Sunday, December 31, 2017

Billy Eckstine: The Evolution of The First Bebop Big Band

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

“BILLY ECKSTINE, ..., had a modern, swinging band during the mid-forties. He had been singing with Earl Hines for a number of years when one of his fellow bandsmen, Dizzy Gillespie, suggested to Billy that he ought to go out with his own crew.

It was a sensible suggestion, because Billy, an outstandingly handsome man with a great deal of charm, had built up quite a following not merely among musicians, who admired him as a person and as a singer, but also among a segment of the public that followed the jazz-oriented bands.

In the spring of 1944 Billy left the Earl. He took with him the band's chief arranger and tenor saxist, Budd Johnson, who, along with Gillespie, became one of the two musical directors of the new group. So great was the emphasis upon instrumental music and what was then considered to be progressive jazz that Billy's strong, masculine but highly stylized vocals were often subjugated to the playing of some young, budding jazz stars like Charlie and Leo Parker, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Fats Navarro, Howard McGhee, Kenny Dorham, Lucky Thompson, Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon. And for a while Eckstine also featured a timid young girl vocalist with a marvelously clear, vibrant voice. To this day Sarah Vaughan still looks back fondly on her association with the band and credits it for much of her musical development.”
- George T. Simon, The Big Bands, 4th Ed.

Within the mere three years of its existence, Billy Eckstine's band at one time or another featured just about every "modernist" on the scene. A tentative listing of the alumni reads like a real "Who's Who of Bebop!”  It is forever to be regretted that this band had so little opportunity to record [in part due to the Musicians’ Union recording ban then in effect] and that Eckstine was rarely able to convince producers (and audiences) that the real quality of his band was its musical potential. More so, of course, than his own vocals, although these are often of the highest quality.

As the story goes, before Gillespie was to really settle in on 52nd Street in the mid-1940’s, he became an important part of the newly formed Billy Eckstine orchestra. Gillespie and bassist Oscar Pettiford had had a falling out, and while Oscar remained at the Onyx (with Joe Guy on trumpet and Johnny Hartzfield on tenor), Dizzy moved across the street to the Yacht Club with Budd Johnson in tow. On the same show with them was their old colleague from the Earl Hines band, Billy Eckstine, billed as X-tine, thanks to his booking agent Billy Shaw.

Eckstine's, or X-tine's, career was not exactly roaring along. It was decided that he head a big band but, at first, he and Shaw argued about the basic philosophy.

Eckstine was committed to the new sounds and convinced Shaw he wanted Gillespie as his musical director and Charlie Parker, working at the time with Carroll Dickerson at the Rhumboogie in Chicago, as the leader of his reeds. In June 1944 the Billy Eckstine band was born.


“It was a whole evolvement of something new, aside from the trite ways of doing things. When I started my band we got bad, bad reports on it. Even the William Morris office, they said, "Why don't you just get a band like in the vein of the Basic band and with good vocals of yourself, and you just sell the band on your vocals and things like that." But they didn't stop to realize that I was already hooked into this thing. If you look at some of the early downbeat write-ups,' Christ, they used to pan hell out of me. They said I kept singing, I was running all over the place and wouldn't sing the melodies, which was just a way of seeking at that particular point—you're hearing things also. Now when we all got together, when the different guys got together, I saw the reason why I wanted to sing—well, now we call it "changes" and because it was new usage.

When we recorded "Cottage for Sale" I ended it on major seventh. We had a guy in the control room named Emile Cote, who was a head of the Pet Milk Singers, as the A&R [laughs] man. When I hit that, he came out and said, "Well, I think we got a good balance on that. Now shall we go back in and do the thing?" I said, "Hey, that was it." "Oh, you're not going to end that on that note." I said, "Well, why not, it's a major seventh." Then he gave me the old cliche about Beethoven or somebody giving a lesson and a kid hit the major seventh and then left, walked off, and he had to run downstairs and resolve it. Well, I said, "I ain't gonna resolve it." Those kind of things during that era, and getting to what you've seen, it was a feeling among a nucleus at that time of younger people, of hearing something else. We didn't knock. You see that's the other thing that was so funny about the guys then. You couldn't find one guy, you take Dizzy, Bird, any of the guys that were in my original band, we never knocked nobody else's music.

My God, my band, when I started, the guy that gave me my music to get started was Basie. I went over here to the Hotel Lincoln and walked in there with Basie, and he said, "I understand you're gonna start a band," and I said, "Yeah, man, I ain't got no music." So he turns around to Henry Snodgrass and told him, "Give him the key." I went back in the back in the music trunk and just took scores of Basie's music to help me be able to play a dance. We didn't have any music. The only things that we had in our vein of things was "A Night in Tunisia" that Diz had written. As we kept doing these one-nighters, we were constantly writing. "Blue 'n Boogie" was a head arrangement. We were constantly just sitting down everywhere we'd go and have a rehearsal and putting things together on these kind of things. Little head arrangements and riffs that Diz started or Bird started. "Good Jelly Blues" and "I Stay In The Mood For You"—Budd Johnson wrote that on the same type of a thing. And the little things I wrote—"I Love The Rhythm In A Riff" and "Blowing The Blues Away," they were just more or less—we were gradually getting our music together, but when we started out we didn't knock anybody's music like that. My God, I don't think there was a time that we ever were anywhere where another band was that all our band, if we were off, was not right there listening to them. It wasn't a knock, of putting their music down in preference for ours. It was just another step, it was another step beyond. I guess, possibly the same thing happened back when Louie took his step past King Oliver, maybe, who knows. I wasn't around to pay any attention to music then, but possibly the same type of thing happened then.

Then another very important thing, too. Our music was more studied. Up until that point, you didn't have the musicianship, other than Ellington, Lunceford, like that, where you had some great schooled musicians up there on that stand. But a lot of the other bands, there were a lot of guys who couldn't read a note, even some of the first Basic band that came East. It was a head-arrangement band. When here we came on, in my band and in Earl's band, all musicians, seasoned musicians. But when we came along these were all new usages of chords, new voicings, the arrangers were hearing things, began to write. And another thing that happened, my band ruined a whole lot of musicians who had been bullshitting before. But everywhere we would go with my band, after it was together about two months, we'd look out into the audience, and the young, the real young, was out there going, "Yeah, man." It was hitting that young; it was the music of the young really, and because the young, a lot of them, were in the war in Europe, the widespread popularity never was acquired, never was achieved.

I'll never forget, though, we used to have more problems with the powers that be, the agents. Christ, that's where I had the problem. They wanted me to sing, and play "One O'Clock Jump"; the things that were famous or something of Glenn Miller's or something of Tommy Dorsey's; in other words, let the band copy other successful things and you sing. That wasn't my idea of what I wanted to do. Shit, if 1 wanted to do that I could have gone with—'cause after I left Earl and went back to 52nd Street, I started getting calls from certain bands, different bands like Kenton. They wanted me to come in the band as a vocalist, but I wouldn't go because I said, "Hell, if I'm gonna break up my own band, what am I gonna go with somebody else for when I couldn't make my own successful? And here's some guys who are gonna try more or less to copy what we're starting, and I'm gonna go with them? No way!"

So it was always a fight, a fight, man. Christ almighty, I'll never forget, they came down to the Riviera in St. Louis. And I was working in there with my band, and the William Morris office sent some schmuck down there to do a report on the band. He came back and said, "There's no love vein in the band." Imagine this guy gonna go dig a swinging band: "there's no love vein in the band." So when Billy Shaw, God rest his soul, whom I loved, when Billy called me—Billy believed in me— and he said, "Hey B, we're getting rapped, and this guy come back here sayin' 'There's no love vein in the band.' " I said, "Well, shit, he didn't check into it. Now me and Dizzy been goin' together for years. There's the love vein" [laughter].

Well you know what he told me to do: "Well, why don't you get a real pretty girl, with a big ass, to sing?" Didn't listen to Sass [Sarah VaughanJ. He's gonna tell me about some chick with a big ass, and here's a girl with the greatest voice that I've ever heard. He never even heard that. Well, that's the kinda shit you went through in those days and on. Man, it just got to the point—I think it discouraged a lot of people. It even carried on over into Diz's band, so Diz's band wasn't successful.

It was musically successful. So was mine. Now it's the "legendary Billy Eckstine band," and some of these same guys that are now calling it a legend rapped the shit out of me. Leonard Feather, he rapped the shit out of me. Every time we'd come in, "the band was out of tune," and the this and the that, and now it's the "legendary Billy Eckstine band."

I don't want this to appear racist, but nevertheless, it's factual. Anything that the black man originates that cannot be copied right away by his white contemporaries is stepped on. It was copied. Shit, Woody Herman, get a load of his things — "Northwest Passage." All those things were nothing but a little bit of the music that we were trying to play. All of those things. All they did was that. Shit, but they got the down beat number one band, yap, yap, yap, all of this kind of shit, but Woody better not have Jit nowhere near where my band was. Nowhere. And I can say it now because it's all over and I don't have to appear egotistical, but he better not have lit anywhere where we were. And that goes for any of them, because let me show you, we would play, and the guys that were in that band will tell you one thing; we played against Jimmie Lunceford at the Brooklyn Armory. Jimmie Lunceford, big star of the thing, and we were the second band. We ate his ass up like it was something good to eat, so much to the point — I'll never forget this, Freddie Webster, God rest his soul, was with Lunceford at the time, and Freddie wrote a letter to a buddy of ours in California, and all he wrote on the letter was, "Did you hear about the battle of jazz?" He says, "Billy Eckstine," no, "B and his band, life; Jimmie Lunceford," in very small letters, "Jimmie Lunceford and us, death" [Laughter]. That's what he wrote on this thing.

Musicians—that's the other thing—young musicians would be around us like this all the time listening, and they knew what we were trying to do. Arrangers started hearing. The technical aspect of the music was grasped first. People who knew something about music right away said, "Hey, this is something else." It's the moldy guys that relied so much on their ear. They didn't have the ear to follow this—it's the same as this Emile Cote that heard this major seventh, he didn't hear that thing resolved where he was waiting for it to resolve. And when I said, "Here's a cottage for sale," and he didn't hear that [sings]. He didn't hear that. All he heard was "da" and he was waiting for "daa."* [*The conventional ending would be the tonic. Eckstine, like many instrumentalists of the time, ended a half step below the tonic.]

That's what he's waiting for. His ear had been indoctrinated into that type of listening. But arrangers jumped on this. You'd be surprised, you know how many free arrangements I used to get? Every town I'd go into, some little young musician who's studying would bring me up an arrangement to play. He is voicing it off of the new voicings, the new thing; nine out of ten of them you couldn't use, but you could see the seeking, trying to, hearing this kind of music which used to inspire us.

And again to get back to the love thing, Diz and Sonny [Stitt], all the different guys will tell you this, that was in the band. We used to get in a town and, man, it was like the bus getting in at twelve o'clock— I wouldn't call rehearsal. The guys would go on to the hall, set up, jam, or Bird would take the reed section, sit and run through things. Just at night, the Booker Washington Hotel, there in St. Louis for Christ sake, when we was working the Riviera, the people used to move out, we'd rehearse four o'clock in the morning. Sit right in the room; the reed section would be there blowing all night. It was a love where everybody was seeking things like that, trying and learning. Sass and myself used to learn things on the piano.

I'll never forget, Diz wrote an arrangement of "East of the Sun" for Sass. We worked out the ending of it [sings]. We'd work out things vocally, because every aspect of music could fit into this. There was a way to do it vocally; there was a way we heard it vocally; a way it was done instrumentally; the way it was done rhythmically: everything had a new concept to it. It wasn't just one trumpet player playing his style which was an innovative thing. Or one saxophone. There was a collective unit of the whole concept. It was the camaraderie in that band. Me and Diz, the other night at the concert,*[*Newport Festival Tribute to Charlie Parker in 1974], we were breaking up laughing at different little things that we used to do in the band.

We still have big laughs, any time we get together—like the other night, Sonny and all of us were up there, and I swear to Christ that you would have thought that some great comic was in. We were breaking up in there laughing, remembering incidents that happened, which then were morbid. Riding these Goddamn Jim Crow cars through the South were these dirty cracker conductors, we all sitting in the aisles and all of this bullshit, in a little car that's got eight seats, and here we getting on there with twenty guys and no room. And now we just sit laughing about it. The different incidents where a guy would say, "Hey, ain't no more room. You all sleep, stay in the baggage car," and we get back in the baggage car and open all the doors, get undressed and lay back there in the baggage car, smelling the hay and shit, traveling. But we can sit back and laugh about these kind of things now. You had to then. You'd have never gotten through it. We said the same statement the other night, Diz and I. You had to make your own fun. You had to make it, 'cause, Christ almighty, this was during the war. We couldn't get a bus because you couldn't get priority then for gasoline.

So the only way, Billy Shaw worked some strings—this was '44—where if I would play for the troops, whenever I would get into the town—if there was an Army camp there—go right out and do a free show for the troops, then they would give me a priority for a bus. But I had to do a certain amount of them every week. Now, if I happened to be booked in such a place where there ain't no Army camps where we are, they look and see that I don't play no Army, they snatched the bus without even telling me. We go out one morning to get the bus, there ain't no bus. Now we got to run and grab all of this crap, look at the train schedule—and there was always an hour, and hour and one-half late, these trains in those days. You know, the troops and things. Jumping on you is the guys with their bass and amplifiers, for the book, and valets getting on these trains with this and what are you gonna do. If you can survive through that, man, you gotta make your own humor. I'm telling you, boy. And arguments, fights with soldiers and these crackers down South, and man you'd get in fights with them all the time. It drove me crazy.

And the guys still stuck it out, 'cause we'd get on the stand at night, regardless of what problem we had during the day, there's our chance to let it out. And, baby, some of the times when we've had the worst problems during the day, we'd get on the stand at night and, man, you never heard a band play like that in your life. We'd be wailing, because now's our chance to relax and do what we want to do. We were just waiting to get to that stand.”

[Sources, Ira Gitler’s Jazz Masters of the 40’s, Bill Kirchner, ed. The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Downbeat, Esquire, Jazz Review, Jazz Monthly and Metronome magazine archives, Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era, George T Simon, The Big Bands, 4th Ed., Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th. Ed, Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, and Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler, The Encyclopedia of Jazz.]

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