Bill Finegan

William James Finegan (3 April 1917 — 4 June 2008) was an American jazz bandleader, pianist, arranger, and composer. He was an arranger in the Glenn Miller Orchestra in the late late 1930s and early 1940s.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Finegan grew up in a household full of piano players. He spent time studying at the Paris Conservatory and had his first professional experience leading his own piano trio. Finegan was offered a job as a staff arranger for Glenn Miller after Tommy Dorsey bought a copy of his “Lonesome Road” and recommended him; he remained with Miller until 1942, and arranged such hits as “Little Brown Jug“, “Sunrise Serenade“, and “Song of the Volga Boatmen“. Finegan also arranged music for films in which the band appeared, such as Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942). He then worked off and on for Tommy Dorsey from 1942 to 1952, including on the 1947 film The Fabulous Dorseys. He composed “Down For The Count”, “Conversation Piece”, and “Tail End Charlie” which was released by Glenn Miller and his AAFTC Orchestra as a V-Disc, no. 144A.

Perhaps Bill Finegan‘s most famous arrangement for Glenn Miller, Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchel Parish’s, “Stardust”

“Little Brown Jug”

“Down For The Count” composed by Bill Finegan and performed by Glenn Miller

In 1947-48 Finegan studied with Stefan Wolpe, and lived in Europe from 1948-1950. After returning to the United States, Finegan and Eddie Sauter formed a highly successful ensemble, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, which remained active until 1957. His composition “Doodletown Fifers” was one of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra’s best-known originals. Following this Finegan found work in advertising, writing music for commercials. In the 1970s he arranged for the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Mel Lewis‘s orchestra. He taught jazz at the University of Bridgeport in the 1980s.

Dancing to the Glenn Miller Tribute Orchestra at the “On The Waterfront” festival, Pier Head, Liverpool Sunday 8th 2010 Finegan’s composition, “Tail End Charlie” more than 60 years after it first debuted.

Eddie Sauter: Born 2 December 1914, Brooklyn, New York. Died 21 April 1981, New York City, New York . Bill Finegan: Born 3 April 1917, Newark, New Jersey. Died 4 June 2008, Bridgeport, Connecticut . Considered two of the best arrangers of the big band era, Sauter and Finegan joined forces in 1952 to form a group whose unusual instrumentation, arrangements, and material set it apart from just about everything else at the time–yet also ultimately led to its commercial downfall. Yet in the recordings of the Sauter-Finegan orchestra, you can hear the roots of a style that would burst forth a few years later in the stereo spectaculars of Esquivel, Enoch Light, and others. Sauter and Finegan followed parallel but separate paths for the first two decades of their professional lives. Sauter started on drums and then switched to trumpet and began playing with dance bands in his late teens. He joined vibraphonist Red Norvo’s band in 1935 and soon became the lead arranger for Norvo and his wife, singer Mildred Bailey. In 1939, Benny Goodman hired him away and Sauter’s arrangements of current hits as well as original compositions like “Benny Rides Again,” and “Clarinet ala King” provided Goodman with some of his biggest hits. In the 1940s, Sauter worked for Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, and Ray McKinley, and reunited with Goodman to arrange for one of the very first 12″ LPs released by Columbia, 1951. Finegan also started out playing in various big bands, but his big break came when he was hired as a staff arranger by Glenn Miller in 1941, when the Miller band was hitting its commercial zenith. Although Miller was notorious for being a humorless and strictly business-minded bandleader, he was so impressed by Finegan’s abilities that he soon gave him the freedom to write and arrange whatever material he wanted. After Miller’s death in 1944, the Miller band was kept together, but it fell back onto recycling old material, and Finegan moved on to work as a freelancer through the late 1940s. In 1950, tired of the decline in success and innovation in the big bands, he moved to France and enrolled in music study at the Paris Conservatory. By that time, however, he and Sauter had struck up a friendship and were corresponding and sharing musical ideas. When Sauter wrote him a letter on the back of a rejection slip from a hack bandleader, Finegan replied by suggesting that if things were getting that bad, they’d better form their own band. They quickly produced a volley of original compositions and arrangements, and through Sauter’s contacts with RCA, they got a recording contract for a few singles. They pulled together a number of top sidemen, including Ralph Burns (who would later become a successful arranger himself) and Kai Winding and cut a series of sides that were received enthusiastically. Many of their numbers were adaptations of existing material, but they looked to unusual places for their sources: American folk songs like “Yankee Doodle” and classical compositions by Profokiev, Rossini, and others. They also used unusual instrumentations, including recorders, piccolos and oboes, English horns, and–later a favorite of stereo spectacular arrangers–tuneable drums.

“New York 4AM”

Alternate Bio Info:

When master big band arranger Bill Finegan died at the age of 91 on June 4th, many jazz fans had forgotten that he had directed the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra in an unusual concert of his inventive and pioneering arrangements for the 1950s Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. The concert in November of 1991 at the Tri-C Metro Campus Auditorium was the first time Finegan had conducted any other band playing the arrangements of the revolutionary orchestra he co-directed with Eddie Sauter.

Before that concert, Finegan told me he had some second thoughts. “Before I got here,” he said, “I thought ‘I don’t think I want to do this any more. I did it for years with the band, but after hearing the way these fellows play – and they’re such marvelous players and work so hard on these charts – yes, I would like to do some more if I could find guys like this to play it.”

The concert by the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, performing the unusual and difficult big band arrangements of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, was a big success, attracting a surprisingly large crowd to hear the well-played interesting concert music.

It was not the first time Finegan had appeared in Cleveland. In 1954, he led the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra at a Cathedral Latin High School prom, and a year later, he and partner Sauter led their band at Severance Hall. With the Cleveland Orchestra, the two ensembles performed a piece called “Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra.”

The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was one of the most unusual in big band history. It featured the arrangements of Sauter, who had arranged for Benny Goodman, and Finegan, who had arranged such charts as “Little Brown Jug” for Glenn Miller. The frequently-whimsical arrangements included a full woodwind section, a harp, a full symphonic percussion section, tubas, and even toy trumpets and kazoos.

On their original recordings, Sauter and Finegan used some of the best jazz players available – trumpeters Bobby Nichols, Nick Travis and Doc Severinsen; trombonists Bill Harris and Kai Winding; drummer Don Lomond; pianist Ralph Burns (sometimes playing a keyboard glockenspiel); and bassists Milt Hinton and George Duvivier.

Finegan said, “We started recording these things in New York with never an intention of going out on the road with it and playing in person. We hoped to just make records. I think we were dreaming.”

The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was formed in 1952 when the big band era had virtually ended. Most of the big ballrooms where Miller, Goodman and all the others of the swing era had played, had closed. The leaders of the new orchestra had no intention of making it a dance band. But Willard Alexander, who had made a career out of booking dance bands into dance halls, persuaded Sauter and Finegan to take their very popular concert band out on the road. “The first summer we went out,” recalled Finegan, “we worked our way to Chicago and played mostly amusement park ballrooms. The audiences weren’t too ready to listen to concert material. They wanted dance music so we quickly wrote some charts of things people could dance to.”

When the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra played for the prom at Cathedral Latin High School in Cleveland, some of the alumni recalled they didn’t know what to make of the unusual band. “They’d look at the band,” said Finegan, “and they’d see a tuba and a harp, they’d see the percussion section, they’d hear a xylophone and they’d say, ‘How can you dance to that?!’ They were used to the brass and saxophones of the old dance bands.”

The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was making some amazingly musical records and only grudgingly took the band out to play dance dates. Finegan admitted, “We had a reputation of not playing dance music and people would make snide remarks about it. One night, somebody hollered up, ‘Hey, when are you gonna play something we can dance to?’ One of our trombone players (Sonny Russo) hollered back, ‘When are you gonna dance something we can play to?’ It was quite appropriate I thought.”

The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was different from the old swing era bands in another way. Sauter had arranged for Goodman, who was known for firing musicians at the drop of a note, and Finegan arranged for Miller, who ruled his highly-disciplined and popular band with an iron hand. “The bandleaders of the ‘30s and ‘40s in most cases were autocrats,” said Finegan, “and they had absolute control over the band and ran the band like a tight ship. We had seen how that worked with musicians and never liked the idea. When Eddie and I started the band, we decided that would be the last thing in the world we would do. So we treated them with dignity and we had great players and we weren’t doing anybody a favor to treat them with dignity, it was just the right way to do things. So we ended up with a very happy family. The band was really unique in that respect.”

Finegan also said he and Sauter resisted efforts by RCA Victor to make more commercial records. “They never knew what to make of us because nobody could put a label on it. We were often asked, ‘What is it?’ And we would simply say, ‘It’s music,’ you know. Do you have to label everything you hear? They say, ‘Is it jazz?’ Well, we’d say, ‘Well sure, there’s some jazz there.’ We had some great jazz players in our band. And some people would say, ‘The band doesn’t swing.’ We’d say, ‘You haven’t listened to it.’ Every single thing we played was not a swing piece like Count Basie or Duke Ellington or Woody Herman, but there’s swing in it; there’s jazz in it. It has many elements. So we never tried ourselves to put a label on it. It’s just music.”

That music of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, some of the most unusual ever produced by a big band, continued for only six years, until 1958, and was not performed by any other band until Finegan came to Cleveland in 1991 to direct a concert by the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra.

Sources: Wikipedia, Music’s Over, Joe Mosbrook,


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