With 22 Grammy Award nominations and three Grammy wins to his credit, composer and arranger Don Sebesky has made his mark on music from the big jazz bands of the 1960s and some of the classic jazz recordings of the 1970s, to stage, film, and television. A wildly prolific artist, Sebesky gave up the trombone to dedicate himself fully to composing and arranging, specializing in orchestra music, particularly swing, big band, and jazz. The “versatile and quite often moving” composer-arranger, according to Down Beat, has released more than eight albums, including the Grammy-winning I Remember Bill: A Tribute to Bill Evans and Joyful Noise: A Tribute to Duke Ellington. He also authored the book The Contemporary Arranger, published in 1975.
Born on December 10, 1937, in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Sebesky was voted “Most Musical” and “Ideal High School Boy” in high school. He studied trombone in high school and played on weekends in New York City with Warren Covington. His first composition, arrangement, and trombone solos were recorded in 1954 with Covington. After graduating from high school in 1955, he attended the Manhattan School of Music on scholarship where he studied music composition. In
1958, he joined the Kai Winding Septet, replacing Carl Fontana. Also that year, he joined the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra, with which he recorded many of his compositions, arrangements, and solos until 1964. It was with Ferguson that Sebesky was first noticed as a writer. He became part of the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1959, recording three albums with the group. In 1960, Sebesky gave up playing trombone and devoted himself completely to composing and arranging in 1960. Among the vocalists and instrumentalists he worked for during the early 1960s were Hugo Montenegro, Carmen McRae, Andre Kostelanetz, and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. He broke into television in 1965 when he joined the writing staff of the Jimmy Dean Show on ABC-TV. He composed the show’s theme and all its arrangements and was music director from 1967-68.
Sebesky would go on to write extensively for television and film. He composed music for Allegra’s Window on Nickelodeon, the soap operas Guiding Light and Edge of Night, the Emmy-nominated Irving Berlin 100th Birthday and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) special A Sondheim Celebration at Carnegie Hall, among others. In addition to composing for television programs, he was called on heavily for his award-winning commercial arrangements and jingles. He has written the jingles behind television ads for Hanes, Hallmark, Ford, Nike, Hershey’s, Duracell, and Cheerio’s, and won Clio advertising awards for tunes composed for Corning, General Electric, and Calvin Klein. Sebesky enjoyed taking on short-term commercial projects, he said in an interview with Shoot. “The good part about it is that I’m always working on [other] long-term projects,” he said. “Commercials are relatively short-lived. I definitely like the variety.”
Sebesky got his start in film by composing the score for Muppet-creator Jim Henson’s Academy Award-nominated short film, Time Piece, in 1968. Among the many films he would later score or arrange for were The Rosary Murders, starring Donald Sutherland, in 1988, The People Next Door, starring Eli Wallach and Julie Harris, and the Chet Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost.
The year 1968 marked the beginning of what arguably was Sebesky’s most notable musical affiliation. Sebesky joined producer Creed Taylor and ended up composing, arranging, conducting, and co-producing a score of albums by legendary jazz artists on the Verve, CTI, and A&M labels. During that period, Sebesky composed and arranged recordings by Wes Montgomery, Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard, Buddy Rich, Grover Washington, Quincy Jones, Nancy Wilson, Doc Severinsen, Ron Carter, Airto Moreira, Paul Desmond, Chet Baker, Patti Austin, Astrud Gilberto, George Benson, Milt Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Roberta Flack, and Earl Klugh, among many others.
Though well-respected as a man behind the scenes, Sebesky was presented front and center on 1973’s Giant Box, an ambitious two-album release on CTI. Creed Taylor rounded up every major artist on the label
Born Donald J. Sebesky on December 10, 1937, in Perth Amboy, NJ; married, 1959; four children; divorced, 1975; remarried, 1986; two children. Education: Studied music composition at the Manhattan School of Music, 1955-58.
Worked with jazz and big bands including the Kai Winding Septet, Stan Kenton Orchestra, and the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, 1953-60; first composition, arrangement, and trombone solos recorded, 1954; first recognized as a writer for the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra, 1958-59; ceased playing trombone, I960; wrote music for numerous films, television shows, and commercial jingles, 1965—; greatest success arose from writing and arranging for producer Creed Taylor’s projects for Wes Montgomery, Buddy Rich, Paul Desmond, Freddie Hubbard, Astrud Gilberto, and others on the Verve, A&M, and CTI labels, 1968-80; released Giant Box, 1973; wrote book, The Contemporary Arranger, 1975; began composing for Broadway, 1984; released Grammy Award-winning I Remember Bill: A Tribute to Bill Evans, 1998; released Grammy Award-winning Joyful Noise: A Tribute to Duke Ellington, 1999.
Awards: Grammy Awards for Best Instrumental Arrangement for Waltz for Debby, 1998; Best Instrumental Composition for Joyful Noise Suite and Best Instrumental Arrangement for Chelsea Bridge, 1999; Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Orchestrations for Parade, 1999.
to perform Sebesky’s work, and put the house composer-arranger’s name on the package. The All Music Guide to Jazz called the lineup a veritable “gathering of the gods” that included Hubbard, Desmond, Washington, Jackson, Benson, Carter, Moreira, Laws, Randy Brecker, Joe Farrell, Bob James, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham, Jackie Cain, and Roy Krai. Sebesky received 12 Grammy nominations for the work. His book, The Contemporary Arranger, was published in 1975.
The year 1980 marked the end of Sebesky’s work with Taylor and the release of a recording of Three Works for Jazz Soloists and Symphony Orchestra. The recording, with soloists Jon Faddis, Bob Brookmeyer, and Alex Foster and the London Royal Philharmonic, garnered two Grammy nominations. Sebesky was also nominated for Grammy Awards for Rape of El Morro in 1975, Moving Lines in 1984, and Joyful Noise in 1999.
Another of Sebesky’s releases to garner a Grammy nomination was Full Cycle, released in 1982. The record reflected “subtle changes” to Sebesky’s sound, according to All Music Guide to Jazz writer Richard S. Ginell. Sebesky assembled a big band to record five jazz standards and one “should-be standard” —Freddie Hubbard’s “Intrepid Fox” —according to Ginell. Sebesky moved away from his usual use of strong trombones, trumpets, and saxophones, and added an electric rhythm section. The result was a “mellow mutation” of Sebesky’s work with Creed Taylor, Ginell wrote.
Sebesky hit Broadway in 1984 with his debut, Peg. He proceeded to compose Sleight of Hand, with Carly Simon in 1987, The Prince of Central Park in 1989, Stepping Out in 1991, Will Rogers Follies and Tommy Tune Tonite in 1992, The Goodbye Girl in 1993, and Cyrano in 1994. His hit Broadway show Parade earned both a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award nomination in 1999. While his orchestration of Kiss Me Kate was running in 2000, Sebesky was working on Rhythm Club. Beginning in 1991, he has composed and arranged for such artists as Liza Minnelli, the Boys Choir of Harlem, Michael Feinstein, Sinead O’Connor, Prince, Tony Bennett, and Barbra Streisand.
In 1999, Sebesky won a Grammy Award for I Remember Bill: A Tribute to Bill Evans, his nod to the legendary pianist who made his mark on the jazz sound of the fifties and sixties. Long influenced by Evans, Sebesky tackled the labor of love, recasting Evans’ originals and tunes he liked to play. Sebesky matched the Evans’ “musical personality” by employing the softer side of the “orchestral palette,” according to Down Beat, and using soprano saxophones, flutes, clarinets, and muted trombones and trumpets. Entertainment Weekly noted “occasional missteps” in the work, but found it at times to be “thoughtful and daringly conceived,” and an altogether heartfelt tribute. Sebesky’s next tribute album, to Duke Ellington, was even more successful than I Remember Bill. Joyful Noise: A Tribute to Duke Ellington won two Grammy Awards in 2000. Sebesky interpreted Ellington’s tunes and included his own Ellington-inspired works. Entertainment Weekly noted that Sebesky’s arrangements were more “brassy, bop-pish, and blatant” than Ellington’s, but nonetheless satisfying.
Don Sebesky and the Jazz-Rock Syndrome, Verve, 1968.
Distant Galaxy, Verve, c. 1969.
Giant Box, CTI, 1973.
The Rape of El Morro, CTI, 1975.
Three Works for Jazz Soloists and Symphony Orchestra, Gryphon, 1979.
Moving Lines, Doctor Jazz, 1984.
Full Cycle, Crescendo, 1984.
I Remember Bill: A Tribute to Bill Evans, RCA, 1998.
Joyful Noise: A Tribute to Duke Ellington, RCA, 1999.
The Contemporary Arranger, Alfred Music, 1975.
All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman Books, 1998.
Feather, Leonard and Ira Gitler, Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Feather, Leonard and Ira Gitler, Encyclopedia of Jazz in the 70s, Horizon Press, 1976.
Kernfeld, Barry, New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan Press Ltd., 1998.
Down Beat, October 1998, p. 54; September 8, 2000, p. 48.
Entertainment Weekly, May 1, 1998, p. 66; October 22, 1999, p. 90.
SHOOT, March 3, 2000, p. 7.
“Don Sebesky,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 27, 2001).
“Don Sebesky,” Get Music, http://www.getmusic.com (April 27, 2001).
Drama Desk Awards, http://DramaDesk.Theatre.com/contents.htm (June 25, 2001).
The Recording Academy, http://www.grammy.com (June 25, 2001).
Additional material was provided by Crushing Music, 2001.
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