The Jazz.com Blog
June 08, 2008 · 5 comments
Jeff Sultanof is a regular contributor to jazz.com, who periodically enriches our site with his deep appreciation for the jazz heritage – and especially with his advocacy for that endangered species, the big band.
Regular visitors may have read his Dozens features on Gerald Wilson and Stan Kenton, or his many reviews. Below he reflects on the life and career of composer / arranger Bill Finegan, who passed away last week at the age of ninety-one.
Jeff studied briefly with Finegan and has collected his own personal archive of Finegan scores. His comments add a valuable perspective on this artist whose work is much admired within the jazz arranging community, and deserves to be far better known by the current generation of jazz fans.T.G.
Bill Finegan was one of the most gifted American composers in our history. I do not make this statement lightly. If we consider that someone who changes, adds to, and improves every song he sets for some ensemble somewhere, then Finegan joins that rarefied list that includes Evans, Farnon, Sauter and a very few others.
His first recorded arrangement, "Lonesome Road" for Tommy Dorsey was so good that T.D. allowed it to take up two sides of a 10" 78. For someone who was only 21, this was a great achievement. Finegan gave Glenn Miller some of the bandleader's earliest hits, such as "Little Brown Jug", and some of the most beautiful arrangements Miller had in his book, like "It's Always You" and "A Handful of Stars." Bill was always pushing the limit with Miller, who edited him unmercifully. I hope that the estate still has the many pages that Miller cut from Finegan's scores to make them more commercial. That could be the subject of a doctoral study.
Similarly, his work for Dorsey after his experience with Miller was often profoundly beautiful even as it swung up a storm (I'm thinking of "Wagon Wheels," another gem). Dorsey clearly loved Bill's writing; Bill said that that Tommy never changed anything he wrote.
Bill agonized over arrangements, even of pop tunes that didn't deserve that much attention. One song that did, became one of his finest arrangements, the standard "The Continental." Bob Farnon told me that he visited Finegan in France when Bill was writing this classic setting and was trying to figure out an ending. He told Bill to finish the thing already, perhaps not realizing that what was easy for Farnon was often madness for Bill. "The Continental" is one of the finest arrangements for big band written by an American, an arrangement I have analyzed when I've taught arranging. After hearing it many hundreds of times, it still surprises me.
The ensemble Finegan led with Ed Sauter from 1952-57 was a great adventure that few people really understood. It is no wonder that Bill had very mixed feelings about what happened to it. He told me that the band should have remained a studio ensemble that never toured, and he fought hard to have his way, but lost. Bill Kirchner has long suggested a complete box set of this band's works, and it is criminal that this was not done while Finegan was alive.
A concert in honor of his 90th birthday was performed by the Gotham Wind Symphony, and included a new march Bill had composed. It is wonderful to know that Bill was still writing and I'd love to hear this piece. I hope other ensembles dig in to his compositions and arrangements. Although many are not easy, they are worth the effort to learn and play properly.
I was fortunate to take a lesson with Bill. He was opinionated and a bit of a maverick. He could tell you precisely why he wrote something the way he did, and since I knew a great deal of his music, my meeting with him that day was something I will always treasure. He pointed out that when he arranged "The Continental" for Dorsey, he left out part of the song -- and no one ever noticed. Of course he was right: go back to the recording and check this out for yourself. He couldn't say enough good things about Ed Sauter; it was clear Bill considered him one of his favorite composers.
He liked the music I showed him and encouraged me. I feel sorry now that I did not continue working with him.
Over the years, I've accumulated about 30 of his scores, and I've learned from every one of them. Technically, they are assured and showed rare mastery of his materials. They are some of the finest examples of what music can be. Some pieces like "Bingo, Bango, Boffo" and "Pussy Willow" can be appreciated by young children, and yet they have mysteries that professionals can appreciate if they listen closely.
And there are treasures of his still to be discovered. I understand that his arrangements for the British bandleader Geraldo have been archived. Very few of them have been heard on this side of the Atlantic.
Bill Finegan was a major influence on me and I am sorry he left us. Moreover, I'm sorry he was not fully appreciated during his lifetime, although he knew that there was interest in his work. I know he is in a better place, and I will continue to listen and to treasure his music.
This blog entry posted by Jeff Sultanof.