June 29, 1922– Ralph Burns
The world of Jazz music is one of the final cultural frontiers where homophobia runs rampant. Some attention has been given to at least three current outstanding jazz musicians: pianist Fred Hersch, vibraphonist Gary Burton and singer-pianist Andy Bey, all out of the closet cool cats. Then there is the truly great Billy Strayhorn, one of the very few openly gay jazzmen of his, or any, era. Duke Ellington, Strayhorn’s creative partner, called him: “My right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.”
Ralph Burns was one of the most important, influential composer-arrangers you’ve never heard of. At the start of his career he worked as a pianist, songwriter and arranger for swing bands. He had studied classical piano at the The New England Conservatory Of Music, but after graduation he found work with bands that included as its members, jazz royalty like Nat King Cole, Stan Getz and Art Tatum. In 1944, Burns joined the Woody Herman Band, writing songs and arranging some of their greatest hits for a decade and a half.
During those many years as a keyboard player with touring jazz bands, he kept close a dangerous secret. He was a gay man. He was a fag in a field dominated by libidinous straight guys. Burns did not have someone like Duke Ellington to protect him like did Billy Strayhorn, so he lived a life terrified that his secret would be discovered. In his memoir The Night People (1971), trombonist Dicky Wells recalled the main topic of conversation on the Count Basie Orchestra’s tour bus: “Chicks. Chicks. Chicks. What else?” Burns knew that a guy had to join in the exchanges or he could be facing ridicule and the loss of his job. He had to play it cool his entire career. Burns:
“Everybody would joke, ‘Oh, that fag!’, and if they wanted to be funny, they’d lisp. My one fear was that at one time or another they’d turn on me, but luckily they never did.”
In NYC in the 1940s, all that was available for someone like Burns for scoring with other gay men was the rare opportunity when he could fraternize at a friend-of-a-friend’s private party away from the limelight. Some of those soirees were hosted by fellow gay songwriter-pianist Strayhorn. Burns and Strayhorn would play duets on the piano for the guests. Strayhorn’s and Burns’ talents were so impressive that, out of respect for their careers, straight colleagues would never mention their gayness, even though everyone was pretty much in on their secret.
Burns could never be truly himself working in jazz ensembles and he began to record with his own orchestra in the 1950s, and sometimes with Strayhorn and saxophonist Ben Webster sitting in. He made a successful transition from the big band sound to the new hip bebop style. He wrote and arranged terrific material for singers: Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Peggy Lee, and Aretha Franklin. He did the arrangements for two huge hits by Ray Charles: Georgia On My Mind and Come Rain Or Come Shine, with Burns bright idea to use a string section on both songs.
In the 1960s, Burns moved to arranging and orchestrating Broadway musicals and film soundtracks. Among his many successes: Funny Girl (1964), Sweet Charity (1966), and Chicago (1975) on stage, plus on screen: The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), Urban Cowboy (1980), Cabaret (1972) winning an Academy Award for Music Supervisor, New York New York, (1977), All That Jazz (1979) winning another Oscar, and receiving an Oscar nomination for Annie (1982). For television, Burns received an Emmy Award for his work on Baryshnikov On Broadway (1980). He provided the scores and/or the orchestrations for 55 films.
In the 1990s, he provided arrangements and musical direction for major cabaret artists such as Mel Tormé, John Pizzarelli and Michael Feinstein. Burns won a Tony Award for Best Orchestrations for Fosse (1999) and bittersweet posthumous Tony Award for Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002). From 1996 until his passing, Burns restored many vintage orchestrations for the fabulous New York City Center’s Encores! series of revivals, both for his own shows and shows originally orchestrated by other talents.
Burns took his final bow in 2001, taken by complications from a stroke when he was 79 years old. In the last two decades of his life, Burns was finally able to live as an openly gay man. Times had changed and it did no damage to his career. He got commissions right up until his departure from this existence. When he was found in his apartment, the score for a long planned musical was at his piano. A Massachusetts native, Burns was inducted into the New England Jazz Hall Of Fame in 2004. Do not despair if you have never heard of this major gay musician. His career was mostly made in behind-the-scenes work, providing the best possible support for the great singing stars. He liked it that way.
My research brought me no knowledge of his love life. This made me sad.
Burns’s masterpiece is Summer Sequence, a lush, luscious half-hour long suite introduced by Woody Herman, with Stan Getz on saxophone, at Carnegie Hall in 1946. Burns:
“That was something I wish I could remember more. It was a thrilling night. The band was at its absolute peak. We thought nothing of it at the time, like a baseball team that went on to the World Series.”