Jazz great Ralph Burns
(1922-2001) was one of the most important arranger-composers you’ve never heard of. In the early days of his career he worked as a pianist, composer and arranger for swing bands. Fresh out of studying classical piano at the New England Conservatory of Music, he found himself working with ensembles that included jazz royalty such as Nat King Cole, Stan Getz and Art Tatum. In 1944 he joined the Woody Herman band, writing and arranging some of their greatest hits for a span of fifteen years.
During his years as a touring pianist with jazz bands, he kept a closely guarded secret. He was a gay man in a field dominated by libidinous straight guys. Burns did not have a Duke Ellington to protect him (as did Billy Strayhorn), so he lived in utter fear of being found out. In his 1971 memoir “The Night People”, jazz trombonist Dicky Wells recalled the main topic of conversation on the Count Basie band tour bus: “Chicks. What else?” Burns knew that those who did not join in the banter faced big trouble, so he walked on egg shells his whole career. Burns recalled, “Everybody would joke, ‘Oh, that fag!’, and if they wanted to be funny, they’d lisp. My one fear was that at one time or another they’d turn on me, but luckily they never did.”
During the 1940s in New York City, all that was available to Burns socially as a gay man was the opportunity to fraternize at friends-of-friends private parties behind closed doors. Many of those events were hosted by fellow gay musician Billy Strayhorn, with whom Burns loved to play piano duets for the assembled guests. The talent of both Strayhorn and Burns was so great that, out of respect for their careers, their straight colleagues never mentioned their sexual orientation, even though nearly everyone knew their secret.Early Autumn
(1949, composed & arranged by Ralph Burns)
Woody Herman band, featuring tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. Johnny Mercer added lyrics after the song had already become a hit.
To listen to Stan Getz playing "Early Autumn," click on over to my other blog:
Burns saw the writing on the wall for jazz bands and began to record under his own name in the 1950s, working with Billy Strayhorn (see entry in sidebar) and saxophonist Ben Webster. Ralph made a successful transition from big bands to bebop style. He went on to write material for singers such as Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Peggy Lee, Natalie Cole and Aretha Franklin. He wrote arrangements for two mega-hits by Ray Charles: Georgia on My Mind
and Come Rain or Come Shine
– it was Burns’s idea to incorporate a string orchestra on those two songs.
By the 1960s Burns ventured into arranging and orchestrating Broadway musicals and movie soundtracks. Among his many successes were Funny Girl
, Sweet Charity, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Urban Cowboy, Cabaret
(won 1972 Academy Award as music supervisor), New York New York, All That Jazz
(won 1979 Academy Award), and Annie
(1982 Academy Award nomination). Among notable television works was Baryshnikov on Broadway
(won 1980 Emmy Award), followed by work with major cabaret performers during the 1990s, chief among them Mel Tormé, John Pizzarelli and Michael Feinstein.
In 2001 Burns died from complications from a stroke and subsequent pneumonia in Los Angeles at age 79. During the later decades of his life, Burns had lived as an openly gay man, and he was able to get commissions right up until his death. At the time he succumbed to his fatal illness, manuscripts for a planned musical lay upon his desk. A Massachusetts native, he was inducted into the New England Jazz Hall of Fame
in 2004. Do not despair if you've never heard of this influential musician, since his entire career was carried out in behind-the-scenes work, providing the best possible support for the great stars. He liked it that way.
Regarding his legacy, Burns’s masterpiece was Summer Sequence
, a 20-minute suite introduced to the world by Woody Herman at Carnegie Hall on March 25, 1946. “That was something I wish I could remember more,” said Burns years later. “It was a thrilling night. The band was at its absolute peak. We thought nothing of it at the time, like a baseball team that went on to the World Series.”