Bill Holman was born in Olive, California and his family moved soon to Orange, east of Anaheim. While he was in third grade the family moved again to nearby Santa Ana. He first started playing the clarinet in junior high school. While attending high school he also played the tenor saxophone and formed a band of his own. Though his family had no musical background, Holman was heavily influenced by music from groups such as the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras while constantly listening to the radio growing up. Holman was drafted at the later end of WWII and served in the U.S. Navy from 1944-1946. Through the Navy, he studied mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado and then came back to the Los Angeles area and studied at UCLA.
In the late 1940s he started to focus on music studies and away from engineering. He enrolled at the Westlake College of Music (in Hollywood, CA) and studied with Dave Robertson and Dr. Alfred Sendrey. He studied privately with well known composer and arranger Russ Garcia and Lloyd Reese on the saxophone. Holman was heavily influenced by the African-American jazz artists on what is known as the famous Central Avenue corridor in Los Angeles; he heard a great deal of live music there while living nearby and attending Westlake College. He got his first professional start with Ike Carpenter's dance band and then soon after with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra in 1950 as a tenor saxophonist; he would continue with the group for about 18 months. Early commercial work as an arranger came in 1951/1952 with charts done for band leader and producer Bob Keane on the album Dancing On The Ceiling.
Through his acquaintance with Gene Roland, Holman was auditioned by Stan Kenton and hired as a tenor sax player for two years in March 1952 (replacing reedman Bob Cooper). Soon after his working on the band as an instrumentalist, Holman submitted writing to Kenton for the group to test out. Holman's first writing was not an immediate success with Kenton until he was given an assignment to write Invention for Guitar and Trumpet for Sal Salvador and Maynard Ferguson. The chart was to become one of the recognized works for the Kenton orchestra from the critically acclaimed New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm album, it was also featured in the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle.
Stan Kenton was attracted to Holman's ability to integrate counterpoint and dissonance in subtle yet distinctive ways, and for his knack for making the Kenton band "swing" in its own particular fashion. Holman became one of Kenton's primary arrangers creating a distinctive signature for the band due Holman's unique, cutting edge approach to jazz orchestration. Holman's association with the Kenton orchestra lasted for close to 27 years; he wrote a large body of work for the band. This included important contributions to three of Kenton's finest albums, New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm, Contemporary Concepts and the Grammy winning Adventures In Jazz. Kenton featured Holman as a star composer and arranger along with Bill Russo early on with the 1954 album Kenton Showcase.
In the course of some intense hanging out (with Gene Roland), I had played a recording of a 12-tone blues that I'd written (doesn't everybody?) while studying at the Westlake College of Music in Hollywood. According to Gene Roland, who had been writing for Kenton for some time, Stan had been talking about a more contrapuntal, linear type of music, and Gene felt that my piece lay in the direction that Stan was considering. While I was away on a short trip with Charlie Barnet, Gene took the recording to Kenton, and when I returned, Stan called. We met, talked, and he asked me to write a couple of pieces for the band. Being young and ambitious, I reached too far in the writing and exceeded my limits - the charts were disasters and never heard of again - but Stan gamely suggested that I do another. By this time I'd heard some of the things that Gerry Mulligan was bringing in, and with a slightly better idea of what was going on, managed to come back down to earth and brought in a better effort, though it, too, was never heard of again.
Holman's comments about being most influenced by the writing of Gerry Mulligan as the template for what was correct for the band:
Gerry wrote eight to ten scores for the band (early 1952, just before he formed the famous Quartet) and, while YOUNG BLOOD, the most linear of these, was the only one to really thrill Stan, the players (by this time I was playing tenor in the band) loved to play and hear all of them. For me particularly, being only about ten charts out of music school and with no real jazz conception of my own, Gerry's music played a great part in my finding my own voice.
Classical influences from important composers such as Béla Bartók are also used during this time. Two of the most important and influential arrangements of standard tunes are on the Kenton Contemporary Concepts album from 1955. Holman talks about his arrangements of What's New? and I've Got You Under My Skin:
The idea for these two tunes was to write long charts, based on standard tunes, but to make them like an original piece. Just use the changes or a (melodic) fragment to tie it together; in other words, make them like an original – although you don’t get royalties for it! But they were double the length of the usual chart. You could stretch out and do what you want. I remember the day we were all in New York, as part of the ’54 All Star Concert Tour with the Kenton guys plus Shorty Rogers and his Quintet. They were going to continue on but I was going to stay there. I remember Shorty, Jack Montrose and I were walking down 48th Street where all the music stores were. We started looking through some scores and I found Bartok’s Third and Fourth Quartets. I remember after the band left and I finally got down to writing these charts I was looking through the Bartok things and I got an idea for “What’s New.” Sometimes looking at something like that can give you an idea – not necessarily something that’s specifically in there – but just puts something you can use into your head. Just an approach. Stan said to make ’em long and not worry bout keeping the melody going all the time. The standard changes are there so you can follow them if you’re used to listening to jazz that way.
Highlights for Holman on the Kenton band during his two years in the sax section included Zoot Sims joining the group as the solo tenor saxophonist; Kenton would ask Holman to write for Sims. Later Holman left the band after an intense discussion about the band's shortcomings; this did not endanger Holman's reputation as a composer and arranger for Stan Kenton. By the mid-1950s while Holman was still in his late 20's, Kenton was commissioning Holman to write as much as he could. He was writing sometimes two charts every week that included concert works, dance charts, originals and vocals. During the 1952-55 period the two primary composers/arrangers who shaped the signature sound of the Stan Kenton orchestra for years to come would be Bill Holman and Bill Russo (who was only a year younger than Holman). Almost two-thirds of the music recorded by Kenton during this period were from these two writers alone. Two of the original works of Holman's created for the band during that time include the interesting Afro Latin masterpiece Hav-A-Havana. The other work which has become the quintessential "Holman signature sound" of contrapuntal composition is The Opener. Though Kenton's taste would evolve and Holman was not functioning as Chief Arranger by the end of the 1950s, he continued to make key contributions to the Kenton repertoire all the way to 1977 before Kenton's demise in 1979. His fiery arrangement of Malagueña from Kenton's 1963 Grammy winning album stands out to this day as one of his most well known and most played works.
"In sum, it was a pretty high level for an 'earn-as-you-learn' case such as mine, but, ill-equipped as I was, Stan's patience and encouragement and the help of a lot of great players enabled me to make a start in a long and rewarding career. I'll always be grateful (to Stan) for this, but, what the hell, we both got something out of it." Holman also become a participant and clinician of the Stan Kenton Band Clinics as an educational component of the orchestra.
Aside from the work with the Stan Kenton orchestra, Bill Holman has written a substantial amount of music for other prominent big bands. Not long after his first writing for the Kenton orchestra, he was invited to compose for Woody Herman's big band. One of the earliest recorded examples of Holman's work with Herman are the compositions Mulligan Tawny and Blame Boehm that were recorded for Columbia Records in 1954. Probably the most well known arrangement for the Herman band is Holman's up tempo chart on After You've Gone from the Grammy Nominated Woody Herman '64 album. Holman was able to capture the unique sound of the band; the group used 3 tenor saxes and a baritone sax (no alto saxes). The association and the writing for the Woody Herman continued off and on up through the 1980s; this included four Grammy nominated albums Holman's work is recorded on.
In 1965, drummer Buddy Rich started his own touring big band. Rich's familiarity with Holman's writing came through playing on Harry James' group from earlier in the decade. Holman was one of the first writers to write for Rich's unique big band book; Rich was looking for updated material of contemporary pop hits that also featured himself (Rich) on drums. Holman became the primary 'go to' composer and arranger helping to create an appeal Rich was to have with much younger audiences at a time when big bands had fallen out of fashion. Drum features and pop/rock tunes Holman wrote greatly helped Rich to achieve a new sound that aided the band to gain a younger listening audience. Holman's writing is featured on several Buddy Rich big band albums from 1966 through 1985 to include Grammy nominated LPs Big Swing Face and Buddy & Soul. Holman's arrangement of the Beatles Norwegian Wood was a commercial success and prominently featured on numerous live television performances creating a high profile early on for Rich's band. HIs composition Ruth is a good example of contemporary big band writing during that time of the late 1960s.
One of the most notable jazz albums Holman wrote was I Told You So, commissioned by the Count Basie Orchestra and recorded at RCA studios, New York City in January 1976 (for Norman Granz and Pablo Records).Other important groups and big bands he has written and recorded for include names such as Louie Bellson, Maynard Ferguson, Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band, Harry James, Terry Gibbs, The Airmen of Note and Chicago Jazz Orchestra.
Bill Holman became an important figure in was to become the 'West Coast' jazz scene starting in the 1950s. Through Holman's associations to personnel from Central Avenue, Stan Kenton, and Woody Herman he put together his own small jazz groups and participated in those of numerous other artists. The most prominent names from that list include Carmen McRae, Bob Cooper, Shorty Rogers, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, The Tonight Show Band, Manhattan Transfer, Diane Schuur, J.J. Johnson, Jack Sheldon, Charlie Shoemake, Howard Roberts, Ann Richards, Anita O'Day, Lighthouse All-Stars, June Christy, Mel Torme, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Lennie Niehaus, Conte Candoli, Dave Pell, Shelly Manne and Terry Gibbs. He recorded for several labels as well as his small groups regularly playing at The Lighthouse, Basin Street West, Donte's, and numerous other Los Angeles venues from the era.
Though he is known primarily in the jazz idiom, Bill Holman has had a long career in composing original music and writing arrangements for an impressive list of prominent recording artists. Most notably, several of the biggest pop acts he wrote for were through his association in Los Angeles to a group of record producers and studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. Artists Holman specifically wrote for who were produced during this time include The 5th Dimension, The Association, The Sandpipers, and The Monkees. Each of these four pop groups had award-winning hits and platinum selling records containing Holman's work as an orchestrator/arranger. This overall roster of artists written for includes Peggy Lee, Burt Bacharach, Les Brown, Randy VanWarmer, Mario Lanza, Tak Shindo, Michael Bublé, Seals & Crofts, Bobby Sherman, Bobby Darin, Johnny Desmond, the Four Freshmen, Eartha Kitt, Pearl Bailey, Steve Lawrence, The Turtles, Jackie & Roy, Tony Bennett, Si Zentner, and others.
Bill Holman's television credits include many of his compositions and arrangements featured on major television series and specials such as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Bing Crosby Show, the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the Academy Awards, The Hollywood Palace, The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show and the Dick Cavett Show. His many commercial compositions, included is work on earlier films scores including work on Roger Corman's Swamp Women (1956) ask well as the movies Get Out of Town (1959), and Three on a Couch (1966). Other film scoring work includes for his composition and arranging on Glengarry Glen Ross, The Wrecking Crew, Luv, Harper, The Marrying Man and Sharky's Machine (among others).
He formed his own Los Angeles, California-based big band in the 1950s which recorded several prominent albums in the late 50's and early 60's. These albums included In a Jazz Orbit (1958), The Fabulous Bill Holman (1958) and Bill Holman's Great Big Band (1961). The group also recorded several notable albums under Holman's name backing Jackie & Roy, Mark Murphy and David Allen. The most notable album of these was with singer Anita O'Day in 1960/61 entitled Incomparable! for Verve Records. By the late 1960s Holman had de-emphasized the group due to his busy schedule, the commercial viability of a big band, and partly because of the departure of drummer Mel Lewis moving back to New York City.
Starting in 1975, nearly 13 years after his last big band recording, Holman began rehearsing, writing and recording with his own big band again which has won two Grammys. His first recording with the new group in 1988 was Bill Holman Band: World Class Music (JVC). Pulling in Los Angeles studio musicians who admired and appreciated his work, Holman has been able to release a list of acclaimed CDs, including Brilliant Corners which features arrangements of tunes written by Thelonious Monk that won a Grammy in 1997. Holman's band is one of the few regularly rehearsing big bands that meets on a weekly basis. The group has been featured at numerous jazz venues and festivals over the last 30 years to include The Jazz Bakery, the Reno Jazz Festival, Elmhurst Jazz festival, Monterey Jazz Festival and many times at the Los Angeles Jazz Institute's Big Band Bash that happens every May.
Bill Holman's writing for large jazz ensemble has had a tremendous impact outside of the United States. He has conducted and recorded with well known jazz orchestras such as the BBC Big Band in London, SWR Big Band in Stuttgart, Germany, the hr-Bigband in Frankfurt, Germany, RIAS Big Band Berlin, the Klaus Weiss Big Band, Vic Lewis, the Norwegian Radio Big Band, BuJazzO, and the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam. Musical scores and recording for Bill Holman are archived in over 20 major countries' national libraries around the world.
Bill Holman has been the arranger and orchestrator on numerous albums that have garnered Grammy nominations; he has personally had 16 nominations total and won 3 times. Holman's first nomination came in 1960 for Best Arrangement for Peggy Lee's hit single I'm Gonna Go Fishin'. He was the main contributor as an arranger (3 tracks) to the 1963 Best Jazz Performance - Large Group (Instrumental) category winning Stan Kenton album Adventures In Jazz. Holman was a contributing arranger for the 1970 Grammy Record of the Year, The Age of Aquarius by The 5th Dimension. His first Grammy Award win came in 1988 for Best Instrumental Arrangement (with Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Orchestra).
He was an important contributing orchestrator/arranger of Natalie Cole's 1992 multiple Grammy winning album Unforgettable... with Love, and her follow up Grammy winning CD's Take a Look and Still Unforgettable. In 1996, Holman received his 2nd Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition, A View From the Side, recorded by his Bill Holman Band on the JVC label. His 3rd Grammy came in 1997 for the recording Brilliant Corners/The Music of Thelonious Monk, it won the Grammy Award in 1998 for Best Instrumental Arrangement for Holman's arrangement of Straight, No Chaser. He has been repeatedly selected as one of the leading names in the Down Beat magazine poll for "Jazz Arranger/Orchestrator".
In May 2000, the Bill Holman Collection of scores and memorabilia was established at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. On January 12, 2010, the National Endowment for the Arts bestowed the 2010 NEA Jazz Masters Award on Bill Holman, the nation's highest honor for jazz and American Music. Holman is a recipient of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers Golden Score Award in 2008. He has received an honorary doctorate from Elmhurst College in Illinois.