Bob Florence: The Man Behind the Music / The Stage Door (Often) Swings
The news arrived like an errant and unwelcome thunderbolt. Bob Florence had died on May 15, only five days before his seventy-sixth birthday. After the initial shock had worn off the question became, how does one process and evaluate such a distressing occurrence? How can one summarize in mere words so extraordinary a life? The answer is, one can't, even though the broad outline is well-known. Composer, arranger, pianist, bandleader, educator, Grammy and two-time Emmy Award winner, leader on almost twenty highly acclaimed big-band albums spanning nearly half a century. Florence earned a Grammy eight years ago for his album Serendipity 18, Emmys in music direction for the 1990 PBS-TV show "Julie Andrews in Concert" and the 1981 program "Linda Lavin in Wonderland." That, in brief, is some of what the musician Bob Florence accomplished. A remarkable body of work, one must agree, but the man behind the music was even more impressive, which is why he'll always have a special place in my heart and memory.
I had my first meaningful conversations with Bob two years ago, when he, his wife Evie and friends Norm and Faye Tompach stayed at a bed and breakfast with Betty and me in Prescott, AZ, where we had come to take part in the Prescott Jazz Summit, Bob as a performer, the rest of us as fans. I found that Bob was not only funny, good-natured and down-to-earth, but that we shared a mutual interest in classic films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. We looked forward to continuing that discussion last year, but Bob was taken ill and couldn't attend the Summit; his place was taken by Reggie Thomas, a fine pianist from St. Louis. We spoke to Bob by phone, but it wasn't quite the same as having him there with us.
Some months ago we learned that Bob's illness had worsened, and that he'd been hospitalized. It was a great relief to learn later that he'd been released from the hospital and was home, even though he was using a walker to help ease the pain in his ailing back. And then, much to our dismay, Bob was hospitalized again, and for the last time. Pneumonia entered the picture, a relentless adversary even he couldn't vanquish. I'd sent him a get-well card commanding his healthy presence at the Prescott event in August. I'm sure he'd have honored it if he were able. I'll certainly miss him, as will many others. Yes, I have Bob's music to help assuage the loss, but am saddened by the knowledge that he had so much more to give. He was busy writing almost to the end, and was planning another big-band album to be recorded this summer. As he is no longer with us on Earth, we can only hope that Bob Florence is now Soaring and perfecting, as only he can, those Eternal Licks and Grooves.
"The Stage Door Swings" . . . More Often Than Not
Prologue. One memorable melody after another. That was the norm as the Los Angeles Jazz Institute saluted some of the legendary songwriters of Broadwayand Hollywoodduring its semi-annual extravaganza, "The Stage Door Swings," May 22-25 at the Sheraton LAX Four Points Hotel. Unlike most other LAJI events, this one wasn't dominated by big bands, although a fair number of them were heard from during the four-day marathon. This was more a mixed bagas the Brits might say, a curate's eggas several smaller groups shared the spotlight with guest vocalists. Of course, there were the usual entertaining panel discussions and vintage film clips, as well as the premiere of Graham Carter's splendid two-hour-long documentary, Against the Tide. Bud Shank: Portrait of a Jazz Legend. As with any sweeping enterprise, there were the inevitable high and low points, shaped to some extent by one's point of view. That is to say, my impressions may not necessarily square with those of others who were there, and should be looked upon as no more or less than one man's imprecise opinion. Last but not least, for the first time at one of these events, two musicians actually approached me on their own to say goodbye and wish me a safe trip home, a gesture that was very much appreciated. Who were they? Read on. As there's a lot of ground to cover, let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).
Overture: Wednesday, May 21. As usual, I arrived in L.A. a day early so as to catch the evening's "special event," a pre-"Stage Door" dinner / concert featuring the Dave Pell Octet with vocalist Bonnie Bowden. The theme was "A Taste of New York," and the dinner consisted mainly of such Big Apple staples as hot dogs, pizza and cheesecake. As Betty couldn't come with me this time, I had written to my Aunt Phyllis (Diller) who lives in nearby Brentwood and is a lifelong jazz fan, asking if she could be my "date" for the evening. Alas, she phoned about a week before the event to say she couldn't make it, which was disappointing but not surprising, as Aunt Phyllis will be ninety-one on July 17 and isn't as spry as she once was.