october 2011


Last Of The Titans

Pete Rugolo: From ‘Progressive Jazz’ to Nat King Cole, An Enduring Legacy

December 25, 1915-October 16, 2011

With the passing of Pete Rugolo on October 16 the bell tolls for the last of a towering generation of arranger-conductors-composers who made 1950s pop-jazz a golden age at Capitol Records. Rugolo died in Sherman Oaks, CA, at the age of 95. Coming off a heralded, if controversial, career as a jazz arranger for Stan Kenton, Rugolo, based in Capitol's New York office, produced Harry Belafonte's early pop records, signed the Miles Davis Nonet (and helped produce the sessions that would eventually be released as the landmark Birth of the Cool album), and wrote arrangements for a Who's Who of the day's top pop-jazz vocalists, including Nat King Cole, June Christy and Mel Tormé; For a time in the early 1950s, he was also employed as the west coast musical director for Mercury Records, working with Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstine and Patti Page, and was also a staff composer and arranger for MGM studios. Not incidentally, he made his mark in television, where his gift for compressing drama into a short amount of time earned him assignments writing nourish, jazzy big-band themes and incidental music for shows such as The Thin Man (1957-59), Richard Diamond: Private Detective (1957-1960), The Fugitive (1963-67) and Felony Squad (1966-69), and scores for other shows such as Leave It To Beaver, Alias Smith and Jones and M.A.S.H.

Born Pietro Rugolo on Dec. 25, 1915, in San Piero Patti, Sicily, Pete Rugolo made his name initially in the jazz world  as a controversial arranger for Stan Kenton in the post-war years. Kenton championed what he called "progressive jazz," a style that in Rugolo's hands took on brassy dissonances that reflected Rugolo's college studies with composer Darius Milhaud, a proponent of polytonality, at Mills College in Oakland. So strong was the Milhaud influence on Rugolo that jazz trombonist Milt Bernhart once said, "Pete is without question Milhaud's prime disciple. To call what Rugolo has written 'jazz' would be somewhat off base. I would call it 'good' and leave it at that." Bythe time Kenton dissolved his group in 1949, Rugolo had written more than 100 arrangements for the band.

Pete Rugolo’s theme song for The Fugitive

Rugolo had come to the United States at age five, when his father relocated the family to Santa Rosa, CA. Young Pete took lessons in French horn and classical piano after discovering the big bands of Duke Ellington, Ray Noble and Gene Krupa on the radio. Upon earning a bachelor's degree in music education from San Francisco State College in 1939 in anticipation of a career as a teacher, Rugolo decided to pursue graduate work at Mills College in Oakland when he found out the faculty included the avant-garde composer Milhaud. A member of the group of young Paris-based composers known as Les Six in the 1920s, Milhaud had heard jazz in Harlem after the first World War and incorporated it into his ballet La Création du Monde, first performed in 1923. Among Milhaud's subsequent pupils at Mills were Dave Brubeck, Burt Bacharach, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Each, like Rugolo, absorbed their teacher's broad-minded approach.

Drawn to the music of Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky, Samuel Barber and Edgard Varèse, Rugolo received an early acknowledgment of his burgeoning skills when Bartók himself paid the student's tuition for a summer session at Mills. Traces of these influences would later give a distinctive flavor even to his commercial work. But he was also listening to the big bands of Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford, and eventually to that of Kenton, who rose to popularity in the early 1940s, at a time when Rugolo had been drafted into the services and was leading an army band stationed at Fort Scott, near San Francisco. Among his bandmates was Paul Desmond, later to become famous as Brubeck's saxophonist and the composer of "Take Five."

After a concert at the Golden Gate Theater in 1943, Rugolo approached Kenton and asked him to look at some of his arrangements. The bandleader is said to have tried one out with his musicians and told him: "As soon as you're out of the Army, you've got a job. You write like me, but way more modern." For Kenton, "modern" was a term of the highest praise. Two years later, when he hired Rugolo as his staff arranger on a weekly salary of $150, he encouraged the younger man to find his own voice and did nothing to deter him from employing asymmetrical structures, dissonant voicings and unusual instrumental groupings within the conventional band format of brass, reeds and rhythm. Rugolo's first contribution was a piece called "Opus a Dollar Three-Eighty."

Stan Kenton, 'Machito,' composed and arranged by Pete Rugolo and dedicated the groundbreaking Latin bandleader, Frank Grillo, aka Machito.

Among the most celebrated of Rugolo's many contributions to the band was a three-minute tone poem titled "Impressionism," with Wagnerian flavourings, recorded in 1947. Others included the livelier "Cuban Carnival," "Unison Riff," the Stravinsky-inflected "Artistry in Percussion," "Elegy for Alto" and a piece titled "Machito," in homage to the Cuban bandleader. He also created arrangements of standards, such as "Willow Weep for Me" and "Over the Rainbow," for the band's singer, June Christy. When some of the younger musicians in the band complained that his pieces did not swing hard enough, he wrote "Rhythm Incorporated," later known as "Capitol Punishment." His exposure with Kenton led to him being voted best arranger in the 1947 Down Beat readers' poll, the first of five such honors over the next seven years.

Rugolo left the Kenton band in 1949 (although he would continue to contribute arrangements on a freelance basis) and joined Capitol Records, where he produced albums with a number of important artists including June Christy, the Four Freshmen and Nat King Cole. It was while recording with Cole in Los Angeles that he decided to move permanently to the west coast, where he found ready employment and a pool of excellent jazz musicians working in the Hollywood studios. For a time in the late 1950s, he was also employed as an artists and repertoire man for Mercury Records, working with Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstine and Patti Page.

Miles Davis, ‘Boplicity,’ from The Birth of The Cool, produced by Pete Rugolo, who persuaded Capitol Records to release the origional 78 rpm discs as a long playing album.

Perhaps his most enduringly influential act, however, did not involve his own music at all. In 1948, acting as the New York representative of the Hollywood-based Capitol Records label, he heard Miles Davis's experimental nine-piece band in the Royal Roost, a 52nd Street club, and offered to record them the following year. The resulting 78rpm discs, such as "Godchild," "Boplicity," "Israel" and "Moon Dreams," with their airy arrangements by Gil Evans, John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan, sold few copies but caught the ear of young musicians and were largely responsible for the first wave of "cool" jazz. Almost a decade later, Rugolo persuaded Capitol to reissue the 10 tracks on an LP, under the appropriate title Birth of the Cool, a collection soon hailed as a cornerstone of modern jazz.

rugoloIn 1953 he began recording under his own name. Over the next decade his LPs for the Capitol, Columbia and Mercury labels included Introducing Pete Rugolo, Adventures in Rhythm, Rugolomania, The New Sounds of Pete Rugolo, Reeds in Hi Fi, Brass in Hi Fi, Music for Hi Fi Bugs, Rugolo Plays Kenton, a trilogy titled Ten Trombones Like Two Pianos, Ten Trumpets and Two Guitars, and Ten Saxophones and Two Basses, and Behind Brigitte Bardot, containing jazz versions of themes from the French actor's films, with the subtitle Cool Sounds from Her Hot Scenes: Unrestrained and Unexpurgated. Although the arrangements often veered away from jazz towards light music, all featured such top Hollywood session players and gifted improvisers as trumpeters Shorty Rogers and Conte Candoli, saxophonists Bud Shank, Plas Johnson and Buddy Collette, trombonist Milt Bernhart, pianists Jimmy Rowles and Russ Freeman and drummer Shelly Manne.

rugoloOf all the great vocalists he worked with, Rugolo arguably left the most lasting influence on Nat King Cole. Over the course of a three-year collaboration (1949-52) Rugolo steered Cole away from his celebrated King Cole Trio configuration and towards the solo career that produced a spate of classic hit singles, several ambitious albums, a history making TV show (1956-57)--the first of its kind hosted by an African-American (but which was done in by the network's inability to muster any support by way of national sponsors)--movie roles and wide acclaim as one of America's most beloved entertainers.

The original King Cole Trio began recording in 1938 and, with a lineup including Irving Ashby on guitar and Joe Comfort on bass, continued to record sporadically into the early 1950s. Rugolo's arrival from fom the Kenton orchestra in 1949 signaled the start of the trio's graceful exit from Cole's history. The principals were not strangers: both the Kenton band and the King Cole Trio were managed by Carlos Gastel, were signed to the same label and shared bills on theater vaudeville tours in the mid-'40s. "I go back with Nat to about 1945,"Rugolo told Will Friedwald in an interview for the liner booklet of the 1993 anthology, Lush Life: Nat King Cole with the Pete Rugolo Orchestra. In 1947 Rugolo wrote two arrangements to spotlight Cole's piano on two instrumental recordings on a Metronome All Stars jazz session.

Nat King Cole, 'Funny,' from 1952, one of the final Cole-Rugolo sessions

As heard on Lush Life, Rugolo and Cole went orchestral without undermining the integrity of the Trio recordings; that is, many of the orchestral arrangements evoked the mood and temperament of the Trio's work by mingling Cole's piano solos and Ashby's robust guitar fills with strings, horns, understated percussion and pop-style background voices. Elsewhere, Rugolo's deployment of Latin percussion, blaring horn lines and string arpeggios clearly mark these deftly executed, artistically sound sessions as a demarcation point between the Trio recordings and Cole's solo work.

"Nat loved playing with the big band," Rugolo told Friedwald. "I took a lot of his trio arrangements and added the band stuff. I guess he liked the stuff I did then so much that maybe it helped me to get to do his record dates."

Nat King Cole, 'Poor Jenning Is A-Weepin',' one of the final Cole-Rugolo sessions, January 11, 1952, with the Pete Rugolo Orchestra, the King Cole Trio (Cole on piano, John Collins on guitar, Charlie Harris on bass), and Jack Costanzo on bongos.

As Friedwald observes in his Lush Life liner notes, Rugolo's eclectic arrangements, augmenting the Trio sound without losing its essence, were but part of his achievements with Cole. Expanding the scope of Cole's repertoire was equally important in charting a future course for the artist: “Under Rugolo Cole's repertoire ranged from the cerebral (‘Lush Life,’ ‘Roses and Wine’) to the simple and swinging (‘It's Crazy,’ ‘That's My Girl’) to the exotic (‘Land of Love'). Perhaps because Cole was rapidly becoming the label's strongest attraction and Rugolo was for a time Capitol's East Coast A&R representative, the two men had greater leeway for experimentation than any other artist-arranger team then working.”

Though the sessions collected on Lush Life produced no big hits for Cole, the artistic growth the artist experienced in those years would pay off when Rugolo in effect chose his successor. In 1950 Cole cut his third Number One single, the haunting "Mona Lisa," backed by Lex Baxter's Orchestra. The arrangement, however, had been ghost-written for Baxter by a then-unknown Nelson Riddle. Rugolo imparted this information to Cole, who then brought Riddle on as his musical director--for some ten years and approximately 250 songs. The Cole-Riddle collaboration created lasting monuments in the '50s and '60s, and Riddle did the same with Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Rosemary Clooney.

Summarizing his work with Cole, Rugolo said, "Nat loved the things that I did. He let me alone. I also tried to please Capitol because I knew they wanted the things to sell. I tried to make them as commercial as I could, but I was never as commercial as Nelson. I don't think any of those things that I did were very big sellers, but once he started with Nelson, that's when he really hit, so he just kept Nelson with him."

Nat King Cole, 'That's My Girl,' 1951, arranged and conducted by Pete Rugolo, with Rugolo on celeste and backing vocals by the King Sisters.

In 1960 Rugolo directed a small jazz group in the film comedy Where the Boys Are, featuring Connie Francis, Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux and Dolores Hart, in which Frank Gorshin, playing the bandleader, describes the music provided by Rugolo, in a parody of beatnik cool, as "dialectic jazz." His last feature film score, in 1997, was for This World, Then the Fireworks, a thriller directed by Michael Oblowitz.

Pete Rugolo is survived by his wife, Edye, their daughter, Gina, and two sons, Peter and Tony.

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