Billy May, who won a Grammy in 1958 for his album "Big Fat Brass," was noted for his superb brass and swooping saxophone scores, but his command of styles extended from swing, through Dixieland to Latin American.
He also had a brilliant sense of humor, heard at its best in his "Sorta May" and "Sorta Dixie" LPs, the titles poking light fun at the newly-released Sauter-Finnegan recordings.
The humour emerged once more when he collaborated with the satirist Stan Freberg on Freberg's Grammy-winning 1961 comedy album "The History of the United States, Vol. 1," and 1996's Grammy-nominated "History of the United States, Vol. 2."
Born in Pittsburgh in 1916, May played in several local bands before
getting his break in 1938 when he joined Charlie Barnet's orchestra
as an arranger and trumpeter. Among his contributions was arranging
the Ray Noble song "Cherokee," which became Barnet's signature
tune and one of the biggest hits of the swing era. He was soon contributing
arrangements characterized by what some critics described as "wailing
saxophones voiced in thirds."
During the 1940s, he scored for Alvino Rey, Les Brown and Woody Herman. Later, in the 1950s he worked on Sinatra's acclaimed "Come Fly With Me" album. He also led his own band, worked with, and wrote for Peggy Lee, Nat "King" Cole, and others in radio and television.
In 1939, May joined the Glenn Miller band, where his arrangements
included "Take the 'A' Train" and "Serenade in Blue."
With Miller, he was perhaps best-known for his trumpet playing, notably
on "I dreamt I dwelt in Harlem" in 1941 and "American
Patrol" in 1942.