Bill Finegan, who arranged hits for Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey and then formed a big band with Eddie Sauter, another legendary arranger, that was famed for skill, daring and very, very odd instruments, died on Wednesday, June 4, 2008 in Bridgeport, Conn. He was 91. The cause was pneumonia, said his son, James.
Arrangers, the largely behind-the-scenes masterminds of the big-band era, took compositions by bandleaders and others and refashioned them. Mr. Finegan heavily arranged Miller's first big hit, "Little Brown Jug," and virtually everything he recorded in 1938 and 1939. He later became a regular arranger for Dorsey.
After the swing era faded, Mr. Finegan started working with Mr. Sauter, who had arranged for Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, among others. Mr. Sauter died in 1981.
In forming the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, the two envisioned an innovative kind of music, defiant of convention but still inspired by musical traditions, especially classical ones.
Wit was implicit, and unexpected instruments were the most conspicuous novelty. These included the piccolo, flute, oboe, bass clarinet, harp, English horn, recorder, tuba, glockenspiel, tympani, kazoo, xylophone and a marimba. In their arrangement of "Troika" from Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije" suite, Mr. Finegan conveyed the dull pounding of distant horses' hooves by beating out the rhythm on his chest.
At the band's peak, 21 musicians played 77 instruments, not counting Mr. Finegan's chest.
William James Finegan was born in Newark on April 3, 1917, and grew up loving music almost as much as fishing. His son said he played the trumpet in high school. After winning an amateur competition, his small high school jazz band toured widely.
Dorsey was impressed with Mr. Finegan's arrangement of "Lonesome Road" and recommended him to Miller, who hired him in 1938. In World War II, Mr. Finegan served in the Army, then became an arranger for Dorsey.In 1947 and 1948, Mr. Finegan studied with Stefan Wolpe, the avant-garde composer. From 1948 to 1950, Mr. Finegan lived in Europe and studied at the Paris Conservatory. He began corresponding with Mr. Sauter, who was in a sanitarium recovering from tuberculosis, according to the Allmusic Internet guide. They mutually deplored the state of popular music.
The two decided to team up, describing their plans in a statement for Down Beat and Metronome magazines. They promised "pop music that is danceable, listenable and lookable." They renounced the "too convenient rationalization to dub the public as moronic."
They quickly produced a stream of compositions and arrangements and got a recording contract from RCA Victor for some singles. They recruited a stable of outstanding musicians.
Wally Kane, who played the clarinet, alto and baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, flute and, later, bassoon for the group, described the informal approach of the bandleaders in a telephone interview last week. There were no first, second or third chairs; rather, every musician was given equal prominence. Each arrangement was written with individual players in mind.
"Never since that experience have I been handed a piece of music with my name on it," Mr. Kane said.
D.J.'s, desperate for fresh sounds, loved the band. Time magazine called it "the most original band heard in the U.S. for years."
The orchestra, mostly known for recording, finally hit the road, but big bands in general were dwindling. The group began a long decline, and in 1958 Mr. Sauter and Mr. Finegan gave it up, except for occasional short-term revivals, with both going on to various other music-related jobs.
"Everything went wrong but the music," Mr. Finegan once said.
Mr. Finegan's wife, the former Rosemary O'Reilly, died in 2001. In addition to his son, James, of Monroe, Conn., Mr. Finegan was survived by his daughter Helen Dzujna of Shelton, Conn. and three grandchildren.