Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Bob Crosby, His Orchestra and The Bobcats

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

The big band era largely blossomed during the decade of the 1930’s bringing the Swing Era into existence.

The circumstances of the World War II [1939-1945], including the recruitment into the armed forces of many of the musicians who played in them, essentially ended the era of big bands. The economics of the postwar era also had a great deal to do with their demise.

But those who experienced the heyday of the big bands, never forgot the pleasure they derived from listening and dancing to them.

Everyone had their favorites: Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Harry James. Some fans were such avid followers that they even knew the names of who held down the 3rd trumpet chair in their favorite band.

Every so often, a big band would come along that wasn’t a huge commercial success, but one that nevertheless developed a close following for the quality of its music.

Such was the case with Bob Crosby’s Orchestra and the small band embedded in it which he called – The Bobcats.

My Dad was one such Bob Crosby fan and when I discovered his stash of Decca 78 rpm’s of the band and asked him about them, he simply said: “You’ll like listening to them; they were The-Best-of-The-Best!”

Richard Sudhalter offers some reflections on why the Bob Crosby aggregations were thought of so highly in the following excerpts from his seminal Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945 [New York: Oxford, 2000, pp. 382-384, excerpted].

“Above all," [bassist] Bob Haggart recalled, "we were like a family. We worked together, socialized together. Thought musically together. Most other bands—well, to tell the truth, we didn't pay much attention to what everybody else was doing. To us most of the time, they just sounded as if they were trying to steal from one another."

Meet that wonder of the musical 1930s, the Bob Crosby Orchestra. In the whole colorful decade there wasn't another band like it, and in certain ways there may not have been another nearly so good.

For chronicler George T. Simon, they were an ensemble "with tremendous spirit, one filled with men who believed thoroughly in the kind of music they were playing and, what's more, who respected and admired one another as mu­sicians and as people."

Few bands, however brilliant, approached that degree of unanimity with any consistency. It extends beyond mere skill, beyond originality—even beyond a leader or arranger's inspired vision. Neither Benny Goodman's virtuosity nor the faultless precision of his orchestras ever quite transformed their efforts into the expression of a single collective will. Artie Shaw came closer, his various bands driven by the strength and singularity of his vision: but Shaw's musicians re­mained his employees. Much the same could be said even for Red Norvo's ex­traordinary 1937 band, breathing, whispering, exulting as extensions of both its leader's xylophone sound and Eddie Sauter's ensemble concept.

The Crosby orchestra had an extra dimension. It lives in such words as "en­semble," when describing tightly knit group acting, or "team," in the finest athletic sense; the idea of a collective entity, each component interacting con­stantly and creatively with the others to shape, to determine the whole. Gestalt, a single consciousness compounded of many.

In that rarified context only the Duke Ellington Orchestra comes to mind as in any way comparable. But an Ellington orchestra, any Ellington orchestra, as­sumed its finished shape through the leader's (and often Billy Strayhorn's) cod­ification of an ongoing fusion and fission among its individual members. The Crosby orchestra, by contrast, began with unanimous, shared dedication to a single stylistic ideal. Its name, most often popularly (and imperfectly) identified, I was "dixieland." But the word fails to describe either a stylistic predisposition or a rhythmic foundation, not to mention a wide palette of orchestral color and texture.

Better by far, and more accurate, to remember that the band led by Bing Crosby's younger brother was built around a core of New Orleans musicians, whose shared background and affinity determined its musical direction.

Historically, New Orleans jazzmen away from home shared a bond, a ca­maraderie, that seemed to transcend class, education, politics, even race. Meeting in New YorkChicago, or Los Angeles, they were often simply homeboys together, carrying their environment with them in a way that seemed to render differences among them irrelevant, or at least secondary. It may be that way with musicians from St. LouisBoston, or San Antonio, but not to that degree; and on the evidence it's anything but that with New Yorkers. …

Whatever it was, and by whatever name its music was known, the band had sparkle, spontaneity, and lift and left a legacy of distinctive records, which have easily withstood the shifting winds of musical fashion.”

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