Pete Rugolo and Progressive Jazz

by Terry Vosbein

Presented at the IAJE International Conference, New York, January 2001

When Pete Rugolo joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra as staff arranger in 1945 he brought with him his love of jazz, Stravinsky and Bartók. Given free reign by Kenton he experimented constantly, creating a sound that was at the same time innovative and popular. Although Kenton himself was already creating experimental scores prior to Rugolo’s tenure, it was Rugolo who brought to the band the extra-jazz influences and the ultra-experimental approach that were to dominate the band throughout its existence. This music in the late 1940s, termed Progressive Jazz by Kenton, was dominated by the scores of Rugolo.

After completing his undergraduate music degree at San Francisco State University Rugolo earned his masters at Mills College in Oakland, studying composition with Darius Milhaud (Dave Brubeck was a fellow student). It was here that his attraction for modern classical music first blossomed. He was exposed to the modern sounds of composers such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg. He had a few lessons with Bartók during a summer session at Mills. Amongst the many additional composers influencing him during his student years were Samuel Barber, Edgard Varèse and William Schuman. But it was Stravinsky and Bartók that were his primary interest. He owned the bulk of their scores, studied them profusely and stole from them liberally. At the same time he was learning from the recordings of Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford…and subsequently, Stan Kenton.

“Ever since I heard his [Kenton’s] band the first time and heard his arrangements he became my idol. To me he was so different than Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman and people like that. I copied all his stuff. I had an army band then in San Francisco and that became more like a Stan Kenton band. In those days I tried to write that kind of stuff, the off-beat stuff.” (All quotes, except where noted, are from an interview with Pete Rugolo by the author.) He copied the Kenton style, but brought to it his more advanced harmonic and rhythmical concepts, as well as a fondness for varied timbres.

It was inevitable that Rugolo and Kenton would join forces. A disc jockey had told Kenton about the army arranger who had a similar sound. When Kenton first played Rugolo’s arrangements Kenton said, “My God, you do write like me, but way more modern.” As soon as Rugolo was discharged he joined the arranging team, soon dominating it. It was a natural fit.

During his first six months on the arranging staff Rugolo tried to copy Kenton’s style. But on encouragement from the leader, he explored his own voice. “He let me write anything, the more modern the better.” By incorporating compositional techniques borrowed from the modern classical music he had studied with the dramatic excitement of the Kenton sound, Rugolo helped catapult the Kenton band into one of its most fertile and creative periods. “I thought to myself, there’s no reason why jazz or jazz orchestras can’t play some modern music, instead of just four-part harmony all the time, you know, like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, all the saxes played together. I said there’s no reason they can’t also have a five-four bar, write three-four bars, any kind of thing. And write some dissonance and form and some pieces that are almost like tone poems.”

One thing noticeably different in the Rugolo scores is his affinity for timbral variety. Within the limited palette of nine to ten brass and five saxophones he found unlimited sounds, whether mixing instrument families or combining different brass mutes. Kenton “played everything open in those days, the brass blowing. And I introduced some tone color. I’d out two trumpets in Harmon, one trumpet in another kind of mute and one open.” And his use of the rhythm section is one of color and melody as much as one of time keeping. He also frequently combined instruments from different sections to achieve more timbral diversity.

Rugolo was one of the first to take full advantage of five trumpet players, frequently giving them five different pitches when playing a chord, rather than merely having the fifth player double the lead player an octave below. His sax section also tended to play five different pitches. His voicings contain chords built on thirds and fourths, as well as dissonant clusters. At first he found resistance from the players, unaccustomed to playing dissonant intervals. But they grew to appreciate the new sounds Rugolo was bringing to them. What at first seemed quite foreign to the musicians, soon became their basic vocabulary.

Two 1947 works that demonstrate his composition and orchestration skills are his arrangement of If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight and his composition Impressionism. Though he composed hundreds of scores for the Kenton Orchestra, these two pieces give an overview of Rugolo’s most common compositional tendencies during the late 1940s with Kenton. A score to If I Could Be With You was compiled from the original parts located in the Stan Kenton Archives at the University of North Texas. The score to Impressionism was published as a study score by Kenton in 1949.
In the dance music I introduced different kinds of things than they were doing before: some tone colors, dissonance.

If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight

Composed by Henry Creamer and James P. Johnson in 1926
arranged by Pete Rugolo
Recorded by the Stan Kenton Orchestra 1 April 1947

Play track
Many of Rugolo’s trademarks are evident in his arrangement of If I Could Be With You, an excellent example of his handling of a standard popular song. Offering plenty of solo space for Kenton’s “hot” soloists (Boots Mussulli, Buddy Childers, Skip Layton and Eddie Safranski, along with Kenton himself), the arrangement builds to an exciting dissonant conclusion. It is scored for five saxophones, five trumpets, four trombones, piano, bass, drums and guitar.

One of the most telling aspects of this arrangement is the sense of drama that was so much an important component of the Kenton Orchestra throughout its history. This sense of drama is perhaps the major link between the first scores of Kenton and most of the music he performed and recorded throughout his career. Each chorus of this arrangement builds from the prior one until the band is screaming in the final chorus.

The song itself is sixteen measures, written in an ABAC format. There are four complete choruses to this arrangement, the first three in E-flat major with a direct modulation to B-flat major for the final chorus (see figure 1). The first chorus, as was frequently the case, is given to a Kenton piano solo with guitar, bass and drums accompanying. His combining of the slower, triplet-based feeling, with double-time figures, foreshadows the rest of the arrangement.

Rugolo uses primarily ninth chords, frequently flatting the ninth on dominant seventh chords. In four-part voicings he eliminates the root except in a few instances with the root as the melody note. In five-part voicings the root is generally included, rather than doubling a tone. Occasionally the 13th replaces the root on five-part voicings.

Rugolo’s fascination with timbre is evident in his use of brass mutes. Behind the alto sax solo he divides the brass into two sections: one brass section in cup mutes (three trumpets and one trombone) and another brass section playing in hats (two trumpets and two trombones). Behind the bass solo he combines four trumpets in straight mutes with one playing in hat.

Rhythmical vitality in this arrangement is derived from occasional use of double-time, as well as the tension generating trombone break half-way through the final chorus, where time seems to stand still. Another rhythmically interesting moment occurs during the final two measures of the bass solo. The four trombones divide the four-four measure into six equal beats, as their harmonies progress around the circle of fifths. Simultaneously the bass is playing two beats for each of the trombone chords.

The rhythm section plays a traditional role in this arrangement. The recording session that produced If I Could Be With You was the final recording session Kenton was to make with rhythm guitarist, Bob Ahern. He plays primarily a four-to-the-bar typical swing band style. By the time Impressionism was recorded Laurindo Almeida was on guitar, changing completely the role of guitar in the Kenton band.

Each of the first three choruses ends with a measure of B dominant ninth, a German-sixth chord in traditional lingo. It harmonizes the final tonic melody note and resolves chromatically to the B-flat dominant ninth chord that begins each chorus. But each of these instances receives unique treatment. The first example is in the final measure of the piano solo. This first entrance of the winds is a fully voiced B dominant ninth chord in second inversion. In the next example the trombones play a whole-tone cluster (A–B–C#–D#), while the bass begins his solo. In the third example, at the end of the third chorus, the saxophones now play the chord, this time with a flatted fifth, an F, in the bass. This last example resolves to an F dominant ninth chord at the beginning of the final chorus, as the arrangement modulates to B-flat major.

The eight-measure saxophone soli on the second half of the third chorus contains almost exclusively ninth chords. Rugolo avoids the typical octave doubling and voices each chord with all five notes. The range from highest note in the lead alto to the lowest note in the bari is generally a ninth or tenth until the final measure of the soli when the section spreads out. Voices move in parallel motion throughout.

The final four measures of the form reach the peak of frenzy with ascending thirty-second note runs in the trumpets while the first trombone “screams” in the high register. The pandemonium cuts off suddenly with a unison figure in the saxophones which at first outlines the C7 (flat 9) chord that the brass left off with, and descending by means of a whole tone scale to the flattened second degree of the key (C-flat). On the recording the saxophones resolve this pitch to a G, but in the original set of parts they end on this C-flat and leave it to the trombones to resolve to the tonic. The trombones play only the root and the fifth, before the trumpets enter in hats playing the 3rd, 5th, flat 7th, flat 9th and 13th of the B-flat tonic chord. Another variation in the recording has the trombones and trumpets reiterating their chords several times before cutting off. In the original parts these chords are sounded just once.

The band hit the road following the recording of If I Could Be With You, and Rugolo stayed in Los Angeles. Two weeks later Kenton disbanded his band. They were all exhausted. By August, however, downbeat was reporting that the Kenton band was coming back.


Composed and arranged by Pete Rugolo
Recorded by the Stan Kenton Orchestra 22 October 1947

Play track
When Kenton returned to the business of leading a band in August 1947 he brought back most of his key musicians. But there were a few significant changes. In addition to the aforementioned acquisition of Brazilian classical guitarist, Laurindo Almeida, the primary change was Bob Cooper’s installation as tenor soloist replacing Vido Musso. Musso offered a vivid musical personality, but was clearly rooted in a past generation. Bob Cooper was a modernist.

Always one for making events seem bigger than life, Kenton termed the music that this newly recharged band played Progressive Jazz. His goal was to move jazz into the concert hall, where audiences would listen rather than dance. Even on dance engagements during this period Kenton would call the audience to stand around the stage as the band performed a set of the more experimental compositions and arrangements.

The tone poem, Impressionism, was recorded two months after the band reformed. In it Rugolo again demonstrates his wide-ranging influences and sets the tone for the fertile period ahead. It is scored for a slightly expanded band, this time with a fifth trombone and bongo player added. The five-piece rhythm section is utilized as an equal to the horns in presenting melodic and motivic material. They are never treated as a traditional rhythm section in this work.

Impressionism is not overtly tonal, with major and minor tonalities becoming ambiguous. This composition is written without a key signature, and although there are tonal centers along the way, most notably A minor, it never settles for very long in any particular key.

In this composition Rugolo again demonstrates his fondness for unusual timbres. From the very opening, which harmonizes a high cup-muted trumpet, an alto sax and a straight-muted trombone, the listener is aware of something unusual happening.

Another appealing timbral mixture occurs in measure 33 when Rugolo has three straight-muted trumpets in parallel triads. Most of these triads are minor, though a few major triads are also found. Harmonized below these three trumpets are the other two trumpets playing in hats. One of the trumpets in hat doubles the first trumpet an octave lower, while the other trumpet in hat picks up notes from trumpets two and three an octave lower. Adding to this mixture is an open trombone playing an eighth-note pattern that adds harmonic color to the triads in the trumpets. The trombone supplies sixths, sevenths and elevenths to the trumpet triads.

The composition is motivically constructed, utilizing two similar three-note motives. The first is heard in the opening two measures, three notes descending a scale (B flat–A–G). The second is an ascending incomplete major seventh arpeggio, first heard on the pitches C–E–B in the second measure. All succeeding motivic material is derived from these original ideas. Variations of motive two in particular permeate this entire composition. Found in inversion as well as reordered. There are only seven measures of the forty-four total that do not make a reference to this second motive.

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The two motives relate to one another in an interesting way. Motive one progresses downward by one-half step, followed by a skip of two half-steps. Motive two progresses upward by one-third, followed by a skip of two thirds. Each three-note motive moves by a smaller interval first, then by an interval twice as large. Both motives are constructed utilizing the same logic, creating a sense of unity and cohesiveness to the composition.

There are two main sections to this composition (see figure 2). The initial section is a continuous juxtaposition of the two motives, at times loud and dissonant. The motives are lengthened and shortened, but they keep repeating. The second section is comprised of motivically developing motive two, in a more lyrical fashion.

The melody in the B section is derived from an inversion of motive two. It begins with an A minor tonality, but this is fleeting as it moves through a G flat major seventh, an A major seventh and an F major seventh in the next three measures. Still, this section is more tonally rooted than the first. There are three distinct repetitions of this second theme, the first two by the solo alto sax, and the third by the muted trumpets.

The A tonality is again reinforced in the final measures. The saxophones play their final chord, an A minor with an added ninth. The trumpets then enter on an A major triad. And the trombones conclude with motive two, this time on the pitches A–C#–G#, ending on the major seventh.

The original release of Impressionism on a 1948 album of all Rugolo pieces was greeted with great success. The album was given a rating of three out of four (“tasty”) by downbeat magazine, calling Impressionism “a symphonic piece of Rugolo’s whose changing tempo midway is accomplished almost without realization” (“Diggin’ the Discs”). With or without realization, the subtle tempo shifts are yet another device that separate this composition from the rhythm section oriented mainstream of jazz.


Rugolo composed and arranged hundreds of titles for the Kenton band, many which remain unrecorded. His status as chief musical architect can be seen by comparing the numbers of titles he contributed to those penned by others. Capitol’s first recording of a Rugolo arrangement was Solitude, in July 1946. In December of 1947, a year and a half later, the American Federation of Musicians recording ban took effect, shutting down the recorded history of the Progressive Jazz Orchestra. The Kenton band recorded 113 titles during this time for Capitol. Seventy-nine were by Rugolo. The remainder were primarily from Ken Hanna, Gene Roland and Kenton himself.

In Pete Rugolo’s hands the Stan Kenton band went from a highly-charged exciting musical ensemble to a cutting edge innovative organization. He brought his past experiences in both the jazz and the classical worlds together and almost single-handedly created the scores of Progressive Jazz. It is unfortunate that the final year of the Progressive Jazz band has gone undocumented. By the time the 1948 AFM recording ban was lifted Kenton had once again disbanded his organization due to exhaustion. Although Kenton and Rugolo were to collaborate on and off for the next dozen years, Rugolo moved off of the band bus and into the record industry as A&R man and arranger for Capitol Records. His collaborations with artists at Capitol, as well as his continued involvement with projects for Kenton, show his tremendous gifts as a composer and arranger. But it was these early years at the helm of the Kenton arranging staff that shaped and formulated his style. Given the free rein to experiment with sound, along with an orchestra of highly trained exceptional musicians, Rugolo was able to forge a style of experimental writing that now half a century later still sounds fresh.

Critics argued in the 1940s whether or not Progressive Jazz was jazz at all. The argument continues to this day. So many of the compositional elements were inspired by modern classical composers. The rhythm section was often asked to perform like an orchestral percussion section rather than as a groove machine. The requirement to swing, in the conventional sense, was dismissed. The ties that bound the Kenton band to the mainstream of jazz in the early 1940s were being loosened almost to the point of disappearance. Unfortunately, by not fitting into any preconceived parameters associated with jazz, this music was unduly criticized. But this did not keep the Kenton band, its soloists and chief arranger from placing in top positions in reader polls from downbeat and Metronome magazines during this period. Indefinable as this music may be, the audiences of the time were caught up in the excitement of Progressive Jazz.


“Christy, Manne to Rejoin Kenton.” Down Beat 27 August 1947: 1.

“Stan Throws in Towel, Busts Ork.” Down Beat 7 May 1947: 2.

“Diggin’ the Discs.” Down Beat 2 June 1948: 14.

Creamer, Henry, and James P. Johnson. If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight. Arr. Pete Rugolo. Unpublished set of instrumental parts. Stan Kenton Archives, University of North Texas.

Lee, William F. Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm. Los Angeles: Creative Press, 1980.

Pease, Sharon A. “Rugolo, Coeds, Studied Under Darius Milhaud.” downbeat 3 December 1947: 12.

Rugolo, Pete. Impressionism. New York: Leslie Music Corporation, 1949.

Rugolo, Pete. Personal interview by Terry Vosbein. Sherman Oaks, California. 30 July 2000.

Sparke, Michael. Liner notes to The Complete Capitol Studio Recordings of Stan Kenton 1943-47. Mosaic Records MD7-163, 1995.

Figure 1

Formal structure of
If I Could Be With You
Composed by Henry Creamer and James P. Johnson, arranged by Pete Rugolo

Chorus 1
E flat
piano solo
rhythm section accompaniment
Chorus 2
E flat
alto sax solo
sustained brass background
sustained saxes background
unison bones and low saxes; loud 5-part trumpet chords
Chorus 3
E flat
bass solo
dominant pedal point in bones and alto saxes; sustained muted trumpets
brass chords, alto sax figures
sax soli
Chorus 4
E flat
high trumpet solo
trombone solo
saxes background, 2 measure break for solo trombone
full brass for two measures, then solo trombone
big climax — trumpets play 32nd-note runs, saxes and bones play sustained chords, high trombone solos in gaps

Figure 2

Formal structure of
Composed and arranged by Pete Rugolo

Section one
motive 1 and 2 are pitted against one another
three loud dense chords
motive 1 and 2 are pitted against one another
motive two transposed up half step, repeats — motive one enters higher, each time in a higher octave and a faster rhythm (quarter notes to quarter-note triplets to eighth-note triplets
three loud dense chords — same as m. 6
motive one in half notes and quarter-note triplets at the same time
Saxes, trombones and rhythm section play two B-flat minor triads followed by a sustained A minor triad
Section two
alto sax melody (motive 2 inverted) with sax background
entire orchestra plays transition figure based on motive 2, in octaves
B-flat minor triad to A minor triad — same as m. 16
alto sax melody – same as 17-18
trombones take over from saxes
bari sax and arco bass play unison transition figure
brass in mixed mutes play parallel triads with same melody as measures 17; solo trombone weaves below
penultimate chord — serving as a dominant; saxes harmonize inverted motive 2
final chord…mixed A minor and major with added 9th; trombones end with motive 2 in unison: A–C#–G#