Tom Talbert, 80, one of the freshest jazz composers, arrangers and bandleaders of the 1940s and 1950s who dazzled critics before turning to cattle ranching in defiance of the rock era, died July 2 at a hospital in Los Angeles after a stroke.
Avoiding musical cliche through tight swing, bold textures and whimsical flourishes, Mr. Talbert took a distinctive approach to the popular compositions of his day. He always attracted top-flight musicians to his bands -- including saxophonist Art Pepper, pianist Dodo Marmarosa and bassist Oscar Pettiford -- and encouraged them to experiment with his wildly intricate musical charts.
In the late 1940s, Mr. Talbert's inventiveness earned him comparisons to progressive bandleaders Stan Kenton and Boyd Raeburn. He used complex time signatures that did not become commonplace until Dave Brubeck gained popularity with "Take 5."
His 1956 album "Bix Duke Fats," which received a five-star rave from Down Beat magazine, capped his early genius before frustration with the industry led him to retreat to other pursuits.
A dashing man who squired beautiful women and ate gourmet food -- his second wife impressed him with her endive salad -- Mr. Talbert surprised many by taking up cattle ranching for many years.
He relocated to Hollywood in the mid-1970s to write music for television police shows. He also poured out a succession of exuberant albums, notably "Duke's Domain" (1991), and watched the reissue of many of his early recordings on the Sea Breeze label.
"I love the recording process," he told his biographer, Bruce Talbot. "I'm sure I'm putting down a slice of my life, I'm putting down a tablet, you might say . . . and much of my pleasure comes from how the musicians are. If the musicians are enjoying it, I feel we're doing it right, and I have double pleasure then."
Thomas Robert Talbert was born in Crystal Bay, Minn., on Aug. 4, 1924. Largely self-taught on his family's parlor upright piano, he became serious about music after hearing Chick Webb's band play "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." Poetry was his other great interest, especially that of Ernest Dowson, and he later named such compositions as "To a Lady Asking Foolish Questions" after Dowson's work.
During Army service in World War II, he became an arranger for a military band touring the West Coast at war bond rallies. During this period of great experimentation, he reworked an arrangement of Les Brown's chestnut "Sentimental Journey" and gave it a Duke Ellington flair.
After the war, bandleader Johnny Richards encouraged him to form his own outfit and helped find a collection of top-notch, if eccentric musicians. Saxophonist Jack Montrose later described the group as "a whole bunch of chemically very compatible people -- they were all like Bohemian starving artists. . . . There wasn't another band like it around -- every dope fiend in town was on it, but Tom was always straight."
Mr. Talbert wrote lyrical, elegant and swinging melodies but did not win a record contract. In 1947, he toured nationally with singer Anita O'Day, whom he greatly admired. He told his biographer, "I didn't realize that Carl Hoff, who was Anita's husband and manager, had the hots for Margaret, my girlfriend, and wanted me out of town."
Moving to New York, he worked in the jazz orbit and, developing friends in the classical music realm, also wrote a series of well-received chamber pieces. A New York Times critic raved at his Suite for Three Flutes: "One might expect to grow bored by the sound of three flutes. Instead, the sonorities were varied and fascinating. The musical style was spontaneous and unassuming."
His 1956 jazz album "Wednesday's Child," with singer Patty McGovern, was a bold statement against the fulsome string accompaniments that often backed pop vocalists.
Then came "Bix Duke Fats," a tribute to cornetist-composer Bix Beiderbecke and stride pianist Fats Waller, heroes from his childhood. Ellington was added because of his resurgence in popularity.
Despite Down Beat's excellent review, the album sold considerably less than hoped. With jazz-writing less in demand in the late 1950s, he moved to Minneapolis and took a two-year hiatus from music. He worked for his father, who ran a barge company moving grain and coal along the Mississippi River, and then settled on a cattle farm in Wisconsin, where he was known for feeding visiting musicians huge dinners.
He returned slowly to music, playing jazz clubs in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, and in Hollywood, he found steady if anonymous work that supported his hobby, collecting such sports cars as a V12 Jaguar and a Studebaker Avanti.
His marriage to Bette Ellingson Talbert ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, Elizabeth Fountain Talbert of Beverly Hills, whom he married in 1991; four stepchildren; eight grandchildren; and one great-grandson.