Bill Holman, Whose Arrangements Shaped West Coast Jazz, Dies at 96

Bill Holman, an arranger and composer whose work with Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan and other jazz greats established him as a transformative figure in the cool jazz sound associated with 1950s California, died on Monday at his home in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles. He was 96.

Kathryn King, his stepdaughter, announced the death.

Mr. Holman’s longtime collaboration with Mr. Kenton, first as a saxophonist in his band and later as an arranger, provided the foundation of his reputation, but he also went on to arrange for Maynard Ferguson, Count Basie, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Michael Bublé and many others, and to lead his own 16-piece ensemble.

He won three Grammy Awards — for his arrangements of “Take the A Train” (1988) for Doc Severinsen’s band and “Straight, No Chaser” (1998) for his own, and for his original composition “A View From the Side” (1996) — and contributed compositions and arrangements to seven other Grammy-winning records, including Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” (1991). He received a total of 16 Grammy nominations.

Mr. Holman was known for his economical, linear arrangements, which used elegant counterpoint and dissonance to enliven both old standards and his own works. Reared on the big bands of the 1930s and ’40s, he helped Mr. Kenton and others from that era make the transition to a more energetic sound in the postwar years.

He was already an innovative arranger when he was in his 20s, creating new avenues that jazz would pursue over the following decades. And yet, while he was often imitated, his unique style remained easily recognizable, even on pieces that he ghostwrote for other arrangers.

“When people refer to him as a genius, that’s not hyperbole,” Ken Poston, the founder and director of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, said in a phone interview. “That’s how many of us feel.”

He also injected a good bit of classical influence. Bela Bartok was a frequent inspiration, as was Arnold Schoenberg, in particular his avant-garde 12-tone system.

It was with a Schoenberg-inspired piece that Mr. Holman, then just out of music school, caught the attention of Mr. Kenton, a constant experimenter who was looking for a new direction as the jazz world was moving away from conventional big-band sounds.

Mr. Kenton hired him as a tenor saxophonist and asked him to write arrangements on the side. Although he eventually fired him as a musician following what Mr. Holman called a “lusty discussion” of the band’s direction, Mr. Kenton kept him as lead arranger, and for much of the 1950s he was turning out as many as two pieces a week.

He arranged six of the seven tracks on the 1955 album “Contemporary Concepts,” widely considered to be among Mr. Kenton’s best. He wrote and arranged “Invention for Guitar and Trumpet,” a track on the 1953 album “New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm,” which became one of the best-known pieces in the Kenton repertoire and was heard in the 1955 movie “Blackboard Jungle.”

Although Mr. Holman’s arrangements were thoughtful and methodical, his sound was far from sanitized or academic. And he took a laid-back, almost haphazard approach to his writing, which would often begin with tinkling aimlessly on a piano.

“If I hear something that I like, I’ll make note of it and fiddle around with it for a while to see what I can develop,” he said in a 2008 interview with the website JazzWax. “Or sometimes I’ll just start writing foolishness, and somehow the connection between my hand and my head kicks in, and I start thinking of things.”

Willis Leonard Holman was born on May 21, 1927, in Olive, Calif., a town in Orange County, and grew up in nearby Santa Ana. His father, Leonard, was an accountant, and his mother, Ida May (Beard) Holman, managed the home.

He did not come from a musical family, but he fell in love with the big-band sounds he heard on the radio. He played clarinet in junior high, then switched to saxophone in high school.

To please his parents, he pursued a career in mechanical engineering — first while in the Navy, at the University of Colorado, and then for a year at the University of California, Los Angeles. But engineering didn’t move him, and a few years after leaving school he enrolled at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles, where he learned the fundamentals of arranging and composition. He played saxophone with a number of bands around the city and was with the Charlie Barnet orchestra when he first caught Mr. Kenton’s attention.

Mr. Holman was married three times, to Jocelyn Hansen, the singer Jeri Southern and Gaye Holly Day; all three marriages ended in divorce. Along with his stepdaughter, from his second marriage, he is survived by two sons from his first marriage, Jeff and Roger; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Mr. Holman formed his own band in 1975. It toured regularly and practiced every week until 2020, when the pandemic brought travel and in-person gatherings to a halt.

In 2010 the National Endowment for the Arts named Mr. Holman a Jazz Master, considered the highest honor in the field.

More than anything, Mr. Poston said, it was his band that kept him fresh, giving him a laboratory to try out new arrangements and ideas.

“Most writers don’t have a band like that at your fingertips,” he added. “It was a constant living and breathing institution.”

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