Award-winning composer dedicated life to building a better world

In Brief: 
  • Russell Garcia was an influential composer, arranger and conductor who recorded more than 60 albums and worked with legendary performers such as Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald.
  • He also dedicated his life to promoting the Bahá’í teachings of oneness and unity around the globe, including by sailing the world’s oceans on a trimaran.

KERIKERI, New Zealand — Russell Garcia, who died on 20 November at the age of 95, was an influential composer, arranger, and conductor, who dedicated his prodigious talents to promoting the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith around the world.

In a career spanning eight decades, Mr. Garcia recorded more than 60 albums under his own name, and worked with such legendary performers as Judy Garland and Oscar Peterson. He arranged and conducted Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s bestselling 1958 recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and worked on three other albums and a concert at the Hollywood Bowl with Armstrong.

Born in Oakland, California, on 12 April 1916, Mr. Garcia began writing music as a boy. His arrangement of the song, Stardust, was performed by the Oakland Symphony Orchestra when he was just 11. He started a jazz band while still at school and, as a teenager, worked five nights a week playing the trumpet in a San Francisco hotel.

His first break came in 1939 when he was asked to cover for the conductor of a radio show, This is Our America. The show’s director, Ronald Reagan, kept Mr. Garcia on for two years. Reagan’s then wife, the actress Jane Wyman, recommended Mr. Garcia to NBC where he was hired as a staff composer and arranger. He composed for television shows including Rawhide and Laredo. Among his film work, he wrote the music for the 1960 adaptation of H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine, collaborated with Henry Mancini on the soundtrack for The Glenn Miller Story, and arranged Charles Chaplin’s music for Limelight.

A teaching post at the Westlake School of Music in Los Angeles also resulted in Mr. Garcia writing The Professional Arranger Composer. The book and its sequel have been translated into six languages and are still used in universities and music conservatories around the world.

“Garcia was very much admired for the breadth of his skills as an arranger and a composer and then became even more influential by virtue of these books,” music critic Don Heckman told The Los Angeles Times. “They continue to be basic handbooks for anyone who wants to understand the process of arranging and composing.”

Vow for world peace

During the Second World War, Mr. Garcia fought in the Battle of the Bulge. “This is absolute insanity, people shooting at strangers,” the composer said, vowing that, if he came out of it alive, he would dedicate himself to world peace.

He and his wife, Gina, joined the Bahá’í Faith in 1955 and, from then on, devoted their lives to promoting its principles. In 1966, when Mr. Garcia was at the peak of his career, they sold their home and possessions, bought a boat, and set sail, carrying the Bahá’í teachings to the islands of the Pacific Ocean. They knew nothing about sailing, and Mrs. Garcia did not know how to swim.

“Not many people have the chance to follow their hearts with no financial worries,” Mr. Garcia later said. “We had the ‘charm’ working for us: we knew the royalties would see us through for some years.”

The couple spent six years on their 13-metre fiberglass trimaran, “The Dawn-Breaker,” anchoring in, among other places, Jamaica, the Galapagos Islands, the Marquesas, Haiti, Cuba and Tahiti. In 1969, while they were in Fiji, musicians visiting from New Zealand invited Mr. Garcia on behalf of the New Zealand Broadcasting Commission and the Music Trades Association to do live concerts, radio and TV shows as well as lecture at universities around the country.

The Garcias had planned their voyage to last for at least three years before returning to Hollywood. But they fell in love with New Zealand and bought a house on the shore of Tangitu Bay, North Island.

For the last four decades of his life, Mr. Garcia continued to compose, arrange for singers and conduct much of his original music with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. In 2005, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute honored him for his contribution to jazz. In 2009, he and his wife were awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II for their service to music.

On learning of his passing, the Universal House of Justice recalled how Mr. Garcia also “devoted himself to the creation of a range of musical compositions as a means of spreading the light of Baha’u’llah,” also noting his “prodigious efforts” in the application of artistic endeavor to promote the oneness of humanity.

He and his wife created an opera, The Unquenchable Flame, which will have its premiere in Auckland next July, and a choral piece, A Path to Peace, inspired by the Bahá’í writings. Photographs and quotations projected above the stage illustrated conditions in the world that prevent peace, as well as ideas and principles that would promote it.

“My wife and I wrote this show because we thought there was a great need for people to understand these issues,” said Mr. Garcia.

Wellington-based voice teacher Charles Humphreys commissioned one of Mr. Garcia’s last arrangements in March last year. Praising the composer’s generosity, Humphreys told the New Zealand news website Stuff, “From the first time I spoke to him I could tell that this was a man who was peaceful and full of the kind of love of life and people that we all search a lifetime to possess.”

Together, the Garcias also regularly volunteered their services to teach primary school children in New Zealand about spiritual qualities through the use of songs, stories and creative exercises.

“Every action, every motive has got to be a build-up for a better, beautiful, happy, peaceful world for all mankind,” said Mr. Garcia.

“We see mankind as one. So any goal that is not to help everybody is not a good goal,” said Mr. Garcia. “We’ve dedicated our lives to trying to build a better world.”