Earlier this week, the National Endowment for the Arts announced the 2019 Jazz Masters. Among them was the late Bob Dorough, who died on April 23 of this year. The other three recipients are big band leader Maria Schneider, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, and writer Stanley Crouch.
Dorough’s career spanned more than 70 years in jazz as a singer, pianist, composer, and arranger. His distinctive vocals, clever lyrics, and strong melodies were well-known in the jazz world even before his compositions and vocals for the animation series “Schoolhouse Rock!.”
Born in Arkansas and raised in Texas, hepivoted toward jazz after hearing Benny Goodman and Harry James recordings. During a three-year-stint in the U.S. Army from 1943-45, he worked as an arranger and musician in a Special Services band, then earned a bachelor’s degree in composition at North Texas State Teachers College (now known as the University of North Texas) in 1949.
Dorough relocated to New York City to continue his studies at Columbia University and immersed himself in the vibrant local jazz scene. After spending six months working at the famed Mars Club in Paris, France, he returned to the U.S. and settled in Los Angeles, performing as pianist-vocalist in clubs and as supporting act between sets for comedian Lenny Bruce. Dorough’s first album, Devil May Care, was released in 1956.
In 1962, Dorough was working on the East Coast when he received a call from Miles Davis who he had met several years before in Los Angeles, asking him to write a Christmas song for him to record. Dorough composed “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)” and sang it with Davis as well as another track, “Nothing Like You,” used as the closing track of Davis’ album Sorcerer in 1967.
In 1972, Dorough was hired by a New York advertising firm to set the multiplication tables to music to make them easier to learn. It was decided that the songs would make good animation, and Tom Yohe put artwork with the music to create Schoolhouse Rock! Dorough became the musical director of the television series, enlisting other well-known jazz musicians to help write and perform the songs. The animated educational series became a staple of the ABC network’s children’s programming for more than two decades.
In 1998, he was inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame. The Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre has performed the stage adaptation of “School House Rock Live!” (which was created by Arkansan and AAC alum Scott Ferguson and performed all over the country).
On April 15, 2019, the NEA will host a free concert celebrating the Jazz Masters at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Beginning in 1982, NEA has bestowed the Jazz Master honor on more than 150 people connected to the jazz genre, including Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Dianne Reeves and George Wein. Individuals first are nominated by the public, with an NEA-convened panel assessing the nominations before the National Council on the Arts reviews the recommendations and forwards them along to the NEA chairman, who makes the final decision.