Thursday, October 27, 2016

Intenso! - The Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Clare Fischer was a major influence on my harmonic concept... I wouldn't be me if it wasn't for Clare Fischer."
—Herbie Hancock
"Everything the veteran composer/arranger/pianist does blends skillful craftsmanship with musical credibility."
—Legendary Music Journalist Don Heckman

There has been a flood of new music arriving at the editorial offices of JazzProfiles lately, much of it self-produced, some of which is quite good and worthy of your attention.

The full title of this feature should read: Intenso! - The Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band Under The Direction of Brent Fischer. [Clavo Records CR601209]

It’s an important distinction for as Brent explains in this portion of the insert notes he wrote for the CD:

“It has been a positively intense experience growing up as Dr. Clare Fischer's son, learning from him, then making music with him for over thirty years. Four years now after his vibrant life ended, technology keeps it possible for us to play together again for this album, lntenso! .

We planned decades ago to record and release all of his music. That's why I captured his sound at the keyboard or with a small group in the comfort of his home during his last years so we could one day add other musicians where needed. Four albums and three Grammy® awards later, we are still at it!

All Clare Fischer Ensembles, including the Latin Jazz Big Band, continue to perform under my direction and this album is the latest result. The contributions of all the incredible musicians and every person who helped put this project together are deeply appreciated. Their artistry makes it possible for my creative vision to come to life. If you put the title of this album together with our last, you get Ritmo Intenso!, or Intense Rhythm, which is the main reason Clare Fischer devoted so much of his life to Latin jazz; it's the perfect setting for his extraordinary harmonies!”

Jim Eigo of Jazz Promo Services sent along the following background information as part of his media release for Intenso! - The Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band Under The Direction of Brent Fischer. [Clavo Records CR601209].

“Featuring the keyboard mastery of Dr. Clare Fischer and the writing of both he and Brent Fischer. Special guests Sheila E, Roberta Gambarini, Luis Conte, Walfredo Reyes and many others plus 15 horns! This follow up to 2012's Grammy®-winning album, Ritmo!, is packed with intense Afro-Cuban and Brazilian grooves—the perfect vehicle for Fischer harmonies, Intenso!

This is Clare Fischer's last year to be eligible for posthumous Grammy® consideration, so Producer/Arranger Brent Fischer has pulled out all the stops, curating more previously unreleased tracks recorded during his late father Clare Fischer's life and setting them into a, well, intense surrounding of Latin Jazz Big Band arrangements replete with layers of virtuosic percussion.

Clare Fischer's legendary playing is heard on 7 out of the 10 new tracks, which are mostly Fischer originals with a few favorite standards completely reimagined. Besides Fischer's spellbinding improvising, we also hear solos by Roberta Gambarini, horn greats Carl Saunders, Ron Stout, Alex Budman, Rob Hardt, Kirsten Edkins, Scott Whitfield and Francisco Torres plus, of course, burning percussion solos from Sheila E, Kevin Ricard and Luis Conte.”

Artist website:

Brent wrote the following annotation for the Gaviota track which you can listen to on the audio-only soundcloud file posted below it. Just click on the white arrow in the red dot in the upper left hand corner.

Gaviota (Seagull) - Featuring the incomparable Roberta Gambarini on vocals! Besides Morning and Pensativa, this is also a Clare Fischer Latin jazz standard, having been covered by many artists including Poncho Sanchez and Roseanna Vitro using the Weaver Copeland lyric. As we performed this song over the decades with Dad's group, it underwent a subtle metamorphosis when he came up with extra keyboard ideas and the band adapted. This, then, is the final version of the song he first put on his album Machaca in the 70s. My horn arrangement is specifically tailored to the way he played it in the twilight of his life after so much creative evolution.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Harry James - Cornet Chop Suey and Jazz Connoisseur - Part 2

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Harry James was a deep, deep, deep man; he may not have been academically educated guy, but he was street educated. He was as perceptive as anybody I have ever known. His first exposure to life was to circus people. If you want to learn about life, those are the people you want to talk to."
- Joe Cabot, trumpet play in and eventually musical director of The Harry James Orchestra

Continuing now with Part 2 of our extensive feature on Harry James from George T. Simon's seminal The Big Bands, 4th Edition.

“If ever there was a nervous band singer, it was Dick Haymes. The son of a top vocal coach, Marguerite Haymes, he was incessantly aware of all the problems that singers faced: stuffed-up nasal passages, sore throats, frogs, improper breathing, wrong stances, etc. As a result he looked completely self-conscious whenever he prepared to sing. I still have visions of his routine at the Fiesta Ballroom, at Broadway and Forty-second Street, where the band was playing shortly after Dick joined. As he prepared to sing, he'd clear his throat a couple of times and then invariably take his handkerchief out of his breast pocket and put it to his mouth for a second. Then he'd approach the mike with long steps, look awkwardly around him, take a deep breath and start to sing.

And how he could sing! There wasn't a boy singer in the business who had a better voice box than Dick Haymes — not even Bob Eberly, whom Dick worshiped so much and who amazed Dick and possibly even disillusioned him by doing something no highly trained singer would ever do: smoke on the job! Haymes sang some exquisite vocals on some comparatively obscure James recordings of "How High the Moon" (as a ballad), "Fools Rush In," "The Nearness of You" and "Maybe." They appeared on a minor label called Varsity, with which Harry had signed early in 1940 after his Brunswick and Columbia sides (the two labels were owned by the same company) had shown disappointing sales.

But though his records may not have been selling sensationally, James continued to hold the admiration of his fellow musicians. In the January, 1940, Metronome poll he was voted top trumpeter in two divisions: as best hot trumpeter and as best all-round trumpeter.

During this period the band returned to New York's Roseland, where it sounded better than ever, swinging sensationally throughout the evening. But Harry was thinking ahead. He wanted to be able to play more than just ballrooms and in the too few hotel spots that didn't boycott high-swinging bands. "You know what I want to do?" he confided to me one evening. "I'm going to add strings and maybe even a novachord. Then we'll be able to play anywhere."

My reactions, like that of any jazz-oriented critic who couldn't see beyond the next beat, was one of horror. James add strings? What a wild, scatterbrained idea! "You're out of your mind," I told him. A few weeks later he announced he was giving up the idea, explaining that he'd planned it only because he figured that was how he could cop an engagement in a class New York hotel spot. But when the hotel operator insisted upon owning a piece of the band too, Harry shelved his plans.

During the summer of 1940 the band appeared at the Dancing Campus of the New York World's Fair. It had begun to settle into a wonderful groove, with the ensemble sounds matching those of such brilliant soloists as James himself, Dave Matthews on alto and Vido Musso and Sam Donahue on tenor saxes. In a fit of critical enthusiasm that caused Benny Goodman to appear in my office to ask incredulously, "Do you really think so?" I had noted in Metronome that "strictly for swing kicks, Harry James has the greatest white band in the country, and, for that matter, so far as this reviewer is concerned, the greatest dance-bandom has ever known. And that's leaving out nobody!"

But Harry never seemed to be quite satisfied. In the fall he made several personnel changes, explaining that "the boys need inspiration, so I decided to call in some fresh blood." One of the most surprising moves was installing Claude Lakey, who had joined the band on tenor sax and then had switched into the trumpet section, as new leader of the saxes in place of Matthews.

But the most important move was still to come. Harry had finished his contract with Varsity Records (if you think the Brunswick sound was bad, listen to some of the Varsity sides!) and had returned to Columbia, which by now was getting some great results out of its large Liederkranz Hotel studio. The company had a very astute A&R producer named Morty Palitz who, Harry recently said, "suggested I add a woodwind section and a string quartet. I settled for the strings."

Remember how those of us who knew everything had warned Harry against such a move less than a year before? Harry just didn't have sense enough to listen to us, though. He added the strings and recorded such trumpet virtuoso sides as "The Flight of the Bumble Bee," "The Carnival of Venice" and the two-sided "Trumpet Rhapsody" all complete with a string section. And on May 20, 1941, he recorded "You Made Me Love You," his schmaltzy trumpet backed by the dainty sounds of his strings. Despite our grave warnings, the record proved to be a smash hit, and the James band was on the way to stardom.

He recorded the tune for a very simple reason: he loved the way Judy Garland sang the song. I remember his raving about her during those very quiet nights when he and I used to sit in the Blue Room of the Hotel Lincoln, where the musicians would sometimes outnumber the customers. In addition to music, we shared another passion, baseball and, at that time, the Brooklyn Dodgers in particular. (For the sake of the record it should be noted that James eventually became a staunch fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, for whom he still roots today.) It was a curious routine that we followed: we'd sit in the Lincoln all night and talk about baseball and then during the afternoons we'd go out to Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers. And what would we be talking about out there? Music, of course.

In June, James recorded a swinging salute to his favorite team, "Dodgers' Fan Dance." He also tried to emulate them literally by playing ball with his team in Central Park on almost every clear afternoon. There was an unconfirmed rumor that before James would hire a musician, he'd find out how well he could play ball — after which he'd audition him with his instrument. Certainly he had some athletic-looking guys in his band during those days.

"Dodgers' Fan Dance" wasn't much of a hit. But "You Made Me Love You," of course, was, and from then on the character of the James band changed for good. It still played its powerful swing numbers, but it began interspersing them more and more with many lush ballads that featured Harry's horn, blown, as I noted in a Metronome review, "with an inordinate amount of feeling, though many may object, and with just cause, to a vibrato that could easily span the distance from left field to first base."

Ironically, "You Made Me Love You" wasn't released until several months after it had been recorded. Perhaps the Columbia people agreed with some of the jazz critics. But they were wrong, too.

The hit was backed by one of the greatest of all James ballad sides, "A Sinner Kissed an Angel," which proved once again what a great singer Haymes had become. During this period Dick also recorded several other outstanding sides: "I'll Get By," "You Don't Know What Love Is" and probably his greatest James vocal of all, "You've Changed."

With singers like Sinatra and Haymes, Harry apparently felt he didn't need to feature a girl vocalist. Previously he had carried several, Bernice Byers and then Connie Haines during the band's earliest days. And in May, 1941, he had hired Helen Ward, Goodman's original singer to make a recording of "Daddy." Then later, for a while, he spotted a very statuesque show-girl type named Dell Parker, who in July, 1941, was replaced by petite Lynn Richards. But few sang much or sang well. Definitely the best was yet to come.

The best turned out to be Helen Forrest, who'd recorded some great sides with Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman but who suddenly quit the latter, "to avoid having a nervous breakdown. Then just on a hunch," Helen recently revealed, "I decided to contact Harry. I loved the way he played that trumpet, with that Jewish phrasing, and I thought I'd fit right in with the band. But Harry didn't seem to want me because he already had Dick Haymes to sing all the ballads and he was looking for a rhythm singer. Then Peewee Monte, his manager, had me come over to rehearsal, and after that the guys in the band took a vote and they decided they wanted me with them. So Harry agreed.

"I've got to thank Harry for letting me really develop even further as a singer. I'll always remain grateful to Artie and Benny. But they had been featuring me more like they did a member of the band, almost like another instrumental soloist. Harry, though, gave me the right sort of arrangements and setting that fit a singer. It wasn't just a matter of my getting up, singing a chorus, and sitting down again."

What James did, of course, was to build the arrangements around his horn and Helen's voice, establishing warmer moods by slowing down the tempo so that two, instead of the usual three or more choruses, would fill a record. Sometimes there'd even be less; many an arrangement would build to a closing climax during Helen's vocal, so that she would emerge as its star.

Helen, who was just as warm a person as she sounded, blended ideally with the schmaltzier approach that was beginning to turn the James band into the most popular big band in the land and that helped Helen win the 1941 Metronome poll. True, there were times when she tended to pour it on a little too thick with a crying kind of phrasing, but then she was merely reflecting the sort of unctuous emotion that Harry was pouring out through his horn.

It may not have been what his real jazz fans wanted, but Harry was beginning to care less and less what they thought and more and more about the money and squarer customers who kept pouring in.

Helen turned out a whole series of excellent ballad sides that helped the band's stock soar. Many of them, beginning with her first vocal, "He's I-A in the Army and He's A-I in My Heart," dwelled upon the-boy-in-the-service-and-his-girl-back-home theme. Thus came such recordings as "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," "He's My Guy," "That Soldier of Mine" and "My Beloved Is Rugged," plus plain but equally sentimental ballads, like "Make Love to Me," "But Not for Me," "Skylark," "I Cried for You," "I Had the Craziest Dream" and "I've Heard That Song Before."

The band personnel began to improve, too. A young tenor saxist, who was still a guardian of another bandleader, Sonny Dunham, joined and became one of the James fixtures for the next twenty-five years. This was Corky Corcoran, a great third baseman, who was released by Dunham upon Harry's payment to him of the costs of the seventeen-year-old saxist's recent appendicitis operation. The reeds had already been bolstered by the addition of two excellent alto saxists, Sam Marowitz in the lead chair, and Johnny McAfee, who, after Haymes left at the end of 1941, contributed some very good vocals. James had also featured another singer, Jimmy Saunders.

An indication of what lay ahead appeared when the band entered the select winner's circle of the Coca-Cola radio show, which spotted the bands with the most popular records. Previous victors had been Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Freddy Martin and Sammy Kaye, all Victor artists. Then, in March, 1942, the James band broke their hold with its recording of "I Don't Want to Walk Without You." What's more, two months later the band and the record copped honors for the show's favorite recording of all!”

To be continued in Part 3 ....

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Louie Prima - 1910-1978: A Tribute

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The three greatest early jazz musicians to have recorded extensively, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Jelly Roll Morton, have all testified to the influence of opera and, in Morton's case at least, other forms of concert music in the formation of their styles.

As Joshua Berrett has shown (Musical Quarterly, Summer 1992), it was from opera singers that Armstrong learned the high-flown bravura style that set him apart from the simpler and more straightforward New Orleans cornetists trained solely in the brass band tradition. Moreover, he interpolated in many of his recorded solos passages from favorite operatic arias and ensembles. Among the first records he acquired, as a teenager, were ones by Caruso, Tetrazzini, and Galli-Curci.

Such slightly younger New Orleans cornetists as Sharkey Bonano, Wingy Manone, and Louis Prima have often been singled out as disciples of Armstrong — which they surely were. But it has been suggested that some of the similarities between their playing and his may be due to the fact that their Italian heritage gave them easy access to the same operatic music that influenced him, as well as to Neapolitan songs and salon music.”
- William H. Youngren, The European Roots of Jazz in The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Bill Kirchner, ed.

“The Famous Door had swung open the previous February. The first band to work there was led by the trumpet player Louis Prima, who had recently arrived from New Orleans. Prima was, in those days, a very good jazz musician, but he was also an extremely entertaining performer, peppering his sets with a lot of amusing jive vocals and good-humored patter. (In his later years he became king of the Las Vegas lounge acts.) To the consternation of the musicians and jazz purists in the audience, Prima's effusive showmanship soon began drawing crowds of big spenders who were less interested in his improvising than in his comedy. But they turned the Famous Door into the hottest club in town.”
- Ross Firestone, Swing,Swing,Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman

“For New Orleans musicians, especially, showmanship was—and remains—a fact of life. Was it not Louis Armstrong, above all, who understood the relationship between music and entertainment, and never wavered in his application of it, even in the face of critical hostility.”
- Richard Sudhalter, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945.

Trumpeter, bandleader and showman/entertainer Louis Prima was the original “Louie Louie” before the character by the same name was enshrined in the famous rock ‘n roll song.

He was born Louie Loui in New Orleans, LA into a family of Italian immigrants on December 7, 1911

He taught himself trumpet (1925) and began performing in various bands based in New Orleans.

“Though Louis Prima recorded widely and well throughout the '30s, achieving great popularity and visibility, his name is often conspicuous by its absence from standard jazz histories. Dealing with him seriously means confronting one aspect of New Orleans jazz which chroniclers, almost as a point of honor, seem to find distasteful.

That, of course, is the matter of showmanship. The flamboyance of Prima's latter career, in which his identity as a trumpeter became almost totally subordinate to his role as a high-energy showman, seems to offend those who would represent jazz as an art music of solemnity and unstinting high purpose. The Las Vegas image, the raucous sound of Sam Butera and the Witnesses, the risque badinage with singer Keely Smith — such make it all too easy to mistake this showbiz aspect of Prima for the creative substance, ignoring his past achievements and core musicianship.

Far from being exclusive to such as Prima, the idea of hot music as an arm of highly commercialized show business runs throughout the early years. It's present in the singing, dancing, and impromptu comedy skits of the dance bands, including those that prided themselves on their dedication to jazz. Its absence is a root cause of the failure of the great Jean Goldkette orchestra, an ensemble which either stubbornly resisted advice to "put on a show" or acquiesced in a manner landing somewhere between perfunctory and downright hostile.

For New Orleans musicians, especially, showmanship was—and remains—a fact of life. Was it not Louis Armstrong, above all, who understood the relationship between music and entertainment, and never wavered in his application of it, even in the face of critical hostility.

"You'll always get critics of showmanship," he told British critic Max Jones. "Critics in England say I was a clown, but a clown — that's hard. If you can make people chuckle a little; it's happiness to me to see people happy, and most of the people who criticize don't know one note from another."

Prima, in common with his two hometown friends Wingy Manone and Sharkey Bonano, accepted — as had Nick LaRocca before them — that they were, above all, entertainers; they might now and then get together for their own enjoyment, and even (as in the case of the 1928 Monk Hazel titles) make music to suit themselves.

But where the public was concerned, the paying customers always came first. By his own lights, and by the laws of the box office, Prima was doing what he properly should be doing, and with resounding success. It is only regrettable that the nature of his fame in later years has drawn attention away from his skills as one of the most accomplished, often thrilling, of New Orleans trumpet men.

He arrived in New York in 1934 and right away landed a job at the Famous Door, a 52nd Street club popular with—and owned by—musicians. At first Sidney Arodin was his clarinetist, but when Arodin left to work with Wingy elsewhere in town, his replacement was Pee Wee Russell, who'd played with Louis's elder brother Leon (also an excellent trumpet player) in a Texas band headed by pianist Peck Kelley.

Things started happening. Broadway columnist Walter Winchell took note. The little band was featured on a coast-to-coast CBS radio hookup. Society folk, ever on the lookout for novelty, ''discovered" Prima. He fit the role admirably, dispensing an early form of the high-voltage fare which was still sending the customers into orbit twenty years later at Vegas and Tahoe.

Critics, predictably, couldn't resist sniping: the formidable John Hammond, while praising Russell, complained that Prima "persists in playing identical solos night after night"— this from a man who never complained when Billie Holiday sang the same predictable embellishments for three decades. Another commentator found Prima performances to be "all on one level."

Whether or not that was so, audiences hardly seemed to mind. The Famous Door did turn-away business—and provided inspiration for a cluster of other tiny places that began opening along "Swing Street." Executives of the American Record Co., clearly viewing both Prima and Manone as potential competitors for Louis Armstrong, signed them both, the former on Brunswick, the latter for the thirty-five-cent Vocalion label alongside fellow — Crescent City trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen.

Between September 27, 1934, and July 17, 1937, Louis Prima recorded some fifty-four titles, mostly backed by small jam groups. What strikes the listener now is the overall excellence of the bands (Pee Wee is the clarinetist on some, with Arodin, Weinberg, and Eddie Miller on others), the ease with which Prima handles a wide variety of material — and the incendiary brilliance of his trumpet work. Again and again, he fires off compelling, technically assured solos, fluent throughout the entire range of the horn.

The records (and those of Manone) tend to follow a pattern: more or less straightforward melody chorus, Prima vocal in what one musician called "that hoarse, horny voice of his," solos by a sideman or two, then the leader's trumpet back for the big finale. Within that, there are consistent peaks, including tough and exhilarating Russell solos on "Chasing Shadows," "The Lady in Red," and "Cross Patch."

Prima, for all his gaudy ways, stands up well. There's no denying the pervasive Armstrong flavor, but what's refreshing here is how freely he's able to work within that vocabulary. There are moments, particularly when he descends into his low register, when his figure shapes and sense of drama recall those of Bunny Berigan.”

Source: Richard Sudhalter, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945.

Louie has long been one of my favorites Jazz musicians from the heyday of Jazz in New Orleans and its early development in New York City. I’m also indebted to him, Keely Smith and to Sam Butera and The Witnesses for all the drumming work my show band chops got thanks to their success in the Las Vegas, Tahoe and Reno, NV casino lounges in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

The following video features Louie, Keely, Sam and The Witness performing their classic show band treatment of That Old Black Magic.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Harry James - Cornet Chop Suey and Jazz Connoisseur - Part 1

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Some think he is “the best of all,” others accuse him of having gone too blatantly commercial. Like in many things in life, the truth about Harry James lies somewhere in the middle. …

As a trumpet player, James has a very personal tone, rich in vibrato, and brilliant technique - and yet, an exaggerated tendency towards self-display, towards circus-like playing can be overheard even in recordings; even those that are to be taken seriously. Strict jazz loyalists regard only a part of James' historical repertoire as acceptable, but whenever he was serious about mounting a performance, it was something which had a great deal of substance.
- Willie Gschwendner, insert notes to Laserlight, The Jazz Collector Edition: Harry James and His Orchestra

“If a poll were taken to pick the most famous trumpeters in the history of twentieth-century music, chances are that Louis Armstrong and Harry James would top most lists. Armstrong, of course, also has a most secure place in the jazz pantheon, but James does not, due to the "burden" of having achieved enormous commercial success early in his career. It's ironic that while few judge Armstrong's achievements on the basis of such hits as "Hello, Dolly", James is still viewed in many quarters mainly as an early-Forties purveyor of schmaltzy ballads such as "You Made Me Love You" and such virtuoso pop-classical fare as "Flight of the Bumble Bee".

But there are few trumpet players in modern history who could sound equally convincing on Armstrong’s “Cornet Chop Suey” or the challenging bebop harmonies of Ernie Wilkins’s “Jazz Connoisseur.””
- Bill Kirchner, insert notes to Harry James Verve Jazz Masters 55

I realize that Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller constituted “The Big Three” during the Swing Era when big bands ruled the roost [I guess a case could be made for Tommy Dorsey’s outfit as well], but my introduction to that era came in the form of retrieved 78 rpm acetates by the Harry James Big Band, or, Orchestra as it was called in those days.

These sides by the James “outfit” [a commonly used descriptor from that time; perhaps a leftover from the jargon of the Wild West days] were salvaged by me when I was doing some exploring one day in the cellar of the family home.

I gather James was idolized by my parents during their courting years hence the trove of discs by the James big band that I discovered molding away in the cellar.

Besides helping to skyrocket James’ career to stardom in a career already boosted by an early spotlight when he played with Benny Goodman’s famous band in the late 1930’s, Harry’s big band also helped launch the careers of vocalists Helen Forrest, Frank Sinatra and Dick Haymes. His was the first “name” band that drummer Buddy Rich performed with at the beginning of what would become a long and illustrious career.

And speaking of “jargon,” it’s fun to go back and read the Jazz press from that era and encounter the slang of that day: words like outfit, killer-diller, jump, “hot” chair [the solo chair in the brass or reed section], kicks, rocks [small R], and boy/girl singer, among many other colloquialisms unique to the Swing Era.

Harry James went well beyond the initial big band era and continued to lead swinging aggregations until his death in 1983, including many long stints at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas which was to become a home base of sorts for him during the last 25 years of his career.

Much like Woody Herman, who is usually heralded for it while Harry is not, for many years, James provided opportunities for many musicians and arrangers, both young and old, to have the experience of playing in a big band.

And just like Woody, he was well-loved as “The Old Man.” Given all the musicians who passed through Harry’s bands over the years, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would say an unkind word about him.

There’s another quality that distinguishes Harry’s playing: he was able to make the transition from Swing Era phrasing to the modern Jazz idiom in his solos. The same cannot be said about many other stalwarts from the big band era including Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and the much beloved, Woody Herman.

Given this legacy and the fact that Harry James was an important part of my Jazz upbringing, I thought it would it might be great fun to pay homage to him with a multi-part essay on these pages featuring the writings of George T. Simon, Ross Firestone, Bill Kirchner and Peter Levinson, in addition to my own observations and remembrances.

Let’s begin with George T. because unlike many others writers on the subject of Harry James, Mr. Simon was there at the beginning of what was to become one of the most storied callings in Jazz History.

“It was on a day in mid-September of 1936 that Glenn Miller and Charlie Spivak invited me to go with them to hear a recording session of a band by their former boss, Ben Pollack. He had just arrived in town to do a date for Brunswick, and Glenn, who had always been telling me what a great drummer Pollack was, said, "Now you can hear for yourself."

The band was composed of young musicians, the good kind that Ben had a knack for discovering (he had started Miller, Spivak, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and many other stars). Pollack, I soon found out, was a helluva drummer, and the young, fat man in the reed section, Irving Fazola, was a magnificent clarinetist.

And then, of course, there was the long, lean, hungry-looking trumpeter whom I'd raved about in a column a few months earlier — without even knowing his name — after having heard a Pollack band broadcast from Pittsburgh, and whose rip-roaring style proved to be even more exciting in person. The session became quite something, with Miller and Spivak joining the band and later both spouting raves about the new kid trumpeter.

He, of course, was Harry James, and his playing on these records drew another rave notice from me. "Irving Goodman, Benny's brother, read it in Metronome,' James revealed years later, "and he started listening to me. Finally he convinced Benny he ought to get me into his band." In December, 1936, James joined Goodman, replacing Irving.

Harry was only twenty years old then, but he already had had as much experience as many of the band's veterans, having blown his horn in dance bands since he had been thirteen. His impact on the Goodman band in general and its brass section in particular (he played both lead and hot) was immense.

What's more, his unfailing spirit and enthusiasm seemed to infect the other musicians — he was extremely well-liked and respected, despite his age. And obviously he enjoyed his new environment. Even after he had been with the band for a year and a half and reports persisted that several of the Goodman stars would follow Gene Krupa's move and start their own bands, Harry remained steadfast. "Benny's too great a guy to work for!" he exclaimed in the spring of 1938, insisting that he wouldn't even consider leaving for at least a year. It turned out to be a very short year. In January, 1939, James left Goodman to start his own band.

Benny didn't seem to mind. He gave Harry his blessings and some cash in return for an interest in the band. Eventually James paid him back many times that amount in return for his release.

The new band's first engagement was in Philadelphia at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel. It opened there on February 9, and the March, 1939, issue of Metronome carried this capsule review with the heading "James Jumps."

Harry James' new band here in the Ben Franklin sure kicks — and in a soft way, too. Outfit gets a swell swing, thanks mostly to great arrangements by Andy Gibson, to Dave Matthews' lead sax, Ralph Hawkins' drumming and Harry's horn.

Hotel management insists upon unnaturally soft music. Band complies, producing stuff reminiscent of the original Norvo group. However, in last supper sets it gives out and really rocks!

Some rough spots still obvious: brass intonation varies; saxes, brilliant most of the
time, not yet consistent. Missed: a good hot clarinet and ditto trombone. Personalities of Harry as leader and Beatrice Byers, warbler, fine.—Simon

Also in February, on the twentieth, the new band cut its first records for Brunswick, for whom Harry had previously made several sides with pickup bands that usually included some of Count Basie's men. The new sides by his own big band weren't very impressive at first, but even the best groups suffered acoustical malnutrition from the company's woefully small, dead-sounding studios.

The band, however, did impress its live audiences and radio listeners, and James seemed happy. "No, I don't think I made any mistake when I left Benny," he said. "When I was with Benny, I often had to play sensational horn. I was one of a few featured men in a killer-diller band. Each of us had to impress all the time. Consequently, when I got up to take, say, sixteen bars, I'd have to try to cram everything into that short space."

Right from the start, James began to feature -himself more on ballads— tunes like "I Surrender, Dear," "Just a Gigolo," "I'm in the Market for You" and "Black and Blue." "Playing what you want to play is good for a guy's soul, you know," he explained.

As for the band itself he insisted: "I want to have a band that really swings and that's easy to dance to all the time. Too many bands, in order to be sensational, hit tempos that you just can't dance to." Maybe it's just coincidental, but just at the time James made this statement, Glenn Miller's band, with its extremely fast tempos, had started coming into its own. "We're emphasizing middle tempos," Harry continued. "They can swing just as much and they're certainly more danceable."

The band provided much color, even with its uniforms. Harry had been brought up in a circus, and his tastes often showed it. His men were attired in red mess jackets, and with them they wore white bow ties and winged collars that went with full dress outfits. Harry had a flashy way of playing his horn, too, visually (he'd puff his cheeks so that they'd look as if they were about to pop) as well as aurally, so that you couldn't help noticing him and his band.

He was in those days — and he continued to be, for that matter — a refreshingly straightforward, candid person. His personal approach was much more informal than his band's uniforms, and he succeeded in creating and retaining a rapport with his men that must have been the envy of many another bandleader.

One of his closest friends turned out to be a young singer James says he heard quite by accident one night on the local radio station WNEW's "Dance Parade" program in New York. (Louise Tobin, who was then married to James, insists that she had first drawn his attention to the voice.)

As Harry recalls, it happened in June, 1939, when his new band was playing at the Paramount Theater in New York. James, lying in bed, listening to Harold Arden's band from the Rustic Cabin in Englewood, New Jersey, was immensely impressed when he heard the band's boy vocalist sing. But Harry failed to note his name, so the next night, after his last show, he traveled over to the Rustic Cabin to find out. "I asked the manager where I could find the singer," he recalls, "and he told me, 'We don't have a singer. But we do have an MC who sings a little bit.' "

The singing MC's name turned out to be Frank Sinatra. He crooned a few songs, and Harry was sufficiently convinced to ask him to drop by the Paramount to talk more. "He did, and we made a deal. It was as simple as that. There was only one thing we didn't agree on. I wanted him to change his name because I thought people couldn't remember it. But he didn't want to. He kept pointing out that he had a cousin up in Boston named Ray Sinatra and he had done pretty well as a bandleader, so why shouldn't he keep his name?" Even way back then, Sinatra was a pretty persuasive guy!

The new vocalist recorded his first sides with the band on July 13,1939. They were "From the Bottom of My Heart" and "Melancholy Mood," and though they were musical enough, they sounded very tentative and even slightly shy, like a boy on a first date who doesn't quite know what to say to his girl.

In those days Sinatra, despite an outward cockiness, needed encouragement, and he got it from James, with whom he established a wonderful rapport.

The first indication I had of Frank's lack of confidence came in August when I dropped into the Roseland to review the band. As I was leaving, Jerry Barrett, Harry's manager, came running after me to find out what I thought of the new singer. "He wants a good writeup more than anybody I've ever seen," he said. "So give him a good writeup, will you, because we want to keep him happy and with the band."

The writeup commended Sinatra for his "very pleasing vocals" and his "easy phrasing," praise that was nothing compared with that I had for the band itself: "a band that kicks as few have ever kicked before!" In addition, it did what Harry had said he wanted to do: it played exceptionally well for dancing, producing even waltzes, tangos and rumbas. It also spotted several fine soloists, including Dave Matthews on alto sax, Claude Lakey on tenor sax, Dalton Rizzotti on trombone and Jack Gardner on piano.

The band was doing well around New York. But after Roseland it went out to Los Angeles and into a plush restaurant called Victor Hugo's. "The owner kept telling us we were playing too loud," Harry recalls. "And so he wouldn't pay us. We were struggling pretty good and nobody had any money, so Frank would invite us up to his place and Nancy would cook spaghetti for everyone."

After the West Coast debacle, the band went into the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. The future wasn't looking so bright anymore. What's more, Frank and Nancy were expecting their first baby, who turned out to be little Nancy.

Meanwhile — nearby at the Palmer House—Tommy Dorsey was having boy singer problems. He was told about "the skinny kid with James," heard him and immediately offered him a job. Frank talked it over with Harry. Aware of the impending arrival and the necessity for a more secure future, James merely said, "Go ahead." And Sinatra did.

Sinatra's contract with James still had five months to run. "Frank still kids about honoring our deal," Harry recently noted. "He'll drop in to hear the band and he'll say something like 'O.K., boss' — he still calls me 'boss' — I'm ready anytime. Just call me and I'll be there on the stand.' "

Sinatra's voice had become an important one in the James band. Jack Matthias had written some pretty arrangements for him, including some in which the band sang glee club backgrounds in a strictly semi-professional way. For me the two best vocals Sinatra sang with James were "It's Funny to Everyone but Me" and "All or Nothing at All," which was re-released several years later and only then became a bestseller. Possibly the worst side he ever recorded was the James theme, "Ciribiribin."

With Sinatra gone, James naturally began looking for a replacement. He found him quite by accident one afternoon when the band was rehearsing in New York at the World Transcription studios at 711 Fifth Avenue. Larry Shayne, a music publisher, had brought along a young songwriter to audition some tunes. Harry listened, then turned to Shayne and said, "I don't like the tunes too much, but I sure like the way the kid sings." The kid was Dick Haymes.”

To be continued in Part 2

The following video features Harry performing Sleepy-Time Gal. It is the first tune that I ever heard him play.