Belgian pianist and composer Francy Boland teamed with American drummer Kenny Clarke to lead the Clarke-Boland Big Band, widely cited as the finest all-star ensemble of its kind ever assembled outside the U.S. Born November 6, 1929, in Namur, Belgium, François Boland began playing piano at age eight, later studying at the Music Conservatory. He first earned notice after joining the Bob Shots in 1949, playing alongside a who's who of Belgian jazz greats including tenorist Bobby Jaspar, vibraphonist Fats Sadi, and guitarist René Thomas. Boland recorded six LPs with the Bob Shots, all of them in Paris.
When the group dissolved, he and several bandmates remained in France, and in 1954 he signed on as the pianist and arranger behind trumpeter Aimé Barelli. In 1956 Boland joined trumpeter Chet Baker's quintet, and when Baker returned to the U.S. he took the pianist with him. Boland remained overseas for two years, during that time writing for Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Mary Lou Williams. Upon returning to Europe, he settled in Germany, joining Kurt Edelhagen's orchestra as well as playing with the West Deutsche Radio Big Band.
In the spring of 1961, Boland met with drummer Clarke, and together they assembled an octet to record the Blue Note LP The Golden Eight. The collaboration proved so powerful that Italian producer Gigi Campi encouraged the duo to extend their partnership full-time, resulting in the creation of the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band. An international group featuring musicians from the U.S., Britain, Germany, Austria, and Sweden, its ranks included some of the finest players of the post-bop era, including Ronnie Scott, Tony Coe, Derek Humble, Nat Peck, and Karl Drewo. (Guests on their 30-odd LPs include Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin, and Zoot Sims.) In all, the Clarke-Boland Big Band remained a going concern for over 11 years, despite the financial obstacles and ego issues implicit in keeping this kind of all-star international enterprise afloat -- Boland's arrangements deftly wed the intellectual rigors of bebop with the physical energy of swing, and his "Sax No End" emerged as a modern standard.
Following a 1972 date in Nuremburg, the Clarke-Boland Big Band split. Boland settled in Geneva, entering semi-retirement but still writing and arranging, most notably at the request of Sarah Vaughan. In 1984, he was tapped to spearhead One World, One Peace, which set to music the poems of Pope John Paul II. Boland died in Geneva on August 12, 2005. ~ Jason Ankeny