I'm sad to report that Don died last week in Los Angeles after years of dealing with some chronic health issues. Born in Chicago, Don James attended Hyde Park High School where his classmate and best four-hand jamming friend was Herbie Hancock. He graduated from the Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University as a music composition major and piano minor. Later Don studied at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris with an emphasis on counterpoint, sight-reading, piano, and composition; he studied composition with the formidable and legendary Nadia Boulanger.
Upon returning to the United States, Don worked with jazz bass trumpeter Cy Touff for over a year at the Happy Medium in Chicago and began his recording and arranging career. After a two year period in the Army as a Band Training Instructor, Don returned to Chicago where he worked as a conductor/pianist/arranger on many record dates and industrial shows.
In 1969 Don returned to France where he co-composed the music for the "Lido de Paris" with a French team. Three more shows followed and he then moved to Los Angeles to begin composing, arranging and orchestrating for "The Ice Capades," doing 13 seasons from 1974 - 1986 with another show in 1992.
Again Don returned to Paris to do four shows for the Moulin Rouge before returning to the United States to work on many television variety shows, winning two Emmy Awards. One was for "Ben Vereen - His Roots" and the second for "Baryshnikov on Broadway." Then Don worked on "The Tim Conway Show" as dance arranger for the Don Crichton Dancers and the dance arranger for the “Mermaids” on Love Boat. Animation music work followed for DIC and Hanna-Barbera including music for "The Smurfs," "Paddington Bear" and "The Wizard of Oz" (an animated version). Don worked on more than two dozen feature films as arranger, orchestrator and, at times, ghost composer. Some of the films include Assassination, Messenger of Death, Crime and Punishment, The Fifth Monkey and Those Lips, Those Eyes. He was a member of SACEM, the French performing rights society.
Deeply concerned about the future of the profession and the working conditions for arrangers and orchestrators, Don James served for many years on the Board of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers. I spoke to him a couple of days before he died and he was upbeat. He was working on a new arrangement, was optimistic that health-wise he was back on track, and felt good about getting back to his writing. Guess it isn’t always up to us. We'll miss you, Don. Thanks for your comradeship.