Adventures in Big Band Musicology (by Jeff Sultanof)

This guest post is in response to DTM pages “Reverential Gesture” and “Misunderstanding in Blue” (by Darcy James Argue).”

Working with big band and jazz ensemble manuscript materials has long been one of my passions. Perhaps I am best known for preparing published versions of the repertoire of the Miles Davis Nonet, and a paper I wrote on this adventure was published by the Journal of Jazz Studies (Rutgers University). [Download PDF.]  In addition, Jazz Lines Publications owner/publisher Rob Duboff and I have prepared hundreds of orchestral, big band and small ensemble compositions/arrangements for sale.

In order to understand the backdrop in making edited and corrected vintage jazz ensemble materials available, some necessary background should be supplied.

During the so-called big band era, songs were written by composers and lyricists under contract to a publisher. Piano/vocal versions were arranged by a staff arranger or free-lancer in a comfortable key that would be easy to play and sing, most often before the song was sent out to singers and bands by a song-plugger.

It was desirable to get as many performances and recordings of a song as possible and quickly, so in many cases, arrangers for big bands wrote settings of these new songs overnight so they could be recorded. Big band stock arrangements were also prepared. In some cases, the arrangements were modifications of the ‘hit’ versions (Jerry Gray’s arrangement of “Begin the Beguine” for Artie Shaw could be purchased, with the clarinet solo written in to one of the sax parts).

By the 1940s, stocks were usually written for 2 alto and 2 tenor saxophones, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, guitar, piano (which also served as a leader’s guide), bass and drums. But they were playable by one alto, one tenor, two trumpets and trombone, plus rhythm section. Very often, stocks have been invaluable so that classic arrangements can be re-created if the originals are missing, even though these are second-hand sources. Lyle ‘Spud’ Murphy told me that his stock arrangements were played down by any band that could be found rehearsing at any given time, usually a hotel or society band. No wonder a lot of errors were never caught. Many stocks may not have been played down at all if the song was hot and the publisher wanted to get copies into the hands of bandleaders who would play and perhaps broadcast the songs.

By the 1960s, some important big band libraries had already been thrown out (the original Woody Herman library was destroyed when Herman’s manager stopped paying the storage bill); some ‘books’ were in basements, attics or barns. At least one turned up in a publisher’s warehouse; I found the Al Donahue book in a far corner of the same Secaucus warehouse where unpublished Gershwin, Porter and Kern songs had been sitting for years. In many cases, these collections had been picked through by the time they were donated to a college or library: to this day, no one can give an adequate explanation why many Gene Roland originals in the Stan Kenton library never made it to the University of North Texas.

I came to understand that there were many ‘collectors’ out there who wanted this music. Many were out-and-out thieves. A story circulated about the Maynard Ferguson band playing at Birdland one night back in the sixties, coming back from a break, and finding all of the parts of a certain piece missing. Another story was that band members left all of their books on the bandstand overnight at a club, came back to rehearse the next day, only to find the books missing. When they returned later, the books were mysteriously back on the stands. No one in the club knew a thing (yeah, right). Just recently, a ‘collector’ refused to send Rob and I a sketch discovered among a well-known composer’s papers, even though we’d licensed the composition and had gotten permission from the estate to put it out and utilize all known source materials. Universities housing important libraries may still be photocopying arrangements for people without paying proper royalties. And the opposite is true as well: reportedly, the Ted Heath library is not available to anyone (if this is not so, I’d love to be corrected).

When I entered the publishing world, publishers weren’t interested in putting this music out. The thought was that arrangers who actually taught in elementary, middle and high schools knew how to write for students better anyway; this is still the belief in many circles. Several people laughed at the thought that music for big bands was art to be taken seriously. Who would want to hear Gil Evans’ arrangement of “Yardbird Suite” again? Who even remembered it? “But surely George Handy was one of many who deserved to be recognized as an important composer?” “George who??????” was the response! Ellington was discussed, but only the pop songs, none of the serious works.

However, David Berger prepared editions of many Ellington classics, and King Brand distributed them when that company was in business. So there was progress if you knew where to look.

An interesting character named Bill Schremp sold copies of pieces from the Boyd Raeburn library, but Bruce Boyd Raeburn told me that Schremp never got authorization from him to do this. And many of the parts were atrocious, re-copied from originals and often introducing new errors. Schremp himself had over 1000 arrangements, many of which are quite rare and now split between two institutions.

Over the years, I was fortunate enough to meet many of my playing and arranging heroes and work with them on projects; Robert Farnon lent me his music and I created new scores of 45 of his compositions and arrangements, incorporating many corrections that he had long wanted to fix in the published versions.

I came to understand the manifold issues that needed addressing in Gerry Mulligan’s music when I worked with him on a project in 1995; Mulligan changed and altered many arrangements so that in many cases, the original parts were of little value in creating editions of his music. In that same year, I met and mentored Rob DuBoff, who told me of his passion to make available classic big band music. It was many years before he was able to set up Jazz Lines Publications to do just that, and I became his editor/consultant.

Jazz Lines now offers over 400 titles we’ve worked on, from Mary Lou Williams to Joe Henderson, almost every title sourced from original scores and/or parts. Along with Bob Curnow’s Sierra Music, which issues music from the libraries of Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, Count Basie and many others, there are other editors who have prepared new editions of this music as well: Walter Van de Leur, Andrew Homzy, Fred Stride, Don Sickler and David Joyner have all enlightened me with their own research. Several have been kind enough to share rare materials with me, and this attitude helps all of us trying to do right by the creators of the music we love, and helps to put the music on the stands of students who should experience it first-hand.

As researchers know, valuable information can come from formal as well as informal sources. Casual conversations over the years often lead to answers where the questions may never have been asked.

When Budd Johnson led the Queens College Big Band, I was his assistant and got a chance to speak with him at length. He said that he’d written all of the arrangements for Earl Hines’ vocalists when he was playing in Earl’s band (I’d always wanted to know who arranged “Skylark” for Billy Eckstine – he pointed his finger at himself).

Ervin Drake was visiting Five Towns College when I was teaching there, and I asked him who arranged “Good Morning Heartache” for Billie Holiday. “Sy Oliver. I was at the session,” he said proudly.

A project with Neal Hefti revealed that he wrote “Great Moment” for the Buddy Rich band, not Ed Finckel, who had been so credited in discographies (Neal was not aware that the band actually played the piece, and finally heard it when I sent him a recording made for the “Jubilee” AFRS radio program, which was only heard by servicemen and women during WWII).

The composer/arranger’s job was to get the music down on paper. During the big band era, this meant arrangers writing music on buses, backstage at a movie theatre, in a hotel lobby, or the recording studio, and I have been told that Billy Byers wrote while he was on the toilet, in ink no less!

The handwritten scores often had errors that were copied directly into the parts. Some were obvious, found when played down and hand-corrected by the players; others were not fixed and can be heard on recordings and air checks if one listens closely. I’ve had arguments with purists: “If the leader okay’d the recording, what makes you think you can change a note of the music?” The fact that it was a blatant musical error did not mean a thing to them.

I once had a confrontation with someone who considered himself a Gil Evans expert who insisted that a note I’d fixed in a score Evans wrote for Claude Thornhill was correct. Most readers have not examined Evans’ manuscripts for Thornhill; he usually sketched the harmonies in the piano stave, which were often copied onto the leader’s part. Evans did us a tremendous favor in this way: we can check his notes, and fix the wrong ones. This particular note was a mis-transposition; as adventurous as Evans was, he was a skilled arranger who understood the traditions of writing for a big band. Too often people forget that he could have been quite a successful commercial arranger if he’d wanted to be. Why should we ever perpetuate an error?

Just recently, I prepared an edition of Evans’ “The Troubador,” a piece Evans wrote for the mid- 1947 Claude Thornhill Orchestra that included three flutes. Both score and parts exist, and it was clear that there was some surgery done to make the piece playable without the flutes. It had to be restored back to its original form, which could be done since the piece was recorded and there was an audio source to double check. But the piece itself was written primarily in the key of G# minor, and all Bb parts were written in sharps (in essence, every note is sharp). I changed these parts to Bb minor, making the clarinets and tenor saxophone parts much easier to read. Evans’ rhythmic notation was also in need of simplification and clarification. There were many varied challenges in creating a usable score, but to restore this setting so it can be easily played is the ultimate payoff.

As stated above, making decisions is part of the challenge in preparing this music for study, performance and print. But the added perk is that information can often be discovered that adds to what we know about these creators and the music scene in general. I met copyist George Vedegis when he prepared scores for print during my WB days; George worked all over New York for over fifty years copying for many arrangers, including Gil Evans (during his Thornhill period) and for the Tommy Dorsey organization, copying the music of Ernie Wilkins, Howard Gibeling and Tadd Dameron. He became quite disturbed when I brought up Dameron’s name, claiming that Tadd’s handwriting was difficult to decipher; noteheads were often not directly on a line or in a space. Paul Combs, Dameron’s biographer, told me that Dameron had a drug issue during that time but was happy to have confirmation from someone unknown to him who’d worked with Dameron during that period.

For several years, I thought that the ‘sound’ of the Charlie Parker with Strings version of “Autumn in New York” was different than the rest of the arrangements played at that session. That “Autumn” was written by someone other than Joe Lipman was discovered when the book for that ensemble was donated to the Institute of Jazz Studies; the ‘hand’ was clearly different from Joe’s, and this was confirmed based on the naming of chords. “Autumn” was obviously ‘ghosted,’ a term used when a different arranger worked on a score credited to another person. Usually this happened when a project needed to be made ready with little time; all the arrangers in New York and Los Angeles knew each other, and someone was usually available to help. So who arranged “Autumn in New York?” I asked the question on the Jazz Research list and got no responses. This became a question I was determined to solve, and luckily the clues were right in front of me on YouTube: a two-sided 12” 78 of two standards on the Silvertone label (which was a Sears product manufactured by Mercury Records in the early fifties). These two sides were arranged and conducted by Glenn Osser, who’d also arranged another track I’d had for years recorded with the same instrumentation. Osser was a contracted arranger/conductor for Mercury Records, writing for any number of singers and instrumentalists on the label. Moreover, during the time Bird made these particular sides, the Clef label was distributed by Mercury Records. I discussed all of this with Rob, who told me he had an arrangement by Osser written for Helen O’Connell, and the handwriting seemed to match. So a piece of the puzzle is probably solved, in this case a piece nobody seemed to be looking for until the actual manuscripts turned up.

Gerry Mulligan told me that he’d written several things for the Charlie Parker with Strings unit, and he could not finish one of them because he was preparing to go to Los Angeles (and most of us know what happened once he arrived!). Gerry couldn’t remember the title, and this remained a first-class mystery until Rob went through his collection and found the title “Yardbird Suite” in his master list. Curious, Rob found the folder with copies of the music, and discovered an incomplete sketch score intended for Parker. It even had a note written by Mulligan at the top telling Bird that he had not finished the music. Bird probably never got the sketch, as it did not turn up in the collection at the IJS. I’ve written about this elsewhere (, but the score could be completed, and is now available.

Answers can be derived based on the many years of examining manuscripts, listening and sorting out information accrued through experience. In the case of big band musicology, manuscripts weren’t generally available for many composers until about thirty years ago. Editors who have worked on Ellington music have a wide variety of challenges, but here again, logic should be the attitude in presenting this music.

If there is a bass line on the manuscript or if there is a part with one fully written out, I recommend that it be published. But others have suggested that transcribing the bass line right off the recording was the way to go. There are various issues that I have with this way of thinking. The first is that the recording may not be the way the band actually played the piece after awhile. As a matter of fact, too often musicians came to hate recordings of things they’d made in a rush. Once the music was in their fingers and in their ears and then put in front of dancers, interpretations could change radically. Of course someone like Glenn Miller froze solos such as Bobby Hackett’s statement on “A String of Pearls,” but this was not the norm in all cases. So if someone is going to take down a bass line or a piano part and freeze it, which recording does one use? How do we presume to choose a ‘definitive’ version?

Perhaps the most senseless thing that some editors do is transcribe an improvised solo note for note and present it in the part, sometimes as the melody. Senseless because students will be reading these parts, and the notation is often not consistent and is nearly impossible to read. Try sight-reading the published version of Hodges’ solo in Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” with every melisma duly engraved out. (This is the work of David Berger, who in all fairness has prepared often exemplary editions of Ellington music, particularly the Sacred Concerts.) How many students can actually play this, and how many are put off trying? Why do it in the first place in this context? Should the way Hodges played it be the ‘definitive’ way, which is the antithesis of what jazz is all about? If these are supposed to be educational publications, wouldn’t it make more sense for a budding improviser to create his/her own interpretation instead of blindly imitating a solo, playing it the same way each time? “Freezing” big band music takes away the very reason it should be studied and celebrated: to bring new life into classic music that should be as familiar to students as a Bach Prelude and Fugue and a Hindemith Sonata, but has some leeway to be interpreted several different ways, which makes it unique. How would Baroque composers feel if keyboard parts were somehow ‘transcribed’ or fully written out instead of written as a figured bass? Part of the challenge of performing this music is to learn how to interpret figured bass, which gives the keyboardist plenty of space to ‘comp.’

I also cannot understand why someone would transcribe an arrangement off a recording when the original score and parts exist. This has happened repeatedly, and the transcriber routinely defends the practice by trying to convince anyone who will listen that that the band may not have played what is on the parts. Really???

I applaud the idea of publishing original manuscripts of Duke Ellington. BUT:

A clear series of editorial decisions would have to be made to prepare such a publication. Are the manuscripts to be engraved or reproduced as is? How many such scores actually exist? If there is more than one score for a given title, which gets reproduced? What publisher would take on such a project?

Not all scores are as clear as what was reproduced here. Anne Kuebler, who was an archivist for the collection has told me hilarious stories of people requesting materials for a particular piece, and all Anne could find was a few pages of sketches. Quite a few recipients of her kindness became hostile and indignant when they discovered what survived of a title that they simply ‘had to have.’

The cost of such volumes would be high given that the material needs to be licensed (and maybe a publisher would not want to license these pieces for this purpose). Would potential users be willing to pay such a high cost?

We often hear of Ellington altering the order of the sections of pieces. What would stop someone in the interest of ‘authenticity’ to play a piece exactly how he notated it in his score, and in doing so completely ignoring how he came to play and record the piece (Does anyone remember how the Seattle Symphony ‘restored’ and recorded music George Gershwin cut from “An American in Paris?” I’m surprised that the Gershwin family did not obtain an injunction blocking the sale of the CD. And don’t get me started on that pianist who ‘found’ missing Gershwin piano preludes!).

Which brings us to the most basic issue in this conversation:

The Ellington estate is not likely to open the doors for people to buy a manuscript score collection and then create their own parts. This is one of the reasons why Jazz Lines does not sell scores alone.

And yet, manuscripts should be more easily available to anyone who wants to examine them. Not just for one’s enlightenment, but because much more of this music should be in the hands of students and scholars of the future. Ultimately, we need more trained, experienced music editors who can create corrected editions of this music with consistent, logical notation – this music should have the same respect as anything published by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner. Several students I’ve spoken to at colleges and conventions want to learn how to prepare such editions; they are fascinated looking at what the Miles Davis Nonet musicians actually saw at a recording date, or the part Stan Getz played on a Stan Kenton recording. Ideally, preparing to be a music editor is a two-year process with an experienced editor in printed music as a mentor.

A fully-realized training program needs to be in place, and it needs to start now.

Jazz Lines Publications.