Forgotten Jazz Orchestras: Boyd Raeburn

raeburn band

The Raeburn orchestra in full cry, 1948

A while back, I wrote a piece with a similar title about Sam Donahue’s Navy Band, an outstanding group remembered by seamen in the Pacific during World War II but not too much by others. Now here is another about one of my all-time favorite bands which garnered a high reputation of playing “far out” arrangements, though by today’s standards (or even those of the 1960s) his charts were only minimally avant-garde.

Also, unlike the Donahue band, Raeburn’s was actually known by a wider range of people since it was a civilian group and played on and off, through various incarnations, from 1943 to 1949. But unlike the Donohue band, which had a brief but rabid following, Raeburn had only a small but hardcore following, mostly by musicians and those who understood what he was doing.

Since the Raeburn band lasted more or less for seven years, it also left a larger legacy, but most of it was on radio transcription discs. Throughout that entire period of their existence they made only 34 commercial records: 12 sides for the small Guild label, later bought out by Albert Marx and reissued on his Musicraft label, 18 sides for Ben Pollack’s even smaller Jewell label, and then, in 1949, four sides (mostly ballads) for Nesuhi Ertegun’s fledgling Atlantic Records, which was soon to become a house divided between R&B music and jazz during the 1950s.

They also went through three distinct stylistic periods. The 1943-early 1945 band had a large contingent of brass players (four each trumpet and trombones) but an otherwise standard interplay between brass and saxes. The arrangements during this period, although somewhat harmonically advanced, were clearly not avant-garde. The principal arranger during this period was Eddie Finckel with a few charts written on spec by Budd Johnson and Dizzy Gillespie. Trumpeter Roy Eldridge, who heard the band on the radio shortly after he left the Gene Krupa orchestra, was so excited by it that he ran down to the New York hotel where they were playing and sat in. Boyd asked him if he wanted to join the band and Eldridge emphatically said yes. He stayed for several months.

The second period, 1945-46, featured the more adventurous, rhythmically complex arrangements of George Handy, who abruptly left the band to go work in Hollywood—where he quickly realized he was miserable and out of place. The 1947-49 bands featured the much more lush and almost symphonic arrangements of Johnny Richards, and this is where the exotic instruments (oboe, English horn, French horns, harp etc.) came into play, still retaining some of the rhythmic complexity of the Handy period. Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, who played with the band in this later period, once said that the Raeburn charts were some of the most difficult he ever played since they had layered rhythms and advanced (for that time) chord positions.

Yet when one goes back and listens to the Raeburn band from all three of its stylistic periods, one hears a modern swing band that, yes, clearly experimented with whole tones and chromatics in places but for the most part wasn’t nearly as startling or abrasive to the ear as much of Stan Kenton’s music from the same period. Although Stan didn’t add strings until 1951, his big band of the mid-to-late ‘40s was far more complex and, for many listeners, confusing. Yet Kenton was able to score some big mainstream hit records—Tampico, And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine, The Peanut Vendor, Eager Beaver, Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy etc.—while none of Raeburn’s records hit the charts, even in those rare moments when he was obviously trying to do so as in the case of the novelty song Rip Van Winkle.

The question, then, is not so much Was the Raeburn band really good?, since they obviously were, so much as Was the Raeburn band genuinely avant-garde? Well, they were and they weren’t. By and large, most of the complexities in his band’s scores were subtle and not always obvious to the ear, though his 1944 recordings of Finckel’s March of the Boyds and Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia (the first made of that now-classic jazz piece) were clearly using harmonic changes that were considered a bit abrasive for that period. The most obviously experimental charts were written during the George Handy period, and we are fortunate that Pollack’s Jewell label, though a small company, had outstanding sonics for its time. Such pieces as Tonsilectomy, Yerxa and Dalvatore Sally clearly place the band close to the Kenton mold, but although there are some whole-tone passages and sliding chromatics in the middle section of Boyd Meets Stravinsky we are hearing a chart not that far removed from the music played by Woody Herman’s first Herd, the one with Neal Hefti, Chubby Jackson and Ralph Burns arrangements that wowed audiences on their Wildroot-sponsored radio program of the same period.

The recordings and transcriptions made during the Johnny Richards period were also very interesting, but the most advanced arrangement among them was Over the Rainbow, a chart started by Finckel that also had a little bit of input from Handy. There is, however, a very complex arrangement of Temptation to consider (available on YouTube as part of a very rare video of the band) and an even more adventurous one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on a radio transcription disc. Both feature DeFranco on clarinet.

So what, really, was Raeburn’s problem with image and selling the band? From the perspective of today, it’s difficult to explain. Yet from the vantage-point of the era itself, the problems are a little clearer to discern, and the number one reason for its failure was Raeburn himself. Although he sometimes (and I emphasize the word sometimes) played the saxophone, he only did so in ensembles since he was not a good jazz musician. When leading the band, he just stood there and conducted as if he were Paul Whiteman, and a leader who just conducted a jazz band in those days was not taken very seriously by music lovers. Herman played the clarinet out front of his band and both Kenton and Claude Thornhill, who also led a fairly modern-sounding orchestra that influenced a lot of people, played the piano. Thornhill was almost a shy and retiring leader, but he had several specialty numbers that spotlighted his piano so he was taken serious as a “leader.” A guy who just stood there and waved his arms was frowned upon, and it also didn’t help that Raeburn was a very short man. Thus, as a leader, he just didn’t have much presence, and in the ballrooms and movie theaters where most big bands played, this was a liability.

And yet, he continually had allies in the jazz press of the time, particularly Barry Ulanov at Down Beat and George T. Simon at Metronome magazine. Simon, in fact, devoted a major chapter to the Raeburn band in his 1967 book, The Big Bands, which is where I first heard of him, though I did not run across his records until about five years later when Savoy Jazz reissued the Jewell and Atlantic sides in a 2-LP set. It took me another year or two to find the Musicraft reissues on LP, and several more years before the radio transcriptions began coming out.

I also think that Raeburn’s constant pursuit of a pop hit record hurt his image because those arrangements were not in his band’s normal style of each period. They were slow, moody arrangements with the saxes playing whole tones behind whatever sappy male singer he had at the moment. Only Ginny Powell, his second (or third) female singer and his second wife, really had a good jazz style in almost everything she sang, but the fact that she based her style on Anita O’Day made her seem more like a carbon copy of someone original rather than a singer with something different to offer.

Several well-known jazz bandleaders helped Raeburn out every time his band went bankrupt, among them Billy Eckstine, Jack Teagarden and especially Duke Ellington, all of whom believed in what he was doing and helped to revive his career, but it just wasn’t enough. I also think that Raeburn’s shifting styles confused listeners: those who really liked his gutsier 1943-45 style weren’t very happy with the Handy arrangements, and those who loved his Handy period hard a hard time adjusting to Richards’ lusher, more symphonic approach.

But the biggest liability that Raeburn had was his inability to attract a high-powered manager, and I’m still not sure why he couldn’t. Since his original band played soothing hotel-styled music until bassist Homer Bennett died in an auto crash in 1942 and he decided to completely switch gears, it’s possible that his prior manager didn’t like the change, any more than managers and hotels didn’t much care for Shep Fields switching from his Rippling Rhythm orchestra to his all-reed band in 1941. Fields, too, struggled for years with that band despite rave reviews from critics and (luckily for him) a fairly good batch of records issued on RCA Victor’s Bluebird label. Still, the atmosphere of the time, particularly in post-World War II America, was definitely in favor of what I call “progressive swing,” i.e., swing bands with livelier and more harmonically adventurous charts. Even Gene Krupa was playing some pretty advanced stuff in the mid-to-late ‘40s—but then again, Krupa was one of the most visually exciting drummers in the world and had a huge following.

Nonetheless, I’m still convinced that Boyd Raeburn would have had a much better career had he been signed with someone like the Rockwell-O’Keefe agency or MCA. Either Decca or RCA could have signed him as a competitor to Kenton and Herman in the mid-1940s; after all, RCA didn’t really enter the more modern band field until they started recording Dizzy Gillespie’s big bop band in 1947-49, and even he sold better than Raeburn. Of course, Jack Kapp, who owned Decca, was no fan of modern jazz as a rule, but he did have Milt Gabler there as his jazz A&R man during that period, but I still think RCA would have been a better fit. It’s water over the dam now, but I think if you visualize Raeburn with a better manager and a better record contract, he would have been much better known in his own time.

Ironically, he was signed by a major label—Columbia Records—during the late 1950s, but their pop A&R man, Mitch Miller, insisted that he record fairly bland arrangements of other bands’ hits from the 1940s. Not only did the records not sell well, but former Raeburn fans who did buy them were bitterly disappointed.

Both Ginny Powell and Raeburn had tragic ends. Powell died of meningitis aggravated by alcoholism in the late 1950s. Raeburn was in a terrible auto wreck in 1966; his ribs were crushed, and he survived, but not for long. He was only 52 when he died.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Forgotten Jazz Orchestras: Boyd Raeburn

  1. Tommi Uschanov says:

    I don’t know where you got the boat capsizing story, but Ginnie Powell actually died of meningitis aggravated by alcoholism. This is confirmed by the Associated Press wire story on her death that ran in many newspapers (e.g. the New York Times and Washington Post) on 30 July 1959, as well as autobiographical writings by both her son Bruce and daughter Susan that can be found online.


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