Profile by Howard Lucraft

The prestigious American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC) gives an annual “Golden Score” award for “continued excellence and achievement in arranging and composing”. As a long–time ASMAC member (and both former vice president and executive director) I am a proud major influence in the choice of awardees in previous years, which have included Alex North and Benny Carter. This year the “Golden Score” most deservedly went to Pete Rugolo.

All jazz buffs know of Pete as the primary composer and arranger in the early, highly successful years of the Stan Kenton Orchestra. In Hollywood today Pete is far more famous as a film and TV composer.

Pete’s film credits (mostly musicals for Joe Pasternak) include “Where the Boys Are”, “Skirts Ahoy”, “Latin Lovers”, “The Strip”, “Everything I Have Is Yours”, “Easy to Love”, and “Jack the Ripper”. His TV scores (some of which received Emmy awards and nominations) are too numerous to mention. Possibly the most famous are “Richard Diamond”, “Run for Your Life” and “The Bold Ones”.

Hollywood has always applauded Pete for his unique creativity—for his thematic material, form and style and original colours in orchestration. When Pete had his big band he introduced a special reed sound. In contrast to the Glenn Miller clarinet lead, Pete had an alto flute lead, above four saxophones.

Pete’s pertinent pointers for tyro arrangers—use imagination, courage and inquisitiveness in writing—always wonder how this and that would sound together. “Nowadays there are no rules to follow”, Pete declared. “Today the techniques of players have improved so much. You can write almost anything and they will play it.” Pete likes to use colours that are only possible in a studio—such as a bass flute against eight brass.

Pete Rugolo was born in Sicily on Christmas Day 19 15. His father played baritone horn. Both his sisters were musicians. The Rugolo family came to the United States when Pete was five.

He claims that he originally learned to write “just by trial and error. I just got the sheet music and started to write arrangements. I was playing piano in my home town of Santa Rosa, California. I used to question the arrangers in the name bands that came to town.” Later Pete did study extensively. He gained a B.A. at San Francisco College. Then he studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College and obtained his M.A.

“To be an effective composer for films and TV the more schooled you are as a musician the more fluently you can write. You must know harmony and counterpoint thoroughly.” Speed writing is essential, of course, for TV series. “You must have the idea(s) properly in your mind before you start.” Pete is probably the most modest, self–effacing yet ultra original composer/ arranger in Hollywood. It’s hard to think of another famous film composer with such a varied background of successes.

After some 100 compositions and arrangements for Kenton he became an A&R man at Capitol Records. There he arranged, composed, directed and produced jazz records with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Maynard Ferguson, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Buddy DeFranco, Dizzy Gillespie—and the list goes on and on. Pete’s vocal arrangements /productions include June Christy, Nat Cole, Mel Torme, Billy Eckstine, Peggy Lee, to mention but a few.

Returning to his later film/TV writing he has emphasised to students: “Study the published scores, like those of Henry Mancini.” (Typically modest, Pete didn’t mention the many published Rugolo scores.) Pete’s further advice: “Never copy anything. Develop a style that people know it’s you—whether it’s a tone colour, or rhythmic pattern or different voicing of strings or whatever.” Pete also stresses the “kitchen sink” trap. “Take one little idea, one little ‘gem’, and develop it. It’s knowing what not to put in, when not to fill. Write a couple of bars and develop them. Simplicity is the key.

“Never feel that you have to set the world on fire in one go. Remember you are going to write a thousand arrangements!”

This article was first published in Crescendo & Jazz music, August, 1993.

Copyright © 1993, Howard Lucraft. All Rights Reserved