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Grammy-winning bandleader and arrangerby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2008 Todd S. Jenkins
Bob Florence’s perpetual love of big-band jazz transcended the fact that he kept up its evolution well after the market for the style had withered. From the 1970s onward his band, the Limited Edition, was one of the most acclaimed large ensembles in jazz, regularly employing L.A.’s top session musicians to perform Florence’s distinctive arrangements. The native Los Angeleno died of pneumonia on May 15, 2008. He was a few days shy of his seventy-sixth birthday.
Florence was born in 1932 with music in his veins; his first piano lessons came at the age of three. He had fully intended to pursue a career in classical piano, but diverted into the jazz and pop market while attending L.A. City College. He began writing charts and put together a “kicks” band that often included fellow students Tommy Tedesco, Herb Geller and Dennis Budimir. Within a few months Florence’s band was rehearsing in the local union hall and had drawn many fine young jazzheads. Florence led his first recording session, a trio date, in 1958. The following year saw his first big band disc (Name Band, featuring Geller and trumpeter Johnny Audino). The distinctive arrangements of Bill Holman, unlike anything else in modern big-band jazz, made a lasting impression on Florence.
After graduating from LACC, Florence played with and arranged for Alvino Rey, Les Brown and Harry James before settling into a long career with Si Zentner’s band. In 1961 Florence’s arrangement of “Up a Lazy River” scored Zentner his biggest hit. Zentner and Florence then worked on Exotica Suite (1962), arranging Les Baxter’s music for Space Age/kitsch icon Martin Denny.
Dave Pell, who conducted A&R for Liberty Records, signed Florence to arrange for the label’s artists. He wrote charts for Pell, Zentner, Bud Shank, singer Vicki Carr, and the Johnny Mann Singers. In the same period Florence did some TV arrangements for Red Skelton and Dean Martin, and delved into the pop market with Sergio Mendes. Florence’s 1964 album Here and Now earned praise from both the critics and Thelonious Monk, who appreciated the leader’s arrangement of “Straight No Chaser”.
The 1970s saw more studio jobs than anything else for Florence, who never lacked for work. For five years he served as Vicki Carr’s musical director, a role he would later fill for Julie Andrews as well. In 1978 Florence’s band was signed to Pete Christlieb’s Trend Records; the album Live at Concerts by the Sea heralded a new era of quality big-band jazz in Los Angeles. His recordings for Trend and Discovery (Westlake, 1981) sealed Florence’s position as a premier arranger and bandleader, and fueled the careers of men like Ray Pizzi, Steve Huffsteter, Carl Saunders, Kim Richmond and Charlie Loper.
Though he was criticized at times for drawing from a small, regular cadre of white men, Florence turned out a consistent flow of fresh, creative music and always drew the best out of his sidemen. Dubbed the Bob Florence Limited Edition in 1982, his band was a prime source of jazz exploration for L.A.’s studio musicians, recording for Bosco, USA Music Group, MAMA Foundation and Summit Records. In 2000 the album Serendipity 18 (MAMA) earned Florence a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance by a Large Ensemble. In his later years Florence led an in-demand quartet with Kim Richmond, and recorded a duo album in 2007 with singer Annette Sanders. The Limited Edition’s final album, Eternal Licks and Grooves, was issued by MAMA in May 2007.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.