The Big Bands
At the end of World War I, America had gone on an entertainment binge – booze, gambling, marathon dance contests, sitting on flag poles, swallowing goldfish, smoking in public, radio, recordings, Dixieland jazz bands, sexual innuendos on the silent movie screens in eighteen thousand theaters, Miss America contests, automobile racing, miniature golf, Broadway shows, professional sports, and all those activities summed up so nicely in the phrase, "The Roarin' Twenties."
But on October 28 1929, "Black Friday", the whole structure came tumbling down with the crash of the stock market. Nearly twenty-five thousand banks failed, thirty thousand businesses folded, and, by 1931, there were ten million jobless workers waiting in bread lines, soup kitchens, and free milk depots. The Great Depression had begun.
Record sales plunged; nightclubs and dance halls closed. Concert ticket sales dropped to an all-time low. The entertainment and recreation industries suffered more than the industries devoted to life's necessities, of course, but all of America was in serious economic trouble.
In this new socioeconomic environment, a big band popular music style took shape. The new style was called swing, and it came partly from blues and ragtime traditions, and partly from earlier dance music as played by society syncopators.
Big bands were not completely new. In 1924, Fate Marable's Society Syncopators featured nine pieces – piano, drums, banjo and tuba in the rhythm section, and trumpet, trombone, tenor saxophone, and two alto saxophones in the front line. Several musicians "doubled" on violin or mellophone (a piston-action instrument shaped like a French horn). Louis Armstrong performed on the steamboats in the Fate Marable organization for a while as did many of the New Orleans jazz musicians who worked their way up the Mississippi to settle in Chicago.
"Society syncopators" was a common term for bands, black and white, which played popular music in the restaurants, nightclubs, and dance halls of the day. The tradition goes all the way back to the 1860s. "Old Man" Finney established a musical dynasty in Detroit, and he often had a half dozen bands out working for upper class "society" functions. Finney's Quadrille Orchestra(s) were filled with sons and daughters and spouses. The same conditions pertained in all the major cities of America, and still can be found today – the Lester Lannin and Peter Duchin bands out of New York, for instance.
These society bands made no pretense of playing creative jazz, but held firm to the reason they were hired, which was to play a wide variety of dance versions of the popular tunes of the day. This would mean, almost by definition, that there would be no "featured solos" and dramatic musical moments, but rather a near continuous string of well-known tunes for dancing, conversation, and general socializing.
There were hundreds of bands. New Orleans had the Halfway House Orchestra, with clarinetist Leon Rapollo, soon to join NORK; the Owls Orchestra at the Gruenwald Hotel; Fate Marable's Capitol Revue, before he went on the Streckfuss steamboats; Johnny Bayersdoffer's Band at Tokyo Gardens; Brownlee's Orchestra; and Armand J. Piron's Novelty Orchestra at Tranchina's Restaurant, Spanish Fort.
Chicago had the Midway Dance Orchestra, led by Elmer Schoebel; Merrit Brunies and his Friar's Club Orchestra; Joe Jordon's Sharps and Flats, and the Art Sims Creole Roof Orchestra. New York had Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, Ben Bernie, Rudy Vallee, Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, and dozens more.
Notice that the word "jazz" does not appear in the name of any of the bands mentioned above. A few of the band leaders did include the word jazz, to indicate that they had certain gifted improvisers among their "side men", and that the leader, often, would dazzle the crowd with an inspired and creative solo. They would not, however, neglect their obligation to provide plenty of high-grade, energetic dance music.
By the middle of the 1920s, several bands revealed an attitude and intent significantly different from the society syncopators. These bands were driven by the jazz aesthetic. They still provided music that could be, and was joyously, danced to, but deep at work in the mind of the leader was a different concept of what the endeavor was all about.
Various mixtures appeared, but generally a big band consisted of piano, string bass, guitar, and a set of drums in the rhythm section; three trumpets, with one playing the "hot" or jazz solos; two trombones; and two alto and two tenor saxophones, with one of the tenors as soloist. This instrumentation settled down to become the generic model by the middle 1930s.
Add to the above, a beautiful girl singer and a handsome boy singer ("band vocalists" as they were called), a small vocal ensemble (like the Modernaires), a comic singer out of the trumpet section (like Ishkabibble with the Kay Kyser band), a small Dixieland band out of the big band (like Tommy Dorsey's Clambake Seven). Top it all off with a brilliant virtuoso-leader, and an entire evening could be filled with top-quality danceable music interlaced with comedy and specialty offerings. Not all bands had all of the above components, of course, but every band leader was prepared to fill up the evening with interesting fare.
Often called the "Father of the Big Bands," James Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952) arrived in New York from Georgia to be a research chemist and to pursue graduate studies at Columbia University. He took part-time work in W. C. Handy's publishing house, then later accepted a pianist's position with Henry Pace's Black Swan Phonograph Co., named after the famous black operatic soprano, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, called the "Black Swan".
At Pace's suggestion, Henderson formed a band to tour with Ethel Waters to promote her slow-selling Black Swan discs. After the tour, he returned to New York and a full-time career as pianist-arranger-leader. He hired the best musicians in the business, often college graduates who could read music fluently and who played several instruments. He rehearsed them carefully on his interesting modern arrangements. "Each section of the band played intricate figures with a precision and swing that astounded other musicians and spawned imitators everywhere" (Dexter 1964, 62).
Henderson and his lead alto saxophonist and fellow arranger, Don Redman, invented the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of the big band. Over a throbbing four-four rhythmic pulse, the brasses and reeds would exchange musical passages, often followed by unison riffs behind improvised solos, all wrapped up perhaps in a final, swinging, full-band final chorus. Sprinkle in a few quick modulations and clever interludes, and the result is a powerful and exciting new style of jazz which soon became America's prevailing popular music.
Fletcher Henderson was a marvelous musician, but a little casual in the business details of running a big band. Then he suffered serious injuries in an automobile accident in 1928, and never did quite return to his youthful vigor and productivity. At John Hammond's urging, Benny Goodman put Henderson on the payroll as staff arranger. Many of Goodman's huge hits came from the imaginative pen of Fletcher Henderson: "Sometimes I'm Happy", "King Porter Stomp", "Blue Skies", "Down South Camp Meeting", and others.
Born Edward Kennedy Ellington (1899-1974) in Washington, D.C., Ellington had loving parents and a stable, comfortable home life. His boyhood chums called "Duke" because of his stylish dress and debonair manner. He carried the nickname all his life, and it always seemed appropriate to the man and to his career.
He dropped out of high school in his senior year to start a sign-painting business. For several years, he had been a part-time pianist, too, and before long music took over his full time and energies. By the early 1920s he was well known in his home town as a promising pianist and band leader.
He went to New York, and, from 1923 to 1927, his Washingtonians packed the Hollywood Club at Broadway and 39th Street. When he moved to the Cotton Club in 1927, he increased the band to fourteen members and garnered international fame with his imaginative arrangements and original compositions. Because of his importance and influence, scholars sometimes consider his career in three stages, with considerable overlap, of course.
First Period. During the first ten years or so, Ellington explored the instrumental colors of the jazz orchestra. He hired theatrical musicians who specialized in exotic sounds, and then he gave them free reign. Soon all the kids in America were trying to copy the muted trumpet growls of Bubber Miley and later Cootie Williams, the liquid beauty of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, and the clever licks of trombonist Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton.
These new sounds caught the fancy of journalists who quickly called them "jungle sounds". Publicity material for the exotic and erotic Cotton Club floor shows frequently used the term "jungle music" to excite the white folk who flocked to Harlem for its fashionable thrills. Right in the center of all this, "the Duke would rise from behind his pure white grand piano as impeccably and expensively dressed as any of the society patrons wildly applauding him" (Dormen 1976, 39). And, of course, a New York music teacher, Arthur Cremin, attributed the rise of sex crimes to Duke Ellington's music (Ephland 1989, 22).
Second Period. Ellington's next creative endeavors were during the 1930s and early 1940s when he wrote hundreds of great pop-flavored jazz tunes. He composed everywhere – in taxis, trains, and air terminals – and always seemed to have a tune about half ready to be tried by the band. He would enter a rehearsal, pass out a few slips of papers, and finish the tune in a matter of minutes. After a job, when the band members might go out for some after-duty night life and an early breakfast, Ellington would go back to his quarters (where he always had a piano), and work on music, often until sunrise.
Among his 952 copyrights are three large sacred works, twenty-one suites, three complete shows, three movie scores, a ballet, and hundreds of great songs like "Sophisticated Lady", "Mood Indigo", "Solitude", "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", "Satin Doll", "Perdido", "I'm Beginning to See the Light", and "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing". Listed as co-author on many of the tunes was Ellington's white manager and publisher, Irving Mills, who, until their separation in 1940, received 45 percent of Ellington's proceeds.
Third Period. During the last twenty years of his illustrious career, Ellington turned to large orchestral works – Black, Brown, and Beige; Liberian Suite; A Drum Is a Woman; The Golden Broom and the Green Apple; and dozens more. In these extended compositions, Ellington stretched the traditions of jazz, and moved into symphonic concepts of programmatic (story-telling and picture-painting) music. These big works always contain some free space for jazz improvisation, however.
During the final months of his life in 1974, Ellington, dying of lung cancer, was hard at work at the piano in his hospital room, composing an opera, Queenie.
No one has surpassed Ellington's singular gifts. Other big bands may have been more popular, perhaps, because the Duke would often neglect the current pop hits of the day in favor of his own more substantial tunes, but Edward Kennedy Ellington goes down as one of the most important personalities in the entire history of jazz.
A competent viola player, and a shrewd businessman, Paul "Pop" Whiteman (1890-1967) was known and loved for 50 years in American popular music. His approach was always symphonic in scope and intent. He played mostly concerts and theaters, not so often dance halls and nightclubs. His groups were large, much like the Boston Pops Orchestra of today, but he interlaced the sections with outstanding jazzmen – Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Jack and Charlie Teagarden, and similar first-string improvisers.
Known as the "King of Jazz," he said, "I want to make a lady out of jazz," and he did. He presented jazz in its more favorable and complementary nature, and appeared with his huge orchestra in many movies. One of his best moments occurred when he premiered George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, at Aeolian Hall in New York, with the composer at the piano. Whiteman's chief pianist, and the man who orchestrated Rhapsody, was Ferde Grofé (1892-1972), who later went on to compose film scores and symphonic works, among them the Grand Canyon Suite.
Most of the famous big band musicians of the 1930s and 1940s were touched directly or indirectly by Whiteman. A man with great respect for the jazz talent he gathered in his orchestra, Paul Whiteman earned a listing among the important and influential big band leaders of the time.
One of the most brilliant soloists of all time, Benjamin David Goodman (1909-1986) became the symbol of the superstar "swing" musician. By his early teens, he was well known as a promising clarinetist in the Chicago area, and by his late teens, his skills were in demand all over America. When he was eighteen years old, Melrose Music Corp. published a book, 125 Jazz Breaks, which Goodman had transcribed (Baron 1979, 81). His first real jazz band employment came when he joined the Ben Pollack Band in California in 1925, as did Glenn Miller, about the same time. The two Bens, Goodman and Pollack, often played extended drum-and-clarinet improvisations. Goodman left Pollack, and settled in New York as a free-lance studio and theater musician. He then decided in 1934 to form a band to audition for a radio network show, Let's Dance.
The National Biscuit Co. sponsored the radio show on NBC on Saturday nights, from 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., and they wanted a sweet band, a rhumba band, and a hot band to alternate sets. Goodman's band was hired to be the hot band. They rose to the occasion, and were soon a favorite among America's considerable dance audience. In 1935, the Benny Goodman Band was selected by the authoritative jazz journal, Metronome, as the "Best Swing Band of 1935". Soon the newspapers began to refer to Goodman as the "King of Swing".
With his reputation growing, Goodman went on tour in 1935, and it was just so-so. A bit conservative by nature, Goodman may have taken the safe road, and played what he thought the middle-of-America dancers would want. At the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, however, Goodman threw caution aside, and brought out some of his hot arrangements. The response startled the band. Many of the kids stopped dancing, and pressed toward the front of the stage in benumbed awe at the exciting new sounds. The musicians then caught the meaning of what had happened, and played with renewed inspiration. If "swing" as a national craze had a moment of truth, it was on that night, August 21, 1935.
Big band "swing" was the passion of the 1930s adolescents in much the same manner as rock was for kids in the 1950s and 1960s. In March 1937, Benny Goodman was hired to play five separate thirty-minute sets between the all-day movie runs at the Paramount Theater in New York. The theater opened at 10:00 a.m., but when the band arrived at 7:00 a.m. for rehearsal, teenagers had already formed a ticket line all around the block. By 10:00 a.m., four thousand youngsters had skipped school to catch the Benny Goodman Band. As soon as the band started to play, the fans bolted out of their seats, danced in the aisles, and jumped up on stage with the band to Jitterbug with and for their friends. A few years later, in Philadelphia, fans killed a Philadelphia policeman's horse as they swarmed to buy tickets to a Goodman concert.
Many of the big band leaders began to lament that they (and their agents and managers) had created a monster. Fellow clarinetist and band leader, Artie Shaw said, "When you start making music into a commodity and selling it to the masses, you've lost something very precious" (Palmer 1976, 152).
Still, there was no holding back. On January 16, 1938, Benny Goodman coordinated a giant concert of jazz musicians at Carnegie Hall. Arranged by MCA, with Sol Hurok's reluctant blessing, the concert was a smash success. Later in 1938, twenty-five thousand listeners went to Randall's Island, New York, for a seven-hour concert by twenty-six bands. On November 18, 1940, a mammoth show was put together at the Manhattan Center with twenty-eight bands playing for fifteen minutes each.
"Swing" dance bands were at once idolized and hated. "Swing dancing" (Jitterbugging) was banned from all school dances in Chicago. In 1939, two San Francisco sociologists warned girls not to marry musicians. In 1943, a U.S. Senate committee investigating the recording industry concluded that "if the ban on recording wipes out Jitterbug music, jive, and boogie-woogie, it might be a good thing for America all around" (Ephland 1989, 27).
Of all the hundreds of big bands, the one that most consistently pleased the musicians of the day was the band of William "Count" Basie (1904-1984). To fully understand this, it is necessary to realize that the word "swing" has two meanings. One, the musical style which Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman created (see page 131). Two, a sensation that occurs when each member of the band plays every note with such buoyant accuracy at exactly the same millisecond in the rhythmic flow, that the whole band feels a kind of spiritual unity and elevation. The euphoric sensation is so potent that listeners, too, are drawn into its magical zone.
The Basie band could create a "swinging" sensation almost at will, while other bands might reach this level of pure joy only rarely. If the rhythm section – piano, bass, drums, and guitar – generates this "swinging" condition, the horns will pick it up immediately, but the horns cannot create it on their own. If the rhythm section doesn't quite "have it together", the band will just not "swing".
Later generations of jazz musicians replaced the term "swinging" with "cooking" and "grooving", and "smokin'". Rock musicians say that the band is really "tight" when everything is going well.
The secret of Basie's success was that he had the best rhythm section in all jazz history – Basie, himself, on piano; Walter Page (1900-1957) on bass; Freddie Green (1911-1987) on unamplified guitar, and Jo Jones (1911-1985) on drums. They played with a relaxed and infectious exuberance at all tempos. Their medium and up-tempos were especially memorable. The throbbing 4/4 pulse is known as the Kansas City Style, and a special kind of hippity-hoppity rhythm, sure to be used on five or six tunes in the course of an evening, is sometimes called the Kansas City Shuffle.
Page developed the new "walking bass" style into an art form, and delivered a strong, ringing tone, not the dull thud so common among string bass players of the day. Green choked off the second and fourth strokes of his 4/4 strumming pattern to create a crisp, metallic complement to Jo Jones' fluid and subtle drumming, much of which was done on the "high-hat" (also called the "sock cymbal"), saving the bass drum for accents.
But the essential ingredient was Basie's punctuation and editorial remarks from the piano. He was the first jazz pianist to "comp". Probably short-hand for "accompaniment", "comping" is the judicial interjection of sparse chords and motives between and among the phrases of the horns, solo or in ensemble. Basie's "comping" was so selective and skillful that it would inspire the soloists or the horn sections to increased energy and application. His final remark on many songs – a delightful "plink-plank-plunk", kind of a "that was fun" closing – is well-known in the jazz world. So familiar is it, that arrangers need not write it out for a pianist, but if they simply say, "Basie ending," any professional jazz pianist will automatically play the "plink-plank-plunk".
Basie was from Redbank, New Jersey, and, touring as pianist with a show, he was stranded in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1927. He played piano in a movie-theater pit, then in Walter Page's Blue Devils, and finally in Bennie Moten's band. When Moten died in 1935, Basie formed a band of his own consisting largely of Moten alumni, and featured the great blues singer, Jimmy Rushing, often called "Mister Five by Five" because of his girth.
One night in Chicago in 1936, John Hammond went up and down the AM radio dial, when he picked up the faint sounds of the Basie band over Station WXBY coming from Kansas City's Club Reno. He asked his good friend, and later brother-in-law, Benny Goodman to run out to Kansas City to hear the band in live performance. Goodman did, and confirmed Hammond's hunch that the band had promise. The rest, as is often said, is history.
Hammond arranged for bookings in Chicago and New York, then a national tour, then recording contracts, and before long, the Basie band was one of America's favorite first-rate jazz ensembles, much in demand in dance halls, theaters, colleges, and hotels. A booking into the Famous Door, a tiny jazz club in New York, from July 1938 to January 1939, with almost nightly national network broadcasts, made Count Basie one of the most popular band leaders in America.
Basie's huge success was threefold. First, he was willing to play for an average listener. "He had an uncanny sense of knowing just how far to go – in tempo, in volume, and in harmonic complexity" (Simon 1967, 87). He played many of the pop tunes of the day, filtered, of course, through his own mentality so the tunes had electrifying new jazz nuances to them. Second, he caught the fancy of the jazz buffs because the many open spaces in his arrangements were filled over the years with some of the greatest soloists in jazz history – trumpeters Emmet Berry, Joe Newman, Clark Terry, and Thad Jones; and tenor saxophonists Lester Young, Hershal Evans, Don Byas, Illinois Jaquet, Frank Wess, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, and Frank Foster. Third, he took care of business. The band appeared on time, did the job with enthusiasm, and conducted themselves as professional musicians. Club owners and bookers were always confident that Basie would deliver.
His nickname came, incidentally, during a radio broadcast in 1936 from the Reno Club in Kansas City. The announcer thought that Basie should have a title to put him up there with "Duke" Ellington and "Earl" Hines. A band member suggested, "Make him a Count" (Shaw,1986, 150). And they did.
During disc jockey Martin Block's Marathon of Big Bands, November 18, 1940, at Manhattan Center, each band was scheduled for fifteen minutes from eight in the evening until four in the morning. Twenty-eight bands were there – Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Les Brown, Glen Gray, and such of equal caliber. The routine went well until about midnight when the Jimmie Lunceford band broke it all wide open. The fans would not let them leave the stage, yelling, "More! More!" Finally, the stage manager asked Lunceford to play several additional selections.
What was it the kids liked? Showmanship! The same kind of showmanship that Berry Gordy put into each of the Motown groups thirty years later. The Lunceford trumpet players would throw their horns into the air, and catch them in time to play the next phrase. The trombonists would weave left and right while opening and closing the bell of their horns with derby hat mutes. The saxophones would do little dance steps without missing a beat. Mix in some novelty vocal trios – complete with hand clapping, wise cracking, and good-natured banter between and among singers and musicians – and a formula for huge success took shape. The band's infectious spirit communicated goodwill and rollicking fun at all times.
James Melvin Lunceford (1902-1947) earned a B.A. in music at Fisk University in Nashville, and, while coaching sports and teaching music at Manassa High School in Memphis, put together a school band that quickly became a local sensation. Two years later, that band went professional. After short appearances around the Mid-West, the band settled in New York to become a favorite at the Cotton Club, no less. Recordings and radio broadcasts soon put Lunceford up with the most popular and successful big bands of the day.
Much credit goes to Melvin James "Sy" Oliver (1910-1988), trumpeter and arranger for the band. Oliver's fondness to "two-beat" rhythmic support gave his intricate arrangements an open feeling of relaxed energy. His special touch is clean and clear on "For Dancers Only", "My Blue Heaven", "Lonesome Road", and "Swanee River" which became a giant hit for Tommy Dorsey when Oliver later moved into that band.
Oliver's previous duties with the Lunceford band were then capably handled by William "Bill" Moore and Edwin Wilcox who developed complex and sophisticated saxophone ensemble choruses into a Lunceford signature. Lunceford was a superb teacher and disciplinarian, giving his musicians a great sense of confidence, security, and enthusiasm for their work. It was one of the most exciting of all the many powerhouse big bands of the day.
In his brief eight years as a band leader, Alton Glenn Miller (1904-1944) became one of the most famous of all. "Moonlight Serenade" and "In the Mood" are among the most popular tunes in the history of American entertainment, still performed in theme-park revues as moments that instantly transport the listener to the 1930s and 1940s. The Glenn Miller Band is still touring the nation, seventy years after his death.
He started as a trombonist with an interest in arranging, and worked with the best – Ben Pollack, Red Nichols, the Dorsey brothers, and Ray Noble. By 1937, he was yearning to try his own hand as a band leader. He put together a Dixieland group, made a few recordings, worked a few jobs, and gave it up. Everything went wrong with bookings, schedules, musicians, weather and road conditions, personality conflicts, and morale. A straight-ahead, no-nonsense professional, Miller decided that it was much easier to let someone else take all the grief while he continued to play in the trombone section and make arrangements. He was, after all, very successful and secure.
But, in true American "rags to riches" tradition, he hankered after some kind of artistic fulfillment he couldn't quite explain. It was not, as the 1954 movie suggested, a "sound" that would make the hair tingle on the back of his neck. He had used that high clarinet lead on several arrangements for Ray Noble, and it was nothing new to anyone in the industry.
So, without knowing exactly why, Glenn Miller formed another band in 1938 to play in the ballrooms on the Boston-New York-Philadelphia corridor. He changed personal managers, and this new band began to click. His big break came when he was booked into the famous Glen Island Casino in the summer of 1939. He took the job, even at a financial loss, because he wanted the national exposure of the well-known nightly network radio broadcasts, called "remotes".
"Remotes" were fifteen-minute live radio shows from theaters and ballrooms that were at a remote location, not the station's home studios. The signal was sent back to the local affiliate, then on up the line to the network for immediate national broadcast. "Remotes" helped make heroes out of many musicians, especially the big band leader-virtuosos of the 1930s.
For Glenn Miller, remotes worked. Soon after the Glen Island engagement, the band broke attendance records at the Capitol Theater in Washington, D.C., the Hippodrome in Baltimore, and in several other big city ballrooms and theaters. Each time the kids screamed for "In the Mood", which had become the national anthem of the Jitterbug crowd. The band had finally arrived in the big leagues, and was there to stay. More evidence came when the Miller band was chosen to share a Carnegie Hall concert with the well-established Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, and Fred Waring orchestras.
The schedule was hectic, but they somehow managed three radio shows per week, dance jobs of five and six hours per night all week long, and five programs each day between movies at the Paramount Theater. In the midst of all this, the band recorded thirty songs during the first two months of 1940. Understandably, Miller hired several arrangers to help out, among them Bill Finnegan, Jerry Gray, and Billy May who went on to big careers.
Glenn Miller had become an entertainment factory, and he wasn't exactly happy about it, and he said so to George T. Simon, his drummer, friend, and, later, biographer.
So many people are asking me to do so many things, and I really do want to do some of them, but I just don't have the time. It's murder. I find myself doing things I'm ashamed of doing, and yet I know people would never understand if I told them the plain, simple truth. I'm just not the kind of guy I want to be any more (Simon 1967, 358)
In 1941, the Glenn Miller band appeared in two motion pictures, Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives. Glenn had recently hired the Modernaires to add musical and visual variety to the band. In September of 1942, Miller enlisted in the military. Too old to be drafted, he still felt an obligation to serve. He took a captain's commission, and made big plans to change the old fashioned band traditions throughout the entire military. He was stopped at every turn by massive bureaucratic protocol. Finally he gave up in disgust, and volunteered to go overseas to form an entertainment unit for the European theater.
He began auditions in New Haven, Connecticut, and, for nearly a year, hired and rehearsed the musicians, and also put on a series of weekly coast-to-coast Air Force recruitment radio broadcasts. Besides all the music, the broadcasts included sketches by a resident drama group headed by the young and promising Broderick Crawford, later of Highway Patrol television fame.
Finally, in the spring of 1944, the entire company went to England – twenty string players, five trumpets, four trombones, one French horn, six reed players, two drummers, two pianists, two bassists, a guitarist, three arrangers, a copyist, five singers, two producers, an announcer, two clerical administrators, two instrument repairmen, Warrant Officer Paul Dudley, and 1st Lt. Don Hayes, Glenn's personal manager from civilian days (Simon 1967, 365).
This magnificent battery of America's best entertainers performed all over England for six months, and broadcast over the BBC several times a day for the troops in Europe. Among the arrangers, and the guy who led one of the small jazz groups out of the big ensemble, was the brilliant pianist-composer, Mel Powell. Years later, Powell became director of the California Institute of Arts and an active classical composer.
On December 15, 1944, a pilot, an Air Force colonel, and Major Glenn Miller set out for Paris in a single-engine Norseman utility transport to prepare details for the relocation of the entertainment company. The small plane took off into a dense fog, started flying over the English Channel, and vanished. As of this writing (2014), it has still not been found.
Glenn Miller's brief, but memorable and important, career moved into the history books as one of the illustrious chapters in the age of the American big bands.
Arthur Jacob Arshawsky (1910-2004) was a brilliant freelance sax and clarinet player in New York when he changed his name and decided to perform one of his own compositions with a string quartet at a jazz concert in 1936. Shortly later, he formed a dance band with brass instruments, a rhythm section, and only one saxophone. It failed. He then put together a conventional big band which succeeded, especially with "Begin the Beguine" in 1938.
In no time at all, he was a celebrated big band name, favorably compared and contrasted with Benny Goodman. A man of mercurial temperament, Shaw quit the band business at the height of his fame and fortune. He went to Mexico for a few months, then came back to form another band, and released an immediate hit, a blockbuster called "Frenesi", recorded with a traditional fifteen piece big band, plus French horn, oboe, bass clarinet, and thirteen strings.
He was a restless spirit, loaded with talent, always searching for musical perfection. He formed a small group, the Gramercy Five, with Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord. He quit the music business, several more times, became a farmer, moved to Spain to be a translator, became a theatrical producer, wrote several novels, and an autobiography, The Trouble With Cinderella. Among his eight wives were movie stars Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, and novelist Kathleen Winsor.
For all his controversies, Artie Shaw created some of the most memorable big band recordings of all time. His special treatments of "Dancing in the Dark" and "Stardust" are among the best ever of all big band statements.
As a nine-year old, Woodrow Charles Herman (1913-1987) sang in vaudeville, then took up saxophone at eleven and clarinet at fourteen. After a brief stint at Marquette University, he started working in various dance bands, and soon landed a job with the well-known Isham Jones in Chicago. When that band broke up in 1936, several of the ex-members formed a cooperative band with Woody Herman as their designated leader. Calling themselves "The Band That Plays the Blues", they found work at the Roseland Ballroom in Brooklyn, then at Frank Dailey's Meadowbrook.
Herman turned out to be a natural leader, capable of decisions that were good for the individual members and for the band-at-large. He also had a knack for dealing with club owners, booking agents, mobs of dancers, and recording executives. Before long, the band expanded its repertoire to include pop tunes, novelty vocals, and a lot of great jazz. Around 1940, music journalists began to refer to the band as the Herman Herd, probably because of its muscular approach to everything.
That big, strong, college-football personality of the band derived partly from the only saxophone section in big band history with no alto saxophones. Some writers have said it was because Herman himself played alto sax. But so did Jimmy Dorsey, Hal McIntyre, and many others, and they still put alto saxophones in their front line.
For whatever reason, Woody seemed attracted to that robust sound, and made it his own special voice. The "First Herd" (1940-1946) recorded "Caldonia", "Your Father's Mustache", "Apple Honey", and several other unbridled jazz-novelties. The "Second Herd" (1947-1949) contained and recorded Jimmy Giuffre's "Four Brothers" – tenor saxophonists Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff. Giuffre followed later with "Four Others" and "Four Mothers" to feature the trombones and trumpets in the band.
Woody Herman survived the be-bop revolution, and continued to put together a series of bands filled with bright young musicians from the better music schools of the nation. In the 1950s and 1960s, jazz writers ignored any first, second, or third designation, and began to refer to the band as "the '50s Herd" and "the '60s Herd" then finally as "Woody Herman's Thundering Herd."
In March 1946, at Carnegie Hall, Woody Herman played the Ebony Concerto, composed and conducted by Igor Stravinsky. More successful was a later jazz-rock adaptation of Aaron Copland Fanfare for the Common Man. Such interests were consistent with Herman's native musical curiosity. He always kept up with the times, and often featured complex jazz-rock compositions by the youngsters in the band, saying, "And now, ladies and gentlemen, some 'space music' for the kids in the band."
In his final days, Herman suffered income tax problems from an unsavory business manager. The jazz community rose, as one, to help out with contributions, and with a special request to Congress for a compromise to reduce and satisfy the huge debt. It was a testimony to Herman's position in the jazz world.
Sometimes called, fondly, "The Godfather of the Road Bands", Woody Herman was loved by his men and admired by the public as one of the most successful leaders in big-band history.
In his early days, Stanley Newcomb Kenton (1912-1979) played piano with many of the local bands on the West Coast, with a kind of restless discontent that began to appear in his special arrangements. At age twenty-nine, he formed his own band, and got booked into the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, California. Next came the Hollywood Palladium, then the Roseland Ballroom in New York. Some fans and jazz critics found the band too loud and hard to dance to. Kenton boldly declared that his kind of "progressive jazz" was not meant to be danced to.
From that point on, his public was equally divided among those who saw him as the man who would save the big bands from boredom and death, or the man who would destroy the big band tradition by his ruthless experiments with ugly new sounds. He was neither, of course. He was a man driven by a vision of the American big band as something other than a machine for ballroom dancing.
He was, in fact, responding to a whole new set of sociocultural conditions. He felt, intuitively perhaps, that things were different for him than they had been for Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, and Glenn Miller. He became popular with the college crowd, and played for their dances, but always with some reluctance and reservation. He gave up music for a while, and toyed with the idea of going into psychiatric medicine.
In 1950, at age thirty-eight, however, he came back into music. He pushed the big jazz band concept to new levels of complexity and aesthetic challenge. He brought in a full string section for a while, and wrote jazz-fused symphonic works. He went on the road, almost yearly, with a large group of musicians and singers, playing concerts billed as "Innovations in Modern Music". He helped form the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra to promote and perform modern music. Everything he did seemed to generate controversy because of his fondness for powerful music driven by large brass sections.
Less controversial, and perhaps more important in the long run, was the establishment of a nation-wide series of summer jazz camps, competitions, and recording opportunities for high school and college musicians. Many talented youngsters attended those Stan Kenton Jazz Workshops on scholarship awards, and spent a week or two with the big-league professionals Kenton would bring in to teach and coach.
In 1977, Kenton suffered a skull fracture after a fall, and never quite fully recovered. He died in Hollywood in 1979. His six-foot six-inch frame was filled with restless energies, and his career revealed a unique creative pianist-composer-teacher at work with a missionary zeal to expand the horizons of that special jazz instrument called the big band.
WHY 1930 TO 1945?
The seeds were planted in the 1920s, but the big bands matured and bloomed in the 1930s and early 1940s because conditions were just right. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and nightlife moved out into the open. With a twenty-five cent admission fee, an evening of ballroom dancing became a favorite enjoyment for the Depression-era adolescents whose fathers and brothers were out of work. And "late-night listening became especially popular; tuning in for free to dance bands broadcasting from celebrated night clubs [and ballrooms] partly compensated for the loss of more costly leisure pursuits" (Maltby 1989, 102). Marshall McLuhan says that radio "tribalizes" a culture by erasing regional distinctions in favor of, and in search of, common experiences.
The common experiences of poverty, fear, and sadness were offset by the imaginary common experiences of wealth, security, and happiness. "Pennies from Heaven", "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?", "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", and similar tunes were collective commiseration and therapy devices. And in romantic film comedies, an heiress might fall in love with a reporter, while, across the street, Walt Disney's dream factory bathed its audience in warm fantasies where things turn out OK in the end. America needed to believe in itself, and the pop arts rose to the occasion. It's not a coincidence that Kate Smith, General Motors, the New York Yankees, the Superman comic strip, the Hollywood musical, the Sears and Roebuck catalog, the singing cowboy movie hero, and Benny Goodman all reached the peak of their fame and productivity during the same fifteen-year stretch of American history. The arts – and the pop arts are quickest to react – always reveal and express the deepest collective subliminal needs and desires of the tribe.
America needed teamwork, and heroes who would lead the team to do the work. And the big bands were wondrous teams, creating assembly-line music for their hero-leader. "The music's synchronized control reinforced a shaken sense of [social] order by echoing and embodying that order in its full but conventional harmonies and regular, mechanical rhythm. One day, the big bands suggested, if everyone was compliant, life would be as 'full' as these sounds" (Maltby 1989, 103).
Meanwhile, America's theater responded to the Depression with escapist works, of course, but also with some of the most powerful and important musicals ever created. Curt Sachs, preeminent German music historian, wrote that in times of social upheaval – pestilence, famine, flood, war, economic disaster, earthquakes, etc. – there is often a great outpouring of creative energies.
After the Great Depression, the entire field of popular music took a dramatic turn toward being more a "business" than a field of "entertainment", but not before the Second World War was cleared out of the way. And what a remarkable effort that war generated! The entire world of pop music seemed unified in its propaganda mission.
Later wars – Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere – were terribly controversial and unpopular with certain people in America, but not World War II. Nothing today could possibly come close to the unanimous spirit so prevalent during World War II. It was a war that had to be fought. It was justified, and no one doubted its purpose or style. Time for a quick survey of popular music during that historic event.