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Jeff Sultanof on Pete Rugolo

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Shortly after Pete Rugolo died this week, Jeff Sultanof offered to contribute a piece putting Rugolo's work in perspective. I was delighted to accept and flattered that he considered Rifftides the proper place for his essay.

Jeff is a native of New York City, where he lives and works. He is a composer, orchestrator, editor, educator and researcher greatly admired in the community of professional musicians, critics and academics. He has analyzed, studied, edited and taught the music of Gerald Wilson, Robert Farnon, Harry Warren and Miles Davis, among others. The Rifftides staff is honored to present Mr. Sultanof's thoughts about the importance of Pete Rugolo.


The career of Pete Rugolo as a film and television composer has been covered elsewhere in great detail. As good as his work in that world was, Rugolo's importance is far greater elsewhere. And that is what I wish to celebrate here.

The musical medium delivering popular music in the twenties through the mid-40s has been called a lot of things in retrospect— an orchestra, a big band, a jazz ensemble and a stage band. Back in that period, its primary function was providing music for dancing. Songs made their way to bandleaders and were assigned to writers who loved arranging the good ones and tried to do something at least interesting with the duds. Singers interpreted the lyrics, and the groups made records to promote the songs and the bands.

It was Paul Whiteman who liberated the ensemble to play concert music, later followed by Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw. But such ensembles and the opportunities to play such music were few. Agents wanted their clients to make money, and the way to do that was feature a unique sound and come up with a hit record so that you could break into the big time and make some real money at ballrooms, hotels and movie theatres.

Things changed after World War Two and the time was right for a new ensemble that could concertize as well as play for dancing. Luckily, an excellent musician named Stan Kenton was not only a good arranger and bandleader, but also an excellent salesman. Stanley liked the music of a soldier he'd met sometime in 1944. When the soldier got out of the army, Pete Rugolo had a job. He would become one of the world's great composers, helping to change the world of the big band and showing composers around the world that the resources of saxophones, brass and rhythm had barely been explored. He certainly wasn't the only one to do this at the time (one thinks of George Handy, Gerald Wilson, Johnny Richards, Paul Villepigue and Ralph Burns, who were also expanding the vocabulary of the dance band), but thanks to the success of the Kenton orchestra, he was able to explore, experiment and have his music recorded and heard by millions. No less than Leonard Bernstein was an admirer and fan of Rugolo's music, and said so publicly; Rugolo would discover that many composers of concert music knew his work and were influenced by it. Some of his pieces were published in score format at a time when this simply was not done. For a couple of bucks, you could buy the score of a Rugolo composition to study. Even though he would achieve great success as a composer for television and film, it is the music he wrote during 1945 through 1948 which may be the most lasting and innovative.

After earning a B.A in music, Rugolo became one of the first malestudents at Mills College because he wanted to study with the eminent French composer, Darius Milhaud (pictured), who later taught Dave Brubeck. When he joined Kenton, Stanley gave Rugolo pop tunes to arrange. Later, he let Pete write what he wanted. Many band members hated his writing because it didn't swing, but Kenton couldn't have cared less. It was new, interesting, often highly dissonant and uncompromising, and it created for the band a commercial niche called “Progressive Jazz." Even though Kenton had had his fill of dance dates, playing such music he was able to sell out major concert halls. Rugolo was one of the first composers for big band to write in meters other than 2, 3 or 4 (his “Elegy for Alto" is in 5/4 time). Desiring different tone colors and combinations, he wrote sections of pieces with brass in different mutes (five trumpets would be divided into one open, two in straight mutes, two in cup mutes). For many listeners, the musical vocabularies of Bartok, Stravinsky and Berg were first experienced with Kenton's orchestra, and yet the stamp was uniquely Rugolo.

When Kenton disbanded, Rugolo moved to New York and became a staff arranger/producer for Capitol Records. He was responsible for signing and producing recordings of such artists as the Dave Lambert Singers, the Miles Davis Nonet (the famous “Birth of the Cool" recordings), Tadd Dameron, and Bill Harris. He arranged for Harry Belafonte, Nat Cole, Mel Torme and June Christy; he later wrote many wonderful albums for Christy during the fifties. He moved back to California to work at MGM Studios, often uncredited.

In 1954, he was signed to Columbia Records to record his own orchestra, but because of harassment by Mitch Miller, his tenure there was unpleasant even though the music was excellent. In 1956, he signed with Mercury Records and made a series of albums with all-star studio ensembles that are still fresh, exciting and beautifully recorded at the Capitol Tower. Happily, most of them have been reissued on CD and are available, but it wasn't easy to get these recordings for many years. Some time ago, I met Rugolo and told him how much I loved these albums and hoped they'd be reissued. Rugolo agreed, saying “Have the guys at these labels even seen who's playing on them? They should be available just because of all those great musicians." This was typical of Pete; forget the music, reissue them because of who's on them. Talk about humble!

He lived to the age of 95, long enough to be celebrated for his considerable contribution to music. Happily, YouTube has several clipsof Pete conducting his music, so future generations will be able to see him in action.

Pete was a wine collector, along with Henry Mancini. I raise a glass to Pete Rugolo for the many ways in which he touched us and left his considerable mark in music. He left so much of it that his spirit will always be with us. That's what is special about being an artist.

(© Jeff Sultanof, 2011)


Here's an example of Rugolo's ingenuity with unusual instrumentation. From the 1961 Mercury album 10 Saxophones and 2 Guitars, it's the Charlie Barnet staple “Skyliner."This was at the height of record companies' exhilaration over early stereo. Rugolo knew how to take advantage of the possibilities of the new technology's capacity for sonic range and depth without beating it to death.

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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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