Bob Florence

John Robert Brown

Hotel breakfast in California, early on a wet Sunday in January, with Bob Florence and his wife Evelyn. Yesterday was the conclusion of the 32nd Conference of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE), at which Bob's band had given an outstanding performance.

We speak of our cats, of Evelyn's ability at French - she is bilingual - of her former career as an ice-skater, of Bush and Blair (of course), and why Bob wears two wristwatches.

Bob has good memories of recent visits to Britain. He has worked with the BBC Big Band, both in London and Birmingham. He reels off the names: Vic Ash, Jay Craig, Mark Nightingale, Gerard Presencer, Martin Williams, Jiggs Whigham and others. He has particular praise for trumpeter John Ruddick, and his Midlands Youth Jazz Orchestra. But Bob Florence's visits to Britain, and his fondness for the place, began a long while ago.

'In 1969 I did six half-hour TV specials in London, with Vikki Carr. Because of the Musicians' Union I couldn't do anything except write. I wasn't allowed to play or do anything, but she bought me over. I wrote a couple of things while I was there, for her.Don Lusher was in the trombone section, Tubby Hayes was in the woodwind, but no longer tubby. He played just beautifully. I loved him, personally. Kenny Clare played drums. Laurie Holloway on piano, trumpeters Tony Fisher, Stan Roderick, Eddie Blair, and a lot of the Ted Heath guys.'

'The memory that is triggered is at home, every once in a while now, when the toast gets burnt, I can remember walking down streets in London in the morning. (Sniffs). 'Oh, the toast is burning.' It was very common. I don't know whether it still is. Do you like burnt toast in England?' Perhaps the 1960s toasters were not as good as they are today, I say.

'Or when the bottom tray has crumbs in, hasn't been cleaned out,' he suggests. 'The big impression I got of London was, first of all, I didn't want to come home. California had been very quiet, I wasn't doing much. Then I got thrown over there. I was just on the go constantly, sort of like here in Long Beach this week. In London I could walk everywhere. I stayed at a flat on Clark and Audley, right near Berkeley Square. I could walk to everything, I took huge walks.'

Having attended a Bob Florence arranging workshop in the past, I knew that walking is an important part of how he begins a new composition. I asked him about that.

'I'll walk in the tempo I've written. If it's like (taps on the table and pops fingers in double-time) - that's a brisk pace. I'll do about three miles, which will take almost an hour. The walking is when the piece is done. It's the only way I can work. I have to sing it all the way through to know how it fits together. The two things I like to do are that and, without getting technical, be sure that the seams aren't showing. Or - if you are a baker - that there aren't any lumps in the batter.

'Then I use Finale computer software. I don't work at the piano. I'll think about it for a while. Then I usually go right to the computer and get started. Wonderful, the software. I had terrible penmanship when I was writing by hand. Oh, it's awful. I haven't written by hand for ten years. I don't even have any score paper. A lot of people use Finale or Sibelius, but they'll get started by hand. I don't know...I'm anxious to get at it.'

He begins work at the start of the day, in the shower. Today he's thinking about a piece for Eddie Daniels, who's also been at Long Beach. He requested that Bob write a piece.

'I got an idea of what I want to do today, what kind of a piece I want to write,' says Bob. I got a melodic fragment. I have no title yet. That'll come along. I have about eight bars. If I have eight bars then I know where the rest of it is going for a while. But the shower in the morning - perfect! The shower never lets me down; I get clean, too! Then, taking a walk.

The perennial challenge for composers of any serious music is that of 'going on'. That is, moving beyond the exposition. Usually, in jazz, that is getting beyond bar 33. Bob Florence's compositions have the merit of 'going on' brilliantly. I wonder, has he any wisdom to offer on this?

'It occurs to me NOT to do AABA or ABAB, or whatever the form is, then keep repeating the form. Because then the music seems like it's put in a box here, and right next to it is another box. If I do that, I try to disguise it, so that the second box has an open end, and the first box has an open end. They are not closed, to keep the music from being boxed in. I can take parts of what is in the first box and put some of the in the second box.'

Breakfast arrives: poached egg on half an English muffin, with a bowl of strawberries. To my disappointment the muffin is, of course, perfectly toasted, not burned. The bowl of strawberries is colossal. As we tuck in, I ask about Bob's own musical development, his early years.

'My mother started me on piano right before I was four. Somehow, they discovered I had perfect pitch, so I went to the lady down the street who taught piano. I was going to be a concert pianist. I gave my first concert recital at seven. That's what I was going to be.

'I had always liked jazz and big band records of the day; I listened to them all the time. I'll be 73 in May. During the late 1940s, when I was a teenager, I loved the music. I had a record collection of 78s. My favourites? Anything by Woody Herman's first Herd, the one in the 1940s: Apple Honey, Bijou. Both sides of the 78s.

'It was a grand old time, when Stan Kenton really hit, around 1945. That was the first big band I'd ever heard. My father took me to a stage show in downtown Los Angeles. You'd go in to watch the movie, then the show would happen, with the band, and there'd be a comedian. The band would play quite a bit. This went on all day. The movie came on, then the band would do another show. They did about three a day. I heard Stan, and was overwhelmed with the sound. It wasn't his loudest period, but I'd never heard that sound before, the volume level, the power, hearing the drummer stomp on that bass drum and kick the band along.

'I remember being so disappointed - because I didn't have any knowledge of it - that the solos weren't the ones that I heard on the records! I knew those. I could sing the solos backwards, and play them on the piano. I wondered: 'Why is that different?'

'But I wasn't going to do any of that until I went to college. I was still heading towards a classical career. I was about 19 or 20 when I took a course in orchestration and arranging from a great teacher, Bob MacDonald. He had experience in big bands. He was formally trained, knew all the orchestration things. I got caught up in that. I decided that I didn't want to do classical piano any more.'

Did he do any straight composing at college?

'Oh, sure...But I took this class. That was all it took - pushed me over the cliff. I managed to get in a band. Bob MacDonald realised that I had such an interest. I could actually play tunes, because I could play by ear. So I got into a band, and really learned there.

'There was another fellow in the band suggested that we call our friends together to have a rehearsal some night to play some new things that we'd written. I discovered that the best teacher I ever had was the act of writing something, getting to hear it. I stress that with students. Boy, no matter what, you've got to hear it. It's equal to getting paid, for me. Part of the price is that I've got to go hear it.

'Studying formally, I took training with a teacher, Dr. Wesley LaViolette. I didn't stay with him very long because I was busy working; it was hard for me to keep everything going. I didn't finish college, actually (Los Angeles City College), because I got busy. I went to school with a lot of players who have done so well. Right before me there was John Williams, the movie composer, who was known as Curly Williams at the time. He's not curly any more; there's nothing to curl! And Lannie Morgan, the saxophone player. Lannie was still playing the violin at the time.'

LA was a busy place?

'It started to happen. But having that rehearsal band, I got so caught up in writing and learning. That was my biggest teacher. So I would say I'm self-taught, because I got the mechanics. The doing of it was the biggest teacher. My mother was the driving force behind the classical part of my life, concertising. She played the piano in silent movie houses, in Philadelphia. When I left classical music she was so disappointed - until I came home with a recording with my name on it. Then she was a collector. That was rewarding for her.

'I kept writing, and I kept the band going for ever. No matter how I'd get busy, I'd still come back to it, because I'd always want to write something, to keep progressing.

'There was a band forming in the early 1960s, a trombone player that used to be in MGM, Sy Zentner. There was a musician's strike at the time, so all of these great players were on the loose. They wanted to play as much as they could, just to keep their fingers going. Sy started a band. He did a couple of recordings. I knew him. He had played with me a couple of times. He did this recording in 1961, The Big Band Plays the Big Hits - all rock 'n' roll hits of the day. But I didn't have to do them that way. Someone recorded Up a Lazy River. I had to score that, and I didn't have a clue as to what I was going to do with it.

'I remember playing on a record date one night. It was a rock 'n' roll piano date, for a leader named Ernie Freeman. He was going night and day. We finished the session with this one particular piece - I remember the groove it was in - and I took a walk down Hollywood Boulevard to catch a bus to go home. I was still caught up in it. I got up the next morning in the same groove, sat down and wrote an arrangement of Up a Lazy River for him. It became a number one hit.

'That opened the door, and really took me away from the jazz feel. I always kept a jazz feel, but I did so many singers at that time because they all wanted to use something like Up a Lazy River.

'I did about twelve albums for Sy, over the years. Then it slowed down, because Up a Lazy River had died. I kept busy, but not like the whirlwind that was going when they all saw the dollar signs.'

Here in the Los Angeles area we are in movie territory. Had Bob ever done film writing?

'Back in the 1980s, I remember helping Jerry Goldsmith, doing what they call 'source cues', background music in a restaurant. The first one I ever did was a source cue for Mort Lindsey, who became the director of Merv Griffin's show. Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are Mort Lindsey's. He was MD for Judy Garland. Now he's an artist, a painter. That was the first movie experience I had.

'He said, 'Here, we need this. You don't have to time it.' But the first movie I really did anything lengthier with was a Burt Reynolds movie, in 1981, called Sharky's Machine, a cop show. Burt loved jazz. They had one particular recording date that was a jazz band with a big string section. They got everybody who was anybody in this band. The rhythm section was Shelley Manne and Bob Magnusson. Terry Gibbs and Buddy De Franco were there. The saxophones were nice, but it was strange: Marshall Royal and Art Pepper on altos, (Art was a good reader), Eddie Harris and Dave Pell on tenors, and the baritone saxophone was Bill Perkins. I remember Marshall coming to me and saying: 'I hope this works.' It did; a lot of it because of Marshall Royal.

'Dave Pell is still around. I see him once a month. There's a place in Los Angeles called Charlioes. He works there on the third Wednesday of every month, with his octet. Occasionally I go over there and do it. It's a chance to get out of the house, socialise, see everybody. Dave just turned eighty. He doesn't play much anymore. He loves to golf. He's very busy with his record company. He does everything: burns the CDs, puts on the artwork. He's going night and day. Dave's got charm that he'll never run out of. He could sell you London Bridge. He could tell you that the Queen Mary is still in England!'

Why did Bob use six saxophones, with two baritones?

'Oh God! I'm asked about that all the time. I don't really know why I did that. I have an idea, but it's probably buried deep in the subconscious. I have recordings of the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz band. He only had four saxophones, five with him. The recording Live at the Vanguard, which I wore out, was just so much fun. In one piece they got to the shout chorus - the big, joyous, outburst - and they came back to it. In the meantime Gerry had picked up his baritone, to play the lead trumpet part down about two octaves. I loved that sound. That may have been the start.'

We chat for a while about the ubiquity of octave doubling, in the piano styles of Errol Garner and George Shearing, and in band scoring from Les Brown to Basie to Glenn Miller - and Bob Florence.

But enough of the technical stuff; does he really do all the writing AND fix all the musicians?

'I do all the fixing myself. I meet new players when guys send subs. Everybody sends the best sub he can. My teacher said, 'When you send a sub, send somebody better than you are. You won't lose your position, but they'll remember how conscientious you were. They'll remain loyal to you, but you'll also do the other guy a favour. When you can't make it, they'll remember.' '

'Ken Poston puts on maybe two or three weekends each year doing Stan Kenton tributes. The first one was in 1991, called Back to Balboa, dedicated to Stan, the whole three days. I was in on it because I'd written something for the Neophonic Orchestra one time. This was Contemporary Concepts. Being a 21st Century band, and forward-looking, the way Stan was, he called me. I did it, Bill Holman and Kim Rim Richmond did it. But my whole rhythm section was gone! Dick Weller, the drummer, was in Japan. Larry Koonse, the guitar player, was in New Zealand. Trey Henry, the bassist, was working with singer Tierney Sutton back east.

'So I got a fellow by the name of Dave Toll, and a bass player who played with him all the time, Kevin Axt, who is really one of my favourites. I didn't even bother with a guitar.

'Guitars in the rhythm section? I never wanted one, but Larry Koonse brought something to the party - a unique way of soloing, and of playing behind soloists, and chord voicings. There are probably guys that do that, but it's not traditional. His mom and dad, and Larry and his family, they are just treasures, all of them. I've got this monstrous player, and half the time he can't make it! This week, he hadn't played the new piece at all until we rehearsed it two days before the concert. And Trey, the bass player, had got busy. He rarely makes rehearsal. But they both sight-read. And the things they bring, the way they play, is different. I told Dick Weller, our drummer: 'It's good they don't rehearse. Such a surprise to see what they're going to do. It really is.'

Now he prepares for his one-hour car journey home (Evelyn drives), while I face a trip of 24 hours, door to door. But it's been worth it.

Oh, I nearly forgot. Bob Florence's second wristwatch is a reminder watch, one that pulses. So that you don't forget things. Like bread in a toaster, say.

See the Tubby Hayes Quintet playing "Suddenly Last Tuesday"

First published in Jazz Review, April 2005. Used by permission.

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