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Ralph Burns
Performing at the Three Deuces, New York, April 1947
Performing at the Three Deuces, New York, April 1947
Background information
Birth nameRalph Joseph P. Burns
Born(1922-06-29)June 29, 1922
Newton, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedNovember 21, 2001(2001-11-21) (aged 79)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Occupation(s)Musician, composer, arranger
Years active1939–1993
LabelsDecca, Norgran, Verve

Ralph Joseph P. Burns (June 29, 1922 – November 21, 2001) was an American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger.[1]

Early life

Burns was born in Newton, Massachusetts, United States,[1] where he began playing the piano as a child. In 1938, he attended the New England Conservatory of Music. He admitted that he learned the most about jazz by transcribing the works of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. While a student, Burns lived in the home of Frances Wayne. Wayne was an established big band singer and her brother Nick Jerret was a bandleader who began working with Burns. He found himself in the company of such performers as Nat King Cole and Art Tatum.


After Burns moved to New York in the early 1940s, he met Charlie Barnet and the two men began working together.[1] In 1944, he joined the Woody Herman band with members Neal Hefti, Bill Harris, Flip Phillips, Chubby Jackson and Dave Tough.[1] Together, the group developed Herman's sound. For 15 years, Burns wrote or arranged many of the band's major hits including "Bijou", "Northwest Passage" and "Apple Honey", and on the longer work "Lady McGowan's Dream" and the three-part Summer Sequence.[1]

Burns worked with many other musicians. Herman band member Stan Getz was featured as a tenor saxophone soloist on "Early Autumn",[1] a hit for the band and the launching platform for Getz's solo career. Burns also worked in a small band with soloists including Bill Harris and Charlie Ventura.

The success of the Herman band provided Burns the ability to record under his own name. In the 1950s, Burns played nightly from 5pm -9pm in The Baroque Room at Oscar's Delmonico restaurant in Downtown Manhattan. He collaborated with Billy Strayhorn, Lee Konitz and Ben Webster to create both jazz and classical recordings. He wrote compositions for Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis and later Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole. Burns was responsible for the arrangement and introduction of a string orchestra on two of Ray Charles's biggest hits, "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Georgia on My Mind". In the 1990s, Burns arranged music for Mel Tormé, John Pizzarelli, Michael Feinstein and Tony Bennett.

In the 1960s, Burns was no longer touring as a band pianist, and began arranging/orchestrating for Broadway shows including Chicago, Funny Girl, No, No, Nanette, and Sweet Charity.[1] In 1971, Burns first film score assignment was for Woody Allen's Bananas. Burns worked with film-director Bob Fosse and won the Academy Award as music supervisor for Cabaret (1972). He composed the film scores for Lenny (1974) and Martin Scorsese's jazz-themed New York, New York (1977). Fosse again employed Burns to create the soundtrack for All That Jazz (1979) for which he also won an Academy Award.[1] He then worked on Urban Cowboy (1980). Burns received another Academy Award nomination for his work in Annie (1982).

Baryshnikov on Broadway in 1980 earned Burns an Emmy for his work. Burns won the Tony Award for Best Orchestrations in 1999 for Fosse and posthumously in 2002 for Thoroughly Modern Millie, which also garnered him the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Orchestrations. The latter were won with Doug Besterman. From 1996 until his death, Burns restored many orchestrations for New York City Center's Encores! series — revivals of both his own shows and shows originally orchestrated by others.[2] Burns was inducted into the New England Jazz Hall of Fame in 2004.

Personal life

Burns carefully hid his homosexuality throughout his life.[3] In 2001, Burns died from complications of a recent stroke and pneumonia in Los Angeles, California and was buried on April 13, 2002, in Newton.[4] He was survived by one sister, Nancy Lane (Burns), and three brothers, Leo, Joe, and Gael.



  1. "Magic Saturday" (TV Episode, 1986)
  2. "The 21-Inch Sun" (TV Episode, 1987)



Awards and nominations

Year Award Category Work Result
1973 Academy Awards Best Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation Cabaret Won
1979 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Film Movie Movie 3rd place
1980 Academy Awards Best Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Best Adaptation Score All That Jazz Won
Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Music Direction Baryshnikov on Broadway Won
David di Donatello Best Foreign Music Movie Movie Won
Stinkers Bad Movie Awards Most Intrusive Musical Score First Family Nominated
1983 Academy Awards Best Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Best Adaptation Score Annie Nominated
1985 Saturn Award Best Music The Muppets Take Manhattan Nominated
1986 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Orchestrations Sweet Charity Nominated
1987 Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Music Direction Liberty Weekend Nominated
1991 The Josephine Baker Story Nominated
1999 Tony Award Best Orchestrations Fosse Won
2002 Thoroughly Modern Millie Won
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Orchestrations Won

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Colin Larkin, ed. (2002). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Fifties Music (Third ed.). Virgin Books. p. 56. ISBN 1-85227-937-0.
  2. ^ Fisher, Rob (May 9, 2008) "Keeping Score" Playbill. Archived 2012-10-21 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ "Homophobia in Jazz". Jazz Times. 2001.
  4. ^ "Ralph Burns Obituary". Retrieved April 10, 2017.