Robert Joseph Farnon, born in Toronto, was a composer, conductor, musical arranger and jazz trumpeter. Commissioned as a captain in the Canadian Army, he became conductor/arranger of the Canadian Band of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force sent overseas during World War II. After the war Farnon moved to England, eventually settling permanently in Guernsey in the Channel Islands with his family.
He was widely recognised as an outstanding practitioner of the arranger’s craft, and influenced many in his field, including Quincy Jones. Conductor André Previn called him ‘the greatest writer for strings in the world.’
He wrote music for more than 40 films, as well as theme tunes and other music for many, mostly British, television series. In later life he composed more ambitious orchestral works, including three symphonies, a concerto for piano and orchestra, a rhapsody for violin and orchestra and a concerto for bassoon.
Biography by Roger Cotterrell.
In the first of two interviews which Les Tomkins conducted in 1967 with Robert Farnon, the Canadian composer-arranger talks about working with the BBC Radio Orchestra and other bands, and about playing jazz in his youth with Dizzy Gillespie and others.
|Interview date||1st January 1967|
|Interview source||Jazz Professional|
|Image source credit|
|Image source URL|
It’s a great pleasure to do this new weekly BBC series, which I believe is going to be heard each Sunday until the end of June. I’m looking forward to its run. Actually, I come over from my home in Guernsey every fortnight. On the Tuesday we usually do all the script, because there’s a lot of talking throughout the programme, between the visiting composer, the guest singer, the regular compere, John Dunn, and myself. We do most of that work at Broadcasting House, and it is cut into the show later. Then on the Wednesday, from 2.0 in the afternoon until 10 p.m., we record the music for one programme. On Thursday we do a second complete show.
That allows me to be home for one full week, rather than come over each week. Because the travelling’s a bit of a bind, you know. If you have to make it every week, you just get here, do your work, go home, spend one day and come back again. That’s how it was with the previous series on BBC, and I’m glad that they’ve been able to arrange it this way —thanks to the producer, Vernon Lawrence.
I worked with the Radio Orchestra last year, when we did two or three isolated programmes. Just occasionally I came in, conducted the orchestra and brought a few arrangements. Prior to that, I worked with the string section in a couple of programmes. On the whole, it’s a first–class orchestra. And they’re magnificent readers. They read this music just at sight—which is a godsend when we have such limited rehearsal time.
The Radio Orchestra has some very good soloists in it—the leader, violinist John Jezzard, Bobby Lamb (trombone), Jimmy Chester (alto). An excellent Canadian tenor player—Art Ellefson.
And, of course, Malcolm Cecil on bass and Jackie Dougan on drums are first–rate. Then we have Bobby Midgeley come in for the afternoon session, playing all the extra percussion wonderfully well. Individually, there’s an awful lot of talent there. Collectively, they’ve been together long enough now to have some terrific teamwork. Which you don’t get in the session boys so much. Sometimes you do—if the same four trombones or four trumpets arrive at a date, but quite often it isn’t so. I think the only real difference is—there are probably a few more virtuosos among session players that do recordings and film work.
As a unit, this is a top–class light orchestra, which can play almost any style of music. We’ve done everything from small Dixieland jazz and beat stuff up to a movement from Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. Which isn’t bad going, is it? And everything you could think of in between.
It’s certainly a great help to know that there are these outstanding jazz players in the orchestra. Then I can dig into my library and say: “Well, yes, this’ll come off well, because it has a tenor solo, and we’ve got a terrific tenor player in the band.” Or “Here’s a speciality for the alto,” or whatever. It helps me in programming the music—to know what I can use.
As a matter of interest, Johnny Dankworth is going to be a guest in one of the programmes, and I’m writing a saxophone piece for him. But I must mention something else here—this originated from a suggestion by the producer, who thought it might be an idea if I wrote a little thing for Johnny. And, funnily enough, I’d been starting a serious composition for another alto player, also a fellow—Canadian, Bob Burns. But a major work—a saxophone concerto, which will feature Bob playing tenor, alto and soprano. He’ll play one of these instruments on each of three movements.
I must say that the general standard of musicianship in this country is very high. Right after the war, when I started doing some vocal accompaniments at Decca and working with the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra, I found that the reading was absolutely staggering. I’d never come across musicians who could sight–read so well. Back home it would take us probably twice the time. And it’s the same today.
Where American musicians tend to excel, I think, is in interpretation. Also, most of the American bands we hear are permanently–organised outfits—so they have more time to get a good ensemble sound. Ted Heath’s band, being permanent, got a wonderful ensemble sound. But in session work, where we’re going to do an album of jazz tunes, or whatever, we only have so much time to get these things done. In other words, the brass or saxophone section can’t take the music away and ‘woodshed’ it, as we call it, for half an hour—just get into a corner and practice it, phrase it, change it and chop it about. As, say, Ted Heath’s band does—and the Americans.
It’s always been my opinion that we could get the same ensemble sound from the ordinary bands here. Ted’s was not a soloists’ band—not later on, anyway—but it was a great ensemble band. I remember, when I was with Geraldo, he allowed us to have a rehearsal of up to three or four hours—just wood–shedding one number. And, as a result, we got a great sound.
Being a perfectionist, I’m seldom completely happy about the sound. I think it’s a bit mean on my part—1 shouldn’t be so selfish, always wanting everything to be perfect.
As for being a conductor—I conduct because I like conducting my own music. But I’m not really mad about actually conducting an orchestra. I much prefer writing. It was when I was in my teens in Toronto that the writing gradually took hold. From the time I was seven years old, I can remember music throughout the family. My father was a violinist; my mother played piano. My only sister was a jazz pianist, and my elder brother, Brian, was in a college band when he was twelve. I was eleven or twelve when I bought my first set of drums, just playing the bass drum and brass, and played trumpet for many years.
What happened was: I was on drums with my brother’s band, and it was very difficult to find brass players. The tenor saxophone player had an old cornet, which he gave to me as a present. So I started studying it, and taking lessons and I liked it very much. Then I used to play the second trumpet parts at the drums, just playing the bass drum and hi–hat cymbal with my feet, leaving my hands free to play the trumpet! An entree for me In 1936 I joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, playing first trumpet for Percy Faith’s Orchestra. That was an entree for me, as far as writing was concerned, because I used to do some arranging for Percy, too. He wasn’t a vocal writer at the time, and I did his choir arrangements for him. When he left for America, I suppose I filled the gap, as it were. I took over, formed an orchestra and did a lot of conducting for CBC. But I would play as well. I didn’t give up playing until I came to Britain with the Canadian Army in 1943.
My original studies in writing were with a private teacher named Louis Wiseman. ke was a pupil at a school in Prague at the same time as one of the Strauss family. A very good teacher, though not a good composer. He taught me the harmony. the counterpoint and the general theory of music. I took it over from there. And I didn’t write any popular music to speak of; I was just concerned in writing serious music. I wrote a symphonette for orchestra, then two symphonies and several orchestral works, an etude for trumpet, some piano pieces—and this was all before I came over here It was when I was in Britain with the Canadian Band of the AEF that I became more involved in the light music side. As the conductor of a popular orchestra, which ours was, similar to those of Glenn Miller and George Melachrino, I wasn’t accented by the BBC as a serious musician: I remember sending my Second Symphony score to the BBC for review —and I never heard from them about it for three years. Finally I discovered the score in a little office in Shaftesbury Avenue, underneath a pile of manuscripts. It had been there, gathering dust, for all that time. I was more or less advised by the chap there that they didn’t even look at it—because it couldn’t possibly be good if it was written by a jazz musician.
This is a strange attitude—but it is true. And I think it still prevails today to a great extent. I’ve written one or two serious works recently—one is a “Rhapsody For Violin And Orchestra”, which has been played at the Festival Hall, as well as all over Europe and in Canada. But, although it’s been submitted to them, it’s never been played by the BBC Serious Music Department at all. And that’s today.
Apart from the BBC, I find the same unawareness on the part of the symphony orchestras here, to whom my work has been submitted, but who have not used it. Yet the symphony orchestras abroad consider it worth including in their repertoire. My First Symphony was played by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. So if it’s performed by one of the ten leading orchestras in the world, it should be good enough for the BBC.
The AEF Band was a full aggregation, including strings, but we didn’t have the best players. During the war the Canadian Army had several big entertainment units, and they used to send, say, tenor twelve–piece groups out on the Continent with a show. Some of them got up very close behind the lines. The cream of the professional musicians of Canada were in these units. And we were left in London with rather the second string of players.
Therefore, with our leading brass, woodwind and string players out entertaining the troops. we had great difficulty in competing with Miller—and Melachrino. But we had quite a good orchestra, because we were working a 9 to 5 routine nearly every day of the week. So what we lacked in skill. we made up for in ensemble playing and drilled musicianship, I suppose.
Anyway, it served as a launching point for me here. Of course. we were working in the BBC regularly and. shortly after the war, the Corporation offered me a series along the lines of the large orchestral music of the Canadian Army Band. That, incidentally, was on a Sunday afternoon, as this one is. It was called Journey Into Melody, and we followed it with another series, Melody Hour. Now we’ve either come full circle, or we’re turning the clock back 20 years —1 don’t know what. But we’re doing the same thing, more or less, again. Though I think the styles have changed a bit.
It would be interesting, perhaps, for some people to know that a lot of the arrangements we’re playing in this present series are the ones we played in the original series 18–20 years ago. They’re not all new arrangements, by any means.
Unfortunately. there’s no budget for arranging in the programme. I’m just pulling the suitable ones out of the book. And, according to the musicians, most of them still stand up. Which is nice to know.
My associations with jazz and jazz musicians go back to when I lived in Toronto. Of course. New York wasn’t very far away—just across the border. And we used to go over every possible weekend and sit in with some of these boys, just for a musical tonic. I first played with Dizzy Gillespie when he came through Toronto with Cab Calloway’s band. We used to have jam sessions afterwards and play like mad all night long, together with Chu Berry on tenor and Cozy Cole on drums. Dizzy played straight trumpet then—he didn’t have it sticking up in the air. He used to giggle when I played a jazz solo on cornet—he’d always played trumpet himself. In fact, I think it’s a nicer sound than flugelhorn—easier to control, with a better tone.
I used to sit in and play jazz choruses at Minton’s. Also at a place called the Trianon in Buffalo, which is even closer to Toronto. I used to work a 9 till 1 job at a Summer place near Niagara Falls. Our way of relaxing after the job every night was to nip over to Buffalo. It was only about an hour’s drive—we’d get back about 6.0 in the morning. At the Trianon, we played with some very interesting fellows from the old Don Redman Band, such as Jean Goldkette, Red Norvo and his brother, a drummer. Red’s wife, Mildred Bailey, was singing with the band. Those were very happy salad days.
It was just filling my need to play jazz —that was the only way to play it. Because there weren’t very many jazz musicians in my home town at the time. Not like there is now—we have Oscar Peterson in residence and, until recently, we also had Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. But we didn’t then—so we had to go over the border for our jazz.
Any interest evidenced by jazz people like Quincy Jones in my present—day work doesn’t have anything to do with jazz, I don’t think. Probably, they just like some of the arrangements I’ve done on record. Harmonically, more than anything else—and perhaps the orchestral colours. I don’t think they listen much to the jazz side of it, because we don’t play very much. The orchestras we use are a little bit too large to play jazz. We attempt it—to try to find that elusive combination of jazz and symphonic. It’s terribly difficult, but a lot of people—Johnny Dankworth, John Lewis, Duke Ellington—are having a go, too. But on a big scale, with the 60–piece Radio Orchestra that you hear on Sundays—it’s not at all easy to move a band of that size in a swinging arrangement. Occasionally, though, it does happen.
Copyright © 1967, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.