BOB FLORENCE, JAZZ COMPOSER – R.I.P.
I had the opportunity to see Florence perform with both a big band and a jazz trio – he was truly exceptional.
Legendary jazz composer, arranger and Big Band leader Bob Florence, who won a Grammy and two Emmy awards during his long career, died Thursday at his home in Thousand Oaks.
His death came five days before his 76th birthday.
Florence was widely acknowledged as a dominant force in Big Band music, keeping the genre alive with his own Los Angeles-based band, Limited Edition. He also was a respected music educator.
"He's been a fixture on the West Coast for over 50 years," said Don Shelton, a professional musician who has known Florence since 1956 and been a member of his band for the past 20 years.
"I've been listening to his music and crying tears of joy," Shelton said by phone from his La Quinta home Friday. "He was a very sensitive man, and he showed that in his music and in his personal life."
Florence won a Grammy Award in 2000 for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance for his album "Serendipity 18." He received 15 other Grammy nominations during his career.
He won Emmy awards for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction for the 1990 PBS-TV show "Julie Andrews in Concert," which was in the network's "Great Performances" series, and the 1981 CBS program "Linda Lavin, Linda In Wonderland."
Florence was born in Los Angeles on May 20, 1932.
In an interview with The Star in 2000, he recalled his earliest musical memory as "my mother standing over me with a switch, making me practice."
He was supposed to grow up to be a concert pianist, but he fell in love with the sounds of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Woody Herman. At the age of 19, he dropped his classical music studies in favor of pursuing his passion for jazz.
His first break came in 1959 when he arranged two numbers for trumpeter Harry James' band. That led to work with drummer Louie Bellson and Si Zentner, for whom Florence arranged the 1961 hit "Up a Lazy River."
He also became the pianist of choice for many singers, including Julie Andrews, Vikki Carr, Dean Martin, Andy Williams and Red Skelton, and he wrote charts for Doc Severinsen, the leader of the in-house big band on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" on NBC.
For several years, Florence had been a faculty member at Centrum, a music and arts center based at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, Wash., where he led workshops at its annual weeklong jazz festival.
Centrum's associate director Gregg Miller said Florence was highly respected for his composing and arranging.
"What impressed me so much was that, even though he was an older man, his playing was so vigorous and youthful," said Miller. He noted Florence was scheduled to lead the Centrum faculty's All-Star Big Band in a concert of his own music July 26 in Washington state.
Instead, Kim Richmond, adjunct assistant professor of Jazz Studies at USC's Thornton School of Music — and lead alto player in Florence's band — will direct the All Stars in a tribute to him.
Florence's survivors include his wife, Evie, their two children and grandchildren.
(bio by Rachel McGrath)