Russell Garcia, 1916-2011

Composer, arranger and teacher Russell Garcia died yesterday at his home in New Zealand, where he and his wife settled after sailing away from Los Angeles more than four decades ago. He was 95. Garcia is less known than other writers of his era, but his influence is enormous.

Occasional Rifftides contributor Jeff Sultanof, a student and admirer of Garcia’s work, outlines for us his career and accomplishments. Jeff is a composer, orchestrator, editor, educator and researcher who has worked with John Williams, Burt Bacharach and many other composers to prepare their music for print. He edited and annotated George Gershwin scores issued in facsimile editions, edited Nelson Riddle’s textbook on arranging and has collaborated with Sonny Rollins, Benny Green, Billy Childs and Gerry Mulligan, among many others.

By Jeff Sultanof

This has not been a good year for legendary composer/arrangers. Pete Rugolo isn’t even cold in his grave when yet another important voice in American music who lived to a ripe old age has finally called it quits. There are important differences between the two men: Garcia was not as well known as Rugolo, and Russell was still writing music up until the very end. However, as we will see, Garcia occupies an honored place in world music for different accomplishments. And perhaps because of them, his influence may yet be greater than many other accomplished creators of music. And thereby hangs a tale.

Garcia was born in Oakland, California in 1916. He began as a trumpet player, later played French horn, and was a prodigy, writing music fluently at a very young age. He was never able to fully remember how he mastered the ability to read music, but never questioned his rare, Mozartean, gift for writing music quickly for any group of instruments. When he was a young teenager, the Oakland Symphony performed his arrangement of “Star Dust.” Eventually he came to study with the best teachers on the west coast—Ernst Toch, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ernst Krenek and Sir Albert Coates. He also studied every instrument in the symphony orchestra to learn first-hand how each was played. He conducted the West Hollywood Symphony Orchestra for two years.

Garcia was called to take over for the musical director of the radio show This is Our America, remained with the show for two years, and never had to look for work again. He was in constant demand not only for radio, but also for big bands and motion pictures. After serving in World War Two, he returned to more music writing, but with a difference. He joined the faculty of the Westlake School of Music in Hollywood, one of the most distinguished institutions in the country for training composer/arrangers. His students represent a who’s-who of the arranging community in the fifties and sixties. They include Willis Holman, Bob Graettinger and Gene Puerling (musical director of the vocal group The Hi-Los). During this period, he created a text for his students that was later published in 1954 as “The Professional Arranger Composer.”

It is important to discuss this unique volume because the text may be his greatest gift to music, since it inspired perhaps thousands of arrangers to begin their journeys into writing not only good jazz, but any music of the highest quality. At the time of the book’s publication, if you wanted to be a ‘serious’ arranger, you most likely studied the Schillinger System of Composition, a multi-year course in music writing that was so daunting and complex, it could be studied only with a teacher fully immersed in the system. Schillinger was reportedly a brilliant man whose students included George Gershwin (there are many ‘Schillingerisms’ in “Porgy and Bess” and “Cuban Overture”), Glenn Miller and Oscar Levant. For all intents and purposes, this system is pretty well forgotten today, although there are a lot of interesting ideas in the textbooks, and several important composer/arrangers during the fifties and sixties studied and mastered the system, among them Earle Brown, Dick Grove, John Barry and Lawrence Berk, who founded what is now known as Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts.

I don’t know if Garcia ever studied Schillinger, but his book is totally different. It serves as an excellent traditional arranging text for big band, but it includes sections on counterpoint and other ‘classical’ techniques that Garcia knew the ‘modern’ music student needed to know. His goal was to incorporate in pop music and jazz as many of those techniques as he could. Judging just by the contrapuntal mastery of Bill Holman and Gene Puerling’s major innovations in vocal group writing and singing, he succeeded. If a student followed the course Garcia designed, there was enough to fill several years of music training and learning. Imagine telling fledgling big band arrangers that such rigor was only the beginning of their journey; he tells them to write string quartets and symphonies. In an upbeat, encouraging manner, he asks the student to reach for the very heights. Needless to say, his book has never been out of print, has been translated into many languages and has been used as an arranging course text for many years. Some years later, Russ followed this book up with Volume 2, which had more information, advice and upbeat encouragement.

Unfortunately, Westlake closed its doors, but Garcia was still in constant demand. Henry Mancini asked him to help out on the score to The Glenn Miller Story. That resulted in Russell’s remaining at Universal Pictures for 15 years. He started making albums under his own name for Bethlehem and Kapp Records and arranging for Frances Faye, Mel Torme and other singers. When the Liberty Records label began operation, he joined up and wrote for Julie London. One of his classic albums was a major groundbreaker. “Fantastica” was billed as “Music From Outer Space” and featured original compositions for orchestra with taped sounds that were manipulated as part of the orchestration. Happily it was reissued by Basta Records in 2008 and must be heard to be believed. Producer/Director George Pal heard it and immediately hired Garcia to compose the music for the motion picture, “The Time Machine.” He later wrote the score to “Atlantis, The Lost Continent.” Garcia was also very active for Verve Records during the late 1950s. He arranged for Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Margaret Whiting, Stan Getz, and Anita O’Day. And he always made time to teach: along with Johnny Richards, he was part of the arranging/composing faculty at the 1960 National Stage Band Camp, with Stan Kenton’s orchestra in residence.

In 1966, he sold his home and bought a boat, and he and his wife Gina set sail. In 1969, Garcia moved to New Zealand, where he lived until his passing. Between composing, writing and lecturing, he and his wife were teachers of the Baha’i faith.

I’ve read just about every arranging text written, from Arthur Lange on (still worth reading if you have an interest in vintage big band music of the twenties) to Mancini, Grove, Riddle, Russo, Deutsch, Delamont, Nestico, Wright and some of the newer Berklee books. All are good to excellent, but Garcia’s is special. To this day, when I revisit both volumes, I feel that a man who really cares about my music has his arm around me, helping me feel safe as he is guiding me. He is in the trench with me, encouraging me to go as high and as deep as I can as a composer/arranger. I’ve hit a few high points in my own career, but he reminds me that there are many others to aspire to, and that they are possible.

And for that reason, he may well be the Godfather of arranging teachers. I believe that to be his greatest accomplishment. Good teachers are undervalued and generally underpaid. Happily he had money, and was certainly valued by anyone who read his books. Thanks to those books, his teaching will always be with us, as long as someone is crazy enough to want to write for a bunch of winds, strings and percussion.

Many thanks to Mr. Sultanof for providing his insights, enthusiasm and vast knowledge.

To hear an exquisite Garcia arrangement for Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, go to this Rifftides post from last summer.

Jeff Sultanof’s previous contribution to Rifftides was about the late Pete Rugolo.

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  1. mel says

    Thank you, Doug and a special thank you to Mr. Sultanov for his piece about Russ Garcia.

    I have always been enthusiastic about his work, both in the jazz field and as a composer of film scores.

    A great loss; people of his calibre will never be replaced.

  2. John Birchard says

    I’ve always been partial to the album Russ Garclia did with Oscar Peterson around the time Ed Thigpen joined OP. I think it was called Swinging Brass and featured arrangements by Garcia that incorporated the basic charts Oscar had for his trio. “Con Alma” was especially good. I’m sorta surprised no one has mentioned the album since it has stood up well despite the intervening years.

  3. John Pickworth says

    I’ve enjoyed reading Jeff Sultanof’s piece about Russ.
    One of the tunes that Russ wrote for Oscar Peterson’s Swinging Brass was reworked for some New Zealand concerts in 1968.The title became “Waitakere Drive” to get the New Zealand flavour!

    • Doug Ramsey says

      From the Lautner Foundation website:

      The residence was originally built for jazz musician Russ Garcia in 1958. Current owners are Bill Damaschke and John McIlwee, whose renovation began by taking the building back almost to its bones. The renovation has been part pure restoration and part update to suit the needs of the owners.

  4. Bill Holman says

    Russ was a bright, gentle, caring, and creative man; I encountered him when I was needing musical and personal direction, and he provided both.

    Baha’i and music and Gina were his loves, and he was “there” for them his whole life.

    • Jeffrey Sultanof says


      You are a model for the type of creative composer Russell wanted us to aspire to be. Thank you for all your wonderful music which inspires listeners around the world.

      • Bill Holman says


        Kind words, man. I think that Russ nudged us in certain directions, but he was the first of many in my life.

  5. says

    Thank you for publishing Jeff Sultanof’s eloquent tribute to Russ Garcia. Russ kindly helped me with some of the research on my father, Paul Villepigue, who also taught at the Westlake School of Music, as well as helping me correct some misattribution between their work in the archives of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers. Russ was a delightful correspondent, endlessly funny, and I loved getting his emails signed “unkl rusl.” He once said, “I’ve got a million stories, and some of ’em are true!” When I asked him to clarify when he had started teaching at Westlake, he emailed back:

    “At the end of World War 2 (year?) When i came back from overseas (Europe) the next spring, I went back to work on my former job as Staff composer arr at NBC for 5 months. Then the music Director Tom Peluso went upstairs where loads of vice-presidents had nothing to do, and told them, “Would you musical morons stop sending these stupid directives down to the music dept !!!” So, swoosh, the whole staff- Tom, me, the two copyists and the whole orchestra were fired. Then I took the job at Westlake.”