© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Charlie Barnet (1913-91)
TENOR, ALTO AND SOPRANO SAXOPHONES
Born into a wealthy New York family, Barnet took up playing sax and was at work in Harlem - where he broke the colour bar- and everywhere in the city by the mid-'jos. But his band struggled until 1939, when he began making records for Bluebird, and broke big. He kept on through the '40s but disliked the way big-band music was going and quit bandleading in 1949, going into hotel management and leading groups only when he pleased, in the 50s, '60s and 70s. As an alto and soprano player, he idolized Johnny Hodges, He was married more times than even Dinah Washington.
***(*) The Capitol Big Band Sessions [Capitol 21258-2]
This was Barnet's 'bebop' band. He knew he couldn't play the new jazz and that he didn't really want that kind of band, but he was shrewd enough to hire players who were adept enough to handle a really tough score such as Cu-ba, the sort of thing that was coming out of Dizzy Gillespie's book. Arrangers such as Manny Albam and Pete Rugolo posed plenty of challenges for the band, and here and there are pieces which pointed the Barnet men in the direction of Stan Kenton, which was the last thing their leader wanted. After he famously broke the band up in 1949, there came a new version, which cut the last four 1950 tracks here, with strings added. This is little-known jazz and it's a welcome addition to Barnet's CD showing, even if much of it is atypical of his best work.
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.
"It is a tragedy of our civilization that the presence of (some superb) Negro musicians has kept sponsors of commercial radio programs away from Barnet's door, and has closed swank hotels and certain big-time theater engagements to the band." … Harlem flocked in record numbers to hear this band...He is doing a lot to break down racial prejudice. It's the same with his music. He plays only what he likes and the standard of popular music is improved thereby."
- Les Zimmerman, in a 1943 Metronome Magazine profile
Dave Pell is a tenor saxophonist, long time member of the Les Brown’s “Band of Renown,” leader of his own octet, record producer, photographer and occasional member of the sax section of various versions of the Charlie Barnet Big Band.
I remember asking him once why Charlie is not mentioned with the same reverie that musicians who were on the Kenton, Herman, and Brown band’s reserve for Stan, Woody and Les, respectively.
He said: “That’s because they were totally different experiences, musically, I mean.”
Although, I wasn’t familiar enough with Charlie Barnet’s music to understand the distinction that Dave was making and there wasn’t an opportunity for him to elaborate on his remark at the time, I made a note of it in one of the small spiral bound notebooks the I always carry in my hip pocket as a hedge against the increasing encroachment of “senior moments.”
I came across that dog-eared notebook recently, and finding Dave’s remark set me off on a quest for an explanation as to what it meant. I guess I could have called him and asked him - he’s a really nice man - but I wanted to do some research and see what answers might come up.
Besides, I thought it would make a fun blog feature to do it this way.
When it comes to the history of Jazz Big Bands, Gunther Schuller, George Simon and Loren Schoenberg are pretty hip guys and as you will no doubt note, each gives a slightly similar and yet distinctive explanation as to what made Charlie Barnet’s band “different,” “musically,” that is.
Let’s start with - when it comes to big bands - the always enthusiastic, George Simon and these excerpts from his classic book on the subject - The Big Bands, 4th Edition.
"The band business was a romping, stomping thing, and everybody was swinging, and I can't help but think back to the group of boys in the band— it was a happy band, and even with the one-nighters it was a ball."
For Charlie Barnet and the many fine musicians who played in his ever-swinging outfit, the big band days must indeed have been a ball. For Charlie was the kind of a guy who believed in a good time — not only for himself, but also for all those around him. He and his cohorts projected a happy, carefree, swinging feeling both in their music and very often in their attitude toward life. They were disciplined in their playing, for Charlie always respected music, and they took their task seriously. But take themselves seriously —no! This was a band that reflected the wonderful ad-lib spontaneity that characterizes jazz. Its music always had a beat. And, like its leader and many of his sidemen, it was always, but always colorful.
Barnet was a handsome, Hollywood-hero sort of man—in fact, at one time he tried making it as a movie actor, appearing in two films, Irene and Mary and Love and Hisses. But his heart wasn't in acting, for it always remained so very much in jazz.
As a kid he revolted toward jazz. His family wanted him to study piano. He wanted to play drums, so he began banging on his mother's hat boxes and sundry pots and pans, probably expensive paraphernalia too, because his was a wealthy family. His mother's father, Charles Daly, had been the first vice-president of the New York Central Railroad, and Charlie's parents had all sorts of "respectable plans" for their son. They sent him to Rumsey Hall and Blair Academy, two very respectable boarding schools, and he was enrolled at Yale. But this wasn't for Charlie. By the time he should have been preparing for his freshman midterms at Yale, he was in the South, blowing his wild tenor sax in various local outfits.
Admittedly Barnet's style was influenced greatly by that of Coleman Hawkins. When Charlie was twelve his family gave him a C-melody sax, which is a cross between an alto and tenor. "I learned to play hot by fooling around with the Victrola," he recently told writer George Hoefer. "I was nuts about the Fletcher Henderson band, and when I heard Hawkins play, I just naturally switched to the tenor." Later, when he heard Duke Ellington’s Johnny Hodges play alto and soprano sax, he just naturally switched to those horns too.
Ellington's band had a profound effect on Barnet, and when, after having fronted a fairly commercial outfit for several years, Charlie decided to cash in on the big swing-band craze, he patterned his arrangements after those of the Duke. As I noted in an August, 1939, review of his band (headed "Barnet's—Blackest White Band of All!"), he and his musicians made no attempt to hide the fact "that they're aping Duke Ellington, copying many of his arrangements, adapting standards and some pops to his style, using his sax-section setup of two altos, tenor, and baritone and his growling trumpets and trombones." So dedicated was Barnet to the Duke that, it has been noted, when he built a fallout shelter after the war, he stocked it with a superb collection of Ellington recordings.
Charlie's first important band, formed as early as 1933, featured some unusually good and even advanced arrangements written by two of his trumpeters, Eddie Sauter and Tutti Camarata. The third trumpeter was Chris Griffin, who a couple of years later became a mainstay of the Goodman section that also included Harry James and Ziggy Elman. For a singer, Barnet used, believe it or not, Harry Von Zell, later to become a famous radio announcer.
Barnet also sang, and sang well too. His voice was rather nasal, but he had a good beat and a good sense of phrasing, and in later years I often wondered why he didn't sing more. Of course he featured his tenor sax a great deal— an exciting, booting, extremely rhythmic horn. He could also play very soulfully too, as he proved on several Columbia sides he made in 1934 with an all-star group led by Red Norvo. Two of these, "I Surrender, Dear" and "The Night Is Blue," are highly recommended, not only for Norvo and Barnet, but also for three then-obscure recording musicians, clarinetist Artie Shaw (this was his first featured solo), pianist Teddy Wilson and trombonist Jack Jenney.
Barnet liked to surround himself with inspiring musicians. Many of them were black, and it could well have been because of his liberal attitude on the racial question (especially liberal for those days) that his band was not picked for any of the commercial radio series that featured the big name bands. He even had some troubles securing engagements in certain hotels because he clung so strongly to his principles.
Not that Barnet was entirely a do-gooder. He could get into trouble, some attributable to his zest for having a ball and presumably not worrying too much about the consequences, and some over which he had no control. For example, in 1939, just after his band had opened an extremely important engagement at the famed Palomar in Los Angeles, the ballroom burned to the ground. The band lost everything—its instruments, its music, even most of its uniforms. Barnet, though, took it in stride. "Hell, it's better than being in Poland with bombs dropping on your head!" he exclaimed. He also showed a kooky sense of humor by featuring on the band's first engagement after the fire two new swing originals titled "We're All Burnt Up" and "Are We Hurt." It's significant to note that Ellington as well as Benny Carter, then, as now, one of the world's most respected arrangers, upon hearing of Barnet's plight, shipped him batches of new scores.
Two years later, also out on the West Coast, the Barnet band was again hit when Bus Etri, its brilliant guitarist, and trumpeter Lloyd Hundling were killed in a car crash.
Although Charlie was doing fairly well in the mid-thirties, playing the 1936 summer season at the Glen Island Casino, where he introduced a new vocal group out of Buffalo, the Modernaires, and spotting such black jazz stars as John Kirby and Frankie Newton in 1937, it wasn't until 1939 that his band really caught fire—figuratively this time. This was the year in which it recorded the wild, romping version of Ray Noble's tune "Cherokee," which soon became the band's theme song. (Before then the group had used a lovely ballad, which probably everyone has since forgotten, called "I Lost Another Sweetheart.") It was also the year in which Billy May joined the band as trumpeter and, perhaps more importantly, as arranger.
The cherubic, humorous, wildly imaginative May and a more staid but equally effective writer named Skip Martin began to build a book for the Barnet band that gave it a recognizable style that it theretofore had never been able to achieve.
The band was really cooking. It made a slew of great sides for Bluebird, including "The Count's Idea," "The Duke's Idea," "The Right Idea," and "The Wrong Idea." The last, a takeoff on the day's mickey-mouse bands, was subtitled "Swing and Sweat with Charlie Barnet." Then there were "Pompton Turnpike," "Wings over Manhattan," "Southern Fried" and "Redskin Rumba," which was a follow-up to "Cherokee" and bore an expedient resemblance to it, since the latter was an ASCAP tune, and ASCAP tunes, because of the Society's war with the radio networks, were not permitted to I be played on the air.
Many of the sides featured vocals by Mary Ann McCall, a good, jazz-tinged I singer. Then early in 1941 Barnet took on a new vocalist, one who had I made some sides with Noble Sissle's band. Her name: Lena Home. She I recorded four tunes with the band, the most notable of which was "Good I for Nothin' Joe." Bob Carroll, the robust baritone who sang with Barnet at I the time, recalls the day Lena joined the band. "We were working at the I Windsor Theater in the Bronx, and something had happened to the girl we I were using. Somebody remembered this pretty girl who was working in a I movie house, and they sent for her. It was Lena. I remember she had long, I straggly hair, and her dress wasn't especially attractive. She ran down a few I tunes in the basement of the theater, and then, without any arrangements, I she did the next show—not only did it but stopped it cold. She was just great!" Charlie had a knack for finding fresh talent. By the following year he had I assembled a slew of outstanding young musicians: trumpeters Neal Hefti, Peanuts Holland and Al Killian, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and pianist Dodo Marmarosa, plus a new singer, Frances Wayne, who, like Hefti, was to become an important part of Woody Herman's most famous Herd several years later.
Other stars followed: singers Kay Starr, Fran Warren, Dave Lambert and Buddy Stewart, pianist-arranger Ralph Burns, trombonist Trummy Young, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and some years later trumpeters Clark Terry, Jimmy Nottingham and Doc Severinsen.
If you talk to almost any of these people, you'll find that they have pretty much the same remembrances about their Charlie Barnet days. "It was a ball," they'll say. "Charlie was a terrific leader to work for. He had great musical and personal integrity, and even though things got kind of wild sometimes and maybe even out of hand, it was a rewarding experience. Most of all you could say that things never got dull — never."
Eventually, Barnet gave up his big band. He settled down on the West Coast, headquartering in Palm Springs, and for years he led a sextet or septet, always finding enough work to keep him occupied. In the mid-sixties he headed a romping big band, organized especially for an exciting two-week stint at New York's Basin Street East. Financially he has never had any real worries. He has been able to do pretty much what he has wanted to do. He has owned his own homes and flown his own planes. And he has had at least ten wives and, one suspects, many attendant alimony payments.
Charlie Barnet, now in his sixties, has mellowed. But that great charm and vitality are still there. And so is his undying love of pulsating big band sounds that communicate with large audiences. "I still like to hear the beat," he said recently. "I don't like it when it's too abstract. To me, jazz should be exciting. Remember, there's a difference between 'exciting' and 'startling,' which is what some of the younger kids don't realize."
Charlie Barnet was one of the "younger kids" for a long time.”
By comparison, Gunther Schuller takes a more academic or scholarly approach in this quotation from his The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945.
“There are some interesting parallels between Artie Shaw's and Charlie Earner's lives and careers—apart from their multiple marriages (eleven(!) for Barnet, only eight for Shaw). They both formed numerous bands, although Barnet's were much more consistent stylistically than Shaw's. Both got the Wanderlust as young men, early on pursuing a musical life against family wishes: Barnet working on transatlantic oceanliners, playing his tenor sax; Shaw starting to play professionally at age fifteen and leaving home a year later to work in Cleveland, also playing tenor sax. Both men ended up freelancing in New York in the early thirties (and even played together on a Red Norvo date in 1934). Both left music temporarily early on: Shaw in 1934 to try farming in Pennsylvania, Barnet in 1936 to try an acting career in Hollywood (he actually appeared in two feature films).
There the parallels stop. For the two men had quite different orchestral conceptions — as we have seen, Shaw alone had several — and in their careers as bandleaders developed quite dissimilar styles. Moreover, whereas Shaw was a restlessly inveterate searcher for an individual identity, steadfastly opposed to modeling his band after other prevalent jazz modes, Barnet spent a good part of his career enthusiastically imitating and re-creating the music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. As a saxophonist, Barnet’s unabashedly overt models were Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges. Interestingly, Barnet managed consistently to keep these twin influences discrete, the one reserved for his tenor playing, the other for his alto and soprano saxophones. Moreover, Barnet regularly populated his orchestras with players who could accurately re-create various prominent solo styles, particularly those of leading black players. A case in point is trumpeter Robert Burnet, who was as adept in simulating Cootie Williams's plunger-and-growl style (or for that matter Rex Stewart or Roy Eldridge) as Barnet was in reproducing Hodges. The eclectically gifted Bill Miller, long-time pianist with Barnet, could re-create quite readily two so divergent piano styles as Duke Ellington's and Count Basie's.
To ensure stylistic authenticity in the orchestral and ensemble realm, Barnet either used scores he bought directly from Ellington (as well as from Benny Carter, the Henderson brothers, and Don Redman) or had transcribed by Andy Gibson, a talented black arranger, who had earned his trumpet-playing spurs with such bands as Zack Whyte, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, and Lucky Millinder and had actually done some arranging work for Ellington.
Barnet's very earliest bands had little identity of their own. They were essentially hotel-style bands (Barnet worked many of the top hotels in New York), venturing occasionally into a "hot," more jazz-oriented dance style. Curiously, some of the Benny Carter compositions/arrangements Barnet acquired—Nagasaki and On a Holiday (1935), for example—leaned very much in the direction of the Casa Loma band; or perhaps their vertical staccato-mannerisms were more a matter of Barnet's interpretation of Carter's scores.
When Barnet organized his second band, following his Hollywood acting interlude, an appreciable expansion of jazz spirit became noticeable in the band's repertory. It had progressed from such dubious jazz material as The Swing Waltz and Fra an Old Cowhand (in 1936) to such 1939 jump-swing pieces as Jump Session, Swing Street Strut, Midweek Function, and quite explicit Ellington evocations like Echoes of Harlem, Jubilesta, Merry-Go-Round, and Rockin in Rhythm.
And yet, if one can describe certain orchestras and musicians as "coming into their own" at a certain point (say, Ellington and Lunceford in the early-to-mid 1930s, or Woody Herman in 1945), it is impossible to do so in the case of Barnet, since what he and his band "came into" was not "their own" style but that of Ellington and Basie, alternatingly, and a wide assortment of other then-current fashions. Significantly, even these latter influences were in the main black. And even such breakthrough popular hits for Barnet as his famous Cherokee of 1939 owed more to black musical influences than to any of the leading white bands of the time, i.e. Goodman and Shaw.
And yet, while we may admire Barnet for his excellent taste in picking such superior models to emulate, and respect him for so genuinely wishing to bring an awareness of true jazz to his largely white audiences—Barnet had a strong following amongst blacks, and was the first white band to play the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, the musical mecca for all black musicians—when judged at the highest levels, his accomplishments constitute a kind of pyrrhic victory. For, ironically, Barnet—like Shaw—believed that he was avoiding the kind of excessive stylization with which he charged Goodman and Miller (also Shaw's favorite targets). Little did Barnet realize that he too had arrived at a definite stylization, only it wasn't a self-created one as in the case of Glenn Miller, but one borrowed from two other creators, Ellington and Basie.
In a sense the issue under discussion here is not so much one of style but of repertory: that is, is there, can there be, should there be such a thing as a jazz "repertory," much in the sense that there is a classical repertory (which now stretches from the twelfth century to the present)? My answer would be a resounding yes, as long as we recognize that certain types of jazz (totally, spontaneously improvised) or certain major jazz figures simply cannot be re-created— or should not be, because it would be pointless: a Louis Armstrong, a Tatum, a Parker. And we must differentiate here on the one hand between a specific, conscious re-creation/imitation for its own sake and, on the other hand, a deep, probably unavoidable influence of one artist upon another in the way that, say, Taft Jordan, Oscar Peterson, and Sonny Stitt relate to the three above-mentioned artists respectively. Predominantly orchestral or ensemble jazz, with or without intermittent "improvised" solos, lends itself very well to re-creation, to re-interpretation, through hands other than the original creator's. As for solos, it is a matter of two viable options: one, whether to re-create literally the originally improvised elements of a performance, or, two, to re-interpret them in an at least stylistically authentic and respectful manner. The choice would depend upon the nature of the original material and the abilities, both creative and recreative, of the reinterpreting musician. The range from slavish imitation to complete re-interpretation affords a wide latitude of interesting possibilities. Here judgment, taste, and sheer ability to accomplish whatever the task at hand, must be the final arbiter.
Charlie Barnet was undoubtedly the first well-known jazz figure consistently to perform other major jazz composers' repertories. And he did so not in the name of plagiarism or exploitation of others' materials for his own self-aggrandizement, but as a genuine tribute to their greater talent and an honest desire to make such repertory more widely known. Indeed, one could argue that Barnet suppressed his own individuality in order to serve the ''higher" cause of proselytizing the works of those he considered the real masters of his field.
It needs to be said, however, that at times Barnet's re-creations and borrowings fell short of their mark.”
My preference among all of Charlie’s recordings is The Capitol Big Band Sessions [Capitol 21258-2] and the insert notes to the CD version written by Loren Schoenberg underscore many of the reasons why the music on it is so high on my list of favorites.
“Charlie Barnet realized something early on in his career that he never lost sight of over the three decades years he led big bands, and that was to have fun. His joy in jazz rhythm in its various forms lies at the root of all the music heard in this collection. The chore of leading a big band, day in and day out, dealing with the various personalities both within and without, is enough to vaporize the pleasure quotient. Factor in Barnet's financial independence (his was the story of the rich kid who escapes the conventionality of his family, and revels in the company of jazz musicians and bohemians), and his dedication to the music becomes clearer.
The late 1940's was a truly crazy time for big-bandleaders in the United States. A decade earlier, they had been at the helm of the popular music industry. A song could be featured in the movies and/or on the radio, but until there was a big band recording of it, the financial potential remained unrealized. This drove the entire music world of composers, publishers, recording companies and the musicians who created the music. Even artists who managed to stay relatively pure, such as Charlie Barnet's inspiration Duke Ellington, did so through the income generated by their hits (in Ellington's case, Mood Indigo, Solitude and the rest). Vocalists had taken over the spotlight, and now it was the imprimatur of a Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Billy Eckstine, or Nat "King" Cole that determined which way the Billboard charts
And if that wasn't enough, there was the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker that had affected the first sea-change in the jazz vocabulary since the advent of Lester Young. Every jazz band had to find a way to deal with their contributions, and Charlie Barnet's have stood the test of time quite sturdily. Unlike many of his peers, Barnet was not only not scared of the younger generation of players, he welcomed them. He had hired the nascent avant-gardists Oscar Pettiford, Howard McGhee and Dodo Marmarosa in the early 40's, and featured the most racially integrated of all the top bands. After the war, Barnet, confident in his own musicality, stayed away from trying to play "bop" saxophone for the most part (though a few awkward attempts are included herein) and let those who lived it play it.
This edition of the Barnet band lasted less than a year, but its reputation far outstrips its brief life. Among the bands that bit the dust in late 1948 was Stan Kenton's, and Capitol Records, anxious to not lose the lead in the "progressive jazz" field, encouraged Barnet to take up the slack. Staying true to his roots in swing, Barnet hired arrangers who could write modern while retaining the essence of the dance and of the grace that characterized the Swing Era. They were Manny Albam, Gil Fuller and Pete Rugolo, all of whom had already distinguished themselves with a wide variety of bands. The first selection, REDSKIN RHUMBA was recorded in mid-1948, as Barnet was heading towards his "bop" band (note Bud Shank on tenor). It was fashioned out of a head arrangement by Andy Gibson, a long-time Barnet cohort who was one of the most creative and original voices of the late 30's and early 40's, yet whose name is unjustly forgotten today. There are also arrangements by saxophonist Dave Matthews (the rather over-ripe Ellington Portrait is his-he seems to have thrown away the wheat and saved the chaff); Paul Villepigue and Johnny Richards, who bring the band perilously close to Kentoniana and Hollywood, a tendency Kenton's own Pete Rugolo avoided in his work for Barnet; and one masterpiece by the drummer Norman "Tiny" Kahn, known for his tremendous girth, the elegance of his touch and his Mother Earth swing.
The personnel is relatively stable, which accounts for the high level of ensemble precision and coherence. The trumpet section boasted three of the all-time powerhouse lead men in Doc Severinsen (who also gets several solo spots) , Ray Wetzel and Maynard Ferguson and the tasteful solos of the Swede, Rolf Ericson. Barnet had some marvelous trombone players in the band, and you can hear a chase chorus between Dick Kenney, Harry Betts, and Herbie Harper on REALLY?. Alto saxophone solos were by Vinnie Dean (later with Kenton) and the cool tenor heard several times is decidedly not the leader but Dick Hafer (later with Goodman
and Charles Mingus). Indeed, it seems that the second take of CHARLIE'S OTHER AUNT was made for no other reason than to replace Barnet's bodacious solo with one by the more reflective Hafer. The shank of the baritone work is covered by the amazing Danny Bank, who colors any ensemble he plays in (hear his rare solo on CU-BA.). The rhythm section was similarly first-rate with Claude Williamson and the virtuoso Eddie Safranski holding the piano and bass chairs respectively. A big band is only as good as its drummer and Barnet had two true masters in Kahn or Cliff Leeman, already a veteran by this time and another unsung individualist of the drums.
The last four tracks were recorded a year after the "bop" band broke up. Barnet himself is highly featured , as are a string section and a radically different aesthetic, but as usual, Barnet had constructed another top-flight band (this one including the young Bill Holman). Though his full-time bandleading days were drawing to a close, Charlie Barnet kept a foot in the big band business through 1967, and maintained something very rare-a sterling reputation amongst both his sidemen and the public. As Buddy DeFranco, an alumnae of the 1943 Barnet band told Ira Gitler:"...(Charlie) had a feeling on the instrument, and he had a feeling in his heart, and he had a happy thing about everything in the band." Who could ask for anything more?
The following video features Charlie Barnet Big Band’s performance of a Bill Holman arranged of Bobby Troup’s Lemon Twist from a May, 1958 Stars of Jazz TV program that was hosted by Troup.