Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Casa Loma Orchestra and the Beginnings of The Swing Era



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

Sometimes it is troubling to realize that my life has more history to it than future.

On the other hand, there are instances when it’s nice to have such a lengthy time span from which to review developments that have occurred in My World.

Or, as Mark Twain once explained: “When I was fourteen [14], I thought my father was the dumbest man in the world. When I turned twenty-one [21], I was surprised at how much he had learned over the last, seven [7] years!”

As is implied in the Twain anecdote, perhaps with the gathering of years comes some improved judgment and a tad more wisdom thanks to the additional information and knowledge we acquire along the way.

Some of these “smarts” may also have to do with learning from one’s mistakes and failures, and I have certainly had my share of these.

Thankfully, Jazz has been a part of my life since my early teens.

Over the “history” of my life, Jazz has changed from a casual, almost informal form of musical expression into an institutionalized art form.

As the writer and critic Grover Sales described it, Jazz has become America’s “Classical music.”

My initial Jazz world consisted of listening to recordings which helped me decide that I wanted to learn an instrument so that I could play this music. This led to performing the music in various settings including rehearsals, clubs and concerts.

When I was coming of age in the music, playing Jazz consisted largely or listening, observing and asking lots of questions and then applying the results of these activities to long hours of practice.

There were no curriculums, study programs or tenured teachers devoted to Jazz. If one was lucky enough to encounter it, there might be a Jazz appreciation class, but it would have been the exception rather than the rule.

Most of the Jazz performers who helped shape my first experiences with the music in the 1950s and 60s had not as yet had books written about them, let alone been the subject of technical retrospectives of their work.

In many cases, the ready source of information about these early musical heroes were the liner notes that graced their LPs as written by such luminaries as Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler and Nat Hentoff, among many, many others.

Formalized scholastic research was at a minimum as were institutes, collections and museums devoted to Jazz and its makers.

Most of the originators of the music were still performing in the 1950s and 1960s and too busy earning a living to spare the time to invest in their musical legacies.

And then, just like that, the years had gone by and it seemed as though every major Jazz figure during the first 50 or so years of the music’s existence was receiving a full length book treatment.

Most of it is good stuff, too, and contains tons of information to help Jazz fans develop a more thorough view of select Jazz artists and their music.

For example, I always assumed that The Swing Era Big Bands era was initiated by the accolades that Benny Goodman’s orchestra received from admiring young Jazz fans of the 1930s.

But after reading the following excerpt Stephanie Stein Crease, Gil Evans Out of the Cool His Life and Music [Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2002], while preparing the recent two-part profile on Gil Evans which you can locate here and here in the blog archives, not only did I gain an insight into one of the major influences on Gil’s music, but I also derived a newfound understanding of the role the Casa Loma Orchestra played in the advent of The Swing Era Big Bands.

“The Casa Loma band, all but unknown today, was the most influ­ential white jazz-oriented band of the early 1930s, when the broad sweep of the Swing Era was still a couple of years away. The band, based in Detroit, had a dashing, dapper appearance (impeccable tails and white tie was the look), and their enthusiasm was infec­tious.

It adopted many of the musical elements of the best black dance bands led by Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Bennie Moten, whose popular Kansas City-based band later gave rise to the Count Basie Orchestra. Moten's swinging, riff-based, call-and-response arrangements were a huge influence on Gene Gifford, Casa Loma's chief arranger and guitarist. Gifford emulated Moten's arrangements but wrote with his own colleagues in mind and polished the southwestern style to a sheen. Gifford's scores "required a very high level of expertise... and this the Casa Loma band possessed in abundance."9 [Albert McCarthy, Big Band Jazz, p. 190].

Casa Loma developed its own precise, snappy style and pro­jected an energetic unified swing sound. The band played catchy instrumental arrangements of tunes such as Wingy Manone's "San Sue Strut" and "Casa Loma Stomp"; interspersed in the up-tempo numbers were romantic ballads—such as "Smoke Rings," the band's theme song—that were ideal for close dancing.

Casa Loma's frequent radio broadcasts helped create a large, mostly white, collegiate audience for the band, particularly in east­ern cities where swing already had a foothold in ballrooms and nightspots, but the band also had a following in small towns around the country. "In 1930 the average small-town white boy who loved jazz heard only the Casa Loma band... on phonograph records, in ballrooms and on the air," wrote jazz and jazz dance historian Marshall Stearns.10 [The Story of Jazz, p. 205]

Gunther Schuller, in his comprehensive book The Swing Era, called Casa Loma "the band that set the stage for the Swing Era, the first white band consistently to feature jazz instrumentals and pursue a deliberate jazz policy."11 [p. 632]

With the help of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD, we were able to put together the following video tribute to the Casa Loma Orchestra which features the band on Maniac’s Ball.

Since their isn’t much that any of us can do about the passage of time, itself, perhaps we can devote a little of the time that remains to today’s Jazz scholarship which is shedding more and more light on the formative years of Jazz’s development.

After all, our immortality resides in the minds of others.