Forgotten Jazz Orchestras: Sam Donahue’s Navy Band

rhythm section & Donohue

The Navy Band’s rhythm section with Sam Donahue on tenor sax

It was a service band like no other, and to many people it came out of nowhere. Sam Donahue, a Detroit-born sax player and sometimes trumpeter, took over Artie Shaw’s Navy Band after Shaw, trumpeter Max Kaminsky and drummer Dave Tough collapsed from stress and exhaustion and had to be sent home and given a discharge. The first thing Donahue did was to gift-wrap Shaw’s arrangements and send them back to him—he didn’t need or want them. What he wanted was a modern, streamlined, powerhouse swing band that had the punch of a freight train, and he got it.

Donahue’s success was immediate, but unlike his Army Air Force counterpart, Major Glenn Miller, Donahue didn’t have a regular broadcast or V-Disc recording schedule. His band was catch-as-catch-can, but the few times outsiders had a chance to hear it they were stunned and amazed. Here was a band that had power but didn’t hit you over the head like Stan Kenton; it had finesse like Jimmie Lunceford’s band, but their arrangements weren’t “cute” or precious. They just played straight-ahead jazz charts that made little concession to popular tastes, featuring a trumpet section that was the envy of the music industry and a sax section that blended perfectly—all driven by a greased-lightning rhythm section.

As it turned out, Donahue had plenty of experience going into his Navy gig; he just wasn’t very well known. Born in Detroit, Donahue formed a big band there in 1937 but eventually turned it over to Sonny Burke so he could join Gene Krupa’s new band. He stayed with Krupa for two years, worked briefly with the bands of Harry James and Benny Goodman, then formed another band of his own in 1941. This one had those powerful, streamlined arrangements like his Navy band, but received scant attention in the jazz press. The Navy Band, however, took off like a comet and propelled the young bandleader to stardom.

brass sectionAnd small wonder. The trumpet section of Conrad Gozzo and John Best (co-leaders), Frank Beach and Don Jacoby was considered the best in the business. Donahue occasionally joined them to create a five-man trumpet team. The trombone players were Tasso Harris (lead), “Tak” Takvorian and Dick Le Fave with Gene Leetch on bass trombone. The saxes were Mack Pierce, lead alto; Ralph La Polla, alto and clarinet; Bill Nichol, alto sax; Joe Aglora, tenor sax and sometimes Donahue with Charlie Wade, baritone sax. The rhythm section was made up of pianist Rocky Coluccio, guitarist Al Horesh, bassist Barney Spieler and drummer Buzz Sithens.

reed sectionAn interesting sidelight in the band’s history is that they were transported on an LST, a transport ship designed for carrying aircraft and heavy artillery but not people. The band was so intrigued by this incident that Donahue wrote a piece, LST Party, to celebrate the moment.

One of the most amazing qualities of the Donahue band, besides its power, was its perfect intonation. Every player in every section apparently had perfect pitch, or at least played that way, so that the cumulative effect was greater than the individual parts. One of the best descriptions of the band was published in Great Britain’s Melody Maker in the fall of 1944 when the band played in England:

“Musician Second Class Sam Donahue has a band that is easily as good as any civilian outfit playing right now. It plays fresh, exciting, modern jump arrangements. It is an uninhibited powerhouse unit that makes few concessions to commercialism and moves along with a beat and attack that actually scare you.

“Sam himself is great. The man is tops because he is a terrific tenor man, a unique arranger who nonchalantly dashes off scores written in tough keys, a competent trumpeter, and a leader who looks as if he belongs in front of a band. His alternately wild and restrained tenor work is little short of amazing. He thinks nothing of playing lead parts in the alto range on tenor. And it doesn’t sound cheaply flashy the way he does it.

“The Navy band has guts, power and finesse, but mere words can’t do it justice. I have heard the band on its infrequent radio shots and have seen it only once but the one showing convinced me that Donahue is a coming man in jazz.

Miller & Donohue

Glenn Miller and Donahue, fall 1944

“Major Glenn Miller sat about five rows from me at the Queensbury Club digging the Donahue outfit. He was there with his manager, Don Haynes, now a first looey [lieutenant], and looked mighty attentive and pleased when Sam trotted out full, musical scorings of medium tempo standards and then blew the house apart with stuff like a wild Donahue arrangement of Ellington’s C Jam Blues.”

The Navy Band, like all service outfits, was mostly allowed to record only on V-Discs, but happily quite a few of them have survived. You can hear them play on YouTube:

Arrangements by Donahue, Dave Rose and Dick Jones

Bugle Call Rag (Pettis-Meyers-Schoebel)V-Disc label
LST Party (Donahue)
Convoy (Donahue)
Deep Night (Henderson-Vallee, arr. Dave Rose)
I’ve Found a New Baby (Palmer-Williams, arr. Donahue)
C-Jam Blues (Duke Ellington)
Moten Swing (Bennie & Bus Moten)
Just You, Just Me (Klages-Greer)
Cocktails for Two (Johnston-Coslow)

So what happened to Donahue? After the war he led another band of his own, playing arrangements similar to his Navy outfit, but although they were good the players weren’t quite as all-star and so the unique chemistry he achieved in the Navy wasn’t the same. In 1951 he went back into the Navy for a couple of years to fight in the Korean War, then he was discharged and worked for Tommy Dorsey’s band. In the 1960s he assumed leadership of TD’s ghost band for a few years, then he died in 1974, aged only 58.

But that 1944-45 Navy band was one of a kind.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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