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Ralph Burns studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and, by his own admission, learned the art of jazz arranging through transcribing from records. At first Burns joined the Charlie Barnet organization, but by 1944 he was working with Woody Herman "second herd" as the band's pianist and chief arranger. Burns composed several of the instrumental standards associated with Herman, including "Bijou" and "Apple Honey." But Burns scored a bull's-eye with the three-part extended work "Summer Sequence" in 1945, still regarded as one of the most advanced big-band charts of its day. The final movement of "Summer Sequence," "Early Autumn" became the solo showcase that brought saxophonist Stan Getz into the public spotlight in 1947. With lyrics by Johnny Mercer added, "Early Autumn" became a favorite of jazz vocalists and something close to being a vocal standard.
Burns always cited his days with Herman as being his happiest, but in the dark days of 1946 both artists could see the writing on the wall for the big bands. Burns took to writing charts for singers such as Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, and Ray Charles, Burns arranging Charles' famous recording of "Georgia on My Mind." He later worked closely with film director Bob Fosse and picked up two Academy Awards for his scores for the films Cabaret and All That Jazz. Burns later added to these honors a Tony Award for the 1999 musical Fosse.
Although Ralph Burns' direct involvement in instrumental jazz groups came to an end with the demise of the big bands, he led both small combos and pickup orchestras on about a dozen albums made under his own name between 1951 and 1964. These are only infrequently encountered on reissues; however, they range in quality from respectable to outstanding.