Sunday, October 30, 2016

Harry James - Cornet Chop Suey and Jazz Connoisseur Part 4

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

"Harry James was a genius. He could read all of the highly syncopated charts at sight, and he played fantastic jazz solos—different every time. ... He was also a good conductor and a fine arranger."
- Arthur Rollini, member of the reed section of the 1937-38 Benny Goodman Orchestra

“By January 1937, then, through the almost random process of comings and goings and casually hired replacements and all the other accidents of circumstance that commonly determined the course of a big band's personnel, the Benny Goodman trumpet section finally completed its evolution and had formed itself into the classic triumvirate of Harry James, Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin.

This powerhouse trio, as it came to be called, played with a precision and drive and spirit-rousing joyfulness that added even more excitement to the band's performances, and it was the perfect vehicle for executing the Jimmy Mundy killer-dillers that Benny was now favoring. For Hammond, who much preferred Fletcher Henderson's more subtle and relaxed approach to orchestration, "the loud, meaningless 'killer' arrangements which Benny instructs Jimmy Mundy to pound out in mass production each week are definitely detracting from the musicianship of the orchestra." But even he had to admit "there has never been a better trumpet section except in one of Fletcher Henderson's old bands."

This was not an uncommon opinion. Glenn Miller, for one, considered it "the Marvel of the Age." "The best compliment we ever got," Chris Griffin remembers, "is when Duke Ellington once said we were the greatest trumpet section that ever was, as far as his liking." In most trumpet sections one man played lead and the others held down the less demanding second and third trumpet chairs….

In the Goodman band, though, the lead was alternated among all three players. "They switched the parts around because there were so many high notes for the trumpets they'd wear one guy out," Jess Stacy explains. "They had to switch the parts. If they hadn't, one guy would have died."
- Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life & Times of Benny Goodman

''His solo work poured out of his horn with a sense of inevitability that no other trumpeter could equal with such consistency."
- Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles, continues its in-depth look at the career of trumpeter and band leader, Harry James with a reprinting of the following inserts notes that Jazz musician, bandleader, author and editor Bill Kirchner penned for Verve Jazz Masters 55: Harry James [314 529 902-2]. The CD provides a wonderful retrospective of the music produced by the bands that Harry led in the 1950's and 1960's.

Still to come in future postings about Harry are Gunther Schuller’s take on him in The Swing Era and a synopsis of the salient aspects of his career as drawn from Peter Levinson’s Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James.

“If a poll were taken to pick the most famous trumpeters in the history of twentieth-century music, chances are that Louis Armstrong and Harry James would top most lists. Armstrong, of course, also has a most secure place in the jazz pantheon, but James does not, due to the "burden" of having achieved enormous commercial success early in his career. It's ironic that while few judge Armstrong's achievements on the basis of such hits as Hello, Dolly, James is still viewed in many quarters mainly as an early-Forties purveyor of schmaltzy ballads such as You Made Me Love You and such virtuoso pop-classical fare as Flight of the Bumble Bee.

To be sure, there was a strong element of commercialism in James's musical persona, but. there was an intense jazz side as well. His playing gave witness to the varied influences of his favorite trumpeters: Armstrong, Muggsy Spanier, Bunny Berigan, Buck Clayton., and Clifford Brown. There have been few trumpeters in jazz history who could sound equally convincing on Armstrong's Cornet Chop Suey and the challenging bebop harmonies of Ernie Wilkins's Jazz Connoisseur.  James pulled it all off effortlessly, while leaving no doubt who was playing. (''His solo work", observed composer, conductor, and historian Gunther Schuller in The Swing Era: "poured out of his horn ... with a sense of inevitability that no other trumpeter could equal with such consistency.") Combine these elements with an eloquent jazz ballad style - there are several examples in this collection -  a passion for the blues, and breathtaking execution, and you have a unique, and great, jazz musician.

Born in 1916 in Albany, Georgia, Harry Hagg James was the son of a circus bandleader and he spent much of his childhood in this unusual musical environment, (His adult fondness for such showpieces as Carnival of Venice no doubt stemmed from early exposure to brass band music.) He began playing drums at age seven and three years later commenced trumpet lessons with his father. The boy evidently learned quickly: While in his teens, he played in succession of bands in Texas, where his family had settled, and by the time he was nineteen had graduated to the national with the Ben Pollack band. His popularity, however, was established with his 1937- 38 stint in the most renowned of Benny Goodman's Orchestras, enabling him to go on his own and become one of the most successful bandleaders of the Swing Era — before reaching the age of thirty.

With the unofficial demise of the Swing Era at the end of 1946, James disbanded his orchestra, as did a number of other bandleaders, but he formed a new band soon afterward and led it intermittently throughout the next decade. In the late Fifties he began what was arguably the most artistically fruitful period of his career: During this time, he acquired a base at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, where his band played for several months of each year when not touring. James also commissioned a slew of charts from first-rate composer-arrangers: Ralph Burns, Bob Florence, Neal Hefti, Thad Jones and, most of all, Ernie Wilkins. The last three, not coincidentally, had written extensively for Count Basie, whose band James admired and, to some extent, imitated in approach.

(The two Burns compositions, released here for the first time, are from a November 1961 session in which James recorded eight Burns originals. Hommage a Swee Pea is a tribute to Burns's friend Billy Strayhorn, the longtime Duke Ellington collaborator and compositional alter ego. Rosebud was a nickname for a well-known groupie.)

But the James band was more than just a Basie copy — its leader was too strong a musical personality to settle for that. His own playing continued to grow in scope — including an assimilation of Clifford Brown's music — and in the series of nine albums recorded for MGM between January 1959 and March '64, he demonstrated his artistry in a variety of settings. There was a Bob Crosby-like album of big band Dixieland as well as a mainstream small-group date, updated orchestrations of Swing Era fare, and challenging postbop vehicles (The Jazz Connoisseur, its sequel A Swinging Serenade, and Walkin'). As a soloist, James was at his peak, and his former sidemen remember his musicianship with awe. "On a scale of one to ten," recalls lead trumpeter Rob Turk, "Harry was a fifty."

"He was the greatest musician I ever played with," tenor saxophonist Jay Corre says. Both Corre and bassist Red Kelly mention that James had what must have been a photographic memory (and a phonographic ear). He not only had his own parts memorized but those of every band member as well. If a player was absent, James would play the missing part on trumpet. And Ray Sims played an occasional game with the leader: Sims would pull out any chart and display a random two measures of his second trombone — even from an arrangement that the band had not played in years — and James would invariably identify the piece correctly.

If James was a prodigious musician, his band was more than capable of supporting him. The James band heard on these sixteen tracks was one of the finest jazz orchestras of its era. Its most celebrated members were drumming phenomenon Buddy Rich (in residence from 1962 to '66), the great lead alto saxophonist Willie Smith (a longtime James sideman who originally had achieved fame with Jimmie Lunceford), and tenor saxophonist Corky Corcoran — but there were other notable soloists, including tenor saxophonists Corre and Sam Firmature, trombonist Sims (older brother of Zoot), and pianist Jack Perciful.

Harry James continued to play magnificently and lead his orchestra until his death in 1983. The music contained in this collection, all recorded during what was arguably his most creative period, makes a strong case for a reevaluation of his place both in jazz history and in the jazz pantheon. In a musical tradition that celebrates individuality, he was truly one of a kind.”

-Bill Kirchner, November 1995

The following video features Harry on Ernie Wilkins’s Jazz Connoisseur.

Saturday, October 29, 2016


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

Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend to these pages in his allowance of JazzProfiles republishings of his excellent writings. He is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horrick’s book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.

The following article was first published in Jazz Journal, October 2010.
For more information and subscriptions please visit
“The baritone saxophone was once dismissed by a writer in Downbeat magazine as nothing more than a ‘Bottom-Heavy Monster’ but it was Harry Carney’s huge, indomitable sound and concept on the instrument that became one of the defining qualities of probably the greatest jazz ensemble ever – the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Leo Parker, Cecil Payne, Serge Chaloff and Pepper Adams showed how well it could adapt to the harmonic intricacies of bebop and Gerry Mulligan’s melodic creativity was uninhibited by what many considered to be no more than a section horn. Nick Brignola, Ronnie Cuber, Lars Gullin, Bob Gordon, Ronnie Ross and John Surman are just a few who have added to the lore as has Grammy award winner Gary Smulyan. Unlike a lot of contemporary players Gary’s baritone does not extend to a low A (C concert) which prompted my first question when we met on his visit to the UK in March 2010.

“I much prefer a conventional Bb baritone because a low A weakens the power of the lower register, whereas the Bb horn has a much more open and singing quality down there.” (Alex Stewart’s highly informative book on New York big bands – ‘Making The Scene’ – says there is yet another price to be paid for a low A. Many musicians insist that it does not blend so well with the other saxophones in the section because the extra length on the instrumental bell alters the entire overtone series. Danny Bank** who might just be the most recorded baritone player in history has also highlighted intonation problems at the top of the horn – GJ.) “ Danny is a Master and if he says that I’ll go along with it too but don’t forget Nick Brignola played one as does Ronnie Cuber and they both sound amazing.

“I was born in Bethpage, New York in 1956 and started playing alto when I was eight but by the time I was 13 I was fooling around on the bass-guitar. Rock’n’Roll was the big thing for kids back then and I got together with a couple of friends because we really liked Eric Clapton’s ‘Cream’ – the group he had with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. We rehearsed in a garage and did one gig at a high-school prom but we weren’t very successful.

“I wasn’t aware of jazz at all but one night I was twiddling a radio dial and found Ed Beach’s famous ‘Just Jazz’ show on WRVR. He played Fats Waller’s African Ripples and that was a defining moment in my life in terms of changing direction. I started hanging out at Sonny’s Place in Long Island which was one of the clubs everyone from New York used to play. Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz and Ray Nance all played there – the list goes on and on. Throughout high-school I was really getting into the music, playing at Sonny’s three or four nights a week and sitting in with
some of those guys. This was before I had a driving licence so my parents used to drop me off at the club at nine and pick me up at 1:30 in the morning.

“One night Bob Mover was there with Chet Baker. I was about 16 and although we didn’t know each other, I started talking to Bob during an intermission. I told him I played alto and asked if I could sit in. He went over to the juke-box and put on Bird’s record of Just Friends telling me to sing along with Charlie Parker’s solo. I passed the test because I sang it from the beginning to the end and that was my audition to sit-in with Chet who was very nice to me incidentally. We played a couple of numbers and Bob and I became good friends from that day forward.

“My influences then were Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Phil Woods and Gene Quill. I also liked Frank Strozier a lot who was one of the true giants of the alto saxophone with a mature and original sense of harmony that was very advanced.

“The first well known band I played with was Woody Herman’s thanks to a recommendation from my friend Glenn Drewes who was playing trumpet with the band. I was 22 and I got a call from Bill Byrne the road-manager asking if I wanted to replace Bruce Johnstone who was leaving. He is a New Zealender and an unsung giant of the instrument – I wish more people knew about him because Bruce is truly amazing.” (One of his very best solos on record can be found on a 1973 recording of Macarthur Park with Maynard Ferguson’s big band on Vocalion SML 8429 - GJ). “I’d never played a baritone before but I jumped at the chance to play with Herman. I went out and bought a Yamaha and joined them two weeks later in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I was told that Woody’s pet peeve was alto players who doubled on baritone – he really hated that. He wanted guys who specialised on the instrument where the baritone was their ‘voice’. Every day I was convinced that he was going to say, ‘You know kid, nice try – we’ll see you later’ but he never did.

“Woody was one of the best band-leaders I ever worked for because he led the band without seeming to. He never told anybody what to do, it was all very subtle and I was thrilled to share the stage with him. I loved the three tenors and baritone voicing and it was an honour and a privilege to play some of the same parts Serge Chaloff had played. Four Brothers was still in Jimmy Giuffre’s handwriting and the saxes used to perform it out front of the band every night.” (Gene Allen who played with the band in the early sixties told me in a 2000 interview that he liked the concept of a tenor lead. However he preferred a conventional sax section of two altos, two tenors and a baritone because it gave the writers more flexibility and tone colours – GJ.)

“The band played all kinds of dates including Elks clubs and the American Legion. One night we might be in Carnegie Hall the next some dance out in the mid-west. That was what was so valuable because you had to play all kinds of music which wasn’t always satisfying but it was a gig. Woody had been doing that kind of thing all through his career.” (There is a photo in William Clancy’s fascinating book ‘Chronicles Of The Herds’ showing Gary with the band at Disneyland, California in August 1979 – GJ.)

“In 1979 we played the Monterey Jazz Festival with Dizzy Gillespie, Slide Hampton and Stan Getz as guests. I remember Stan played What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life? which luckily was recorded because it was absolutely stunning. One of my favourite records is ‘Focus’ which is one of the pivotal jazz records of all time. The way Stan reacted to Eddie Sauter’s great string writing was brilliant and Roy Haynes sounds just great on that album too.

“I stayed with Woody for two years. During that time I decided to say goodbye to my alto because I discovered I really was a baritone player and just before I left the band I switched from a Yamaha to a Conn.

“I moved to New York in 1980 and started subbing at the Village Vanguard with Mel Lewis which is how everyone gets into the band – you see if the chemistry works and how things fit. Gary Pribek who had been with Buddy Rich was on baritone but he wanted to move over to tenor. Eventually the tenor chair opened up allowing him to make the switch which is when they offered the baritone chair to me and I’m still there – I’m probably due for a gold watch. Bob Brookmeyer was the musical director and I think his writing was going in a different direction to where the band was at that time but we learnt so much under his direction and tutelage. It was an incredibly beneficial experience for all of us to work with him.” (Talking about that period Bob Brookmeyer told me back in 1995, ‘I was becoming very experimental and giving them music that was not suitable for them so by 1982 I had written myself out of Mel’s band – GJ.)

“I played Monday nights at the Vanguard but the early eighties was a slow time for extra gigs. I was doing a lot of commercial work like weddings, bar-mitzvahs and other dance band stuff but it was really unsatisfying music. I’d always enjoyed cooking and as there was so little happening for me musically that was artistically satisfying I decided to get away from music for a while and do something else that was creative. I did an eight-month intensive culinary course at the New York Restaurant School and then worked for a year and a half at a French restaurant in Pearl River, New York doing twelve hour shifts.” (In 1991 Gary told writer Arnold Jay Smith, ‘After that, four-hour weddings and bar-mitzvahs looked pretty good!’ – GJ).

“I realised that I had been trying to run away from music which was my one true calling. I started putting more into playing and taking my career seriously which is when things started happening. I was free-lancing all over town playing with a whole host of people thanks to rediscovering a sense of commitment as a musician after spending so many hours on my feet in a hot kitchen.” (The Lee Konitz nonet, the George Coleman octet, the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin big band, Tito Puente, Lionel Hampton, the Carnegie Hall Jazz  Band, the Smithsonian Masterworks Orchestra and the Tom Harrell octet are just a few of the many notable New York ensembles Gary performed with from the mid eighties – GJ.)

“I had the good fortune to be part of the Philip Morris Superband led by Gene Harris which did three world-tours with B.B.King and Ray Charles as guests. One of the  concerts was recorded at the Town Hall in NYC in 1989 and I had a stop-time chorus on Ol’ Man River arranged by Torrie Zito which was pretty well received on the night.” (Gary is being really modest here because the sleeve note refers to this solo as ‘One of the evening’s highlights…that rendered even the normally talkative leader Gene Harris almost at a loss for words.’ From the audience reaction on the CD it sounds as though he received a well deserved standing ovation – GJ). “That same year I had the great pleasure of performing in Charles Mingus’ magnum opus Epitaph conducted by Gunther Schuller at Avery Fisher Hall.

“When Gerry Mulligan passed away Ronnie Cuber, Nick Brignola and I did some concerts together as a tribute which was followed by an album of Gerry’s music together with some other material associated with him. He wasn’t a direct influence but anyone who has played the baritone is going to be influenced in some way by Mulligan even if it’s through the back door. I mean, I owned all his records and I loved the CJB. I recognised his genius and brilliance but I was more attracted to a hard-bop style of playing so stylistically I gravitated more to Pepper Adams. Gerry came out of Pres really. You can hear it in his time-feel whereas Pepper was from the post-bop era – a much more aggressive style of playing which is my approach but I still listen to Lester Young and Gerry too.

“Pepper Adams (along with Charlie Parker) is my main influence because his playing has all the characteristics a great improviser requires – an original and personal sound, a well developed harmonic conception, a keen wit and a ferocious sense of swing. For me he was the most important post-bop baritone player and his influence is still felt today. I must mention Harry Carney whose sound and approach paved the way for everyone who played the instrument and who followed in his footsteps. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s beautiful writing showcased the baritone because Harry was featured so prominently.

“John Surman is someone else I really admire. About five years ago he played a solo concert in a small theatre at the Montreal Jazz Festival. During the evening he’d been playing electronics, soprano sax and bass clarinet and for an encore he played ‘Round Midnight on the baritone. He used all Monk’s changes and it was one of the most stunning versions of Monk’s classic I’ve ever heard – I can still hear it because John is amazing.

“Getting back to the ‘Three Baritone Band’ we still work occasionally and a whole bunch of people have come through since Nick Brignola died, like Charles Davis, Howard Johnson and the brilliant Scott Robinson.” (An excellent example of multi-instrumentalist Robinson’s stunning work on baritone can be found on Bob Brookmeyer’s 1997 ‘Celebration’ CD – Challenge Records CHR 70066. Bob said at the time, ‘He did an absolutely amazing job sounding to me like Mulligan - if Gerry had been born 30 years later - plus all the personal history Scott brings’ – GJ).

“I’ve made two CDs with Mark Masters that I’m really pleased with beginning with a release featuring Clifford Brown material.” (Jack Montrose, who arranged a famous 1954 album for the trumpeter which included Zoot Sims and Bob Gordon, is present in the sax section. He also arranged three titles for the Masters session – GJ).

“The other one that might be a surprise is dedicated to Frankie Laine because I’m a huge fan. He had a real blues sensibility in his approach and he was incredibly soulful. He was also a skilful composer and lyricist helping to create a wonderful body of tunes that are both beautiful and harmonically interesting from a jazz musician’s point of view. Unlike a lot of pop singers from that era he collaborated with some of the really great songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael, Matt Dennis, Billy Strayhorn and Mel Torme.” (Probably the two finest examples of Frankie Laine’s work as a lyricist are We’ll Be Together Again with Carl Fischer and What Am I Here For with Duke Ellington. In 1996 the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame honoured him with its Lifetime Achievement Award – GJ).

“Unfortunately he’s best remembered for country & western schlock like Rawhide but in my opinion he was a truly great jazz singer as he demonstrated on a 1955 album with Buck Clayton, J.J.Johnson, Kai Winding and Budd Johnson.

“On the subject of recordings ‘Hidden Treasures’ with Christian McBride and Billy Drummond featured the line-up that I really like to work with – baritone, bass and drums only. Although the bass develops the harmonic line, I am free to create within that structure without having a piano or guitar leading me in the direction they want. Without those constraints I can take the music where I want to take it.” (‘More Treasures’ where pianist Mike LeDonne drops out for four titles has a similar line-up – GJ).   

“I feel honoured and privileged to have shared the bandstand over the years with so many of my musical heroes. Through all of those experiences I’ve had some great times both on and off the stand and I feel I have really grown as a musician.”

** Danny Bank died three months after this interview on June 5th. 2010.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Harry James - Cornet Chop Suey and Jazz Connoisseur - Part 3

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

The following posting continues and concludes the George T. Simon portion of our planned, extended profiles on Harry James as drawn from the 4th edition of his pioneering work on The Big Bands.

“The new formula of Harry's schmaltzy horn and Helen's emotional voice, with swing numbers interspersed, was certainly beginning to pay off. In the spring of 1942 the band broke records on two coasts—at the Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and at the Palladium in Hollywood, where it drew thirty-five thousand customers in one week and eight thousand of them in a single evening!

To those of us who had been enraptured by the band's tremendous free-swinging drive, the change in musical emphasis was disappointing. In a review of a radio program during its record-breaking Palladium stay, I concluded, after deploring the band's muddy-sounding rhythmic approach, that "it would be a shame to discover that the Harry James band had really lost that thrilling drive that sparked its performances for such a long time."

But the band just kept going on to bigger and bigger things. In the summer of 1942 it won Martin Block's "Make Believe Ballroom" poll, unseating what most people considered the number-one band in the country, Glenn Miller's. And then, when shortly thereafter, Glenn enlisted in the Army Air Force, his sponsor, Chesterfield cigarettes, selected James to replace him. By then, the band was appearing on commercial radio five nights a week— three times for Chesterfield, once for Coca-Cola and once again for Jello as part of "The Jack Benny Show" emanating from New York.

While in the East the band again played the Meadowbrook. And it also repaid a debt to Maria Kramer, owner of the Lincoln Hotel, where it had spent so many of its earlier nights, by playing the spot at quite a loss in income.

But it left the engagement early when it was summoned to Hollywood to appear in the movie version of Best Foot Forward.

Barry Ulanov, who preferred jazz to schmaltz, summed up the reason for the James success in a December, 1942, Metronome review that began:

Rarely has the public's faith in a band been so generously rewarded as it has in the organization headed by Harry James. Of the number one favorites of recent years, Harry's gives its fans the most for its money. . . . His taste is the public's taste, and his pulse runs wonderfully right along with that of the man in the street and the woman on the dance floor. . . .

Whether or not you agree with or accept Harry James' taste doesn't matter in appraising this band. It's not the band of tomorrow. It's not an experimental outfit. It's not even the brilliant jazz crew that Harry fronted a couple of years ago. It's just a fine all-around outfit that reflects dance music of today perfectly.

One further indication of the band's commercial success: the day it was to open a twelve-thousand-five-hundred-dollar-a-week engagement at New York's Paramount Theater was a nasty, rainy one. The doors were to open at a quarter to ten. At five in the morning the lines began forming, and if a batch of extra police hadn't arrived, there could have been a riot.

And still another sign: Columbia Records announced in June, 1942, that it was running into a shellac famine because of James. That band's version of "I've Heard That Song Before" had become the company's all-time biggest seller at 1,250,000 copies! "Velvet Moon" and "You Made Me Love You" had passed the one million mark. And "All or Nothing at All" and "Flash," the former featuring Sinatra, the latter a James original, a coupling that had sold 16,000 copies when it had been released three years earlier, had been reissued and had sold 975,000 copies to date!

Meanwhile the band was signed to appear in two more movies, Mr. Co-Ed with Red Skelton and A Tale of Two Sisters, as Harry kept growing closer and closer to the movie scene, and particularly to one of its most glamorous stars. She was Betty Grable, who occupied a table every night at the Astor Roof when the band appeared there in the spring of 1943.

During that engagement it became increasingly obvious that Harry was far more interested in pleasing his public, and in Miss Grable, then he was in playing any more outstanding jazz. The band performed its ballads as well as usual, but the men seemed to be blowing listlessly. "The stuff instead of sounding solid, sounds stolid, on the pompous side," I noted in my July, 1943, review. "You get the feeling that the men are plodding through the notes. . . . I don't know whether it's because they are living too well, or because they just aren't capable of playing more rhythmically. . . ."

Perhaps my thoughts were going back too much to those early days when the band had such tremendous spirit, when it was filled with laughs and good humor and ambition and a healthy desire to play and swing and succeed. Now success had come, but the inspiration seemed to have disappeared.

Harry, himself, seemed far less interested in his music. Of course, with someone like Betty Grable around, most of us could hardly blame him.

But Harry had worries, too. The armed services were taking some of his best men. And, what's more, they were constantly beckoning in his direction too.

On July 5 in Las Vegas, Nevada, Harry James married Betty Grable. One month later his draft board classified him 4-F.

But his draft problems were by no means over. Rumors kept persisting that he would be reclassified I-A. On February 11, 1944, he took his pre-induction physical. Then Harry put his entire band on notice with an invitation "to stick around and see what happens." There really wasn't much to stick around for because his radio series sponsor announced that the band would be dropped from the program in March.

And then it happened: at the very last minute, James was re-classified 4-F because of an old back injury. Quickly he called together some of his old men. He had been featuring Buddy DiVito and Helen Ward (Helen Forrest had begun her career as a single late in 1943) as his singers, but the latter was replaced by Kitty Kallen when the band returned to the Astor Roof on May 22. Juan Tizol, meanwhile, had come over from Duke Ellington's band to fill a James trombone chair.

The band's success continued. After its Astor engagement, where an improved rhythm section was noted, it went on a record-breaking tour, highlighted by a sixty thousand throng at the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio, and terminating in California, where it began another healthy schedule on Coca-Cola's Spotlight Band radio series, and where Harry broke something other than a record — his leg. How? Playing baseball, of course.

The James band had not made any good new recordings for more than two years; the AFM ban saw to that. Finally, on November 11, 1944, the companies and Petrillo ended their war. Immediately James went into Columbia's New York studio to record four sides, including a fine version of "I'm Beginning to See the Light," featuring his pretty, new vocalist, Kitty Kallen, plus his first jazz combo opus in many a year, "I'm Confessing" which spotted the great Willie Smith, Jimmie Lunceford's former alto saxist, who had just joined the band, and a brilliant pianist named Arnold Ross.

When the band returned East to play at Meadowbrook, Barry Ulanov noted a stronger emphasis on jazz, praising James for playing swinging things instead of merely playing it safe. "He has taken advantage of his unassailable commercial position to play good music, to diminish the amount of tremulous trash which formed the bulk of his sets when he was coming up. Now, if he will just drop those meaningless strings. . . ."

But Harry wasn't listening. He increased his string section to two full dozen. "With a section as big as that," I wrote in July, 1945, "somebody ought to be able to produce impressive sounds." But nobody did.

The more I saw Harry in those days, the more I realized he had become less and less interested in his music. He had broadened his career as an entertainer when in January, 1945, he had been signed for the Danny Kaye radio series, where, in addition to leading and blowing his horn, he also acted as a stooge and a comedian of sorts. And he seemed to like his new roles — perhaps even more than his music.

He developed other consuming interests. With his wife, he devoted a great deal of his time to horseracing, running his own nags and spending much time at the tracks. He became so successful that he could choose the spots he wanted to play with his band, and, if he felt like concentrating on affairs apart from music, he'd do so.

But in 1946 the bottom began to fall slowly out of the band business. The big-paying steady dates were disappearing. James, who had refused to play one-nighters for almost two years, ostensibly because he wanted to remain where the action was, announced in February that he would again tour with his band.

His financial overhead was high. But Harry was not drawing his usual big crowds. It must have been a big blow to him and his pride. In December, 1946, just ten years after he had joined Benny Goodman's band, Harry James announced that he was giving up. Ironically, Goodman made a similar announcement that very month.

But then something — nobody knows just what — changed Harry's mind. A few months later, he was back again with a brand new, streamlined band. It jumped. He jumped. And there were just four fiddles, and they had very little to do.

How come the sudden change? A healthy and happy-looking Harry James talked about it in the summer of 1947: "First of all, I've settled a few problems in my mind, problems nobody ever knew I had and which I didn't bother telling anyone about. But when you're worried and upset, you don't feel like playing and you certainly can't relax enough to play anything like good jazz."

It was like the old days in more ways than one. James cut his price in half; he played one-nighters everywhere and on every one of them he blew his brilliant jazz, just the way he had when he first started his band.

And then there was the new group's contagious enthusiasm. "The most important thing that makes me want to play," he said, "is this new band of mine. You know what I've had in the past. Well, now I've got me a bunch of kids and their spirit kills me. They're up on the bandstand wanting to play all the time, so how can I possibly not feel like blowing! I haven't had a bunch like this since my first band."

Harry made that statement thirty years ago. And, with just a few short time-outs, he has been leading a group ever since, at times only a small one, but most of the time a big, swinging band with a booting brass section and a swinging sax section and rhythm quartet to match — and with no strings attached!

It has played mostly in Nevada—forty weeks out of each year, to be precise. In 1966 he brought his band back to New York for a few weeks, and a wonderfully swinging outfit it was, too, with some youngsters, and some veterans like Corky Corcoran and Louis Bellson, who had just replaced Buddy Rich on drums. And there were some of the old arrangements and there were some new swinging ones.

But most of all, there was Harry James, happy, effervescent, boasting without reservations that "this is the best band I've ever had in my life! These young musicians, they're getting so much better training and they can do so
much more!"

It was the Harry James of old, enthusiastic about his music, anxious to please and to be appreciated. He looked about thirty pounds heavier, with a few gray hairs here and there, but he was still blowing his potent horn, still getting and giving his musical kicks via one of the country's greatest bands.

It was quite a sight to see and quite a sound to hear!”

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Intenso! - The Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band

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

"Clare Fischer was a major influence on my harmonic concept... I wouldn't be me if it wasn't for Clare Fischer."
—Herbie Hancock
"Everything the veteran composer/arranger/pianist does blends skillful craftsmanship with musical credibility."
—Legendary Music Journalist Don Heckman

There has been a flood of new music arriving at the editorial offices of JazzProfiles lately, much of it self-produced, some of which is quite good and worthy of your attention.

The full title of this feature should read: Intenso! - The Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band Under The Direction of Brent Fischer. [Clavo Records CR601209]

It’s an important distinction for as Brent explains in this portion of the insert notes he wrote for the CD:

“It has been a positively intense experience growing up as Dr. Clare Fischer's son, learning from him, then making music with him for over thirty years. Four years now after his vibrant life ended, technology keeps it possible for us to play together again for this album, lntenso! .

We planned decades ago to record and release all of his music. That's why I captured his sound at the keyboard or with a small group in the comfort of his home during his last years so we could one day add other musicians where needed. Four albums and three Grammy® awards later, we are still at it!

All Clare Fischer Ensembles, including the Latin Jazz Big Band, continue to perform under my direction and this album is the latest result. The contributions of all the incredible musicians and every person who helped put this project together are deeply appreciated. Their artistry makes it possible for my creative vision to come to life. If you put the title of this album together with our last, you get Ritmo Intenso!, or Intense Rhythm, which is the main reason Clare Fischer devoted so much of his life to Latin jazz; it's the perfect setting for his extraordinary harmonies!”

Jim Eigo of Jazz Promo Services sent along the following background information as part of his media release for Intenso! - The Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band Under The Direction of Brent Fischer. [Clavo Records CR601209].

“Featuring the keyboard mastery of Dr. Clare Fischer and the writing of both he and Brent Fischer. Special guests Sheila E, Roberta Gambarini, Luis Conte, Walfredo Reyes and many others plus 15 horns! This follow up to 2012's Grammy®-winning album, Ritmo!, is packed with intense Afro-Cuban and Brazilian grooves—the perfect vehicle for Fischer harmonies, Intenso!

This is Clare Fischer's last year to be eligible for posthumous Grammy® consideration, so Producer/Arranger Brent Fischer has pulled out all the stops, curating more previously unreleased tracks recorded during his late father Clare Fischer's life and setting them into a, well, intense surrounding of Latin Jazz Big Band arrangements replete with layers of virtuosic percussion.

Clare Fischer's legendary playing is heard on 7 out of the 10 new tracks, which are mostly Fischer originals with a few favorite standards completely reimagined. Besides Fischer's spellbinding improvising, we also hear solos by Roberta Gambarini, horn greats Carl Saunders, Ron Stout, Alex Budman, Rob Hardt, Kirsten Edkins, Scott Whitfield and Francisco Torres plus, of course, burning percussion solos from Sheila E, Kevin Ricard and Luis Conte.”

Artist website:

Brent wrote the following annotation for the Gaviota track which you can listen to on the audio-only soundcloud file posted below it. Just click on the white arrow in the red dot in the upper left hand corner.

Gaviota (Seagull) - Featuring the incomparable Roberta Gambarini on vocals! Besides Morning and Pensativa, this is also a Clare Fischer Latin jazz standard, having been covered by many artists including Poncho Sanchez and Roseanna Vitro using the Weaver Copeland lyric. As we performed this song over the decades with Dad's group, it underwent a subtle metamorphosis when he came up with extra keyboard ideas and the band adapted. This, then, is the final version of the song he first put on his album Machaca in the 70s. My horn arrangement is specifically tailored to the way he played it in the twilight of his life after so much creative evolution.”