The music presented in this wide ranging compilation comes from a more innocent age than ours - a time in the middle years of the Twentieth Century when social dancing was a world-wide phenomenon and people craved the excitement afforded by the live presence of a big band. Everyone wanted toe-tapping music so that they could 'cut a rug' on the dance floor and a host of fine touring orchestras fed this apparently insatiable demand, fueling a fashion which took several decades to decline and fall.
Whether it was for the high-school 'prom' (so much loved by Hollywood film-makers) or just for that end-of-the-week night out, dancers in America, and for that matter, in England, too, knew exactly what was needed. They looked for danceable tempos, alluring sounds, personable sidemen, smart presentation and pleasing vocal interjections from a girl singer (described by Down Beat as a 'chirp' in the vernacular of the day). Those in the know would also be looking for jazz value, watching out for star instrumentalists and responding to swinging numbers by the best composers and arrangers. Magazines like 'Down Beat' and Metronome kept their readers posted on the movements of top musicians, flagging up the working rosters and tours undertaken by the big bands, and previewing their many appearances in films and on record.
Of course, for the greater part of the Twentieth Century, America was a divided society with black Americans enjoying (or rather, enduring) separate, and nearly always unequal, public facilities. Inevitably, this division covered most aspects of entertainment, with blacks-only clubs and dance halls in what was then called the 'coloured section' of town hosting the touring black orchestras. With few hotels available to them, musicians often stayed with friendly local families or slept in the band bus before setting off for the next night's work. In some cases, dances were given for both races, with a rope dividing one side of the dance floor from the other, but with no intermixing of the two groups allowed.
Yet despite these restrictions, or even because of them, black bands thrived, producing outstanding soloists and setting the pace musically for their white counterparts. Indeed, the more far-sighted of the white bandleaders, like Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, hired black arrangers to sharpen up their bands. Later on, they would also include black sidemen in their orchestras, attracting top players who had first made their names with bands led by Duke Ellington or Fletcher Henderson.
Most of the prominent swing bands of the period, white and black, are represented in our collection, playing some of their most admired numbers. Listen for the contrast between the various instrumental sections, brass versus reeds, precise and punchy, serene or soft, buoyed up by the steady beat supplied by the rhythm section. Look out, too, for the star soloists adding their own distinctive variations on the melody as they improvise in appropriately languid or fiery fashion. Stir in the vocal stylings of the band singers and you have a pretty heady mix. That's why the writer Gene Lees described big band music as the sound which will not go away.
Woody Herman's orchestras were known as Herds, and Four Brothers was one of the stellar achievements of his Second Herd. It was Texan saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre who created the Four Brothers format, with its free-flowing saxophone quartet of three tenors and a single baritone voiced in harmony. The critic Gunther Schuller sees this track as one of the most conspicuous successes of the swing era. The soloists in order are: Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff, Herbie Steward and Stan Getz. The wonderful drumming is by Don Lamond and it's Herman's perky clarinet which adds colour. What a perfect opener for our big band recital! Hard to top perhaps, until you consider the exhilarating Apple Honey recorded two years earlier. This classic goes off like the proverbial rocket, and includes some emotional trombone from renowned practical-joker Bill Harris and that rarity, a solo by a female vibraphonist, Margie Hyams. The fabulous rhythm section is sparked by bassist Chubby Jackson and the late drummer Dave Tough, the resulting ensemble zest almost overwhelming in its intensity.
Tommy Dorsey was a much admired trombonist whose bandleading skills included an eagle eye for talent and a strict approach to discipline. East Of The Sun features his superb muted trombone and the band's singer, a twenty-four year old Italian-American from Hoboken, New Jersey, named Francis Albert Sinatra. Note Sinatra's relaxed phrasing and lyric ease, the boyish sound complemented by snappy interjections from the bandsmen. The trumpeter on this Dorsey hit was Bunny Berigan. By the time Dorsey came to record On The Sunny Side Of The Street, he had persuaded black arranger Sy Oliver (known for his scores for the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra) to join him for a cool $5000 more per year than Lunceford could afford. Oliver's charts, always tight and intelligently voiced, gave Dorsey's orchestra a new lease of life.
Let's Dance was Benny Goodman's theme song, written to mark his band's selection for the eponymous NBC radio show back in December 1934. The melody is crisply delivered by muted trumpets before BG's incisive clarinet soars over the saxes. The upbeat tenor solo is by Jerry Jerome
Universally recognised as 'The King of Swing', Goodman was a national celebrity in the Thirties, caught up in a lucrative flurry of film and concert appearances. Peggy Lee became his vocalist in 1941, having changed her name from the distinctly un-glamorous Norma Egstrom, and shows her mettle on Why Don't You Do Right? (originally made famous by blues singer Lil Green). The atmospheric arrangement is by pianist Mel Powell, later a music profes-sor at Yale University. Miss Lee's vocal style recalls Billie Holiday, her early mentor and this recording sold nearly a million copies. Goodman was unstinting in his praise for Fletcher Henderson, the black arranger and bandleader who became part of his entourage in the late Thirties. Henderson's cleverly structured charts were crucial to Goodman's success, as When Buddha Smiles demonstrates, the call-and-response interplay between reeds and brass underpinning more spirited clarinet from Goodman himself.
Many of Goodman's sidemen went on to become highly successful bandleaders. None more so than suave trumpeter Harry James, whose Trumpet Blues And Cantabile is something of a tour-de-force. James was the son of a circus bandleader and spent his youth honing his technique on the road with his father. The public enjoyed his ripe-sounding trumpet and bravura style; the fact that he was married to film star Betty Grable was no drawback either.
Jimmy Dorsey was a year older than his brother Tommy, and the two siblings vied with other throughout their lives. Jimmy's version of Yours features his singer Bob Eberle, a crooner in the Bing Crosby manner who epitomises the softer, more romantic side of swing music. Imagine the lights dimmed, couples dancing with accelerating energy as the tempo builds. It's Dorsey's hot alto which enlivens the piece before Latin rhythms introduce Helen O'Connell's Spanish language version of the lyrics.
Ridin'And Jivin' is by the band led by Earl Hines, one of the foremost innovators of jazz piano. This is a rift piece, typical of the time, with pungent trumpet by Walter Fuller and some ribald trombone from Chicagoan Ed Burke. Critics often lament Glenn Miller's continuing appeal, emphasising the band's essentially commercial nature. However, it was the general public which made the Miller Orchestra a winner, its long-lasting reputation reflected in the work of the many big bands which still trade on Miller's name and repertoire. Miller's swingy version of Verdi's Anvil Chorus was a two-parter (taking up both sides of a single 78rpm release) and reflects a fashion then prevalent, of ‘jazzing the classics.’ The arrangement is by ex-Artie Shaw writer Jerry Gray, who fashioned many of the Miller band’s successes. His version of I’ve Got A Heart Filled With Love was recorded in London where Miller was based during his wartime service. Always a reserved, somewhat distant individual, Miller was reported ‘missing presumed lost’ in December 1944, after the disappearance of his military plane.
Originally inspired by the stride pianist Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller,’ Count Basie developed his own unique (and much-copied) minimalist style, his solos gliding over the four-four beat laid down by his all-star rhythm mates. Basie’s singer Jimmy Rushing was from Oklahoma City, a short, rotund man, known as ‘Mr. Five by Five’ whose impassioned but always musical vocals were of key importance to Basie. Rushing’s Do You Wanna Jump, Children? and its companion Doggin ’Around, display the band’s powerful swing plus Basie’s superb array of soloists. These include wheezy tenor-saxophonist Herschel Evans (who died in 1939 aged thirty), trumpeter Buck Clayton and the innovative, light-sounding tenorist Lester Young, whose rhythmic and harmonic ideas were important in framing modern jazz. Basie kept his band going until he died in 1984: it tours today under the leadership of trombonist Grover Mitchell.
Another great black bandleader, Benny Carter is, staggeringly, still active at the age of ninety-two. Carter was the ultimate jazz all-rounder: aside from his prowess as an alto-saxophonist, he was a capable clarinetist and trumpeter, and a superior arranger and composer who later became prominent in Hollywood. It’s his alto we hear on the moody Plymouth Rock complete with Eddie Heywood’s insistent piano motifs. As in all of Carter's scores, the writing avoids cliche, the instrumental sections taking turns to develop the theme.
The last year of the old millennium marked the centenary of Duke Ellington’s birth and year-long tributes were paid to him in the land of his birth and in those countries which value his extraordinary musical contribution. Sophisticated, worldly, always urbane, Ellington was a prolific composer, whose copious royalties from his popular songs could have allowed him an easy life. Instead, he chose to keep a full orchestra employed, undertaking endless tours throughout America and overseas. Talking about Harlem Air Shaft, Duke said, “You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft. An air shaft is one great big loudspeaker. You hear people praying, fighting, snoring. I tried to put that all in.” Duke was unique among big band composers in creating descriptive pieces based on personalities and places. Mark his orchestra’s ‘sheer exuberance’ as the composition ebbs and flows, with sterling solo work from wa-wa trombonist ‘Tricky Sam’ Nanton, trumpeter Cootie Williams and clarinetist Barney Bigard.
Texan trombonist Jack Teagarden turned up in New York in the late Twenties and surprised everybody with his ‘startling mobility of approach’ and peerless improvisational sense. By the time he came to record A Hundred Years From Today, he had worked with Ben Pollack and Paul Whiteman, developing his technique and lazy-sounding vocal style. Teagarden went on to achieve even greater acclaim with Louis Armstrong’s post-war All-Stars. Sadly, drummer Chick Webb’s career stopped short in June 1939 when he succumbed to tuberculosis, aged only thirty. He had built his band into one of the best on the black circuit, becoming a great favourite with the discerning dancers at Harlem’s famed Savoy Ballroom, known as ‘The Home of Happy Feet.’ Saxophonist Edgar Sampson crafted the arrangements, always seeking a swinging outcome with soloists like trombonist Sandy Williams and Taft Jordan (heard on Go Harlem) adding their own fiery embellishments. Webb was the band’s greatest asset, however, powering the ensembles and deploying a brilliant array of percussive effects, many later adopted by white drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.
Ella Fitzgerald won an amateur talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in November 1934: she was seventeen. Vocalist Charles Linton recommended her to Chick Webb who took her on, a touch reluctantly at first. But as her vocal talents flowered so Webb built his entire orchestral presentation around her. After his death, Fitzgerald fronted the Webb orchestra for a couple of years before setting out to create a glittering solo career. When My Sugar Walks Down the Street (made in 1941) displays her emerging gift for sure-foot-ed melodic variation as well as her warm, centred sound. Stan Kenton started out in California as a band pianist and set his sights on a progressive musical agenda when he formed his own orchestra. He liked to carry extra brass and arrangers like trumpeter Pete Rugolo wrote excit-ing, often challenging scores which Kenton’s energetic young players positively relished. While The Spider And The Fly features ‘cool’ vocalist June Christy (whose husband-to be, sax-ophonist Bob Cooper was also in the band), the classy backgrounds provided by Rugolo allow the bandsmen (and broad-toned tenorist Vido Musso) to strut their stuff in imposing fashion. Intermission Riff was one of Kenton’s hottest numbers and seemed to sum up the post-war mood with its extrovert quality and cheery swing momentum. It’s Musso on tenor again, and Boots Mussulli on alto-saxophone.
The much-married Artie Shaw (film-stars Evelyn Keyes and Ava Gardner were among his wives) lives in active retirement in California now and devotes himself to writing. Approaching ninety years of age, he remains an acerbic commentator on the cultural mores of our times. An outstanding clarinetist - only Benny Goodman was his equal - Shaw formed a number of bands, sometimes walking away in protest at the way success turned him into public property. He liked Begin The Beguine, a Cole Porter tune from a flop show, but his recording people didn’t and made it a B-side choice. The public disagreed and within weeks of its release, it had become a huge best-seller. By the time Shaw came to record I Got The Sun In The Morning, he had reformed his orchestra several times, led a Navy band in the Far East war-theatre, added strings and picked Mel Torme, known as 'The Velvet Fog’, as his singer. Torme’s smooth vocal with its scat breaks is the best thing here, with Shaw’s decorative clar-inet cutting in. During Shaw’s first heyday in the late Thirties, tenor-saxophonist Tony Pastor was a popular soloist as well as Shaw’s featured male vocalist. Audiences liked his Louis Prima-like take on novelty songs like Gonna Get A Girl and Pastor capitalised on this success by forming his own band in 1940. Pastor spent his last decade working in Las Vegas hotels.
Les Brown, whose reputation took a leap when he started to work regularly with comedian Bob Hope, got started in the late Thirties and kept going long after the failure of more celebrated bands. While never radical in style, Brown’s lineups were always technically profi-cient and well-versed in entertainment value. In Bizet Has His Day, yet another example of jazz-ing the classics, Brown successfully sets the great composer's theme in a pleasingly modem swing context.
So, how should we sum up the continuing appeal of the big bands? Well, start with their inherent grandeur, the sheer majesty of their sound, that sense of a musical collective engaged in a common cause, and then stir in glamour, ebullience, passion, sentimentality, diversity, complexity, creativity, idiosyncrasy and crushing power. No wonder these dynamic aggregations continue to weave their 'perfect’ spell!
2000 PETER VACHER