Francis "Francy" Boland, the Belgian pianist, composer, and arranger, died in his home city of Geneva on August 12, 2005, at the age of seventy-five. Here Mike Hennessey pays tribute to

The Painfully Modest Genius from Namur Who Gave the Clarke-Boland Big Band Its Distinctive Character


It was Kenny Clarke's drumming that provided the invigorating pulse of the Clarke-Boland Big Band-and it was Francy Boland's remarkable ability to produce inspired and highly imaginative arrangements which gave the ensemble its distinctive character.

Yet Francy, for all his prodigious talent as a pianist, composer, and arranger, was one of the most modest and reticent people I have ever met. And this was not just a pose. He was a genuinely shy and diffident man. He carried self-effacement almost to the point of self-erasure.

Francy Boland's charts for the C-BBB were not created for the instruments but for the individual musicians, and he also provided support and solos from the keyboard that were consistently streets ahead of his own evaluation of them.

It was always the goal of Gigi Campi, founder of the Clarke-Boland Big Band, to create an ensemble which had an immediately recognisable identity, and this was why he wanted Francy Boland to write all of the band's arrangements. Boland's very special concept of orchestration was a vital element in achieving Campi's goal, and the outstanding solo and section work of the band did the rest.

Reviewing the C-BBB's first live concert in Mainz, Germany, in May 1966, the critic of the Mainzer Zeitung wrote: "What strikes one after close listening is the classic harmony of the brilliant soli and tutti passages, played with elegance and confidence and distinguishing the band from all other big Jazz ensembles."

For me, Boland's chef d'oeuvre was his brilliant composition and arrangement, Sax No End, an original based on the changes of Chinatown, which was the title track of a 1967 MPS album featuring Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and which showcased the superb saxophone section of Derek Humble, Carl Drewo, Johnny Griffin, Ronnie Scott, and Sahib Shihab.

Sax No End, with its inspired use of soli and tutti passages, was a major landmark in the band's progress towards establishing its ultimate corporate identity. Ronnie Scott later said of the soli sections: "They were very difficult to play-in fact, I never really got Sax No End down. But they were beautifully written and sounded marvelous. Derek Humble was the navigator-in-chief-and, of course, Sahib Shihab was a great anchor man."

The arrangement was widely acclaimed and was always a favourite at live performances. I well recall the ovation it received nightly when the C-BBB had a two-week engagement at Ronnie Scott's in February 1978, with Tony Coe in the saxophone section in place of Carl Drewo.

Kenny Graham, reviewing the Sax No End album in Crescendo, in May 1968, wrote: "One particular bit did my old ears a power of good-a saxophone chorus, brilliantly led by Derek Humble. I just love hearing saxophones having a chance to play a well written chorus instead of riffs, figures, and the boosting-up-the-brass chores that they usually find themselves doing."

Oscar Peterson was so impressed with Boland's arrangement of Sax No End that he recorded a trio version for his 1968 MPS album Travellin' On.

Francy Boland was born in Namur, Belgium, on November 6, 1929. He began teaching himself the piano when he was eight years old and developed a keen interest in Jazz when listening to radio broadcasts during World War II.

After the war, Boland studied music at the Liège Music Conservatory, and in 1949 he joined the Bob Shots, a band led by tenor saxophonist Bobby Jaspar, which included Fats Sadi on vibraphone, René Thomas on guitar, and Jacques Pelzer on alto saxophone.

At this time Boland also occasionally played trumpet and mellophone. He recorded several tracks with the Jaspar group in Paris in 1949 and then, the following year, he moved to the French capital, where he began writing arrangements for Henri's Renaud's band and for Fats Sadi and Aimé Barelli.

In 1955 he met Chet Baker and joined his quintet, with which he recorded several albums and toured Europe the following year.

In 1956, when Chet Baker returned to the States, Boland went with him and over the next two years wrote arrangements for Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Mary Lou Williams.

On his return to Europe in 1958, Boland began producing arrangements for the big band of Kurt Edelhagen in Frankfurt. Boland lived in Berlin for five years, during which time he worked with the orchestras of Werner Müller and the RIAS. It was during his time in Germany that he met Kenny Clarke, who was based in Paris. In 1959 he was a member of a Kenny Clarke Quartet which also included bassist Jimmy Woode, and he made his first recording with Clarke in February 1960, when the two featured on a Don Byas album recorded in Cologne for the DRG label.

Francy Boland made a second album with Clarke in February 1961, as a member of the Dusko Goykovic/Kenny Clarke Octet-a group which also included Derek Humble and Carl Drewo. And it was in May of that year that Francy and Klook got together with Gigi Campi in Cologne to record the very first Clarke-Boland album, The Golden Eight, which was followed, in December 1961, by the inaugural Clarke-Boland Big Band album, Jazz Is Universal, for Atlantic.

Over the next eleven years, Boland contributed some truly pace-setting arrangements for the C-BBB, which, before it disbanded in April 1972, played highly successful concert dates throughout Europe and recorded more than thirty albums.

After the break-up of the band, Boland moved to Geneva, scaled down his music activities, and went into semiretirement, though, in January 1976, he recorded a set of three landmark albums, produced by Gigi Campi, for the MPS label-Blue Flame, Red Hot, and White Heat-with a large ensemble which included many Clarke-Boland alumni, plus Kenny Wheeler, Frank Rosolino, Bob Burgess, Sal Nestico, and Stan Robinson, and a five-strong French horn section.

The eighteen tracks were predominantly classics from the Great American Songbook, superbly and distinctively orchestrated, as ever, by Boland and featuring some highly imaginative work from the many outstanding soloists. As I observed in the notes for the albums, " Magnificent though the solo work is throughout, it could fairly be said that the immaculate, disciplined, and always invigorating section playing is on the same high creative level. And supreme among the sections are those astonishingly compatible and articulate saxophones, for which no one writes more compellingly than Francy Boland."

One of Francy Boland's last major assignments was writing the arrangements for a suite of songs based on the poems of Pope John Paul II, which was premiered at a One World One Peace concert held in the Tonhalle, Düsseldorf, in June 1984 and produced by Gigi Campi.

Sarah Vaughan was the featured vocalist, and the orchestra, conducted by Lalo Schifrin, included many former Clarke-Boland Big Band alumni as well as French horn, woodwind, and string sections and a vocal chorus. Gene Lees adapted the pope's poems into English, and the themes were written by Francy Boland, Lalo Schifrin, and the Italian pianists/arrangers Tito Fontana and Sante Palumbo. An album of the concert was released on Italy's Five label.

As Gigi Campi has reminded me, one of the most glowing tributes to Francy Boland was paid by his coleader. The C-BBB was rehearsing and swinging like mad, while Klook was standing out in front, rolling a joint. Suddenly, he looked up in mock disbelief and genuine joy, and said: "This band doesn't need a drummer. That Belgian m-f swings it just with his writing, goddam it!"


By Mike Hennessey

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