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Don Sebesky, composer-arranger with a golden touch, has died at 85

Don Sebesky conducting at a recording session in 2011.
courtesy of the artist
Don Sebesky conducting at a recording session in 2011.

Don Sebesky, whose dynamic flair as a composer and arranger left an indelible mark on the sound of modern jazz and pop orchestration, notably through a prolific association with the producer-executive Creed Taylor, died on April 29 at a senior living center in Maplewood, NJ. He was 85.

Sharing the news on social media, his son Ken Sebesky said he had died after a six-year struggle with post-stroke Parkinsonism.

For a generation or two of listeners, Sebesky’s arrangements are synonymous with worldly sophistication in a jazz-crossover lane. His work for Taylor’s CTI Records in the 1960s and ‘70s set the gold standard on albums like Freddie Hubbard’s First Light, Milt Jackson’s Sunflower, and Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’ and A Day in the Life.

The focused shimmer of strings and harp on the title track of that 1967 Beatles tribute album — initially swaddling Montgomery’s trademark octaves, and then bursting into a full orchestral blare — amount to a watershed moment for adult-contemporary pop.

Sebesky collaborated with many artists who held that space: songbook stewards like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand, as well as pop singers like Carly Simon, Christina Aguilera and Cyndi Lauper. He also orchestrated extensively for Broadway, winning a Tony Award for a 2000 revival of Kiss Me, Kate. In his own recording career, which earned him three Grammy awards, Sebesky favored impeccably crafted large-ensemble work within the mainstream language of modern jazz.

Self-taught as an arranger, Sebesky had developed his view from the inside: trained as a trombonist, he logged his first professional experience filling the shoes of Carl Fontana in a band led by Kai Winding. He joined the trombone section of the Maynard Ferguson band in 1958, appearing that year on the album A Message From Newport — as both a player and a composer of two new pieces. Sebesky then joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra, but his tenure was short-lived, once he committed to arranging full-time.

Don Sebesky with Herbie Hancock and Wes Montgomery recording 'A Day In The Life' in 1967.
Sebesky Family
Don Sebesky with Herbie Hancock and Wes Montgomery recording 'A Day In The Life' in 1967.

“I don’t think that there is what you might call a Sebesky sound, at least not that I’m aware of,” he said in The Contemporary Arranger, a book first published in 1975. “I think it’s more a general attitude toward music, a willingness to blend various influences without worrying where they come from. I look at music the way I look at life; I have no preconceived ideas about either. I don’t think I could ever be happy with just one sound — that would drive me crazy.”

Donald John Sebesky was born on Dec. 10, 1937 in Perth Amboy, NJ, the son of a factory worker and a homemaker. His first instrument was the accordion, as he explained in a 2010 interview with Marc Myers; he took up the trombone to join his high school marching band. In short order he was serious about his new instrument, taking the train into New York to study with Warren Covington, a veteran big band and session player. (Sebesky would later have occasion to hire Covington for some albums on CTI.)

Sebesky studied trombone at the Manhattan School of Music, after which he served his stints with Ferguson and Kenton. He met Creed Taylor in the early ‘60s, and they forged an instant compatibility, rooted in musical enthusiasm and pragmatic deference. “There was never a problem with Sebesky, because he was an absolute, polished professional,” Taylor later recalled (in an interview for The Art of Record Production, originally published in 2012). “If I asked him to take out four bars of Letter ‘A,’ take out that figure, and, then, change anything, he’d do it immediately.” (Taylor died last August, at 92.)

Not all Sebesky’s interventions met with acclaim; fans of Montgomery, for instance, often blamed him for what they saw as a turn toward commercialism. Writing in 1976, critic Gary Giddins excoriated the guitarist’s A&M Records output in particular: “Don Sebesky, a hack arranger with a talent for blending received ideas into an eclectic goulash, was hired to write and overdub strings and woodwinds arrangements on the tracks Montgomery recorded with rhythm. The material was occasionally good but more frequently not.”

Pianist and composer Randy Weston, writing in his 2010 autobiography African Rhythms, lodged a related complaint about his CTI album Blue Moses. Having recorded the album with just a rhythm section, he was surprised to hear the finished product: “I immediately put it on the turntable and out burst all this added orchestration from Don Sebesky. I couldn’t believe it.” (Weston allowed that, despite his misgivings, Blue Moses was his biggest-selling album.)

Sebesky had freer license on his own albums, beginning in 1968 with Don Sebesky and the Jazz-Rock Syndrome. He made his CTI debut in 1973 with Giant Box, an album that earned its momentous title, opening with a fanfare that fused Stravinsky’s Firebird with the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire. In addition to composing and conducting, Sebesky played electric piano, organ, accordion and clavinet.

Sebesky was a perennial nominee at the Grammy Awards, and his three wins came in quick succession, all for his own recordings. He took best instrumental arrangement for a version of “Waltz For Debby” off the 1998 album I Remember Bill: The Tribute to Bill Evans. His next two were both for selections on Joyful Noise: A Tribute to Duke Ellington, which Sebesky often cited as the favorite among his albums. In addition to the arranging award for a take on “Chelsea Bridge,” he won best instrumental composition for “Joyful Noise Suite,” a three-part invention.

In The Contemporary Arranger, which was published with an accompanying LP of highlights, Sebesky laid out his vision succinctly: “There are four basic factors that are essential in the construction of a good arrangement: Balance, Economy, Focus, and Variety.” For Sebesky, whose papers were acquired by the Library of Congress in 2016, the incorporation of those factors assumes myriad combinations over the course of his expansive career.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.