By Steve Voce
Jazz composer and band leader
ONLY THE best musicians succeed in Los Angeles. The pianist Bob Florence, who was born there, won on two fronts: he led one of the finest big bands in the city, Bob Florence’s Limited Edition, and he was one of the most sought-after composers and arrangers of music for the city’s commercial studios. His often complex compositions ranked with the finest jazz writing of the last 50 years. Yet, despite the fact that he was regularly called to work in London, he was not as well known in jazz circles in Britain as he should have been.
His arrangements were so compelling that he could often rewrite classic standards like “Laura” or “How Deep is the Ocean” so that they sounded as though he had written them himself. It’s a conceit of many writers to think that they can write original compositions that rank with the classic songs of the Gershwins and Irving Berlins. In Florence’s case he could, and he ranked with Bill Holman as the finest composer and big band leader on the West Coast. He won a Grammy for his big band album Serendipity 18 (2000), and two Emmys.
“Somehow my mother discovered that I had perfect pitch,” he recounted, “and started me on the piano two months before I turned five. I gave my first full-scale piano recital when I was seven. Iwas seriously headed tow ards a concert pianist career, but I always loved big bands and jazz”. When he left high school, Florence studied music at Los Angeles City College and in particular with Bob McDonald, who took a class in arranging and orchestration. McDonald had a deep background in jazz and under his influence Florence soon joined the college big band.
By 1956 he had joined Les Brown’s band and wrote for it too. He wrote also for the bands led by Harry James and Louie Bellson and in 1959 joined the big band led by Si Zentner. “My career broke wide open because of an arrangement of “Up A Lazy River” done for Si’s big band.” Zentner’s record became a hit. Commissions followed for Florence from many of the great jazz names – Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and Count Basie among them, and in the commercial field he wrote for Andy Williams, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. In the late Sixties he provided music for singers including Jack Jones, Julie Andrews, Lena Horne and Vikki Carr.
“In 1969 I did six half-hour TV specials in London with Vikki Carr,” he said.
Because of the Musicians’ Union I couldn’t do anything except write. I wrote a couple of things for her while I was there. Don Lusher was in the trombone section and Tubby Hayes, no longer tubby, was in the woodwind. He played just beautifully.
Florence returned to work for Carr in 1973 and toured with her for five years. When he returned to Los Angeles he formed his big band, made up of off-duty studio musicians. In the Eighties Florence worked for Sarah Vaughan, Doc Severinsen and Diane Schuur. In the late Eighties he reformed the big band and now called it his Limited Edition, because the musicians it was made up of had the ability to master without difficulty his most complex writing.
“My career has not been entirely a jazz career,” he said. “I’d hate to be thought of as a total jazz musician. My personal tastes are so wide-ranging.”
Robert Chase Florence, pianist, arranger, composer and bandleader: born Los Angeles 20 May 1932; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Thousand Oaks, California 15 May 2008.
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