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Ralph Burns Dies at 79

Ralph Burns, who had a distinguished career as a bop-era arranger before moving on to fame and fortune in film scoring, died last Wednesday, Nov. 28 in Los Angeles. He was 79. He died of complications from a recent stroke as well as pneumonia, according to a spokesman for his business manager.

Burns was born in Newton, Mass., on June 29, 1922. He took up the piano as a child, and spent his teenage years working in a local jazz orchestra. He said later that he learned orchestration by transcribing recordings of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington note-for-note to see how they got their sound.

After moving to New York in the early 1940s, Burns joined Woody Herman’s band, and served in it as a pianist and writer for fifteen years. He wrote many of the band’s big hits, including “Bijou,” “Apple Honey” and the ambitious three-part “Summer Sequence.” Herman later told jazz critic Leonard Feather that Burns “was as much responsible for our sound as anyone at that time.”

Nevertheless, he left Herman’s band to do freelance work for Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, among others. Burns arranged two of Charles’ biggest hits: “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Georgia on My Mind.” He also did much freelance work for Broadway shows. He eventually settled into film scoring, and won two Academy Awards for his work, writing for such familiar movies as Cabaret, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and Annie.

His latest work marked a return to jazz, as he arranged albums for Mel Torme and John Pizzarelli.

Originally Published