Nelson Riddle as Composer, Not Arranger
April 1, 2016 4:32 p.m. ET
On Aug. 29, 1958, audiences at the Hollywood Bowl were treated to something extraordinary. Most of them were there to hear the superstar pop and jazz singer Nat King Cole, and were surprised when Cole’s musical director, Nelson Riddle, also conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra’s performance of several of his own instrumental compositions, which were part of a new work.
Nelson Riddle circa 1960. Photo: Capitol Records
In one sense, it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that the “Cross Country Suite,” as it was called, was unlike anything they had heard before. It was like European symphonic music and like American jazz—there were echoes of Duke Ellington and shout-outs to Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. It used the clarinet concerto form, in the best tradition of Mozart, except that the central player, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, was largely improvising his part. “Cross Country Suite” covered as many musical genres as it did American states; some sections sounded like New Orleans blues, others like Times Square show tunes. Yet all of it sounded uniquely like Riddle, and was of the same high caliber as those superlative arrangements he had been writing for stars like Cole and Frank Sinatra.
The “Cross Country Suite” had been recorded several months earlier, and the album would soon win the first-ever Grammy Award for “Best Original Instrumental Composition” in 1959. Even so, the suite would then sit on the shelf for almost 50 years. When it is played at Symphony Space on Saturday by the Wooster Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Lindberg and featuring Paquito D’Rivera as the principal soloist, it will be the New York premiere of the complete work.
It had been DeFranco (1923-2014) who had inspired Riddle (1921-1985) to compose the suite. DeFranco had asked Riddle for an extended work for jazz clarinet and classical orchestra that he could play at the clinics he was starting to give for music students at colleges across the country. Riddle began work on a long-form piece that would eventually encompass 11 movements and 36 minutes on the 1958 album.
Listening to the work in the context of Riddle’s entire career, a fact becomes clear that was less apparent in his own lifetime. While Riddle, as an arranger of others’ classic tunes, devoted most of his creative energies toward making great vocalists (like Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland and Rosemary Clooney, in addition to Cole and Sinatra) and songwriters sound even better, he yearned to create music that was truly his own. Milt Bernhart, who played trombone for Riddle for several decades, remembered near the end of his life, “Nelson said to me once that he would have traded all those arrangements for one song like Henry Mancini’s. Just one song!”
Riddle had virtually no success as a songwriter, but the “Cross Country Suite” proves that he had serious compositional talent, creating what amounts to classical music using the American vernacular. “Cross Country,” for all of its abundant originality, conforms closely to the central tenets of both suite and concerto form; no less remarkably, parts of it suggest, say, a Stravinsky ballet and the extended musical-theater dance numbers of Richard Rodgers. And, simultaneously, nearly all of the suite sounds like the best movie music, the old-world grandeur of Bernard Herrmann or Miklós Rózsa combined with the street smarts of Elmer Bernstein.
Ten years ago, Jeffrey Lindberg began to reconstruct the suite from a combination of incomplete manuscripts (preserved by both DeFranco and Riddle’s daughter, Rosemary Acerra) and his own transcription of the 1958 recording. In 2007, he conducted it with DeFranco and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra (about the same time that the album was finally reissued on CD). Excerpts were also performed by clarinetist Ken Peplowski at a Los Angeles Jazz Institute concert last October. Still, opportunities to hear the work have been rare. From the folkish simplicity of “Smoky Mountain Country” and the railroad rhythms of “Tall Timber” to the erotic pas-de-deux of “Metropolis” and the Broadway bravura of “Longhorn”—this is quintessential American concert music, the kind that deserves to be heard more widely.
—Mr. Friedwald writes about jazz for the Journal.