Octojazzarian profile: russell garcia

For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.

Our subject this month is arranger/composer Russell Garcia.

by arnold jay smith

                             Russell Garcia, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

“Is he still alive?” someone asked me after we'd just viewed the Anita O'Day bio pic, The Life of a Jazz Singer. The “he” in question is the arranger/composer Russell Garcia, one of the talking heads in the film, whose on-camera recollections about his experiences conducting and arranging for the oft-troubled Kenton and Krupa vocalist help make the lovingly produced film the masterpiece that it is.

Luckily, Russell (“Please call me Russ!”) Garcia is still very much with us. Garcia was born in 1916 in Oakland, CA (jeez, think WWI, for chrissake!). A busy Hollywood composer in his younger days, Garcia has written for so many films, I'll ask you to Google him rather than include a list here, lest I leave out something important. “I'll tell you this much,” he remarks half-jokingly, “There are about as many for which I didn't get credit.” That's because Garcia was also one of Hollywood's musical Mr. Fixits—a music doctor, called upon to clean up, smooth out, re-sequence, or do whatever it took to keep the screenplay and the soundtrack working together as they should. The Glenn Miller Story and The Benny Goodman Story are just two of the many famous films on which he worked without screen credit.

For our present purposes, however, we're interested in Garcia's jazz career…and what a career it's been. His résumé is studded with names like Stan Kenton, Buddy DeFranco, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown, Maynard Ferguson and Frank Rosolino. He's worked with many of the greatest jazz instrumentalists and singers, thanks in part to his association with famed producer Norman Granz. Granz helped put Garcia on the jazz map when he hired him to arrange and conduct for the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong Verve collaboration, Porgy and Bess, in 1957. Garcia also worked on other Granz-produced albums, among them records by O'Day and two delicious Oscar Peterson projects: one with strings, one without, each showing a different side of the masterful pianist.

Garcia and his wife, Gina—a former singer and now his lyricist—presently live in Kerikeri, on the North Island of New Zealand (they sailed there on a trimaran, but that's another story—one told by Gina in a book she wrote about the adventure). The couple visited the states recently for a concert of Garcia's original compositions, sung by vocalist Shaynee Rainbolt and arranged by Russ for a band that included four trombonists. The four-trombone sound is a Garcia trademark. One might refer to the music as “cabaret,” but I would instead call Garcia's tunes Salon songs delivered sans drama, as if they were done in a drawing room. Garcia's arrangements are fascinating, notably the rich harmonies and intersecting soli, executed by a stellar ‘bone team that featured John Allred and John Fedchock. Driving the band was drummer Ray Marchica, a regular with the Mike Longo State of the Art Jazz Orchestra. The tunes have been collected on a CD called Charmed Life: Shaynee Rainbolt Sings Russ Garcia.

Russ set aside some of his carefully rationed time to do this interview, first in a telephone conversation from the West Coast and later in Shaynee Rainbolt's Upper West Side apartment. Of course, the Porgy session with Satchmo and Ella was a topic. “After the first tune we did, Louis put his arm around me and said, ‘Russ, you are a genius, and if I ever get the money I'm putting you on staff.' He was already so rich, but he never gave a thought about money. His agent just gave him a few bucks whenever he needed. We'd record all day [in L.A.] and then he'd go down to Central Ave. and play all night. The next day he'd come in and there would be air coming out the sides of his lips. After some warm-ups he'd be ready to go. Quite a guy. I also conducted the Hollywood Bowl Symphony for him, and two other albums for Verve.”

According to Russ, the two stars couldn't have been more different. “Ah, Louis and Ella: sandpaper and whipped cream. Louis would walk into the studio accompanied by two or three guys carrying briefcases full of lip salve and such…and always Swiss Kriss, his world-famous laxative. I would joke and ask him if he checked the supply at Thrifty Drugs down the street.

“Ella, on the other hand, was so painfully shy that she'd panic prior to her takes. But once into it, she flowed. Ella was always arguing with someone—Ray Brown (her then-husband), or Norman. In Europe, she'd threaten to take the next plane home if she didn't get her way about something or other. Norman would slip the desk clerk $50 for her passport to keep her there. But they loved each other.”

Before the Armstrong/Fitzgerald Porgy, Garcia was the music director for another version of the Gershwin classic, on the Bethlehem label. That version featured “just about everyone on that label at the time,” Russ remembers. Contributing were such artists as Bob Dorough and the Australian Jazz Quintet (the latter included a bassoonist), vocalists Betty Roche, George Kirby, Johnny Hartman, and Joe Derise. Pat Moran and her Quartet joined in, and there was a suitably tongue-in-cheek narration by Al “Jazzbeaux” Collins. Mel Torme sang Porgy and Frances Faye sang Bess.

“We didn't skimp on backups, either,” Russ says. “There was a full string section [which included Felix and Eleanor Slatkin, the founders of the Hollywood String Quartet], horns, reeds [including Herbie Mann, Sam Most and Bill Holman], and percussion. Remember, this was Los Angeles. We had our pick of the best of the West.” The label director, Red Clyde, even included a version of “Summertime” which had been recorded by Duke Ellington some time prior. “We still cannot understand why [the husky-voiced] Frances played Bess and [the tenor-prone] Mel played Porgy instead of the other way ‘round,” Russ jokes.

Ira Gershwin was not always happy with jazz interpretations of his brother's music, particularly "Porgy." It may have had something to do with how the opera was initially received by the press; it was roundly panned. Sadly, George never lived to see its success. Ira "did not like the first [Bethlehem] version,” Russ says. “He also had misgivings about the way ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ was used in one of those Las Vegas nude-and-jewels revues. He threatened to sue if it wasn't removed. They called me in for a rewrite. I called it 'Rhapsody In Green.'” Russ was well paid for the effort.

The Garcia/Granz association developed over time. “I had established our relationship while doing recordings with Oscar Peterson and Buddy DeFranco,” Russ explains. “I had an idea for an album and went in to talk with him. After about two minutes he asked if I wanted a job [as an artists and repertoire man]. He already had his eyes on Switzerland [for his retirement, as well as] for tax purposes. ‘I feel I can trust you; you seem to have integrity,' he said to me. I told him that I was an arranger/composer and turned him down.” Granz persisted and “offered me so much money just to try it for a few months that I gave in.” Garcia had no office hours and “I could take as many outside jobs as I wanted.” The project proved successful. He remained with Verve for two years.

Granz's outspokenness and derring-do in support of the black musicians he employed is the stuff of legend. “One time Charlie Parker took a leak in public and was arrested,” remembers Russ. “Norman went down, paid everyone off, and Bird got off. Oscar Peterson told me about another time, when Ella was getting into a waiting cab. The doorman said he was holding it for someone [when he obviously wasn't]. Norman told her to get into the cab…the doorman put a gun into his stomach, saying ‘you're not getting into this cab.' At Norman's urging, Ella did anyhow.”

Over his long career, Russ played with some of jazz's leading lights, and has plenty of stories to tell. His admiration for Oscar Peterson is clear. “During one of Oscar's recording sessions at Capitol Records,” Russ relates, “Nat ‘King' Cole came over to him, and Oscar shook Cole's right hand while he continued to solo with his left hand. When the solo was over [and] the whole band applauded, Oscar had no idea why. He was every bit the improviser that Bach was. I took a phrase from one of his 'How High The Moon' solos and Bob Russell added lyrics. It's now the title tune from Charmed Life.“

As sometimes happens when working with great artists, things didn't always go as planned. “Then there were the trying times, when Anita or Stan Getz would come into the studio obviously under some influence or other,” Garcia says. “But they'd look great and play that way. I recorded Getz with a symphony orchestra. He'd never worked with so many strings before, and he panicked. But he was a great reader and had that innate sense of harmony. And perfect pitch, too.”

In addition to his work on motion picture scores and arrangements for artists both major and minor, Russ writes extended works in his spare time. “That began when I met Stan Kenton who asked me to write something,” Russ says. “'Stretch,' Stan said,” so that's what Russ did. The result was his “Variations for Flugelhorn, String Quartet, Bass and Drums.” “The audience went wild,” Russ remembers of the first performance, “except one woman sitting next to me, not knowing who I was, said, ‘they call this music?'“

As an arranger, Russ sometimes finds that less is more. “I was in the studio with Sarah Vaughan, who had perfect pitch,” he says. “I began the arrangement of “My Ship” with just her a cappella vocal. Then I added a bass line, then a celesta. Now, we had a full orchestra behind her. About that time, Billy May walked into the booth, looked around, listened, and said, 'Is this what they pay you $20 a page for?' The musicians seemed to be playing the rests.” Russ finds that each great vocalist approaches things differently. “Mel Torme would work out every detail before we recorded a note,” Russ remembers. “For Sammy Davis, Jr., on the other hand, we would just lay out the key and the tunes and he would say, ‘surprise me Russ.'“

Garcia was there at the dawn of the Swing Era, an era when jazz was actually the popular music in the U.S. “I was in Oakland with the Goodman band, and Bunny Berigan and I were talking,” Russ remembered. “He told me that the band was going to break up after our last date in L.A.” That last gig turned out to be Goodman's historic August 21, 1935 performance at the Palomar Ballroom, where the band played to a cheering throng of young bobby-soxers who knew the band from the Camel Caravan radio broadcasts. Legend has it that the Swing Era was born on the spot.

Russ was also involved in the career of a young pianist named Johnny Williams. “He was 16 when I first heard him and he was tearing up the piano both jazz and classical. I used him on the album Listen to the Music of Russell Garcia.“ Using his given name John, the youngster went on to have some success writing for motion pictures. And leave us not forget the Boston Pops.

During WWII Russ spent some time overseas, “winning the war single-handedly,” he kids. Meanwhile, key musical developments were happening back home. “I was on leave at a Red Cross center, having coffee and doughnuts, when I noticed some platters in the corner,” he says. “I put them on a phonograph, and it was some of the most astounding things I had ever heard.” It was one of the first Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker records. “I had missed all of that revolution, and it upset me.” At war's end, he was sent back to the U.S. and stationed at Fort Dix, N.J., not far from New York City. Despite being told not to leave the base, Russ and his buddies snuck under the fence as night fell, and hitchhiked into the city. “We landed on 52nd St. and stayed till closing, listening to Bird and Diz. Little did we know that Diz and I would become such good friends, strengthened by the fact that we are both Baha'i.” Russ tells a story that demonstrates Dizzy’s famous sense of humor. “Once, we were both backstage in Munich with George Shearing. Diz walks over to the [blind] pianist, puts his arm around his shoulders and says, ‘Probably nobody ever told you, but you're black.'“

As you might expect from an American who now lives on the other side of the globe, Russ Garcia is a citizen of the world. He's taught arranging at the Pori (Finland) Jazz Festival, and he's an honorary Professor of Modern Symphonic Techniques in Changchun, China. “The Chinese are so eager to learn that it's exciting to go there,” he says. “They are more capitalistic than we are. Some live in what we might consider hovels, but then you watch as in the morning the girls walk out of those places in heels, black business suits, immaculate hair and makeup on their way to some office.” Garcia's widely-used texts, the two-volume The Professional Arranger Composer, have been translated into six languages, including Finnish and Mandarin. His surname notwithstanding, Russell Garcia is not Latin, but mostly Irish. “So many bands have asked me to write Latin arrangements for them, that I finally gave up saying ‘no,' and I went down to some Latin Clubs on Sunset Boulevard and learned. As the Baha'i teach, there's only one race, the human race.”

Russ has always been in demand. “You can keep working if you can do anything in any style,” he says. “And that's what I do.” Russ is still around, all right. Of his longevity, he states—with tongue firmly planted in cheek—”Getting old is no big feat; it just takes time. “

CODA: A product of one of those only-in-America marriages, vocalist Shaynee Rainbolt calls herself “a Jewish Viking.” Together, she and Russ reworked music Garcia didn't even remember writing. “We did the tour to honor Russ. I love singing his music, his arrangements and Gina's lyrics. We're bringing his four trombones sound back, as well as the arrangements he did for Frances Fay and Anita O'Day, and the audiences appreciate that. On stage we tell stories as introductions. It all works.”


November 23, 2008 · 2 comments

  • 1 Ed Leimbacher // Nov 23, 2008 at 07:42 PM
    lovely story and lucky man, Oscar credits or not--his marriage and life Down Under sound pretty idyllic. one small cavil: George Gershwin died in 1937 or '38; no way he could have objected to Jazz versions on Bethlehem (or likely anywhere elsewhere else). I believe Russ or Smith meant to say Ira Gershwin as the one who (possibly) disliked such arrangements, most of which came in the Fifties.
  • 2 Harlan Lang // Nov 24, 2008 at 12:51 AM
    I think that Russ has lived so long because the world really needs the sunshine that he brings. Russ and Gina spent a memorable week (for us) with us when we lived on a small island in mid Pacific called Ponape. Our 7-week old baby, now 36 years old, had contracted the flue and was coughing day and night. Russ and Gina volunteered to take care of our baby at night so that we could sleep, since we both were working. This is the kind of thing you never forget, though they took it in stride as if they did it every week. I'm sure that they are loved by more people than they could ever imagine. Harlan Lang