Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Big Bands - George T. Simon

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

"The definitive volume in its field."
— Los Angeles Times

"A fat slice of pure nostalgia for everyone who is old enough to remember the big band era, and a good source book of information."
—New York Post

"Stirringly evocative of the fervid period when so many groups... 'swung freely and joyously,' filling listeners with an 'exhilarated sense of friendly well-being."' —Time
"George Simon could justifiably claim to have invented the big bands. He was their reviewer, reporter, booster, adviser, confidant, critic, and No. 1 fan...This book is the great and glorious record of it all."
—Christian Science Monitor

"Simon tells it like it all was."
— Frank Sinatra

It is almost as though you are reading a book of imaginative fiction; a genre that was once referred to as “science fiction.”

When I found a copy of the 4th edition of The Big Bands [New York: Schirmer Books, 1967] in the dollar bin at the local bookstore and started thumbing through its Table of Contents, the first thing that came to mind was that I somehow happened upon a Lost World.

The subheadings in Part One: The Big Bands - Then had subchapters entitled: The Scene; The Leaders; The Public; The Musicians; The Rise, the Glory and the Decline; The Vocalists, The Arrangers; The Businessmen; Recordings; Radio; Movies; The Press.

And these are only references to what’s contained in the first seventy-five pages of the book!

Part Two - Inside The Big Bands has subchapters on 72 major big bands.

Part Three Inside More of the Big Bands has sub chapters with titles like The Arranging Leaders, The Horn-Playing Leaders, The Reed-playing Leaders, The Piano-playing Leaders, The Violin-playing Leaders, The Singing-Leaders, The Mickey Mouse Bands, The Veterans, “And Still More Bands.” And it concludes with a listing of “two hundred more bands.”

Can you imagine?

For all intents and purposes, Mr. Simon’s book is a description of what was popular music in the USA for two decades, from about 1930-1950 and then it all disappeared with the exception of about a dozen or so big bands that eked out a living when the taste of the country turned to other kinds of music.

But while it lasted, the era of the Big Bands sure put on some show.

George T. Simon was certainly one lucky fellow as he got to live through all of the music from what Chuck Cecil refers to as “The Swinging Years.”  Not only that, he got to earn a living while writing about it for Metronome magazine.

GEORGE T SIMON joined Metronome magazine in 1935, at the dawn of the big band era, remaining there for twenty years, the last sixteen as editor-in-chief.

He had begun his musical career by leading his own band at Harvard, and later helped organize the Glenn Miller orchestra, for which he played drums. Winner of a Grammy for distinguished writing and of the first Deems Taylor/ASCAP award, he has contributed articles and reviews to leading newspapers and magazines. A producer, writer and music consultant for network television and radio, he has also produced jazz and pop recordings for many major labels.

He is the author of The Best of the Music Makers, The Big Bands Songbook, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, Simon Says: The Sights and Sounds of the Swing Era, and The Feeling of Jazz.

We wanted to remember the Big Band Era  and Mr. Simon’s marvelous book about this “Lost World” on these pages with the following excerpts as published in Robert Gottlieb, editor, Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now [New York: Pantheon, 1996].


Do you remember what it was like? Maybe you do. Maybe you were there. Maybe you were there in New York two-thirds of the way through the 1930s, when there were so many great bands playing—so many of them at the same time. You could choose your spots—so many spots.

You could go to the Madhattan Room of the Hotel Pennsylvania, where Benny Goodman, the man who started it all, was playing with his great band, complete with Gene Krupa.

You could go a block or so farther to the Terrace Room of the Hotel New Yorker, and there you'd find Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra with Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell ... or to the Blue Room of the Hotel Lincoln to catch Artie Shaw and his band with Helen Forrest ... or to the Green Room of the Hotel Edison for Les Brown's brand-new band.

Maybe you'd rather go to some other hotel room—like the Palm Room of the Commodore for Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey and their soft, subtle swing ... or to the Grill Room of the Lexington for Bob Crosby and his Dixieland Bobcats . . . or to the Moonlit Terrace of the Biltmore for Horace Heidt and his huge singing entourage ... or down to the Roosevelt Grill for Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians and their extra sweet sounds.

And then there were the ballrooms—the Roseland with Woody Herman and the Savoy with Chick Webb. Not to mention the nightclubs—the Cotton Club with Duke Ellington, or the Paradise Restaurant, where a band nobody knew too much about was making sounds that the entire nation would soon recognize as those of Glenn Miller and his Orchestra.

Maybe you didn't feel so much like dancing but more like sitting and listening and maybe taking in a movie too. You could go to the Paramount, where Tommy Dorsey and his band, along with Jack Leonard and Edythe Wright, were appearing ... or to the Strand to catch Xavier Cugat and his Latin music ... or to Loew's State, where Jimmie Lunceford was swinging forth.

And if you had a car, you could go a few miles out of town ... to the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle to dance to Larry Clinton's music with vocals by Bea Wain ... or to Frank Dailey's Meadowbrook across the bridge in New Jersey to catch Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra with Peewee Hunt and Kenny Sargent.

Of course, if you didn't feel like going out at all, you still were in luck— and you didn't have to be in New York either. For all you had to do was to turn on your radio and you could hear all sorts of great bands coming from all sorts of places—from the Aragon and Trianon ballrooms in Chicago, the Palomar Ballroom in Hollywood, the Raymor Ballroom in Boston, the Blue Room of the Hotel Roosevelt in New Orleans, the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, the Steel Pier in Atlantic City and hundreds of other hotels, ballrooms and nightclubs throughout the country, wherever an announcer would begin a program with words like "And here is the music of-------!"

The music varied tremendously from style to style and, within each style, from band to band. Thus you could hear all types of swing bands: the hard-driving swing of Benny Goodman, the relaxed swing of Jimmie Lunceford, the forceful Dixieland of Bob Crosby, the simple, riff-filled swing of Count Basie, the highly developed swing of Duke Ellington, and the very commercial swing of Glenn Miller.

Many of the big swing bands were built around the leaders and their instruments—around the clarinets of Goodman and Artie Shaw, the trumpets of Harry James and Bunny Berigan, the trombones of Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey, the tenor sax of Charlie Bar net, the pianos of Ellington and Count Basie and the drums of Gene Krupa.

And then there were the sweet bands. They varied in style and in quality too. Some projected rich, full, musical ensemble sounds, like those of Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, Isham Jones, Ray Noble and Glenn Miller. Others depended more on intimacy, like the bands of Hal Kemp and Guy Lombardo and of Tommy Dorsey when he featured his pretty trombone. Others played more in the society manner—Eddy Duchin with his flowery piano and Freddy Martin with his soft, moaning sax sounds. And then there were the extra sweet bandleaders. Lombardo, of course, was one. So was his chief imitator, Jan Garber. So was the Waltz King, Wayne King.

And there were the novelty bands, generally lumped in with the sweet bands—Kay Kyser, with all his smart gimmicks, including his College of Musical Knowledge and his singing song titles; Sammy Kaye, who also used singing song titles and introduced his "So You Wanna Lead a Band" gimmick; and Blue Barron, who aped Kaye . . . and so many others who aped Barron, who aped Kaye, who aped Kyser, who aped Lombardo.

There were so many bands playing so many different kinds of music— some well, some adequately, some horribly—all with their fans and followers. The Metronome poll, in which readers were invited to vote for their favorite bands in three divisions (Swing, Sweet and Favorite of All), listed almost three hundred entries in each of the four years from 1937 through 1940. And those were merely the bands that the readers liked most of all! There were hundreds more all over the country that didn't even place.

Why were some so much more successful than others? Discounting the obvious commercial considerations, such as financial support, personal managers, booking offices, recordings, radio exposure and press agents, four other factors were of paramount importance.

There was, of course, the band's musical style. This varied radically from band to band. A Tommy Dorsey was as far removed from a Tommy Tucker as an Artie Shaw was from an Art Kassel or a Sammy Kaye was from a Sam Donahue. Each band depended upon its own particular style, its own identifiable sound, for general, partial or just meager acceptance. In many ways, the whole business was like a style show—if the public latched on to what you were displaying, you had a good chance of success. If it rejected you, you'd better forget it.

Generally it was the band's musical director, either its arranger or its leader or perhaps both, who established a style. He or they decided what sort of sound the band should have, how it should be achieved and how it should be presented, and from there on proceeded to try to do everything possible to establish and project that sound, or style.

Secondly, the musicians within a band, its sidemen, played important roles. Their ability to play the arrangements was, naturally, vitally important. In some bands the musicians themselves contributed a good deal, especially in the swing bands, which depended upon them for so many solos; and in the more musical bands, whose leaders were willing to listen to and often accept musical suggestions from their sidemen.

But the musicians were important in other ways too. Their attitude and cooperation could make or break a band. If they liked or rejected a leader, they would work hard to help him achieve his goals. If they had little use for him, they'd slough off both him and his music. The more musical the band and the style, the greater, generally speaking, the cooperation of its musicians in all matters—personal as well as musical.

Salaries? They were important, yes, in the bands that weren't so much fun to play in. But if the band was good musically and if the musicians were aware that their leader was struggling and couldn't pay much, money very often became secondary. Pride and potential, and, most importantly, respect usually prevailed.

Thirdly, the singers—or the band vocalists, as they were generally called— often played important roles in establishing a band's popularity, in some cases even surpassing that of the band itself. A good deal depended upon how much a leader needed to or was willing to feature a vocalist. Most of the smarter ones realized that any extra added attraction within their own organization could only redound to their credit. Even after many of those singers had graduated to stardom on their own, their past relationships with the bands added a touch cf glamour to those bands and their reputations.

Thus such current stars as Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford still bring back memories of Tommy Dorsey, Doris Day of Les Brown, Ella Fitzgerald of Chick Webb, Peggy Lee of Benny Goodman and Perry Como of Ted Weems.

And there were many others who meant very much to their leaders— Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell to Jimmy Dorsey, Ray Eberle and Marion Hutton to Glenn Miller, Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest to Harry James, Kenny Sargent and Peewee Hunt to Glen Gray, Bea Wain to Larry Clinton, Ivy Anderson to Duke Ellington, Mildred Bailey to Red Norvo, Anita O'Day to Gene Krupa, June Christy to Stan Kenton, Ginny Sims to Kay Kyser, Dolly Dawn to George Hall, Wee Bonnie Baker to Orrin Tucker, Amy Arnell to Tommy Tucker, Jimmy Rushing to Count Basie, Al Bowlly to Ray Noble, Eddy Howard to Dick Jurgens, Bon Bon to Jan Savitt, Skinnay Ennis to Hal Kemp and, of course, Carmen Lombardo to brother Guy.

But of all the factors involved in the success of a dance band—the business affairs, the musical style, the arrangers, the sidemen and the vocalists— nothing equaled in importance the part played by the leaders themselves. For in each band it was the leader who assumed the most vital and most responsible role. Around him revolved the music, the musicians, the vocalists, the arrangers and all the commercial factors involved in running a band, and it was up to him to take these component parts and with them achieve success, mediocrity or failure.”

Given the enormous range of big bands, it was very difficult to select one as a video example for this piece, but I decided to go with one that features the Benny Goodman Orchestra as in many ways, Benny’s initial success at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on August 21, 1935 paved the way for the craze that became The Big Band Swing Era in American Popular Music.

The video features Benny’s 1937 recording of Bugle Call Rag, The arrangement is by Dean Kincaide and the soloist are Babe Russin [tenor saxophone], Harry James [trumpet], Murray McEachern [trombone] and Benny [clarinet] with the irrepressible Gene Krupa booting things along in the drum chair.

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