© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“I think the real root of the problem with the Dorsey brothers as jazz players was that in their formative years they never really heard—or did not hear sufficiently—the great black jazz innovators of the calibre of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Bubber Miley, and Bessie Smith.
Though Dorsey senior, the boys' original music teacher, was a strict disciplinarian and undoubtedly gave the youngsters a solid technical foundation (and lots of experience in his parade and concert band), I suggest the contact with real jazz at best was intermittent, at worst superficial. Moreover, living and working on the East Coast and touring in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio was not quite like working in Chicago, where the young Bix could hear Louis Armstrong every night, or where Benny Goodman could absorb the rich lessons of a Jimmy Noone.
The Dorsey brothers, raised in a milieu of hard-working, struggling, unaffluent Pennsylvania coal miners, never lost that drive to hustle for a living, in whatever musical ambience or style, so long as it would keep poverty at bay. Somehow neither of them drank long enough at the true fountainhead of jazz. And it didn't take much to pull them away from jazz.”
- Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era
During my formative Jazz years, I didn’t know much about alto saxophonist and clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey.
I recall seeing a film about Jimmy and his more famous brother, trombonist, Tommy Dorsey. The film was entitled The Fabulous Dorseys although judging from the preview of coming attractions which emphasized their constant arguments, a better title may have been“The Battling Dorseys.” Throughout their careers, they seem to look for every opportunity to scrap with one another.
John Lissner in his insert notes to Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra: Contrasts [GRP/Jazz Heritage 513817M] explains the roots of their combative relationship this way:
“While thinking about the career and music of alto saxophonist and clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey … , I was reminded of an Irish proverb: ‘Contention is better than loneliness.’ Indeed, one basic thing to remember about Jimmy Dorsey and his brother Tommy is that they were Irish. They had Irish eyes, smiles and tempers. Their brooding Irish moods often grew into grand, contentious, and infuriating passions, and their conflicts came to a head on the night of May 30, 1935. The excellent Dorsey Brothers big band was in the middle of a successful gig at the East Coast's prime dance spot, the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. They were about to play a Tin Pan Alley tune called "I'll Never Say Never Again" Tommy kicked off the tempo. Jimmy rose from his seat with the comment: "Isn't that a little too fast, Mac?" Tommy put down his trombone, walked off the bandstand, drove to New York City and never looked back. Had the brothers gotten along better, the Big Band Era might well have had only one Dorsey band. As it turned out, the Dorsey brothers created two separate traditions— each musically vital, artistically impressive and commercially successful.”
I also knew that Jimmy enjoyed considerable success with his recording of So Rare in the early 1950’s and that Jazz musicians like Benny Carter, Charlie Parker and Lester Young had the greatest respect for his playing.
According to John Lissner:
“Dorsey had become a master technician, probably the most accomplished and influential of hot alto saxophonists. His textbook became the standard for any aspiring dance band altoist. [Paul] Whiteman featured him as a virtuoso, and many of his solos of this period became models for such young musicians as Lester Young, then an alto player with bands in the midwest and southwest. Jimmy's distinctive bright tone on alto and clarinet would also fascinate Charlie Parker in later years.”
In his definitive The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller offers one explanation for this admiration:
“Jimmy Dorsey was, of course, a formidable technician, on both the alto and clarinet; and if one searches for an answer to the perplexing question of why so many saxophonists, black and white — from Hodges to Parker and even Ornette Coleman — admired Jimmy Dorsey's work, one must turn to that aspect of his playing. It may come as a surprise to the passionate jazz fan reader with unalterable allegiances and strong musical/ideological leanings that most jazz musicians are not truly purist in their tastes.
They will more readily admire an outstanding instrumental technician, of whatever stylistic persuasion, than a player who is creatively strong and individual but technically, say, ''unspectacular.”
Jimmy Dorsey's technical skills did allow him, in turn, to be the versatile, wide-ranging eclectic he was—more than, in these respects, his more limited brother Tommy. While Jimmy was never a creative innovator, he was a gifted assimilator and could perform convincingly in a variety of idioms.
Once one has accepted that, one is not quite so startled to hear Jimmy's remarkably beautiful and "authentic" blues-clarinet-playing as early as 1929 on Praying the Blues, an expressive tour de force. It is, of course, indebted to Dodds and Bigard and Omer Simeon, but it at least is the real thing. The real issue, then, is: if he could produce one such distinguished, convincing true sample of jazz, why not more often?” [p. 648]
Gunther Schuller goes on to offer the assessment of The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra:
When Tommy, in one of his famous fits of temper, walked off the bandstand at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, in May 1935, the two brothers remained separated and not in communication for over ten years, until finally reunited temporarily in working together on the 1947 biographical movie, The Fabulous Dorseys.
While in the wake of this breakup Tommy appropriated one of Joe Haymes's bands as his own, Jimmy simply continued with the personnel of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra but now called it the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. His, and the orchestra's, popular and financial success were instantaneous. Continuing with the "sweet-swing" style the brothers had finally evolved before the big breakup,
Jimmy's band managed a fairly broad repertory with taste (for the most part), as well as impressive instrumental skill and ensemble discipline. The many technically challenging arrangements (by Joe Lippman, Larry Clinton, Fud Livingston, Toots Camarata, Bobby Van Eps) were always carried off with efficiency and skill, the result of careful rehearsing. The expressive and emotional substance, on the other hand, was often rather thin, and the lightweight novelty numbers like By Heck, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Jibe, Parade of the Milk Bottle Caps were still always there. But in balance, it was an orchestra which could with some justice regard itself as operating within the jazz arena, at least as jazz was viewed in the Swing Era by most white bands.”
The 4th edition of The Big Bands, George T. Simon has a lengthy chapter on Jimmy’s music which includes these observations about him and his orchestra:
“JIMMY DORSEY never had the drive or the ambition or the boundless energy that his brother Tommy had. Quite possibly he would have been content to sit there in the sax section of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, letting Tommy take over, for the rest of his life. There are those who saw him in the fifties, when he and Tommy had been reunited and Tommy was again calling the shots, who submit that they hadn't seen Jimmy as happy and as relaxed in a long, longtime.
Happy and relaxed is basically what Jimmy was by nature. He was not a competitor, so that the idea of having to lead a band against all the hard-nosed leaders who had been around and who were coming around as the big band boom got under way was probably not too much to his liking. But he had a job to do — and he did one hell of a great job!
Of course he had the basic ammunition, for Jimmy was an excellent musician—in some ways better rounded than Tommy. He also knew instinctively how to get along with people, and though his band may never have reached the dynamic heights that Tommy's did, it managed to exist on an evener keel, with fewer flare-ups and crises and with a more consistent esprit de corps. Jimmy was extremely well-liked by all his men— not just by those, as was more prevalent in Tommy's case, whom he happened to like. And like Tommy, he too had a keen sense of humor. There were many laughs in the Jimmy Dorsey band, and Jimmy supplied lots of them.
There was a softness, too, about Jimmy that was very lovable. He cared about people and their problems. …
The band had reached its zenith in 1943, surpassing even lommya m popularity and in musicianship. At that time, Jimmy sported a nine-piece brass section (five trumpets instead of the original one) and some exceptional soloists, such as tenor saxist Babe Russin, trumpeter Nate Kazebier and pianist Johnny Guarnieri. During the following years, the band kept up its high standards, and by the end of the war, Jimmy had the swingingest band he had ever led. In early 1946, I reviewed it at the 400 Club in New York and was enthralled with its bite and vigor, the guitar playing of Herb Ellis, the piano of Lou Carter and the drumming of young Earl Kiffe.”
One of the keys to the success of the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra was the popularity of its “boy singer” - Bob Eberly and its “girl singer” - Helen O’Connell. When each first joined the band in the late 1930’s they sang individually, however, their lasting appeal was to be formed when they began to sing a series of duets.
As George Simon describes:
“The series of famous Eberly-O'Connell duets was born out of necessity. On its radio series for Twenty Grand cigarettes, one of several dime-a-package brands that had become popular, the band was allotted a three-minute spot near the close in which it was supposed to feature all its stars. And so arranger Tutti Camarata devised a special routine during which Bob sang the first chorus as a ballad, the tempo would pick up and Jimmy would play part of a jazz chorus of the tune, and then the tempo would slow down again for Helen to come on for a semi-wailing finale.
The gimmick proved to be a sensation. Eberly notes that an important Decca Records executive was dead set against recording the routine because "people would break a leg trying to dance to all those tempo changes." But he was out-argued, obviously happily for his sake, because, according to Bob, "Green Eyes" sold ninety thousand copies in the first few days, at a time when twenty-five thousand copies was considered a great seller….
The Eberly-O'Connell relationship, according to Bob, "could have made the perfect setting for one of those happy family TV situation series, the way Helen and I would kid and tease each other while Jimmy guided and watched over us." …
Certainly his two singers played vital roles in the success of Jimmy Dorsey's Orchestra. But, of course, his musicians, though not as well known as Bob and Helen, were every bit as important and impressive, for Jimmy always insisted upon a high level of competence in all who worked for him.”
The following video features Jimmy and his Orchestra with Bob and Helen’s performance of another of their biggest hits - Tangerine.