Chaloff, as she was often called, was one of the formative influences on Burns. Ralph left the New England Conservatory to play in a band led by a young man named Nick Jerret, whose real last name was Bertocci. He had a sister, Chiarina Francesca Bertocci, who had changed it to Frances Wayne.

In April, 1993, Ralph — by now a handsome man with a full head of white hair, a white mustache, and dark-rimmed glasses — recalled those early days, saying: ‘We had a job in the Mayfair in Boston, which was the big nightclub then. We had six pieces, and Frances was the singer. I moved in with her family. They lived in Somerville. I loved that family. They were like my own family. I was very close to all of her brothers, Vinnie and Cosmo and little Louis and her mother and father. I had a wonderful time living there. Vinnie used to manage us. We went down to New York and auditioned at Kelly’s Stables one weekend, and got the job. I was eighteen, I believe. A week or so later we all took the bus down and started work. We were there off and on at least a year. We were the relief band, a little jazz band patterned after the John Kirby band style, a bit more modern, I think. I started writing for that band. (At right: Ralph Burns in the 1990s.)

What a thing to be thrown in with! The headliners at the club were great: Art Tatum and his trio, Coleman Hawkins and his group and Thelma Carpenter. Wow! I just used to wait to get through work so I could sit and listen. They flew Nat Cole and his trio in from California, the King Cole Trio. Their first hit record had just come out, Straighten Up and Fly Right. I’ll never forget. Nat never let me forget. He was a wonderful guy. There were two separate unions in New York (black and white). They made thirty-two dollars a week, the black union scale. We were white, so we made thirty-five dollars a week. After he was a big star, Nat would see me and yell across the street, ‘Hey, Ralph, I remember when!'”

“When Burns wasn’t working at Kelly’s stables, he’d pick up other jobs along Fifty-second Street. One was with vibraphonist Red Norvo. Ralph said, ‘Frances Wayne went with Charlie Barnet. Charlie needed a piano player and she got me the job. That’s when I started writing for big bands. After that I went with Red Norvo. This was during World War II. Red got together a group. We were going to go overseas and play for the troops. We never went. Frances then went with Woody Herman. In those days the big bands used to trade off musicians. Chubby Jackson was with Charlie Barnet. Woody offered Chubby a job. Dave Matthews, who wrote Duke Ellington style arrangements for Charlie Barnet, wrote some for Woody. Woody wanted to change the sound of his band. So Frances and Chubby said, ‘Why don’t you get Ralph? He writes and he plays piano.’ On their recommendation, Woody called me up, and I was hired.'”  (Above left: Ralph Burns and Woody Herman – 1940s.)

“Ralph, a slim and sensitive-looking young man when he first wrote for Woody, became an essential element in the evolution of what came to be known, accurately or not, as the First Herd, for a series of brilliant arrangements of popular songs and original compositions, most of which were to remain in the Herman band’s book permanently.” (Above right: Ralph Burns and Woody Herman – 1940s.)

“Woody said, ‘I was constantly seeking other colors, you know, as to what it could be to get a good swinging thing going. And that’s why in those years I guess we were starting to use the sound of vibes, clarinet, guitar and piano (played together). And Ralph had the great ability of writing for these odd instrumentations — odd at the time — and making it happen …. Ralph was heavily influenced by Sweetpea — the nickname for Billy Strayhorn — and Duke, so we were all shooting for the same thing. We didn’t want to be like Duke, but we sure wanted to be good like him. Charlie Barnet did an actual copy of Duke’s music, and that to me would have been very distasteful and dishonoring a great man and a great group of musicians.(1) But what we did was try to capture the feeling, warmth, and enthusiasm, and if we could outswing Duke, then we’d figure we’d won the game.'”

“Woody was fond of saying ‘I’m just an editor,’ as if this were not an excellent ability in itself. ‘I concern myself with being a fair editor,’ he’d say. ‘I may take letter B and put it where letter A is and put letter C somewhere else. And I may change solos, because it will suit that particular chart better.The reason I got that, in the 1940s, was Ralph, who I thought was one of the greatest talents of all, ever. And the first chart he brought in to me, in 1944, was I’ve Got the World on a String. Ralph said, ‘Here’s this thing I made for you to sing.’ It was a tune that I liked and had sung previously. Ralph said, ‘If there’s anything you don’t like or anything you feel could be changed, go right ahead. I’ve done the best I can, but if you can make it better, great.’ I didn’t touch that one, nor did I very often with Ralph. But it gave me the courage so that if I could make something better — mostly by pacing — I would do it. Ralph had given me this freedom to do that, and if he did that, then I believed I could do it as well as anyone else. It was Ralph who encouraged me, and he was much younger than I.'” 

“Ralph had never heard that comment of Woody’s when I (Gene Lees) quoted it to him. He laughed and said: ‘Because I didn’t complain!’ Then he added, ‘Woody’s big thing was simplicity. As a writer, you’d get carried away. I used to make things complicated and Woody would say, ‘Let’s simplify it.’ And it came out better. I didn’t get peeved.'”

“Burns’s professional association with Woody came gradually to an end, but not the close personal friendship, and indeed, from time to time, whenever Woody needed him, Ralph would write for the Herman band. But for the most part he worked as a freelance, writing a good deal of orchestration for Broadway shows, to which he brought a jazz sensibility that has not, shall we say, been common in American musical theater. Ralph orchestrated the musical version of Golden Boy, starring Sammy Davis Jr., and Pippin, directed by Bob Fosse. He arranged music for many films, including Woody Allen’s Bananas in 1971, Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity in 1969, Cabaret in 1972, and Lenny in 1974 (Ralph worked a lot for Fosse and thought the world of him), and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, for which Ralph wrote an original score. In 1973, Burns won a Tony award for Pippin, an Emmy for the TV special Liza with a Z, and an Academy Award for Cabaret, the only person ever to get all three in one year.” (2)

(1) For whatever reason, Woody Herman and Charlie Barnet used to trade non-illuminating barbs about each other’s music. In my opinion, Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman both did exactly the same thing regarding Duke Ellington’s music: use it as a basis for their own musical expression.

(2) Excerpted from Gene Lees’s essay on Ralph Burns that originally appeared in his Jazzletter. I have added parenthetical comments and lightly revised this excerpt to add additional information and clarity.

The music: This lovely composition/arrangement is a perfect example of what Ralph Burns learned from Woody Herman. Although Burns had unlimited arranging chops, in this instance, he chose to “keep it simple.” Burns’s own Basie-like piano starts the performance, and peeks through the musical cracks all the way through. The sensuous melody is stated by the cup-muted trombone quartet. They are followed in perfect sonoric contrast by the soaring alto saxophone improvisation of Joel Peskin. Then the open trumpets and trombones provide the ensemble climax to the piece. Burns follows with some more tantalizing piano, to back Peskin’s further alto musings, and a return of the muted trombones. 

This original composition, along with a number of snippets from swing era anthems like “In the Mood,” “Dream,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and “Don’t be That Way,” appeared on the sound track of the 1987 film In the Mood. I watched the film once, and was largely unimpressed by everything about it, except the music, which was wonderful. Fortunately for fans of good music, Ralph Burns himself produced an LP in 1987 which included most of the music on the film’s soundtrack. Without that LP, this delightfully evocative music would essentially be lost.

The recording presented here was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Here are a couple of links to some of the music Ralph Burns created for the Woody Herman band:



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  1. Ellington, especially Strayhorn, were my favorites followed closely by Gil Evans and Ralph Burns. I read about each and the penetrating melody between Ralph and Billy, was Strayhorn had the freedom with Duke’s protection while Ralph had to hide his gay life. But each had that romantic, lushness. I have been with the NY Ellington society for 50 years.

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