Ralph Burns

Of the dozens of fine composers and arrangers to come out of New England, none was ever more accomplished or more prolific than Ralph Burns, who left indelible marks on music in America from coast to coast and not only in the jazz idiom.

While with Herman in the late 1940s, Burns was the anchor of a composing/arranging staff unsurpassed in big band history. Among his colleagues were Nat Pierce, Neal Hefti, Shorty Rogers, Red Norvo, Bill Harris, Terry Gibbs, Jimmy Giuffre and even Igor Stravinsky, who was inspired to compose “Ebony Concerto” for Herman after hearing some of the works Burns had done for the band. Burns was impressionable himself and often stayed up all night listening to records of Stravinsky, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.

According to British jazz journalist and radio man Steve Voce, “Burns was befriended by Alexis Haieff, Stravinsky’s protégé, and he studied composition and orchestration with him. It was to serve him in good stead, for Burns went on to be not only a jazz figure to rank with Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans, but also to become one of the finest orchestrators of popular music.

“Burns kept busy with writing, never short of work throughout the best part of 60 years, manuscripts for a projected musical on his desk when he died. His skills were directed at chamber composition, jazz writing and at enhancing those who performed the great American songbook. He was matchless, and it is certain that the timeless nature of his work will ensure its survival along with the best of Ellington and Strayhorn, whom he so much admired.”

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