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A number of great arrangers worked in the West Coast jazz and studio scene of the 1950s and 1960s, but one name consistently comes up as the best of all: Bill Holman. When it comes to writing for a modern big band, Bill Holman's arrangements and compositions are held up as the pinnacle of the art.
Holman started playing tenor saxophone and clarinet while still in school, and went on to study at Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles in the late 1940s. Through an acquaintance with Gene Roland, Holman was auditioned by Stan Kenton and hired as a sax player around 1951. With Roland's encouragement, Holman began to write for Kenton's band, and by 1954, he was contributing so consistently that Kenton let him come off the bandstand, stay in Los Angeles, and work as a full-time arranger and composer. In particular, Kenton was attracted to Holman's ability to integrate counterpoint and dissonance in subtle yet distinctive ways. Soon after that, Holman became Kenton's chief arranger, and wrote much of Kenton's late 1950s repertoire.
Holman continued to perform with smaller combos at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach and other hot spots of the West Coast jazz scene. He also wrote for other bands, including Terry Gibb's legendary band on 1959-60, and, less often, for vocalists, including the Four Freshmen. He recorded several albums, two with a smaller ensemble and three with a big band, but these soon became rare collector's items.
During the 1960s and 1970s, with the exception of Stan Kenton's "Neophonic Orchestra" and other attempts to keep the art of big band music going, Holman's work centered on studio arrangements. In the late 1960s, he provided arrangements for a number of pop groups, including the Association and the Fifth Dimension. Holman wrote the brass arrangements that accompanied Bob Alcivar's vocal arrangements for the group.
In the late 1980s, nearly 30 years after his last recording, Holman began writing and recording with his own big band. Pulling in studio musicians who admired and appreciated his work, Holman was able to release several new CDs, including Brilliant Corners which featured his arrangements of tunes written by Thelonious Monk that won a Grammy in 1997. He also provided most of the arrangements for Natalie Cole's hugely successful comeback album, Unforgettable.
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