Bill Holman: In Memoriam

15 May 2024

On 6 May 2024, we lost a dear friend of ASMAC, Bill Holman (Willis Leonard Holman) at the age of 96, two weeks shy of his 97th birthday. Willis was often in attendance at luncheons, teaching masterclasses, referenced by inspiration and arrangements performed by others, and a genuine friend and nice fellow—a gentleman—to all who had the honor of meeting him. In 2008, we honored Bill with the Irwin Kostal Tribute Award (photos) during our Golden Score Awards banquet (2008 video excerpt with Bill). That same year Diane Warren received the President’s Award and Alan Silvestri the Golden Score. Bill was also a former member of the ASMAC Board of Directors. Here’s the New York Times obit for Bill and Bill’s Wikipedia page.

From Gordon Goodwin, leader of the fabulous Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band:

Bill Holman was an arranger that has to rank amongst the most accomplished and distinctive in jazz history. His work had an instantly identifiable sound and the way he incorporated counterpoint into his charts was a significant gesture that moved the art form forward. He was perhaps one of the primary forces to redefine the Stan Kenton band from being a big band that played for dancing in the tradition of the 40s to a concertizing orchestra. Contemporary big bands owe much to both Kenton and Holman, who saw the artistic potential for the big band genre as music worthy of an audience’s focus and attention.

Bill’s charts for Stan Kenton were a great match for that band and for Stan’s musical sensibilities, especially in regard to achieving Stan’s concept of swing. Stan never wanted his bands to swing in a Count Basie/Ellington sense. Bill Holman’s writing allowed the band to achieve a swinging vibe without being ponderous. His charts, with their sophisticated linear and contrapuntal devices, were a fresh sound for the big band idiom. And his charts were often longer than most, with well-executed development sections, which took the listener on a journey, a more nuanced experience than the more standard “head, solos, shout chorus, head and out” approach.

Willis wrote charts that do not age in the way that some charts do. Even his arrangements of pop songs (“Norwegian Wood” or “Keep the Customer Satisfied”) hold up very well today. His arranging, orchestration and composing skills were perfectly balanced and one could hardly tell where the boundaries were amongst those three skill sets.

His music had a sass to it, combined with an undeniable wit and intellect, making his charts both fun and challenging to play. Musicians in his band knew the effort and focus required to bring Bill’s charts to life, but they also knew the musical rewards from putting forth that effort were plentiful. It was a badge of honor to play in Bill’s band, and the best musicians in the world would line up to do so.

I really did not know Willis all that well personally. I subbed on his band a few times, and did a number of big band panels with him over the years. He was always polite and respectful towards me, and even kind of shy. I on the other hand, hardly knew what to say to the man, I admired him so much.

I am grateful that he had a long and rich life and more so that he left a rich musical legacy that we all can rejoice in and continue to treasure.

RIP, Bill Holman.

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Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel

From the illustrious John Altman:

With the sad passing of Bill Holman, we lose the last surviving link to the golden age of big band arranging. I first met Willis at my very first ASMAC lunch in 1991, accompanying my uncle Woolf Phillips, then a vice president of ASMAC. I was overwhelmed by also meeting Johnny Mandel, Billy Byers, Billy May, Neal Hefti, Pete Rugolo, Benny Carter, Horace Silver, Jack Hayes etc etc, so I was understandably unable to digest the plethora of creativity in that Vine Street location. I had no idea that many of these remotely awesome figures would become close friends once I established my own tiny niche in the Los Angeles musical world, or that Willis’ and my paths would cross so often over the next thirty plus years!

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Bill Holman, Nancy Knutsen, Sylvester Rivers

Whenever I was honoured to speak at an ASMAC event he would show up, I got to interview him on a panel for one of Ken Poston’s big band events at the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, our respective bands often shared the bill (and musicians) at these marathons, and occasionally I would go to listen to, and marvel at, his rehearsals at the Union and his various concerts around LA. His writing is instantly recognisable, and his creativity extended into what we laughingly call ‘old age’! Others (who knew him far more intimately than I can claim) will testify to his warmth and musical brilliance.

I would just like to share one surreal anecdote. I was backstage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, standing with Bill, Gerry Mulligan, Conte Candoli, Herb Geller and Lou Levy (how’s that for a namedropping extravaganza?) Gerry, as was his wont, was mid lecture when his ear caught something from the stage. ‘What’s that???’ ‘Oh, that’s Pete King’ (the great British alto saxophonist) replied Lou Levy. ‘Now HE’S a genius!’ Willis fell into my arms laughing, while poor Gerry was completely deflated! RIP great man.

From the fabulous Nan Schwartz:

For those of us who compose and arrange for big bands, Bill Holman was the Gold Standard, Sui Generis.
His music lives on, and will surely stand the test of time.
And he was a true Gentleman to all of us who knew him.

And, finally, a word from our wonderful ASMAC President Gayle Levant:

It is with profound sadness that a gentle giant in our musical world has left us. Bill Holman was a legend in his own time. His superb arrangements for big bands were second to none. How wonderful that they will continue to be performed as we go forward for future generations to play and enjoy.

Bill, all of us at ASMAC will miss you, your warm smile and the twinkle in your eyes. Thank you for all of the years that you have supported us. You will be in our hearts forever.

In honor of Bill Holman, we’re making his Masterclass on Jazz Writing & Arranging Concepts available to ASMAC members for free until the end of June 2024.

Please contact us if you have any memories, stories, photos, videos of Bill Holman you’d like to share.

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