A truism in the popular arts says that some of our most remarkable talents are hidden in plain sight. Ralph Burns is an abiding example. How many people who saw Chicago, Fosse, or (two years earlier) St. Louis Woman knew they were listening to the orchestrations of one of jazz’s greatest arrangers and composers? To be sure, the jazz umbrella could never adequately cover the music of a man whose most celebrated employers over the past 60 years have included Woody Herman, Bob Fosse, Tony Bennett, and Ray Charles. No two of those icons work in the same idiom, but each owes part of his stature to Burns’s contributions.
A thread running though Burns’s career is his ability to give new careers a boost and to put established careers on new tracks. Burns’s writing for Fosse’s shows played an integral role in creating the musical identity of the director and choreographer. His much admired composition, Summer Sequence, helped to encourage Herman to transform the style of his popular band from swing to bop, while launching the career of the virtually unknown Stan Getz. Tony Bennett credits Burns for helping him to become a “mensch,” by which he means something more than a routine pop singer. Burns’s arrangements for Ray Charles established the uncategorizable singer-pianist as one of the great balladeers and provided him with his first number-one pop hit, “Georgia on My Mind.” In his own right, Burns has brought classical form to big-band jazz and reinfused Broadway with jazz’s energy and rhythm.
Born in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1922, Burns began playing piano in the 1920s, and studied orchestration at the dawn of the swing era. He attended the New England Conservatory for a short time, but learned more about his chosen field through analyzing the recordings of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and later Count Basie, transcribing them note by note to see how the parts fit. He played piano and arranged for the brother-and-sister team of tenor saxophonist Nick Jeret and singer Frances Wayne (later a prominent vocalist with Woody Herman), who led a combo patterned after the chamber jazz of John Kirby’s band. Kelly’s Stables in New York hired them to fill in for Coleman Hawkins and Art Tatum. The exposure on 52nd Street brought Burns a job with Red Norvo’s Overseas Spotlight Band, and his command of the Ellington style led to offers from Charlie Barnet and Herman.
Along with Neal Hefti, Burns was the arranger responsible for the sound of Herman’s three most fabled bands: the Ellington-inspired unit that evolved out of Herman’s original “Band That Plays the Blues”; the ecstatic, over-the-top First Herd of the late war years; and the Second Herd, which incorporated bop and spurred cool jazz with its Four Brothers saxophone section. Burns is given credit for some of the best-known staples in big-band jazz, such as “Apple Honey” and “Your Father’s Moustache,” but he is reluctant to accept it. The Herman book, he points out, was a cooperative effort—the leader, soloists, sidemen, and more than one arranger may have had a hand in any single chart. Burns’s most famous composition, “Early Autumn,” developed from an assignment to write a fourth movement for his three-part Summer Sequence to feature the band’s new tenor saxophonist, Stan Getz, and allow the band’s record label to issue the extended work on two discs. The tune became a favorite of singers after Johnny Mercer gave it a lyric.
One day his roommate, the ill-fated trumpeter Sonny Berman, took him to a rehearsal room above a bar near the Apollo Theater, where Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were “working on their stuff.” Burns recalls, “It was a whole new kind of music that was based entirely on chords. Before that, jazz musicians didn’t generally know too much about harmony, but Charlie was always asking, ‘Man, what’s the changes on that?’ ” Eventually, he got to know Parker “as well as anybody could know him. He was everybody’s ideal, we kind of spoiled him, I guess. I used to carry his horn around for him, but he was God to us.” Burns eventually wrote some charts for Parker’s string sessions (though he does not remember the titles), as well as for Parker’s later tour with the Herman Herd.
Burns stopped playing piano with Herman because he could not keep up with the travelling and still write as much as the leader wanted: “There was only so much benzedrine I could take!” After touring Europe with the band, he stayed in Italy for a few months and played in a jazz club. He remained friendly with Herman, but wrote less and less for successive Herds. “After a while it became an all-junkie band, and they wouldn’t play your charts unless you shot up with them. I even did that once or twice, but I knew I had to get away from that scene.” Working as a freelance arranger-conductor, Burns teamed with a variety of jazz and pop singers, including Chris Connor, Jeri Southern, and Beverly Kenny, while also masterminding some of Tony Bennett’s finest albums (notably Hometown, My Hometown) and the best record ever made by Johnny Mathis (The Rhythms and Ballads of Broadway). “When I latched onto Ralph,” Bennett says, “it was like discovering my own personal renaissance.”
Burns was flattered when asked to provide a similar service for Ray Charles; he had admired Charles ever since hearing him at the Apollo in the early 1950s. “Ray would travel with an early tape recorder and this funky old electric piano, so he’d sketch out for me what he wanted,” Burns recalls. “He traveled with a great band, but I guess he got tired of them or something because he always asked me to put together a band for our sessions. I was such a big fan of his, it was a real thrill to do those dates.” The Genius of Ray Charles and The Genius Hits the Road, apart from saddling Charles with his nickname, “the Genius,” introduced him to an instrumentation that combined a big band with strings and produced two of the most powerful love songs of his career, “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Georgia on My Mind.”
Burns began writing for the theater with two Nancy Walker vehicles, the Phoenix Theater’s revue, Phoenix 55, and the 1957 Broadway comedy, Copper and Brass. During the brief run of the latter, he met Bob Fosse. They worked together so frequently that Fosse is as much a retrospective of Burns’s best work as it is of the choreographer’s. He also worked twice with Richard Rodgers, on No Strings (he says the composer was a pussycat) and Do I Hear a Waltz? (he got caught in a crossfire between the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim).
In 1969, Burns, who had done the Broadway production of Sweet Charity, orchestrated the movie at the suggestion of Fosse and songwriter Cy Coleman. Sensing that Broadway musicals were now going the way of big bands and ballad singers, Burns settled in Hollywood. He got the opportunity to combine swing and Broadway in his score for Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York. Having written for so many different kinds of artists, Burns is somewhat at a loss when you ask him which area he prefers. But he is quick to point out his “least favorite medium.” “Movies were never as much fun as shows. On Broadway, you get to collaborate with other artists and exchange ideas. In Hollywood, you’re always alone in a house, trying to please some producer on the phone who doesn’t know what the fuck he wants so he tries to get everything to sound like what John Williams was doing 10 years ago.”
At 77, Burns is still based in Hollywood, but he comes back to New York frequently to work on projects he likes, including Tony Bennett’s superb album, Ellington Hot and Cool. His next Broadway show, opening this fall, will be a revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie. He readily acknowledges that jazz is his first love, but remains open to new challenges. “You can’t keep putting out the same shit your whole life. Just let them give me a good number and I’ll really go to town.”