Born on June 29, 1922, in Newton, MA; died on November 21, 2001, in Los Angeles, CA. Education: Attended the New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, MA.

When Ralph Burns died in the fall of 2001, he left behind not one, but two remarkable careers in music. The first, forged during the big band era of the 1940s, was as an arranger--and pianist--for some of the biggest bands of the period, most notably Woody Herman's first two Herds. In the second of his musical careers, Burns worked as a composer and arranger for motion pictures, Broadway theater, and television. For his work in films and theater, Burns was honored with two Academy Awards and a Tony.

Burns was born on June 29, 1922, in Newton, Massachusetts. He began playing the piano when he was seven years old and was heavily involved in music throughout his school years. In the fall of 1938 he enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. While attending the conservatory, Burns lived with the family of Frances Wayne, who would later become one of the best known big-band singers of the 1940s. Both Frances and her brother Nick Jarret had a profound influence on Burns's early career. Burns played piano with Jarret's band in the Boston area and later traveled with them to New York City to audition for an engagement at Kelly's Stables, a popular jazz club. Jarret's band landed the job, and Burns, still only 18, was soon playing on the same bill as Nat King Cole, Art Tatum, and Coleman Hawkins. Burns later told Stan Voce of the British newspaper the Independent that he was paid $35 a night for the gig. "Although he was famous, Nat was paid at the black union rate, so he only got $32. We joked about it later, but it wasn't funny for him at the time." He later left the Jarret band to freelance with a number of bands in the New York area.

When Frances Wayne joined Charlie Barnet's band as a vocalist in the early 1940s, she recommended that Barnet hire Burns to play piano and write arrangements. Barnet complied, and Burns soon proved his worth, composing "The Moose," which showcased the talents of another Barnet pianist, Dodo Marmarosa, and writing a classic arrangement of "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe." Because of a union ban on recording, Barnet's organization was unable to record the latter tune, which featured Wayne on vocals. Before long, Burns had established himself as one of the most respected arrangers in jazz.

In 1944 Burns joined Woody Herman's Thundering Herd as pianist and arranger. For the first couple of years he played piano with the band but later concentrated exclusively on writing. Some of his more memorable compositions from this period included "Apple Honey," "Bijou," and a jazz suite entitled "Summer Sequence." One lyrical segment of "Summer Sequence," called "Early Autumn," provided the vehicle for the launch of saxophonist Stan Getz's solo career. Of Getz, who later joined Herman's second Herd, Burns told Voce: "Stan Getz was unique. He could sight-read almost anything. Nothing was too difficult." When the union's recording ban ended in February of 1945, Herman went into the studio with Burns and Wayne to record Burns's arrangement of "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe," originally written for Barnet. Not surprisingly, Barnet was none too happy.

As Herman's Thundering Herd grew in popularity it landed a regular radio broadcast, and Burns found himself so busy writing arrangements that he stopped playing piano with the band. Contemporary classical composer Igor Stravinsky was so impressed with the arrangements Burns was writing for Herman's band that he composed his Ebony Concerto exclusively for Herman, who later recorded it.

During the late 1940s Burns managed to keep his piano playing skills sharp by playing with a small group of Herman soloists--including Chubby Jackson, Bill Harris, Dave Tough, and saxophonist Charlie Ventura, who led the group--on the band's nights off. Major influences on Burns's writing during this period were "Lush Life" composer Billy Strayhorn and Strayhorn's sometime collaborator, Duke Ellington. During a visit to Long Island, Burns wrote perhaps his most memorable jazz composition, the Summer Sequence suite, the fourth movement of which, later titled "Early Autumn," was recorded by Herman's second Herd, which featured such well-known jazz musicians as Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Shorty Rogers, and Serge Chaloff. In 1949 Herman put together a small band made up of Burns, Bill Harris, Conte Candoli, and Milt Jackson for a tour of Cuba. While there, Burns was jailed overnight on trumped-up charges that he had stolen a fur collar belonging to a young woman he briefly dated.

In the early 1950s Burns began recording under his own name, although he continued to write for Herman and others. During this period he wrote and arranged for jazz singer Carmen McRae and collaborated with Strayhorn on an album of ballads for tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. For Herman, some of his more notable work included "Strange," his own composition, and an arrangement of "Ill Wind" for saxophonist Bill Perkins.

As the popularity of the big band sound faded, Burns began working on arrangements for some of the period's leading singers, including Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, and Johnny Mathis. Burns also wrote the arrangement for Ray Charles' hit recording of "Georgia on My Mind." During the early 1960s he became increasingly involved in orchestrating Broadway musicals, including such memorable shows as Funny Girland Sweet Charity. From Broadway it was a fairly natural progression to Hollywood, where he earned his first movie credit for the score of Woody Allen's Bananas, released in 1971. Next up was the film version of Cabaret, reuniting him with Bob Fosse, with whom he had worked on the stage version of Sweet Charity. The two collaborated on three other films, Lenny, released in 1974; All That Jazz in 1979; and Star 80 in 1983. Sixteen years after his last screen collaboration with Fosse, Burns won a Tony Award for his orchestration of the Broadway musical Fosse, which showcased the late choreographer/director's life and work.

Burns's work in motion pictures won him two Academy Awards, the first in 1972 for Best Adaptation and Original Song Score for Cabaret, and in 1979 for Best Adaptation Score for All That Jazz, both projects associated with Fosse. His other work in Hollywood included serving as music director for Mame, Lucky Lady, A Chorus Line, and In the Mood. He adapted the music for the film versions of Annie, First Family, and Urban Cowboy, and orchestrated the scores for High Anxiety, The World's Greatest Lover, History of the World, Part I, To Be or Not to Be, and The Addams Family.

Burns continued to write for both motion pictures and the stage until the spring of 2001 when a stroke forced him to retire. In his interview with Steve Voce, Burns reminisced about his long career in music, telling Voce that he had had a good life and a happy one. He expressed thanks for having had Woody Herman as a boss early in his music career. "Woody believed in simplicity, and he could see the essence of everything. It was a great virtue." He said that Herman had supported his experiments in writing unusual lines for vibraphone and guitar for the band.

Burns died on November 21, 2001, in a Los Angeles hospital from pneumonia and complications from his earlier stroke. Although he will be long remembered for his contributions to the music of both Broadway and Hollywood, there is little doubt that his years with the Herman Herds--and the tremendous influence he had on the big band sound of that era and jazz in general--will be his greatest legacy.

by Don Amerman

Ralph Burns's Career

First joined Nick Jerret's band; was later hired as pianist and arranger for Charlie Barnet; joined Woody Herman's (first) Thundering Herd as both pianist and arranger but was later replaced as pianist to focus entirely on arranging, late 1943; began recording under his own name, early 1950s, continued to write for Herman throughout the decade; wrote orchestrations for Broadway musicals including Sweet Charity and Funny Girl, 1960s; wrote first motion picture score for 1971's Bananas but gained wide recognition in 1972 for his work on Cabaret; worked extensively in films, television, and theater until his death.

Ralph Burns's Awards

Academy Award, Best Adaptation, Original Song Score for Cabaret, 1972, and Best Adaptation Score for All That Jazz, 1979; Tony Award, Best Orchestration for Fosse, 1999.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

In my view of things musical, Ralph Burns is an amazingly unheralded and under-appreciated arranger and composer and possibly pianist of jazz-influenced music. His stuff for the Herman band and subsequently for Broadway constitute an impressive body of work.