Pete Rugolo, who helped shape the sound of jazz in the 1940s and 1950s as a composer, arranger and record producer and later wrote several theme songs for television dramas including “The Fugitive,” died Oct. 16 at a nursing facility in Sherman Oaks, Calif. He was 95.
An exact cause of death was not available. A spokesperson for Mr. Rugolo’s family said that he had been in failing health.
Mr. Rugolo, who first gained prominence as a composer and arranger for bandleader Stan Kenton in the 1940s, was an unseen hand behind some of the most innovative and enduring music of the time.
He was a co-producer of one of the the most influential jazz recordings in history, Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool,” produced popular albums by singers June Christy, Patti Page and Nat “King” Cole, and recorded more than 30 records under his own name.
As a prolific Hollywood studio composer in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Rugolo called on his jazz training to create the musical backdrop for countless television and film soundtracks, working on everything from big-screen swimming extravaganzas of Esther Williams to TV episodes of “Leave It to Beaver.” He won three Emmy Awards and two Grammys.
Mr. Rugolo seldom appeared on stage himself, and his best work was often done in studios or in the service of others. One of his little-known jobs from his days as a staff composer for MGM was writing music for the 1960 college-age romp, “Where the Boys Are.” He wrote the forward-looking music performed by actor Frank Gorshin’s “dialectic jazz” band.
In 1990, jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Pete Rugolo may well be the most unfairly forgotten man of jazz.”
With a dual career as a Hollywood composer and record-label executive, Mr. Rugolo wrote theme songs for two TV dramas starring David Janssen, “Richard Diamond, Private Detective” (1957 to 1960) and “The Fugitive” (1963 to 1967), about a doctor on the run after being falsely accused of murder. The memorable “Fugitive” theme had the dark, noirish feel of a 1940s movie with an insistent percussive pulse that was one of Mr. Rugolo’s stylistic signatures.
His other TV credits included background music for dozens of shows, including “I Love Lucy,” Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” and “Fantasy Island,” as well as the theme songs of “Run for Your Life” (1965-68), starring Ben Gazzara; “The Thin Man” (1957-59), with Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk as Dashiell Hammett’s husband-wife team of socialite detectives; and “Thriller” (1960-62), a suspense show with Boris Karloff as host.
“When you’re scoring, especially television, you don’t have much time,” Mr. Rugolo told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “You look at the picture on Friday and have to have the score finished on Monday or Tuesday. I did that for 20 straight years, sometimes two or three shows a week.”
Pietro Rugolo was born Dec. 25, 1915, in San Piero Patti, on the Italian island of Sicily, and came with his family to California when he was 5. He grew up in a musically gifted family in Santa Rosa, Calif., and developed an early interest in arranging — creating the instrumentation and harmonies for a piece of music.
After graduating from San Francisco State University, he studied with French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. Mr. Rugolo received a master’s degree from Mills in the early 1940s.
During World War II, he played in a stateside Army band with saxophonist Paul Desmond, who later gained fame with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Mr. Rugolo always had his eye on working with Kenton, whose big band was known for its brassy sound and sophisticated harmonies.
Backstage at a wartime concert in San Francisco, Mr. Rugolo introduced himself to Kenton and gave him several of his arrangements.
“I didn’t hear from him for a couple of months,” Mr. Rugolo told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “Then one day I got a phone call from him in the barracks – ‘Stan Kenton calling Pete Rugolo.’ ... He said, ‘Gee, you write just like I do. As soon as you’re out of the Army, you’ve got a job.’ ”
After joining Kenton in 1945, Mr. Rugolo wrote more than 100 new compositions and arrangements, including “Mirage,” “Interlude” “Elegy for Alto” and “Lonesome Road.” He introduced unusual instrumental pairings, spiced up the rhythm with Latin elements and created rich harmonic colors that helped create the bold, distinctive Kenton sound that came to be called “progressive jazz.”
Kenton’s group had a devoted following and won magazine polls as the best band of its era. Even after leaving Kenton in 1949, Mr. Rugolo continued to contribute occasional arrangements to his onetime bandleader into the 1960s.
In New York in 1949 and 1950, Mr. Rugolo helped produce several ad hoc recording sessions featuring arrangements by Gil Evans of new music by Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan and other jazz musicians.
The music, with its understated, modern-sounding harmonies, represented a major stylistic landmark in jazz when it was finally released on an album several years later. Mr. Rugolo’s title — “Birth of the Cool” — was a perfect fit for the gliding ease of the music.
As a recording executive for Capitol and Mercury, Mr. Rugolo produced or arranged recordings for Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Peggy Lee. He produced several albums for onetime Kenton singer June Christy, including the sultry “Something Cool” from 1954 and “The Misty Miss Christy” of 1956.
Survivors include his wife of 53 years, Edye Gaffney Rugolo; a daughter, Gina Rugolo Judd; two sons, Pete Rugolo Jr. and Tony Rugolo; and three grandchildren.
In later years, Mr. Rugolo occasionally conducted concerts by alumni of the Kenton band. He won the top award of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers in 1993 and became a model for younger musicians interested in the art of TV arranging.
“Never feel that you have to set the world on fire in one go,” he said, by way of advice. “Remember you are going to write a thousand arrangements!”