Bill Holman – Master Of Musical Unity

July 24, 2012

by Pete McGuinness

EA Jazz Master Bill Holman is one of jazz music’s most brilliant artists – a composer/arranger who can be incredibly clever, humorous, and surprising, while always bringing a sense of logic and structure to his work. A great sense for truly swinging melody is also present in every note and figure he writes. But perhaps equally important is his mastery of creating a feeling of unity in a piece, accomplished so musically that the listener may not always be directly aware it is happening. Looking at or listening to a Holman score is like being on a treasure hunt, trying to find all the various ways that make every moment of his wonderful writing sensible and hang together.

One of the first Bill Holman big band recordings I ever heard was his Great Big Band LP from 1960 (Capitol), one of Bill’s most charming offerings. His original “Quick Step” off of that record is a classic example of all that makes Bill Holman a master of unity while keeping the listener surprised – a truly difficult feat for any arranger, and one which Holman seems to do effortlessly. If possible, listen to the recording of this great arrangement to enhance what you will read in this article. What follows is by no means a complete analysis, but will try to hit on some key points that show Bill Holman’s great ability to create and maintain a feeling of unity during the course of jazz big band composition.

“Quick Step” is structured in seven 24-bar choruses, starting with an eight-bar introduction and ending with four bars of concluding material. The intro (see Intro Score Reduction example) starts with the brass playing strong, fully voiced figures at the very beginning which includes a rhythmic motif (motif “X”) to be used frequently later in the chart as a counter figure.

Also seen is the prominence of the interval of the whole step, seen in both the range of each brass two-bar figure and in the two-part sax voicing below. The intro continues for four more bars (not shown), featuring various whole-step voicings in different grouping in the ensemble. After this, we are greeted with the first presentation of the melody (see Melody/Variations Segments examples), scored for unison trombones with saxes playing counter figures. It is a fairly straightforward yet catchy 24-bar melody set in three eight-bar phrases structured in an A A’ B form. Harmonically, the A section is based more or less on G mixolydian, while A’ is a melodic and harmonic sequence down a whole step (now set over F mixolydian). This obvious key shift of a whole step between the first two sections itself ties into the importance of the whole step in general as a unifying element. We also see two other things coming to life as hinted at in the intro – the three pick-up notes in trombone melody cover a range of a whole step. The counter line in the saxes below are as well three notes within a range of a whole step, but also are structured with the same rhythm as motif “X” from the intro. The final B section of the song’s form is structured with moving harmony (basically in a diatonic turn-around cycle) with a stronger and more active swing feel and busier melodic activity. The entire 24-bar chorus is repeated with slightly different ending material and a short drum break to lead into the third 24-bar chorus (and first variation). Holman smartly gives us two full listenings of this melody chorus, allowing us to clearly remember it as he presents all of the many variations to follow.


Now the fun really begins. Many arrangers, after having clearly established a strong introduction and melody, would then normally move on to completely new material, often unrelated to any elements of either the introduction or main melody. Holman in this piece brings back elements of the original melody and/or counter figures over and over again at the start of each new chorus – sometimes in an obvious manner, sometimes cleverly hidden in the background.

Variation #1 gives us his first revisiting of the melody chorus.  It is a nine-bar phrase at the top of the third chorus of the chart, acting as send-off into a piano solo. The original version of this phrase was presented mainly with the light texture of unison trombones and sax section counter figures. To counter that, Bill gives the melodic material to the entire horn section in tutti voicings, using two of the melody’s original first three notes (D and E), but presenting them later in the phrase (waiting until beat 3), starting with the E (rather than the D), and scoring all of this with a new rhythmic motif. Despite all of these alterations, one still feels a connection to the original first motif of the melody. In bars C and D of this variation notice how he very subtly reminds us of the basic rhythm and pitch range of the original sax counter figure at this spot in the form. Another very clever thing about this 9-bar phrase which only dawned on me later is how each two-bar ensemble figure enters one eighth-note earlier each time, until the final note of the phrase (bar I), breaking the pattern by entering on beat 2.  This last hit also helps with the form by making the second eight-bar phrase of the song’s form (A’) sound more distinct.


Variation #2 shows one of the things I love best about Holman – his ability to bring back the melodic material in backgrounds and counter lines. See how he starts this chorus with three pick-ups in unison trombone (like the original melody, but also using motiv “X” rhythmically displaced), but here the pitches are taken from the original sax counter figure. Unison saxes also appear in this phrase, answering the trombones with their original rhythmic figure (motiv “X”), but now with descending intervals and in a range above the trombones. Notice in both trombones’ and saxes’ motivs the melodic range of the whole step. Also notice how Holman subtly highlights the tritone sound by exposing the F# (#11 of C7) as the first note of the phrase in bar C of this variation. The listener might not even be aware of the relationship between this background material and that of the intro and/ore opening chorus, as Holman has cleverly juggled so many of the melodic elements.

Variation #3 presents the melody as yet another send-off, this time into Holman’s own tenor sax solo. The melody here is stated in the trumpets in octaves over harmonized saxes and trombones. He has an extra pick-up note – an A on beat 2 of the pick up bar, and continues into bars B and C exactly like the original. But notice in bar D the melody suddenly leaps up to a high A on the and-of one, one octave higher that that first extra pick-up and enclosing the entire nine-bar phrase. The saxes and trombones at the start are voiced featuring a sax lead line moving back and forth by a tritone (between C# and G). The tritone again appears in the lead sax in bars C and D, but in a different rhythmic structure and voicing, carefully avoiding overly obvious repetition.

Variation #4 brings us to the arrangement’s exciting “Shout Chorus.” Now the melody appears in the sax section, strongly-voiced in octaves. The brass play fully-voiced counter figures above making use of the motif “X” rhythm in bars A and E, but adding an extra note on 4-and. As we look on into the remainder of this 8-bar example, notice how the melody in the saxes is much more active and embellished. The brass make use of a surprising new rhythmic grouping in bar C into D, which also highlights the tritone interval of the F# (#11) over the root of C. All of this helps to create a feeling of excitement as we continue on into the remainder of this chorus. Holman ends the Shout with tag-like tutti figures against two-bar drum breaks, a recapitulation of the intro and first original melody chorus (no repeat of the melody chorus here), and some final humorous sounding ensemble stabs voiced in whole steps and separated by a tritone (B over A whole step in one group, F over Eb in another), giving us one final display of some of the unifying elements to this wonderful arrangement.

In a recent phone conversation I had with Bill Holman, we talked about this piece. Bill is one of the most humble and straightforward people I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with. When I asked him about his thoughts on this chart, Bill simply responded by claiming “I got lucky with this one.” But he did acknowledge one thing he remembered about his thinking regarding this work – he said he was particularly happy about how the form of this chart worked out. I have tried to illuminate at least some of the reasons why Bill should indeed be happy. His work is a joy to listen to and to study. Whether writing for Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan, Woody Herman, Louis Bellson, Terry Gibbs, Count Basie, or the various bands of his own he has lead throughout the years, his charts have always been among my favorites and are one of the main reasons I personally chose to pursue the art of big band composing/arranging. Thanks Bill! I know I’m not alone in my gratitude.

Pete McGuinness is the professor of Jazz Arranging at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. and is a Grammy-nominated and NEA grant-winning big band composer-arranger. He has written music for numerous ensembles including The Dave Liebman Big Band, The Lionel Hampton Orchetra, Bill Mobley’s Smoke Big Band and The Westchester Jazz Orchestra. Pete leads his one New York City-based big band The Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra. His big band scores and compositions are available through Kendor Music publishing.

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