14 March 1917
Iowa, United States
13 April 1962 (aged 45)
John Graas (March 14, 1917–April 13, 1962) was an American jazz French horn player, composer, and arranger. Born in Dubuque, Iowa, Graas had a short but busy career on the West Coast, known primarily as one of the first and best French horn players in jazz.
Graas had Classical training, including attendance at the Tanglewood Music Center, where he performed under the tutelage of Serge Koussevitsky. He soon became interested in jazz and studied ways to bring jazz and classical music together, an early effort at what would later be called Third Stream music. Following the path of his dual interests, he was a member of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (1941), the Claude Thornhill Orchestra (1942), the Army Air Corps band during World War II (1942–1945), the Cleveland Orchestra (1945–1946), the Tex Beneke Orchestra (1946–1949), and the Stan Kenton Orchestra (1950–1953). After this, Graas settled in Los Angeles, finding work as a studio musician but also now able to work with kindred spirits on the innovative side of West Coast jazz, including Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Buddy Collette, and Shelly Manne, all of whom were involved in efforts to blend jazz with elements of classical music.
Graas recorded a few albums under his own name, including French Horn Jazz (1953), Coup de Graas (1956), and Jazzmantics (1957). His "Jazz Chaconne No. 1" was an example of his ambitious attempts to fuse jazz with classical music. It appeared on International Premiere in Jazz (1958) with his "Jazz Symphony No. 1", which, despite its title, was far more classical than jazz.
The 1950s were a period of intense activity by Graas, as performer, composer, and arranger. Besides groups under his own name, he appeared in the musical aggregations of Shorty Rogers, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, Billy May, Pete Rugolo, Mel Lewis, and others. The 1960s began with equal intensity, including recordings with Henry Mancini, Bobby Darin, Heinie Beau, and others, until his career was cut short by his death of a heart attack, at age 45, in the Van Nuys section of Los Angeles.
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