Above: Performing at the Three Deuces, New York, April 1947

Ralph Burns

Birth name Ralph Jose P. Burns
Born June 29, 1922
Newton, Massachusetts, U.S.

Died November 21, 2001 (aged 79)
Los Angeles, California
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Musician, composer, arranger
Instruments Piano
Years active 1939-1993
Labels Verve, Norgran, Decca
Associated acts Woody Herman, Bob Fosse

Burns was born in Newton, Massachusetts 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 Frances Wayne’s home. Wayne was already a well-known big band singer and her brother Nick Jerret was a bandleader who began working with Burns. He found himself in the company of such famous 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 began working together. In 1944, he joined the Woody Herman band with members Neal Hefti, Bill Harris, Flip Phillips, Chubby Jackson and Dave Tough. Together, the group developed a powerful and distinctive 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.

Burns worked with numerous other musicians. Stan Getz was featured as a tenor saxophone soloist on “Early Autumn”, a huge 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. 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”.

His work for the stage was also notable. Baryshnikov on Broadway in 1980 earned Burns an Emmy Award for his work. In the 1990s, Burns arranged music for Mel Tormé, John Pizzarelli and Michael Feinstein. 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. Burns was inducted into the New England Jazz Hall of Fame in 2004.

Personal life

Burns carefully hid his homosexuality throughout his life. 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. He was survived by one sister, Nancy Lane (Burns), and three brothers, Leo, Joe, and Gael.



Lenny (1974)
Piaf (1974)
Lucky Lady (1975)
Movie Movie (1978)
All That Jazz (1979)
Make Me an Offer (1980) (TV)
Urban Cowboy (1980)
Golden Gate (1981) (TV)
Pennies from Heaven (1981)
Side Show (1981) (TV)
Kiss Me Goodbye (1982)
Lights, Camera, Annie! (1982) (TV)
My Favorite Year (1982)
The Phantom of the Opera (1983) (TV)
Star 80 (1983)
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter (1984) (TV)
The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
Moving Violations (1985)
Perfect (1985)
The Christmas Star (1986) (TV)
Penalty Phase (1986) (TV)
Amazing Stories (2 episodes, 1986–1987)
“Magic Saturday” (1986) TV Episode
“The 21-Inch Sun” (1987) TV Episode
After the Promise (1987) (TV)
In the Mood (1987)
All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)
Sweet Bird of Youth (1989) (TV)
Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool (1989)


Something More! (1964) (orchestrator)
Sweet Charity (1969) (orchestrator)
Move (1970) (orchestrator)
Bananas (1971) (orchestrator)
Pippin (musical) (1971) (orchestrator)
Cabaret (1972) (conductor, arranger, supervisor)
Lenny (1974) (music supervisor)
Mame (1974) (musical director) (orchestrator)
New York, New York (1977) (conductor, supervisor)
The World’s Greatest Lover (1977) (orchestrator)
High Anxiety (1977) (orchestrator)
All That Jazz (1979) (conductor, arranger, supervisor) (uncredited)
Baryshnikov on Broadway (1980) (TV) (music arranger)
Urban Cowboy (1980) (music adaptor)
First Family (1980) (composer: additional music, uncredited, conductor, adaptor)
Bring Back Birdie (1981) (orchestrator supervisor)
Pippin: His Life and Times (1981) (TV) (music arranger)
History of the World: Part I (1981) (orchestrator: “The Spanish Inquisition”)
Annie (1982) (conductor, arranger)
Jinxed! (1982) (reunion scene arranger and orchestrator)
To Be or Not to Be (1983) (orchestrator)
A Chorus Line (1985) (conductor, arranger)
In the Mood (1987) (conductor, orchestrator)
The Josephine Baker Story (1991) (TV)
Life Stinks (1991) (dance orchestrator)
The Addams Family (1991) (additional orchestrator)
Fosse (2001) (TV) (orchestrator)
Chicago (2002) (special thanks)

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