Tuesday, May 20, 2008

R.I.P..: Bob Florence

Bob Florence, 75;
Pianist, Composer, Big-Band Leader Won Grammy, 2 Emmys
by Don Heckman
Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2008

Bob Florence, a pianist, arranger, composer and bandleader who won a Grammy and two Emmy awards in a career reaching back to the late '50s, died Thursday at Barlow Respiratory Hospital in Los Angeles after a lengthy bout with pneumonia. He was 75.

Although his schedule of activities was cut back a few months ago because of his illness, he had remained active, leading his Bob Florence Limited Edition big band in October and writing composing commissions from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the International Assn. for Jazz Education, and the Los Angeles Jazz Institute.

Despite his multi-hyphenate skills, Florence was best known as a skillful and sophisticated arranger, especially adept at writing for big jazz band instrumentation. His first assignments came in the late '50s as the big-band era was giving way to vocal pop music and rock 'n' roll. He provided arrangements for Harry James, Louis Bellson, Sy Zentner and others.

Early in his career, Florence came face to face with the fact that arrangers -- who transform the melodies and harmonies of songs into full-blown works for an infinite variety of instrumentations -- rarely receive appropriate praise or financial reward for the work they do. A light-hearted, rock-tinged arrangement of "Up a Lazy River" that he wrote resulted in a 1961 Grammy award for Zentner, but it wasn't until the 1999 Grammys that Florence and his band won.

According to Florence's account in his website biography, "Si never acknowledged that I wrote the arrangement.... I got paid scale while Hoagy Carmichael made a lot more money." There was a hidden benefit for Florence, however. "Word got out," he explained, "and this was a wonderful 'launching pad.' It took me away from being strictly [known as] a jazz writer."

He moved into television scoring and musical direction, writing, arranging and accompaniment with Julie Andrews, Jack Jones and Vikki Carr. In the late '60s he worked simultaneously on the television variety shows of Red Skelton, Andy Williams and Dean Martin. Able to range effectively across stylistic genres, he provided arrangements for Doc Severinsen's "Tonight Show" band, for a Sergio Mendes bossa nova album, and for an album of Beatles hits performed by the Count Basie band.

In the late '70s, Florence reduced his touring commitments and began to perform locally with a large ensemble eventually labeled the Bob Florence Limited Edition. The group, featuring a line of personnel embracing Los Angeles' A-list players, showcased his eclectic skills in arrangements as varied as a whimsical take on the old Jimmy Forrest hit "Night Train" to Johnny Mandel ballads, American songbook standards and a reinvention of Stan Kenton's "Artistry in Rhythm."

Those arrangements, along with many others, could more accurately be described as recompositions, in which Florence's ingenious harmonic imagination transformed the original thematic material into virtually new compositions. His capacity to discover fascinating new timbres in big-band instrumentation was a constant appeal to L.A. musicians, who were always eager to grab an opening on the Limited Edition bandstand.

"There isn't a musician in town who wasn't delighted to get the chance to play one of Bob's charts," said Phil Norman, whose Tentet regularly performs Florence arrangements. "And he was not only respected as a professional, but as a human being."

Florence was a Southern California native. In characteristically whimsical fashion, he opened his website bio by writing, "I was introduced to my mother, Estelle, and my father, Chester, on May 20, 1932, in Los Angeles." The bio goes on to note that his mother, "the musical one of the family," played the piano for silent movies in the 1920s.

When he had his first piano lesson -- before he was 4 years old -- the teacher discovered that Florence had perfect pitch, the ability to immediately discern the pitch of any given note. He played his first recital at 7 and was on course for a career in classical music when he attended Los Angeles City College and joined the jazz band. After college, he wrote arrangements and played for Alvino Rey and Les Brown, prior to his career breakthrough writing assignments for James, Bellson and Zentner.

Florence is survived by his wife, Evie, of Thousand Oaks, three children and eight grandchildren.
Memorial services are pending.

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