Ralph Jose P. Burns (June 29, 1922—November 21, 2001) was a successful American jazz songwriter, bandleader, composer, conductor, arranger, and bebop pianist, who later moved into film music. Burns was born on June 29, 1922, in Newton, MA, where he began playing the piano as a child. In 1938, he attended the New England Conservatory of Music where he studied piano with Marion Deviney but admitted that he learned the most about jazz by transcribing the works of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. While a student, Burns lived in the home of Frances Wayne’s who was already a well-known big band singer. Her brother Nick Jerret was a bandleader who began working with Burns who found himself in the company of such famous performers as Nat King Cole and Art Tatum.
After Burns moved to New York in the early 1940s, he met Charlie Barnet and the two began working together. In 1944, Burns joined the Woody Herman band with members Neal Hefti, Bill Harris, Flip Phillips, Chubby Jackson, and Dave Tough. Together, the group developed a powerful and distinctive sound. For fifteen years, Burns wrote or arranged many of the band’s major hits including “Bijou”, “Northwest Passage” and “Apple Honey”, as well as working on the longer work “Lady McGowan’s Dream” and the three-part Summer Sequence. In addition, Burns worked with numerous other musicians. The final movement of “Summer Sequence,” “Early Autumn” became the solo showcase that brought tenor saxophonist Stan Getz into the public spotlight in 1947 and launched Getz’s solo career. With lyrics by Johnny Mercer added, “Early Autumn” became a favorite of jazz vocalists and something close to being a vocal standard. Joining ASCAP in 1947, Burns also worked in a small band with soloists including Bill Harris and Charlie Ventura.
The success of the Herman band provided Burns the ability to record under his own name in the 1950s. He collaborated with Billy Strayhorn, Lee Konitz, and Ben Webster to create both jazz and classical recordings. He wrote compositions for Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis and later Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole. Burns was responsible for the arrangement and introduction of a string orchestra on two of Ray Charles’s biggest hits, “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Georgia on My Mind”. Although Burns’ direct involvement in instrumental jazz groups came to an end with the demise of the big bands, he led both small combos and pickup orchestras on about a dozen albums made under his own name between 1951 and 1964. In the 1960s, Burns was freed from touring as a band pianist, and began arranging/orchestrating for Broadway including the major show Chicago, Funny Girl, No, No, Nanette, and Sweet Charity. In 1971, Burns first film assignment was for Woody Allen’s Bananas.
Burns worked with film-director Bob Fosse and in 1972 won the Academy Award as music supervisor for Cabaret. He composed the film scores for Lenny (1974) and Martin Scorsese’s jazz-themed New York, New York (1977). Fosse again employed Burns to create the soundtrack for All That Jazz for which he also won an Academy Award in 1979. He then worked on Urban Cowboy (1980) and in 1982, Burns received another Academy Award nomination for his work in Annie. His work for the stage was also notable. Baryshnikov on Broadway in 1980 earned Burns an Emmy Award for his work. In the 1990s, Burns arranged music for Mel Tormé, John Pizzarelli, and Michael Feinstein. Burns won the Tony Award for Best Orchestrations in 1999 for Fosse and posthumously in 2002 for Thoroughly Modern Millie, which also garnered him the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Orchestrations.
From 1996 until his death, Burns restored many orchestrations for New York City Center’s Encores! series—revivals of both his own shows and shows originally orchestrated by others. On November 21, 2001, Burns died from complications of a recent stroke and pneumonia in Los Angeles, California. He was survived by one sister, Nancy Lane (Burns), and three brothers, Leo, Joe, and Gael. Burns was inducted into the New England Jazz Hall of Fame in 2004.
The following work by Ralph Burns is contained in my collection:
Pops on Broadway.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources