Saturday, December 1, 2012

Big Band Bonanza – The Way We Were

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

It would be unfair to say that Jazz today is bereft of big bands.

They abound, it seems, on every college campus that offers a Jazz education program and in a number of European venues, as well [including – as shared here in a previous JazzProfiles feature – the island of Sardinia!].

But there was a time when big bands were the source for most popular music in the United States, Great Britain and much of its Commonwealth and the more cosmopolitan cities in Europe.

The predominance of this big band era is described in the following excerpt from the venerable Jazz author Gene Lees’ chapter on the formation of “… the first true Woody Herman band” in his Leader of the Band: The Life of Woody Herman [Oxford].

© -Gene Lees/Oxford University Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The Swing Era cannot be dated precisely, since its roots go back to the Paul Whiteman band in the 1920s. It is generally considered to have lasted from the time of Benny Goodman's first big success in 1935 through to the late 1940s, a little more than ten years. Before Goodman, however, there were the Casa Loma orchestra, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, the Dorsey Brothers orchestra, and the bands of Duke Ellington, Bennie Moten, Jimmie Lunceford, Cab Galloway, and Fletcher Henderson. But Goodman set a national fashion, lofting the fortunes of those whose bands had existed before his was born, excepting that of Fletcher Henderson, who failed as a leader and became Goodman's most valuable arranger. Soon the booking agencies, slow at first to recognize the trend, were signing up seemingly anyone who could front a band that purported to "swing.' Three sidemen from the Goodman band alone became successful bandleaders, vibraharpist-drummer Lionel Hampton, drummer Gene Krupa, and trumpeter Harry James. Trumpeter Sonny Dunham left the Casa Loma orchestra to form his own band.

Eventually there were scores of these bands making records, playing on radio, and touring North America, among them those of Georgie Auld, Charlie Barnet, Count Basie, Will Bradley, Les Brown, Benny Carter, Bob Chester, Larry Clinton, Bob Crosby, Sam Donahue, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Jan Garber, Glen Gray, Erskine Hawkins, Earl Hines, Hal Kemp, Stan Kenton, Ray McKinley, Lucky Millinder, Teddy Powell, Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Rey, Jan Savitt, Artie Shaw, Bobby Sherwood, Claude Thornhill,

Jerry Wald, and Chick Webb, all of which were of what we might call the jazz persuasion and featured excellent soloists. Then there were what the hip (in those days hep) fans called the "sweet" bands, despised by the jazz fans as "corny," a term reputedly coined by Bix Beiderbecke to suggest the back­ward and bucolic. These included Blue Barron, Gray Gordon, Eddy Duchin, Shep Fields, Freddy Martin, Vaughn Monroe, Dick Stabile, Tommy Tucker, Horace Heidt, Richard Himber, Art Kassel, Wayne King, Johnny Long, and Lawrence Welk.

Guy Lombardo repeatedly won the Down Beat readers' poll in the King of Corn category. This was a little unfair. What the Lombardo orchestra was until its leader's death was a museum piece, an unaltered 1920s tuba-bass dance band, quite good at what it did and admired by such unlikely persons as Louis Armstrong and Gerry Mulligan. Usually included in the corn category were the orchestras of Kay Kyser, Sammy Kaye, and Ozzie Nelson, though all three were capable of playing creditable big-band jazz, and the Nelson orchestra was a very good band, again one that Mulligan admires. Trombonist Russ Morgan led what was considered one of the corny bands, and few fans realized he had been a pioneering jazz arranger.

The "big-band era," probably a better term than "swing era," since a lot of successful bands not only didn't swing but didn't even aspire to, reached its peak during World War II, despite the problems bandleaders had in finding personnel when so many young musicians were in military service. As we have noted, the fortunes of the bandleaders and their sidemen and singers were followed avidly in Down Beat and Metronome, but even the lay press got into it when the sequential polygamy of Artie Shaw and Charlie Barnet made news, along with the marriages of Harry James to actress Betty Grable and of Woody's old friend Phil Harris to Alice Faye. These bandleaders were not only treated as movie stars, but sometimes were movie stars—Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Harry James, and Woody among them—appearing in feature films. Almost all of them were at least in short subjects. In some cases, the movies were about the band business, including Second Chorus, in which Shaw uncomfortably portrayed a bandleader named Artie Shaw, and Orchestra Wives, in which the Miller band was prominently featured.

The jazz bands were substantially supported by dedicated young dancers referred to condescendingly if not contemptuously as jitterbugs. Shaw, whose aspirations to high culture were never disguised, particularly de­spised them, and said so publicly. Newsreels of the period—the movie theaters each week featured short news films, precursors of television news broadcasts—from time to time would show the gyrations of the participants in dance contests. There was a patronizing tone about these observations, particularly when they showed black dancers in Harlem, as if the camera and commentator were examining the rites of a primitive tribe. The inference was inescapable. But the best of these dancers were remark­able, and their athleticism—the men spinning the women at arm's length, throwing them into the air and catching them or slinging them under their legs and over their shoulders, the gyrations wild but controlled—was imag­inative and skilled. Combining elements of gymnastics and ballet, this kind of dance was also risky, and we can only imagine how many sprained shoulders and broken ankles were suffered when dancers botched some of their most hazardous maneuvers. Today only a handful of trained profes­sional dancers can do what seemingly half the adolescent populace of North America did as a matter of course in the 1940s. …

Nostalgic fans will tell you that the jazz connoisseurs crowded close to the bandstand to listen with enraptured concentration to the bands and their soloists, while the superficial admirers danced in the back of the ballroom, but the division was not that strict. Some fans alternated the two activities. Nor was the line clear between the "sweet" and the "swing" bands. All bands played for dancers, including those of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and Basie, who probably never gave a thought to whether jazz was an art form, was considered something of a genius for his anticipation of what dancers desired. Even some of the "sweet" bands allowed space for improvised solos. The Les Brown band, generally considered a dance band, featured intelligent and subtle arrangements by writers such as Ben Homer and Frank Comstock and some first-rate jazz soloists.

And so they traveled, platoons of musical gypsies, unpacking their in­struments and music stands and setting up camp in hotel ballrooms in the cities or in the open-air pavilions of small towns and lakeside and riverside amusement parks, even in armories, churches, and skating rinks, bringing evenings of glamour, romanticism, and excitement to audiences, and then packing up and piling into cars or buses at evening's end to travel the two-lane highways of America for yet another in a string of jobs. It must have been a lonely life, but I have never met a musician who regretted having lived it. These men were musical pioneers, as were a few women, like trumpeter Billie Rogers and the vibraharpist Marjorie Hyams, both of whom played in the Herman band.

Once upon a time it was doubted that track athletes would ever run a four-minute mile. Now it is so routine that one has to be able to do it even to qualify for some events. Thus it was with brass and saxophone playing in those dance bands. Trumpet and trombone players, particularly lead play­ers, were called on to play sustained difficult material and to keep it up for hours on end. No symphony woodwind players have ever been required to show the kind of endurance a jazz or dance band demands of saxophone players. This was exploratory music, and Tommy Dorsey, for one, altered the tessitura of trombone forever; now even some symphony players have that kind of technique. Louis Armstrong irreversibly altered trumpet play­ing, but many symphony players even now cannot do what Harry James, Dizzy Gillespie, and Maynard Ferguson established as norms for that in­strument. Symphony trumpet players are not called on to produce the sustained evening-long power of the great lead trumpet players such as the late Conrad Gozzo, or to play the high notes routinely called for by jazz arrangers, notes once considered off the top of the instrument. Harry James with Goodman pushed the instrument higher than it had been before.

The form of the orchestra by then had been defined. In later years some writers would add French horns—Claude Thornhill was the first to do this—and expect the saxophone players to double flutes or other wood­winds. But the basic form had been set, a classic musical unit, like the string quartet or the symphony orchestra, and Woody had built the Band That Plays the Blues up to that configuration as it entered its last days to create the first true Woody Herman big band.”

Set to the music of Holland’s Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw, Henk Meutgeert conducting, and performing Peter Beets’ composition Is It Wrong To Be Right” with Beets soloing on piano and Simon Rigter soloing on tenor saxophone, here’s a retrospective of album cover art from a time when big bands ruled right up to the large aggregations of the present day.