Jazz and the Swing Bands: Four Music Legends

One day several years ago, my wife and I were browsing in the local Border’s bookstore (remember those?). Entering bookstores, we usually head in different directions after first establishing a time to meet back at the registers. Well into our designated half-hour, I stumbled upon a book on the sale rack; it was Ken Burns’ companion book to his ten-DVD documentary titled Jazz. I knew about the series, but I never much fancied jazz given my poor understanding of it at the time; to me, “jazz” was limited to the early fifties/sixties embodiment – which I still do not like much. I picked up the book, anyway, thumbed through it, and proceeded to be astonished at the wide range of music the name “jazz” really encompasses. New Orleans jazz, the big-band sound, and the swing dance bands are all part of the historical evolution, and I have always enjoyed listening to that music. Now, after fully digesting Mr. Burns’ Jazz and acquiring some historical perspective, I am hooked more than ever on New Orleans jazz and the big bands of the thirties and early forties.

Louis Armstrong

Within those genres, there were many great performers, but four in particular stand out in my mind. First, there was Louis (not Louie) – Armstrong, that is. Although Burns dotes perhaps more than he should on Armstrong and his pioneering effect on all of jazz, there can be no question that he was one of the primary forces responsible for shaping the evolution of jazz. In general, the public has been kind to Armstrong over the decades, given his one-of-a-kind persona and such later recording hits as Hello Dolly, Mack the Knife, and It’s a Wonderful World.

LA

But Armstrong is far more laudable and important for his innovative musical phrasing in the early days which set the direction not only for jazz but for much of the popular music that ensued; and then there was his dynamic trumpet. Back in the twenties and thirties, his driving style, high register capability and the overall power of his playing found him pretty much alone in the spotlight. From the forties on, his technique and ability on the horn fell behind that of younger players, but what a storied life he led! From dire poverty in the slums of New Orleans, the fatherless boy from the Colored Waif’s Home learned to play the cornet in the Home’s band and proceeded to ultimately become an international musical celebrity who played command performances for royalty around the globe despite the early and long-lingering obstacles presented by racial prejudice.

Benny Goodman

 Benny Goodman: “The King of Swing” – at least the white version. Many would argue that Chick Webb, holding court in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom, came sooner and was more deserving of the title, but leading an all-black band had its disadvantages back then, so Benny was anointed with the title in the mid-thirties. His band in the years, 1937-38 was one of the best ever assembled featuring soon-to-be-recognized all-star performers such as Gene Krupa on drums and Harry James on trumpet. Benny was truly a virtuoso on the clarinet; his smooth, effortless style on the lead solos imparted the trademark “swing” for which his band became so famous.

BG

Goodman came from a large immigrant Jewish family, dirt-poor and mired in the worst of Chicago’s slums. His father caught wind of a local charity that was providing musical instruments to young students who could not possibly afford to rent or own them. Benny received a clarinet, quite by luck of the draw. His father saw to it that Benny received tutoring from a classically-trained teacher, Professor Schoepp, who taught him the fine points of musicianship and technique. Goodman quickly proved to be a child prodigy on the clarinet, possessed with a life-long desire to excel on his instrument and in his musical profession.

 By the age of twelve or thirteen, he was already playing in local dance bands with adult musicians – Benny was the one in short pants….literally!

He could do it all at a very early age: Sight-reading, improvisation, jazz, classical, and he was driven early-on by musical instincts and ideas for a genre of music not yet readily heard (or even played) – the sound that became big-band swing. He practiced constantly on his instrument, even after decades of fame and international renown. He never let-up. He was the best clarinetist out there, even in the company of Artie Shaw.

One aspect of Goodman I admire tremendously is the fact that one NEVER hears a compromised note in any of his thousands of intricate lead-solos, and woe to any band member who misses notes or comes in late for his solo. I heard the same accolade paid to Harry James on the trumpet by a well-known music critic; this is an assertion I can attest to after years of listening. Like Goodman, James never fluffed notes, even when playing intricate, high, and fast jazz riffs – an amazing feat on the difficult trumpet. Goodman was very confident in his abilities on the clarinet even as a young teenager playing professionally with adults. I recently saw an interview of the aged but still active and able Goodman conducted by a young Diane Sawyer. When asked about his talent, he answered with complete frankness and humility that it is something one must be born with. Determination and hard work alone are not sufficient to produce that kind of capability. We mere mortals could practice an instrument twelve hours a day for years and never approach the abilities of a Benny Goodman or a Harry James. The fact that Goodman worked so diligently at his craft despite his great gifts is the ultimate tribute to him and undoubtedly reflects the difficulties and insecurities he experienced as a child in the Chicago slums. He was driven to excel; He was one-of-a-kind, the likes of which will not be seen again. 

Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey – a fine musician and trombone player whose band was second to none thanks to fabulous instincts and a no-nonsense approach to band-leading. Benny’s band swung harder; Harry James and His Music Makers were louder and brassier, but Dorsey’s outfit was more versatile and endowed with fabulous musical arrangements and taste. He made Frank Sinatra the star he became when Sinatra joined him in 1939 after a year with Harry James and his new band.

TD&FS

I have a CD called The Essential Frank Sinatra With the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra which features a bonanza of stellar recordings from the 1939-1941 era when the band was still featured but the vocalist had a major part in the number. These are priceless arrangements with Sinatra on the verge of perfecting his genius, supported by fabulous, often subtle-as-silk orchestration. They called Dorsey “The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing,” yet he was anything but. He was one tough character with a fiery temper who was not above driving home a point with his fists….and yet somehow he produced this beautiful musical product – an amazing contradiction.

Harry James

 As good as Benny Goodman was on the clarinet, perhaps Harry James was even better on the trumpet. Also a child prodigy on that difficult instrument, it seems that James could so anything on the trumpet ….and do it perfectly. I recall Goodman, himself, paying that compliment to James. Unlike even the best of his contemporaries, he NEVER fluffed or sloughed notes, even the quick ones tucked in a rapid passage; you heard them all – each and every one of them!  He was very versatile, equally able to play the difficult trumpet standard, Carnival of Venice like any classically trained trumpeter, yet able to improvise the hottest of jazz licks and make them shimmer. Comparing Goodman and James for virtuosity, Goodman did have competition from Artie Shaw on the clarinet. I cannot name any trumpet player during the late thirties and through the forties who could seriously challenge Harry James.

HJ

James came from a traveling circus family in Texas. His father, Everett, was a fine cornet player responsible for leading the circus bands; his mother was a trapeze flyer. Like so very many of the major players in the music business, Harry led a hard-scrabble life as a youngster, following the circus from town to town with his parents. His father was a stern taskmaster and saw to it that James was well trained on the horn, driving young Harry to master Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method  For Trumpet, the trumpet player’s bible. Young Harry apparently did just that.

The “Chill” Factor and Harry James

 It is a wonderful, other-worldly experience when one hears music which can produce chills up the spine. I recently bought a DVD of the 1948 film, Young Man with a Horn starring Kirk Douglas as a talented, obsessed trumpet player. Harry James did all the playing for the film.

YMWH

In one scene that has burned itself in my movie-memory, Douglas and Doris Day visit a posh nightclub where the elder trumpet player who mentored Douglas years ago as a boy was playing with a small jazz group. Douglas was recognized by his old teacher and was invited up to the stage to play a number for the audience. He took out his horn and, with the backing of the other musicians, launched into the old standard, With a Song in My Heart. Right from the very first note and all the way through the piece, I got chills up and down my spine from the power, the tone purity, and the musicality James put into that number. The scene was beautifully staged; the elegant nightclub audience was stopped cold in its conversational tracks on the first note, mesmerized by the beautiful artistry on display. I do not believe it took much acting on their part.

 At the conclusion of the song, with the audience a-buzz, the elder player remarked to the audience that he, indeed, had taught the young Douglas how to hold that trumpet, but he “did not teach him how to play it – not the way that he does.” Putting his hand on his breast, he added, “That’s something that you can’t learn; you’ve got to have it.”

 I have heard a lot of very fine trumpet in my years of involvement with the instrument and am not that easily impressed, but James’ playing in the fine soundtrack of this film takes my breath away every single time I hear it – especially that one number. Pure genius; one has to be born with it to be that good. 

A Social Commentary on the Interesting Common Denominator of These Four

All four performers came from rough/tough beginnings – from dire poverty – and all four had to develop very tough skins early in life. Artie Shaw, another great musician/bandleader fits the same mold. Reading their bios, one is amazed at the sensitivity and artistic expression which became the hallmark of their music given the rough and tumble business in which they worked and the hard-driving lifestyle that being on the road made virtually inevitable. The three bandleaders profiled were not only superb musicians in their own right, they also mastered the supremely difficult task of hiring and retaining the best (and often ego-centric) musicians – and keeping them in line. The lesson to be learned from the three of them: Steel, hard-forged in fire, is the toughest.

I wish more young people today were aware of the great artistry they and others of their ilk displayed and the tremendous lift their music provided to a country emerging from a great depression while simultaneously mobilizing for a world war. Those fine musicians deserve the recognition. They and their music need not take a back seat to any musical genre. Lucky are we who understand and know the joy.

6 thoughts on “Jazz and the Swing Bands: Four Music Legends

  1. Thank you for your thoughts on some early swing bands. I have been
    a jazz fan since the early 50’s. I liked the early big bands because they
    didn’t use synthesizers. I heard some great small groups playing at
    the SF jazz clubs such as the Jazz Work Shop. One I especially liked
    was called the Mastersounds. It had Wes Montgomery on guitar and
    Monk Montgomery on bass as well as a piano and drums.

    • Like you, I am not a big fan of synthesizers or of the uber-amplification applied to so much of today’s of musical offerings. The direct sound of a big-band or an orchestra coming right at you cannot be beat. Of course, there is sometimes the need for minimal amplification here and there, but not of the ear-splitting kind. The great artists made an “impact” on one’s senses through their artistry, not by bludgeoning the eardrums.

  2. True musicianship is still alive in various genres of folk and roots music, but it’s sad to me that so much technical proficiency in musicianship has been crowded out by garbage pop stuff and the truly great music has been elevated to something apart from “regular” life.

    • As in nature, the best is often experienced along side tributaries rather than in the mainstream; so it is with music and art today. Separate thought: The great musical arrangers for the top big bands are another group that rarely receives due credit; their work was key to the joy of listening. Sinatra himself benefitted immensely in the fifties from crack arrangements by Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins which enhanced his “way with a song.”

      • I have music teachers among my friends and relatives — agreed. One of the best re-arrangements ever was Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

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