The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

ISR picture

This is the story of one of America’s great swing orchestras that happened to also be an all-woman band and the very first racially integrated female band in America. They were called the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, or ISR for short.

Laurence_C._Jones_(ca._1922)

Dr. Laurence Jones

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were founded at the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi for poor and African American children in 1937 by Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones (1882-1975), the school’s principal and founder, also the band’s first leader. Some of the children who played in the band were orphans. Many started at the school at 13, 14, and 15 years old with no musical background at all, yet learned to play instruments and to play jazz. In their early years they played festivals, parades, county fairs and concerts around the area. Miss Sims, one of the original trombonists, said in a 1980 Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival interview  that it was a lot of fun for them to play certain arrangements; for her, it was the hit tune Christopher Columbus, one of the first pieces they were taught, because she could really enjoy pushing out the trombone slide.

The original concept of the band, however, was not entirely altruistic. Dr. Jones knew that a well-trained orchestra of female jazz musicians would be a novelty as well as a career for them, thus he toured with them to help raise money for the school. His inspiration was the all-female orchestra led by the talented singer-dancer Ina Ray Hutton since 1934. (It might be noted that neither Hutton nor her band have really gotten their due in jazz history either, although a side-by-side comparison shows that they weren’t quite as good as jazz improvisers as the musicians of the ISR.) Jones’ sister was also a music teacher who, back around 1919, taught Coleman Hawkins how to play the tenor saxophone. It should not be assumed, however, that Laurence Jones “used” the women in this orchestra. His granddaughter one said that he and his wife Grace were always “very strategic” in the way he used musicians to help raise funds. Piney Woods had an all-male jazz orchestra as well (in fact, before the Sweethearts of Rhythm were founded), and the all-female Cotton Blossom Singers. Interestingly, Jones didn’t believe in “co-ed anything; the girls were in one section of the camp, and the boys were in another section of the camp, and only for a certain amount of minutes, not hours, a day were they allowed to even talk to each other.”

Interestingly, Jones named the band the “International” Sweethearts of Rhythm not because they had played or were known internationally, but because of the different nationalities of the young women in the group. “We had Indians, we had Mexicans, Puerto Rican and Chinese girls…Willie Mae Lee Wong and Helen Jones, Tiny Davis and myself were the nucleus of the Sweethearts of Rhythm,” one of the trombonists said in 1980. As the band’s book became more demanding and the need for good musicians grew, however, Jones began recruiting girls from outside the school to buttress their musicianship. “We had girls from just about every state in the Union,” one member recalled, “This was before we even had white girls. I mean, we had girls who looked white but they were not white. Ros [Cron, one of the reed players] was our first white girl.” Ros Cron herself recalled that when she was 16, prior to joining the ISR, she had sat in with Eddie Durham’s All-Girl Orchestra in the early 1940s at the Raymor Playmor Ballroom in Boston, “and that was really the first time I had known that girls really played horns and really, really played real music, and I was just so amazed and loved it from that moment on.” At the end of the night, Durham asked her if she would join the band, but she said she didn’t think so because she was still in high school and her parents wanted her to graduate. “But it was in my head,” she added. “I knew this was something I really wanted to do.” Nevertheless, she played in all-male bands around the Boston area, and as the war started and the men began being drafted, she gained more and more experience. When she graduated in 1943 she felt ready to start her career, so she went on the road with a white band, Ada Leonard and her All-Girl Orchestra. There’s a 1943 video clip of this band with Cron on saxophone (she even gets a solo) which you can view HERE.

Dr. Jones also founded the Swinging Rays of Rhythm, another all-female band, concurrent with the International Sweethearts in 1937. They were the Sweethearts’ “understudies,” led by saxophonist Lou Holloway, and played performances when the Sweethearts were forced to attend school because they had been missing too many classes. Eventually, the Swinging Rays became the ISR’s replacement at Piney Woods, being led by Consuela Carter, touring throughout the East to raise money for the school.

In 1941 several girls in the ISR fled the school’s bus when they found out that some of them would not graduate because they had been touring with the band instead of sitting in class. That was when they decided to turn professional, severing all ties with Piney Woods in April of that year. Shortly thereafter the band settled in Arlington, Virginia, where a wealthy Virginian provided support for them and acquired a non-Piney Woods

Vi Burnside

Vi Burnside soloing with the band in a 1944 short film.

drummer, Pauline Braddy, who had been taught drums by Big Sid Catlett and Jo Jones. Eddie Durham, who had been writing charts for the band when they were still associated with Piney Woods, was replaced by Jesse Stone in 1941 when Durham, inspired by them, started his own all-woman outfit that year, taking some of the original Sweethearts with him. Stone also brought some more polished professionals into the band to fill some gaps in their soloing prowess. His two most important contributions were Ernestine “Tiny” Davis on trumpet and tenor saxophonist Violet “Vi” Burnside (1915-1964) who had been working with the all-black Harlem Playgirls. Known as the “female Coleman Hawkins,” Burnside’s huge, commanding tone and excellent solos quickly became centerpieces of the band.

WinburnThey also acquired their leader, the very pretty singer Anna Mae Winburn, in 1941. Winburn (1913-1999) had been performing with an all-male band, the Cotton Club Boys of North Omaha, Nebraska, which had once included Charlie Christian on guitar, until the band was “raided” by Fletcher Henderson. Winburn would remain the ISR’s leader and primary singer until they disbanded. Around 1943, Jesse Stone was replaced as the band’s principal writer and arranger by one Maurice King. King wrote some of the group’s most famous killer-diller swing tunes like Swing Shift, Vi Vigor, Slightly Frantic, Don’t Get it Twisted and She’s Crazy With the Heat as well as blues specialties for Winburn, That Man of Mine and I Left My Man.

With all these elements now in place, the ISR really began to take off in popularity during 1943-44.  They played the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., the Regal Theater in Chicago, the Cotton Club in Cincinnati, the Riviera in St. Louis, the Dreamland in Omaha and the Club Plantation and Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles, all venues that were geared primarily if not exclusively towards black audiences. Famous jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote in a Los Angeles Times article that “if you are white, whatever your age, chances are you have never heard of the Sweethearts[…].” Yet they swiftly rose to fame, as evidenced in one Howard Theater show when the band set a new box office record of 35,000 patrons in one week of 1941. After playing the Regal Theater in 1943, the Chicago Defender praised the band as “one of the hottest stage shows that ever raised the roof!” A great advantage to touring across the states was that, when in Hollywood, they were able to make short films to use as “fillers” in movie theaters.

Jump ChildrenDespite all of this, several impediments stood in their way of complete success, primarily opportunities for commercial recording. To the best of my online research, they seem to have only made four sides for the small Guild record label in May or June of 1945. Guild was the same label that the ill-fated Boys Raeburn Orchestra started with, but Raeburn also made records for the equally small Jewell label while the ISR had no further opportunities. The bulk of the ISR’s legacy stems from broadcast transcripts of the Armed Forces Radio program “Jubilee,” hosted by the irritating, sycophantic but seemingly popular loudmouth Ernie “Bubbles” Whitman. As in Raeburn’s case, the dearth of commercial recordings eventually led to their undoing. Johnny Mercer, who sang one number with Freddie Slack’s band (Waitin’ for the Evening Mail) on their Jubilee broadcast of July 17, 1945, was so impressed by them that he tried to sign them to his Capitol Records label, but although he was one of Capitol’s founding members, by 1945 there was a Board of Directors in charge and they nixed the idea since, unlike Nat “King” Cole, the band’s strongest appeal was to African-American audiences only.

But Mercer wasn’t the only one who failed to give the band a leg up. Most male jazz musicians, particularly black ones, were only too happy to see the band struggle because they represented a threat to them. In an interview taped in the 1990s, Anna Mae Winburn said that they were “women trying to make a place in the world among musicians where prejudice existed because they were women.”

ISR member in 2011

Surviving band members and Dr. Jones’ granddaughter (far right) being interviewed in 1980.

During interviews with other band members at the 1980 Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival mentioned earlier, pianist Johnnie Mae Rice also brought up the fact that they “practically lived on the bus, using it for music rehearsals and regular school classes, arithmetic and everything.” Despite being stars throughout the country, when they played down South they also had to sleep and eat on the bus due to segregation. At the same Festival interview, Roz Cron complained that “We [the white members] were supposed to say ‘My mother was black and my father was white’ because that was the way it was in the South. Well, I swore to the Sheriff in El Paso that that’s what I was, but he went through my wallet and there was a photo of my mother and father sitting before our little house in New England with the picket fence, and it just didn’t jell. So I spent the night in jail.” Eventually, the white women in the band wore dark makeup on stage to avoid arrest. In addition, the band earned less in the South than in other venues. Saxist Willie Mae Wong, however, explained at the same Festival how they struggled financially throughout the country. “The original members received $1 a day for food plus $1 a week allowance, for a grand total of $8 a week,” she said. “That went on for years, until we got a substantial raise—to $15 a week. By the time we broke up, we were making $15 a night, three nights a week.” Yet in 1944, the band was named “America’s No. 1 All-Girl Orchestra” by down beat.

During World War II, letter-writing campaigns from overseas African American soldiers demanded them, and in 1945 the band embarked on a six-month European tour to France and Germany, making them the first black women to travel with the USO.

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm performed in 1948 alongside Dizzy Gillespie at the fourth annual Cavalcade of Jazz concert held at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field on September 12. Also on the program that day were Frankie Laine, Jimmy Witherspoon, Joe Turner, The Honeydrippers, The Blenders and The Sensations. They also played at the eighth Cavalcade of Jazz concert at Wrigley Field on June 1, 1952. Other featured artists were Jerry Wallace, Roy Brown and His Mighty Men, Louis Jordan, Witherspoon and Josephine Baker. According to Wikipedia,

A great number of reasons, both known and purported, have been doled out as to why the International Sweethearts of Rhythm began their gradual disbandment after they returned from their European tour in 1946: marriage, career change, tiring of always being on the road, aging, not enough money for all the effort, managerial issues, deaths in the group, etc. Tiny Davis had to turn down the opportunity to tour again with the band in 1946. Mrs. Rae Lee Jones continued to fight for the life of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, but after 1946, the key instrumentalists had already left the group, leaving the band to unravel and unfold finally with Mrs. Jones’s passing away in 1949.

By the late 1940s, too, there were a few other competing all-women swing bands, among them the Darlings of Rhythm, to which some of the ISR members jumped. In addition, as guitarist Carline Ray Russell admired, “the musical tides were changing” away from big bands to smaller ones and away from swing to bebop. In that atmosphere, the ISR were a musical anachronism. Thus they faded from the scene after 1952.

ISR 2It’s difficult to say whether the International Sweethearts of Rhythm can be called a “forgotten” jazz orchestra because, to a large extent, most of America was pretty much unaware of them in the first place. Without recordings to go by, it’s even harder to tell if Eddie Durham’s all-girl orchestra, the Darlings or Rhythm or other competitors were just as good or better, but there’s no question that the ISR were trailblazers who had more of an impact on black audiences of their time than any other all-woman big band. Although their arrangements were very good, they were not stylistically unique or harmonically interesting. Their principal assets were their astonishing ensemble esprit de corps and the top-notch quality of their solos, which can be heard in any of their surviving recordings or film clips, nearly all of them from 1944-46 when they were at the top of their game. Yet they clearly remain an archetype, a matrix for all-woman jazz orchestras everywhere. Musically speaking, they were in the right place at the right time, but socially speaking they were out of synch with America in the 1940s. Had they reached their peak in the late 1960s, after most of the Civil Rights battles had been won for African-Americans and women’s rights were also on the rise, they would surely have fared better. And at least we can still listen to or watch them and enjoy their energy and talent.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Farewell to Peter Schreier

Schreier

I woke up this morning to the news that tenor Peter Schreier had died on Christmas Day at age 84. At first I wasn’t going to write about him, since he was such a well-known and universally admired tenor, but after reading an absolutely horrible “appreciation” of him on another blog (which shall remain nameless, and will its author), I felt impelled to do so.

With the exception of Inge Borkh, this is the first modern-era singer I have written about on this blog who I never heard in person. One person who did hear him reported to me that his voice was small; well, I rather expected that. Another told me that despite his false modesty, he was really quite vain and always expected to be admired, but since he had nothing but rave reviews from the time he was a boy alto in the famous Dresden Boys’ Choir that was probably to be expected. The important point was that he was always a great artist, not just after age 40 when so many singers finally seem to realize that interpretation means as much as sheer voice.

Schreier Mozart LPMy first experience with him came in 1968, a year after I discovered Fritz Wunderlich via recordings—a Mozart aria recital on Decca-London, conducted by Otmar Suitner. For those who have never heard this album, I urge you to do so. At age 33, he was already an intelligent, musical and interesting singer, and the voice had not yet picked up that slightly dry, “sandpapery” quality that came into his voice two years later and stayed there for the rest of his life. In fact, I would go do far as to say that in its own way his voice on this recital was nearly as beautiful as Wunderlich’s. I thought so in 1968 and I still think so now in re-listening to it. Moreover, the repertoire on his follow-up Mozart LP was quite unusual for its time, including arias from La clemenza di Tito, La finta giardiniera, Lucio Silla, Il re pastore and Idomeneo, all operas I hadn’t heard by then, including the most technically difficult of all Mozart tenor arias, “Fuor del mar” from Idomeneo (including the trill). I was convinced immediately that we had a new major light tenor star in our midst—and I was not mistaken.

But what surprised me the most about Schreier over the years were two things. First, that as good as he was in that 1968 Mozart recital, only two years later one could hear him growing as an artist, a feat that few singers even then did not always manage to achieve, and second, that despite the growing dryness and sandpaper quality of his voice, I still found it beautiful the same way I find Tito Schipa’s rather small, dry voice fascinating. For an Italian tenor of his time and place, Schipa, too, was an excellent artist, but by the end of the 1970s Schreier had clearly surpassed him.

Those who praise him posthumously point to his singing of Bach’s Evangelist in the St. Matthew Passion, and he was indeed very fine in that music, but for me the real quintessence of Schreier was his lieder singing. This, for me, was his real forté aside from the Bach and Mozart. Even though he did an outstanding job singing Max on Carlos Kleiber’s studio recording of Der Freischütz, I don’t think anyone was fooled into thinking that he could carry off that role in the opera house. Schreier was never going to force his voice, and his musical instincts were too sensitive to try for heavier repertoire anyway.

In the 1980s he began conducting some performances for recordings; one of the first, and best, of these was his Philips recording of the Bach Mass in b minor on which he also sang the tenor part. But by this time, except for what seemed like his perennial assumption of the role of Tamino in Die Zauberflöte, and only (it seemed) in the smallish confines of the Vienna Opera house, Schreier wisely began concentrating on lieder as his principal means of communication. My sole disappoint with him is that he stuck to Mozart and the early Romantics, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. He rarely if ever sang Mahler and, like so many classical performers, stayed away from 20th-century music as if he were allergic to it. This was a real shame since, with his exceptional powers of interpretation, he could have done wonders with a well-chosen repertoire of modern songs, proving to people that he was indeed a versatile artist and not one locked into the old-timey composers. With that being said, he made some extraordinary recordings of standard lieder that I feel will stand forever as models for later singers, particularly his Beethoven lieder. His recordings of that composer’s songs are among my all-time favorites, particularly his stunning 1984 recording of An die ferne geliebte with pianist Walter Olbertz, his longtime accompanist whose playing was every bit as good as Schreier’s singing.

I found it amazing to learn that he didn’t sing his last stage performance of Tamino until the year 2000, at which point he was 65 years old. Schreier often said that he wanted to abandon the role by the mid-1980s because he was painfully aware that he no longer looked the young prince, but that the Viennese public wouldn’t stand for it. As long as he could still competently sing the role, they also wanted to see him do it, so he did.

As I mentioned earlier, I never saw Schreier in person either as a recitalist or an opera performer, so I really can’t judge his presence adequately, but if there was one German tenor of the past half-century whose records I would bet would last forever, I would surely put my money on Schreier. I can’t honestly say that I will “miss” him because his voice on records is part of my DNA, and that is the only way I knew him, but at least I’m happy that he died peacefully and lived long enough to see his reputation firmly cemented not only on both sides of the Atlantic but literally everywhere in the world.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Kay Kyser? On THIS Blog?

Kay Kyser

An article about Kay Kyser? On a blog mostly dedicated to serious jazz and classical artists? Why, he was nothing but a clown and a showman whose band played novelties and pop garbage. No one takes him seriously. He wasn’t much different from Sammy Kaye. Right?

That’s what you think.

While it’s true that Kyser himself couldn’t play an instrument or write an arrangement, he had good taste within his limits. Much of what the public saw and heard was just an act—a well-honed act, to be sure, but no more a picture of the real man than Spike Jones’ public persona. And, when you listen to and examine some of the Kyser radio shows, you’ll discover to your surprise that he had a lot more in common with Spike Jones than you may have realized. Both men did public clowning, they had their band members act up and fool around on stage, and they interacted with band members who played crazy characters, in Kyser’s case a hayseed named Ish Kabibble and a raspy-voiced pervert named Ferdinand (later Freddy) Froghammer.

So, again, why am I writing about him on this blog?

Because the Kyser band and its vocalists, at their best and in quality material, stand comparison with the very greatest jazz orchestras of its era.

I know this sounds like a contradiction to what I just said above, but I swear to you that it’s true. Yes, he played and recorded a LOT of junk, some of which became big hits: Playmates, The Woody Woodpecker Song, Strip Polka, and worst of all, the big-selling monster hit Three Little FIshies (In an Itty Bitty Poo). To which the serious listener must surely be asking me, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Well, most of these records, and others I don’t care for like When Veronica Plays Her Harmonica Down on the Pier at Santa Monica, will not be discussed below. But in at least some of these recordings, the band was playing very tongue-in-cheek. And that’s something the Kyser-bashers miss, either accidentally or purposely.

PlaymatesPlaymates is a good example because the song itself was meant to be silly. It was written by jazz bandleader Saxie Dowell—or at least the lyrics were. The melody was stolen note-for-note from the second strain of a 1904 ragtime piece called Iola by one Charles L. Johnson, who sued Dowell for plagiarism. Johnson settled out of court for an undisclosed sum but was financially independent for the rest of his life. (In case you’re interested, Johnson also wrote such deathless tunes as the Hen Cackle Rag and Pansy Blossoms, neither of which anyone bothered to borrow.) The beat underlying the vocals by Sully Mason and, later, “Audrey and her Playmates,” actually Harry Babbitt singing in falsetto with Ginny Simms while Mason sings jug-band-style bass notes, is purposely played stiffly in a ragtime manner; in addition, “Audrey” and her friends sing the last note of each four-bar phrase flat. But the intro and outro, as well as the jazz clarinet and flute solos, are played with great heat and in these sections the band really swings. In short, the band is camping it up, which didn’t always occur in these novelty tunes but certainly occurred here.

You can get a good mental image of what it was like to be a Kyser band member from the film clips on YouTube from the 1940 movie You’ll Find Out. Kyser mugs for the camera, cavorts on stage, jumps in the air and swings his legs out like Soupy Sales used to do, sticks his tongue out at the audience and tap dances in a calculated clumsy manner, all for laughs while the band plays with terrific esprit de corps behind him. Ish Kabibble comes down from the trumpet section to do his corny hayseed act and tosses in a corny gag, to which the band falls out as if he had told the funniest joke in the world. It was all a show, all for fun—and the band members loved it.

Indeed, the more you watch and listen to the Kyser band in its prime (1940-48), the more you realize how close in spirit they really were to Spike Jones, who also had a group full of top musicians. The difference was that Kyser stopped short of the burps, gulps, razzberries and pistol shots that Spike threw in, and much of the time the band played straight—and could really swing.

How good were they? You can judge from the few instrumentals they recorded, of which only one, Pushin’ Sand, was a hit for Kyser. Most of the others come from radio broadcasts or V-Discs, and they are played very, very well. The Sheik of Araby, Limehouse Blues, I Know That You Know and Always are all available on YouTube, and if you just hear these tracks without knowing whose band it was, you’d swear this was one of the top swing orchestras of the day—which they were. It’s just that a lot of listeners didn’t catch on.

But who was the man who created this split-personality band and gathered the talent together? Let’s trace his background and find out.

Kyser and Bogue

Kyser and Ish Kabibble (Merwyn Bogue)

James Kern Kyser was born on June 18, 1905 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina (so his Southern accent was legitimate) to fairly well-to-do parents, pharmacists Paul and Emily Kyser. James was sent to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he began studying law because he liked to debate, but switched majors when he realized that it entailed “a lot of work.” He also joined the Sigma Nu fraternity, acted in plays in the school theater, did odd jobs and joined campus groups like Alpha Kappa Psi, the Order of the Grail and the Golden Fleece. Autumn Lansing, an online blogger, reports that he became a cheerleader for the Tar Heels, organizing the group known as the “Carolina Cheerios,” and “was picked by fellow student and future bandleader Hal Kemp to lead the school’s popular Carolina Club Orchestra after Kemp graduated in 1927. Kyser, who chose to use his middle initial as his stage name, advertised for new members when school resumed in the fall. Among those who answered his call were singer/baritone sax player Sully Mason and arranger George Duning, both of whom remained with Kyser throughout the rest of his career.” Kyser switched his major from law to commerce, played the clarinet for a while, and graduated with a B.A. in commerce in 1928. He formed a band that recorded a few sides for Victor in November of 1929, of which the jazziest was a tune called Collegiate Fanny, featuring some pretty hot trumpet by one Frank Fleming and a surprisingly jazzy vocal by young Mason, but the records went nowhere and Victor declined to pursue Kyser any further. It wasn’t that the records weren’t good, but they weren’t distinctive, and Kyser had no high-powered agent to promote him. Victor already had other white bands that played in the same style, among them Waring’s Pennsylvanians (before they became a mostly choral group), the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks and George Olsen and his Music, who sold much better.

But let us return to Autumn Lansing for the story of his rise to fame:

In 1934, Kyser received his big break, once again courtesy of Hal Kemp. Kemp, whose orchestra was featured at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago, recommended Kyser’s group as a replacement act. With that engagement came radio time and added notoriety. The band proved popular and Kyser soon earned a recording contract with Brunswick. He hired singer Ginny Simms in 1936. Bill Stoker was male vocalist. Harry Babbitt took Stoker’s place in 1937. Babbitt and Simms became fixtures in Kyser’s orchestra during the late 1930s and were often featured in duets.

Kyser experimented with different musical formats for his radio program. He finally hit upon the right formula in 1937 when he developed a musical quiz show, Kay Kyser’s Kampus Klass, which later became the Kollege of Musical Knowledge. A big success regionally, the show was bought by Lucky Strike in 1938 and moved to New York, where it began airing on NBC. It immediately became a smash hit. Contestants won prizes and members of the listening audience could earn diplomas.

Though Kyser’s orchestra excelled at playing straight numbers, he never shied away from novelty tunes. With the talents of Babbitt, who could sing in his high “Little Audrey” voice, Mason, who sang scat numbers, and Ish Kabibble, who would constantly interrupt Kyser to recite silly poems, the group was armed with a potent arsenal, which it used quite often.

In 1939, Kyser starred in his first film, That’s Right, I’m Wrong, with Lucille Ball. That same year, the orchestra played at the premiere of Gone with the Wind and had its biggest hit, the novelty tune “Three Little Fishes.”

In addition to Ish Kabibble, Kyser also used another band member, whose identity still remains a secret (he never appeared on film but only on radio and records), to play a character named Ferdinand, later Freddie, Froghammer. Froghammer spoke and “sang” in a distorted voice that sounded much like Popeye the Sailor. My bet is on Harry Babbitt, but of course I could be wrong.

Thus you can see why, when Al Stillman and Paul McGrane wrote their soon-to-be hit song Jukebox Saturday Night in 1942, the lyrics went, “Goodman and Kyser and Miller / Help to make things right / Mixed with hot licks of vanilla / Juke box Saturday night.” They didn’t sing “Goodman and BASIE and Miller,” though the Count’s orchestra was clearly the favorite among jitterbuggers of all the African-American bands, or “Goodman and DORSEY and Miller,” which could refer to the orchestras or either Dorsey brother, though Tommy Dorsey’s early-‘40s band was near the very top. They included Kyser because his band was the perennial #1 “sweet” band of the day, though by 1942 Miller had topped him and both the band’s repertoire and sound profile had changed quite a bit from 1937-40. Gone were the wah-wah trombones, staccato muted trumpets and slurping saxes that had made his name and influenced the sweet bands of Sammy Kaye, who also stole his idea of singing the song titles near the beginning of each song and playing a snippet of his theme song as Kyser verbally introduced the singer(s) you were about to hear. Kyser kept the singing song titles (but not for long thereafter) and snatch of theme song before the vocal, but considerably updated his sound. Hot tenor saxist Herbie Haymer jumped from Woody Herman’s “Band That Plays the Blues” to Kyser and stayed for two years, loving the exposure and the good money, and the rest of the orchestra, though virtually unchanged in personnel (the musicians loved working for Kay and stayed with him for years), began playing tighter, more swinging arrangements by George Duning that resonated with some of the more jazz-loving swing fans while retaining their element of silliness when they felt like it. Perhaps one factor that actually helped the band update their style was that all of their arrangements were destroyed in a fire in 1942.

This was the reason why this band of ace musicians could tolerate the occasional corn and silliness. As guitarist Roc Hillman put it years later, the band was a “functional family.” “Everyone got along, and it was happy times all the time.” Harry Babbitt, the band’s star male singer from 1938 until its demise (except for his two years in the Navy), especially loved doing duets with smooth-voiced Ginny Simms. “Those were magic days,” said Babbitt years later, describing the duets he did with Simms as being “like buttah,” whether beautiful ballads like You and I or spoofing Romeo and Juliet in Hoagy Carmichael’s Way Back in 1939 A.D.

Ah yes, the vocalists. Tommy Dorsey gained a reputation of having a “singer’s band” because of a few high-profile stars he had between 1936 and 1942, primarily Jack Leonard, Edythe Wright, Frank Sinatra (well, especially Sinatra), Jo Stafford and Connie Haines, but Kyser’s was really a singer’s band. In addition to his trio of stars—Babbitt, Simms and Sully Mason—several of the band members also sang, not only Ish Kabibble but also trombonists Jack Martin and Max Williams, billed on the record labels simply as “Jack and Max.” In 1944, when Babbitt was drafted into the Navy for two years, his place was temporarily filled by a young Mike Douglas of later TV show fame. And unlike Dorsey’s singers, of whom only a few could swing, all of Kyser’s vocalists had a great sense of jazz “time,” even when singing in a relaxed tempo. But in those early, loose and carefree days, Kyser had a wandering eye, and for a while he and Simms were going together. No one will say who broke the affair up but, when it did happen, Simms left at the end of 1941. There were a string of replacements, some of whom stayed for a brief spell: Trudy Erwin, Dorothy Dunn, Julie Conway, Diane Pendleton and Gloria Wood. Ironically, the one female band singer who stayed for the shortest amount of time was model and actress Georgia Carroll, who joined in 1943. Kyser fell deeply in love with her and the two eloped in June of 1944. They stayed married until Kyser’s death 41 years later.

Kyser singers

The gang’s (almost) all here: Jack Martin, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, Ginny Simms and Max Williams in “You’ll Find Out,” 1940

Despite the fact that Kyser’s band had more #1 hits than any other (eleven) and Top Ten recordings (thirty-five!), that he appeared in seven feature films with such co-stars as Lucille Ball, John Barrymore, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre, his Kollege of Musical Knowledge radio show was a hit on NBC radio for 11 years and had two season on television in 1949 and 1950, Kyser was ready to quit by 1946. The reason given was arthritis, which was so painful in his feet that he could barely stand for long periods of time, let alone do his zany dances. But he was booked at least four years in advance, so he kept plugging away, though he did convert to Christian Science during this time in a desperate effort to find a cure for his arthritis that the doctors couldn’t give him.

Ish Kabibble

…and here’s old Ish!

The real reason Kyser quit, as he told the Gainsborough newspaper in 1981, was when he played for a large group of troops in the summer of 1945 on a hillside in the Pacific Theater. “Thousands of GIs were listening to the performance,” he recalled, “they’d come up to you after and shake your hand, thanking you, completely oblivious to the fact that they were offering their lives, so we civilians would have a good go at it at home. I thought, ‘My, if that isn’t the ultimate of humility.’ That pulled in my fangs for commercialism. I knew right then that I’d never play another dance for money, that I’d never play another theater for money. It wasn’t a hero’s decision that I made. There was no reason to show my peers that I could still cut it. The only reason I could figure for doing it any more was for money, and if I’d done it for that reason, I’d have been a jerk.” After his second TV season he was finally out from under his contracts, so he walked away from fame, fortune, everything.

Kyser home

The Kysers’ post-career home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina

Kay and Georgia moved back to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where they settled in an old house on the edge of campus once owned by his uncle. They raised three daughters, Amanda, Kimberly and Carol. Kyser gave generously to the university that had given him his musical start, wrote a song for UNC, Tar Heels on Hand, and donated money to a scholarship fund to help students in music and dramatic arts programs, one year full scholarship, room and board if they showed talent and “good moral character.” He donated to the North Carolina Symphony Society in addition to his work for Christian Science. “Kay didn’t speak publicly,” Georgia said in later years, “but he gave the whole second half of his life to public service.” Kyser also donated to public television, helped in a campaign to raise $62 million to build better hospitals and train more nurses, and joined Billy Carmichael in lobbying the state to improve health care. He was able to persuade Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore to do a singing ad for that campaign.

Kyser's Greatest Hits

Cover of the Capitol “Greatest Hits” LP, none of them the original recordings

But he also held true to his vow not to ever get involved in commercialism or rekindle his career again, and this included allowing his old recordings to be reissued on 45s or LPs. In the 1960s Columbia issued Benny Goodman’s Greatest Hits and Harry James’ Greatest Hits, but Kyser refused to let his old discs come out. Frustrated, his former singers and band members convinced Capitol Records to fund an LP of remakes in 1962. Astonishingly, nearly all his former star singers—Babbitt, Simms, Kabibble, Mason, Martin, Gloria Wood, Trudy Erwin, even Mike Douglas—participated in the sessions, as did jazz fan and comedian Stan Freberg, who narrated the LP. It sold moderately well, but aficionados of the Ol’ Perfessor complained that it didn’t really sound much like the original band.

Sometime during the 1970s Kyser agreed to a limited number of interviews with newspapers and radio stations in exchange for their promoting his latest cause. These were the only times he said anything about his career in later years. He died, relatively happy and at peace with himself, on July 23, 1985, a little over a month after his 80th birthday, of a heart attack.

So there is the whole, true story of Kay Kyser, a man who walked away from fame and fortune, never looked back, and as a result was forgotten—until Fallout: New Vegas used his original 1942 recording of Jingle Jangle Jingle, one of his eleven #1 hits, on the soundtrack of its post-apocalyptic action role-playing video game. Young people who didn’t know Kay Kyser from a hole in the wall were suddenly impressed by the loose swing and drive of the performance and wanted to know more about him and his music. It was a long-overdue revival for a man who did so much for popular culture, had fun along the way and never hurt anyone. And I encourage you to discover or rediscover Kay Kyser for yourself on YouTube. Here is my list of favorites:

 1 – Show Introduction w/Thinking of You (Donaldson-Ash) (1/27/1943)
2 – The Fuddy Duddy Watchmaker (Loesser-McHugh) Julie Conway, voc; Herbie Haymer, t-sax (7/30/1942)
3 – Comedy routine (1/27/1943)
4 – The Sheik of Araby (Snyder-Wheeler) (1/27/1943)
5 – Why Don’t We Do This More Often? (Newman-Wrubel) Harry Babbitt, Ginny Simms, voc (6/29/1941)
6 – Ferryboat Serenade (Adamson-Di Lazzaro) voc Ginny, Harry, Jack Martin & Max Williams (7/23/1940)
7 – The Girl I Left Behind Me (trad. Army march) Sully Mason, voc (9/1944)
8 – Limehouse Blues (Furber-Braham) (9/1944)
9 – Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge (from You’ll Find Out, 1940)
10 – Like the Fella Once Said (Roy Webb) Sully Mason, Harry Babbitt, Ginny Sims, Ish Kabibble, Jack Martin & Max Williams (1940)
11 – Indian Summer (Herbert-Dubin) Ginny Simms, voc (12/12/1939)
12 – Playmates (Saxie Dowell) Harry Babbitt, “Audrey and her Playmates,” voc (1/29/1940)
13 – Pushin’ Sand (Simmons-Hillman) voc effects: Trudy Erwin, Dorothy Dunn (5/40/1942)
14 – Ole Buttermilk Sky (Carmichael-Brooks) Mike Douglas & the Campus Kids, voc (6/1946)
15 – I Know That You Know (Youmans-Caldwell) (1941)
16 – On a Slow Boat to China (Frank Loesser) Harry Babbitt, Gloria Wood, voc (11/9/1947)
17 – The Bad Humor Man (Mercer-McHugh) Harry, Sully, Ish and the Gang, voc (9/2/1940)
18 – You’ve Got Me This Way (Mercer-McHugh) Harry Babbitt, voc (3/5/1940)
19 – Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet (Raye-DePaul) Sully Mason & group voc (1943)
20 – Who Wouldn’t Love You? (Carey-Fischer) Harry Babbitt, Trudy Erwin, voc (1/20/1942)
21 – A Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Gal) (Gilbert-O’Brien) Sully Mason w/Trudy Erwin, Dorothy Dunn, Jack Martin & Max Williams (1/16/1942)
22 – What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? (Loesser, arr. Fontaine) Harry Babbitt & the Campus Kids (4/1947)
23 – Friendship (Cole Porter) Ginny, Harry, Jack & Ish, voc (1/9/1940)
24 – Jingle, Jangle, Jingle (Loesser-Lilley) Harry Babbitt, Julie Conway & the Group, voc (5/21/1942)
25 – Always (Irving Berlin) instrumental (1944)

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Jazz Band That Changed the World

Glen Gray Casa Loma 1931

The Casa Loma Orchestra, with giant Glen Gray center, in 1931/

Once, when asked who the drummers were who influenced him, Buddy Rich named Tony Briglia, who played with the Casa Loma Orchestra. “He was a bitch because that band was a bitch. If you have ever listened to some of the things they have made, you’ll know that was the most together band ever.”

But alas, the Casa Loma Orchestra, like the equally pioneering early-1930s big bands of Bennie Moten, Isham Jones and Earl Hines, has faded from the memory of many jazz musicians and fans. Indeed, I would say that less than one out of ten have even heard of the band, and fewer still have ever listened to it. Their story was one of great triumphs and frustrating downturns, and the ironic thing about it is that both were results of the exact same circumstances.

Originally called the Orange Blossoms, the band was one of several being managed by entrepreneur Jean Goldkette out of Detroit. His other groups were, of course, the band that bore his name (though he rarely played with it) which headlined at the Greystone Ballroom in Detroit. Originally a dance band, it morphed into a jazz unit with the addition of such hot players as C-melody saxist Frank Trumbauer, violinist Joe Venuti, guitarist Eddie Lang, New Orleans bassist Steve Brown, drummer Chauncey Morehouse and eventually its prize jewel, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, but by September of 1927 the band’s payroll was too hefty for Goldkette to maintain and, thanks to Victor Records’ heavy promotion of Paul Whiteman to the detriment of every other white band on its label, Goldkette’s all-star outfit was forced to record sentimental ballads and chintzy pop tunes of the day, rarely getting the opportunity to wax its hottest arrangements. The jazz stars got their walking papers and Goldkette started over again with another white band bearing his name that lasted until 1929 but lacked the fire and star power of its predecessor.

Yet Goldkette had a bit of Irving Mills in his blood, and thus used the money he was saving by not paying Bix, Tram, Venuti, Morehouse and Brown to promote two other bands. One was an all-black group called McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, fronted by William McKinney but actually arranged and directed by Don Redman (Fletcher Henderson’s former arranger) and John Nesbitt, and the other was the Orange Blossoms, at the center of which was a 6’ 5” giant of an alto sax player named Glen Gray Knoblaugh. But Glen Gray was never the nominal leader of the Orange Blossoms, which considered itself a collective. In 1930 they played a highly successful gig at the Casa Loma castle in Toronto, and shortly thereafter renamed themselves the Casa Loma Orchestra. They then officially formed a legally binding corporation in which each musician received an equal share of the profits and elected Gray as the front man due to his imposing presence and dashing looks.

Surprisingly in post-Depression America, when sweet, soothing music was the order of the day, the mostly hot-sometimes sweet Casa Loma band took off like wildfire—mostly on college campuses where the few wealthy families left in America sent their charges for higher education, but also in dance halls. The reason is that they had in their midst a crackerjack arranger named Gene Gifford who developed an entirely new style of orchestral jazz. A banjo player from Memphis, Gifford played in territory bands after his graduation from high school (among them Watson’s Bell Hops and the bands of Bob Foster and Lloyd Williams) before forming his own group to tour Texas. In 1929 he started writing arrangements for Goldkette, and that same year joined the Orange Blossoms. He originally played both banjo and guitar in the band but stopped playing in 1933 in order to concentrate on writing arrangements. British writer Alastair Robertson, in the liner notes to the 1999 Hep Records reissue of Casa Loma’s recordings, described his style best:

[Gifford] approached his task as an “engineer” creating intricate staccato passages which hurtled along as if on well oiled rollers from which the soloists were suddenly launched. His originals were like demonic steam trains where every moving part flashed and meshed in impossible displays of kinetic energy.

Casa Loma Stomp picture disc

A rare picture disc of the Casa Loma band playing “Casa Loma Stomp,” issued by Brunswick in 1932.

It was a revolution in jazz writing and required musicians with great chops and impeccable technique as well as a perfect sense of time. Both audiences and musicians were startled and impressed by his charts, which included such existing tunes as China Girl, Nagasaki, Limehouse Blues, I Got Rhythm and Put On Your Old Gray Bonnet as well as a slew of originals like Maniac’s Ball, Casa Loma Stomp, Dance of the Lame Duck, White Jazz, Black Jazz and Blue Jazz. On the latter you can hear Tony Briglia’s drums clearly and understand why Buddy Rich held him in such high esteem. And yet another of their innovations, one almost taken for granted nowadays, was the switch over from a two-beat style of jazz to four-beat. In some of Gifford’s scores a two-beat feeling is still present in the rhythm section, but the orchestra is clearly playing and thinking in four.

But of course, such arrangements would have gone for naught had the Casa Lomans not been outstanding jazz improvisers in addition to crack technicians. Among their ranks were trumpeter Grady Watts, clarinetist Clarence Hutchenrider and trombonist/saxist Murray McEachern, who stayed with the band for years (although McEachern also played trombone for Benny Goodman in 1936-37 before returning to Casa Loma). Among the band’s policies was a rule that the only singers they would use were musicians in the band who could sing, of whom the most popular was the somewhat saccharine-sounding sax player Kenny Sargent, but trombonist Pee Wee Hunt had his share of the uptempo vocal numbers.

The downside to this was that the band refused to hire a female band singer because almost none of them could play an instrument, and as they moved from being pioneers in a class by themselves to being a part of the emerging Swing Era after 1935, this proved a detriment. Ironically, one of their most successful sessions for Brunswick was one in which A&R man Jack Kapp paired them with Paul Whiteman’s female vocalist, Mildred Bailey. The band might have made an exception for Bailey since she was clearly the finest musician and most jazz-oriented white female vocalist of her time outside of the Boswell Sisters, but she was married to jazz xylophone player Red Norvo. When Norvo started his own orchestra, Bailey was its centerpiece, leaving the Casa Lomans, again, without a commercially viable “girl singer.”

Casa Loma StompListening to Gifford’s charts, even today, when stupendous technical proficiency is common place in jazz bands, leaves a stupefying impression. It wasn’t just the speed and dexterity of the musicians that impresses one, it’s also the way Gifford could play one rhythm against another, at some points juggling three contrasting rhythms at a time, and how he knit these disparate sections of the music together to make a whole piece. In the playlist below, I have concentrated on the high-fidelity remakes that Gray made in 1956 because the sound quality is far superior and gives you a much better idea of what the band actually sounded like in person, but I assure you that, for all their boxiness, you can hear exactly the same speed and precision on the original recordings. Indeed, the Casa Lomans required such impeccable chops from their players that when Bix Beiderbecke, impressed by what they had to offer, auditioned for the band in late 1930 he was turned down because he couldn’t play with such perfect precision.

I mentioned earlier that the band also created a revolution in the presentation of slow numbers and ballads. Among these was their theme songs, Smoke Rings, an hypnotic tune written by Gifford along with Ned Washington and featuring the trombone of Billy Rauch. A man of diminutive stature but an iron lip, Rausch would often have to stand on a soap box to reach the microphone which was positioned to catch the entire band in order to play his solo on this number, which went into the upper stratosphere of his instrument with as smooth a tone and an impeccable technique as that of Tommy Dorsey. But all of the band’s slow numbers were interesting arrangements; none of them had the generic “ballad sound” that you hear even today out of many big bands. There was always something going on in these arrangements in terms of voicing, harmony and/or counterpoint, no matter how subtle, that marked them as superior to the slow arrangements of virtually every other band with the exception of Isham Jones’. Indeed, their ability to maintain a subtle jazz feel even in ballads had, perhaps, an even more profound effect on the emerging Swing Era than their razzle-dazzle style which was quite frankly beyond the abilities of many a swing band.

I should also point out that none of the Casa Lomans’ arrangements, hot or sweet, had anything about them that sounded “tricked up” or precious. Unlike the majority of sweet bands that came along after 1935, such as those of Hal Kemp, Shep Fields or Sammy Kaye, the Casa Lomans would have no truck with slurping saxes, cutesy little muted trumpet squeals or staccato rhythms that didn’t swing. Their playing, like that of British bandleader Ray Noble, was built on solid, legitimate playing from each and every member.

What was amazing about all of this was that the musicians in the Casa Loma Orchestra were all a bunch of heavy drinkers. How they were able to maintain such high standards of playing is a miracle probably due to the fact that they were all exceptional virtuosi who took tremendous pride in their playing. Famous jazz critic George T. Simon, in his 1968 book The Big Bands, mentioned that the Casa Lomans “reeked of class” on the bandstand with their impeccable grooming and sharp-looking formal wear, but “reeked of something else” off the stand. Ironically, it was Gifford who became their one and only casualty; he drank so much and became so unreliable that in 1938 he was voted out of the band by the other members. But Gifford had already drifted off in 1936; his place was taken by young arranger-writer Larry Clinton, who wrote at least one hit for the band in Zig Zag before moving on to start his own orchestra. Clinton’s place was taken by Larry Wagner.

Of course, by then Gifford had to modify his style in order to compete with the hotter and less staccato arrangements being offered by the big bands of Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan and Glenn Miller, but particularly the next revolution in big band jazz, the Kansas City orchestra of Count Basie. Their rhythm section of Basie on piano, Freddie Green on guitar, Walter Page on bass and Jo Jones on drums created a smoother four-beat feel that was to eventually influence nearly every band, black and white, with the exceptions of Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, and Tommy Dorsey’s band when he used arrangements by Lunceford’s former arranger, Sy Oliver. An excellent example is his 1936 arrangement of the old 1920s jazz tune Copenhagen, in which he uses some of the same devices found in his earlier work but managed to update them and make the overall effect a bit smoother. Yet another irony is that Casa Loma only really began to compete with the other bands in terms of hit records after Gifford left, the 1939 recording of Sunrise Serenade, an arrangement of Eubie Blake’s Memories of You featuring their new hot trumpet player, a real screamer named Sonny Dunham (who had joined in 1934), and their biggest smash hit of the Swing Era, Larry Wagner’s No Name Jive in 1940. This represented a late peak for Gray and the band; that year, Gray was one of the winners of Down Beat’s musicians’ poll for All American Musicians.

Gray Casa Loma

Gray and the Casa Lomans (trombonist-vocalist Pee Wee Hunt at front left) in 1942.

With Wagner now chief arranger, the band carried on. They had a minor hit in 1941, Purple Moonlight, with a vocal by Kenny Sargent, and another in 1942 called Hep and Happy, but by now they were really struggling. The astonishing rise of Glenn Miller, the popularity of Kay Kyser’s highly entertaining band, plus the rejuvenated sounds that Sy Oliver was creating for Tommy Dorsey and Eddie Sauter for Benny Goodman, and the popular black bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, rather pushed the Casa Lomans off to the side. In September 1942 there began a recording ban initiated by Musicians’ Union president James Petrillo; when Casa Loma came back in the fall of 1943—their label, Decca, was one of the first to accede to Petrillo’s demands and begin recording instrumentalists again—they finally hired their first “girl singer,” the very talented and pretty Eugenie Baird. Baird made but a handful of sides with Casa Loma before striking out on her own, but although My Heart Tells Me was a #1 hit, the song itself was pretty awful. Her best record with the band was the Henry Nemo classic, Don’t Take Your Love From Me, which also featured an outstanding full-chorus trumpet solo by none other than Red Nichols. Again, it was a late concession by the orchestra and did them very little good. The corporation had actually already dissolved in 1942, but out of respect for Gray the former members allowed him to keep the Casa Loma name.

Gray poster

A billboard in Hollywood c. 1940 advertising the Casa Loma Orchestra

Gray disbanded on December 19, 1947, and the Casa Loma Orchestra seemed to fall off the musical map—until Johnny Mercer signed Glen Gray to made an album of high fidelity recreations of the Casa Loma band’s best charts in 1956.

Gray 1In addition to using studio musicians, Gray brought back two of his original musicians, Murray McEachern to play alto and tenor sax and Kenny Sargent to sing on For You (the underrated Shorty Sherock recreated Dunham’s trumpet solo on Memories of You), but they clearly played the old Gene Gifford scores note for note—Casa Loma Stomp, White Jazz, Black Jazz, Dance of the Lame Duck and Maniac’s Ball—plus the recreated No Name Jive that startled Capitol when the LP sold a half million copies. Gray was invited back the next year to record Casa Loma Caravan, which included Sargent’s vocal on Under a Blanket of Blue, but this was filled more with dreamy ballads. Undeterred, Capitol had enough faith in Gray’s musicianship to turn him loose on recreations of other bands’ hits, an LP called Sound of the Great Bands in 1957. Now in stereo, Gray hired top Hollywood jazz session players Casa Loma Caravanand gave note-for-note recreations of other bands’ hits such as Ellington’s Take the “A” Train, Jimmy Dorsey’s Contrasts, Woody Herman’s Woodchoppers Ball, Claude Thornhill’s Snowfall, Glenn Miller’s A String of Pearls, Lionel Hampton’s Flying Home and Bobby Sherwood’s The Elks Parade. This, too, was a major seller for the label, which led to Sounds of the Great Bands Vols. 2 & 3, Please Mr. Gray [By Request], Sounds of the Great Bands Vol. 4, They All Swung the Blues [Sounds of the Great Bands Vol. 5] and Themes of the Great Bands [Sounds of the Great Bands Vol. 6]. Gray was making a pretty penny off other bands’ material…and somehow, yet again, the Casa Loma sound faded from view even as the name was revived. His last album was Jonah Jones/Glen Gray, an album of all-new Basie-styled arrangements, although two more Sounds of the Great Bands LPs were issued posthumously, actually conducted by Larry Wagner and Van Alexander. Gray, whose health had been failing for the past five years, refused to reform a Casa Loma band for touring. He died on August 23, 1963.

There have been several reissues of the original Casa Loma OKeh, Brunswick and Decca recordings, on and off, during the CD era, and of course they are valuable to give us an idea of how revolutionary the band was in its time, but I have chosen mostly the high-fidelity remakes because 1) they have the same energy as the originals and 2) the clearer sound lets you hear exactly how these arrangements worked.

Casa Loma Stomp
Sleepy Time Gal

Hep and Happy/Purple Moonlight
White Jazz
Smoke Rings
One Dozen Roses
Blues on Parade (recreation of Woody Herman hit)
Memories of You
Black Jazz
After Hours (recreation of Erskine Hawkins’ hit)
Boogie Woogie Man
Come and Get It
Sunrise Serenade
No Name Jive
Just an Old Manuscript
Dance of the Lame Duck
Maniac’s Ball
Don’t Take Your Love From Me
Apollo Jumps (with Jonah Jones)

If these tracks don’t convince you that Casa Loma was, as Buddy Rich claimed, a bitch of a band, nothing ever will.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring Jean Fournet

Jean Fournet

MARTIN: Le mystère de la Nativité (Christmas Oratorio, 1957-59) / Elly Ameling, sop (Eve/Notre Dame); Aafje Heynis, alto (Elizabeth/Anna the Prophet); Ernst Häfliger, ten (Angel Gabriel/Melchior); Herbert Handt, ten (Satan/Ysambert); Serge Maurer, ten (Belzébuth/Rifflart); Louis J. Rondeleux, bar (Adam/Joseph); Leo Ketelaars, bar (An Actor/Astaroth/Pellion/Baltazar); André Vassieres, bs (Father of God/Simon the Prophet); Guus Hoekman, bs (Lucifer/Aloris/Jaspar/Priest) / FRANCK: Psyche. Redemption / Gé Noutel, sop / BADINGS: Symphony No. 10.* Piano Concerto No. 1 / Coor de Groot, pno / CHAILLEY: Symphony No. 1 in g min.+ / HENKEMANS: Partita. Violin Concerto / Dick de Reus, vln / Netherlands Radio Choir & Philharmonic Orch.; *Rotterdam Philharmonic Orch.; +Orchestre National de l’ORTF; Jean Fournet, cond

Jean Fournet, who lived practically forever (1913-2008), was a French conductor who generally flew under the radar of most classical music lovers. This was not because he didn’t conduct on a fairly constant basis, but mostly because he only conducted French, Dutch and Japanese orchestras, made only a few recordings, and, as in the case of so many conductors, was more interesting in live performance than on discs. He was the guest conductor of the Radio Éirann Orchestra starting in 1950, principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra from 1961-68, music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic (1968-1973) and the newly-created Orchestra National de l’Île de France (1973-1982), and conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (1983-1986). Among his rare appearances outside of these venues were a debut at the Chicago Opera in 1965 with a double bill of Orff’s Carmina Burana and Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole and his debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1987, conducting Samson et Dalila.

Perhaps one reason why Fournet did not always get what he wanted from his orchestras is that he was “known as a gentle perfectionist, rarely raising his voice in rehearsal.” Well, Jean, take a tip from me—as well as from Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini and Klaus Tennstedt: if you don’t raise your voice in rehearsal, you’re bound not to always get what you want. And such was the case with Fournet. He made the first commercial recordings of Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust (1942) and Requiem (1943), both, sadly, barely known in America. I first ran across him when reviewing a wonderful live performance of the same composer’s Lélio.

Some, but not all, of the recordings listed above were issued on the 8-CD set whose cover graces the header of this review. I was unable to find Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony for free streaming, likewise Massenet’s opera La Jongleur de Notre Dame (a piece of Romantic claptrap which frankly doesn’t interest me), or Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain.

The live performances under consideration are all outstanding; in some cases, the only existing recordings of these major works. Frank Martin’s Le mystère de la Nativité was given one commercial recording on the obscure Musiques Suisses World label in 2010, a 2-CD set so rare that you can only find copies for sale on French Amazon for 24,07 Euros ($26.66); Franck’s Psyché appears to have 15 available recordings, but look again: in most cases, it’s just one selection from this suite, Psyché et Eros. The only complete recordings besides Fournet’s are the ones by the rather obscure conductor Yuri Ahronovitch on Profil, Willem van Otterloo on Challenge (an old mono broadcast), Armin Jordan on Erato and by Tadaaki Otaka on Chandos. Conductor David Procelijn has an obscure recording of Badings’ Tenth Symphony on CPO, but Fournet’s is the only recording of that composer’s Piano Concerto. There are no other recordings of Jacques Chailley’s Symphony No. 1, and so far as the CD companies are concerned, Hans Henkemans was only a pianist—there is one, count it, one, CD available of him playing Debussy—but apparently not a composer.

In these live performances, the energy level is quite high throughout, which helps the weak moments in Franck’s Redemption, and Fournet’s vocal soloists in the Martin Le mystère are outstanding, not only the famous names like Elly Ameling and Ernst Häfliger but also in the singing of the practically unknown Aafje Heynis, Herbert Handt and Louis J. Rondeleux. This, by the way, is not your grandfather’s “Christmas oratorio”; Martin wrote a very complex modern work here, full of surprising harmonic twists and turns, that can easily be enjoyed by those who don’t believe in or celebrate Christmas. As for Redemption, Franck wrote it at a time, in the early 1870s, when France had suffered a calamitous defeat at the hands of the Prussians and the country was in despair. He saw religion as a means of putting balm on the physical and psychological wounds of the French people, to look to the afterlife as a form of solace. Some of the music in it is trite and formulaic, but most of it is quite moving and even beautiful. And once again the obscure soloist, soprano Gé Noutel, is excellent.

Yet for me, the real gems here are the modern works. Just as I was astonished and delighted by the imaginative and original writing in Martin’s Le mystère de la Nativité, I was even more astonished that I had never heard or heard of these works by Badings, Henkemans and Chailley but, then again, I had been completely ignorant of the outstanding orchestral works of Erwin Schulhoff, Karol Rathaus and Hans Winterberg until a decade ago. These are major works, brilliantly written and conceived, and Fournet plays them with taut precision.

For those who wish to explore Fournet a bit further, there’s an excellent Supraphon album, recorded in 1963 and ’65, of him conducting Debussy’s Nocturnes, La Mer and Ibéria. I personally felt that “Nuages” from the Nocturnes was too slow (I’ve been spoiled by Haitink and Toscanini), but the rest of the album is absolutely outstanding, particularly this recording of La Mer which I would put at the top of stereo recordings of this major work. (Incidentally, Fournet also recorded “Ronde de printemps” from the Images with the Czech Philharmonic, which is also available for free streaming on YouTube, but only one live mono recording of him conducting “Gigues.”)

I highly recommend that you listen to these performances and discover what made Jean Fournet tick. When he was good, he was very, very good, and in these performances you can generally hear him at his peak as an interpreter.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Catherine Russell Bringing it Back

Catherine Russell

BRING IT BACK / H. NELSON: Bring it Back. McHUGH-KOEHLER: I’m Shooting High. ELLINGTON-NEMO-MILLS: I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart. IDA COX: You Got to Swing and Sway. P. LOVE: Aged and Mellow. BROOKS: Darktown Strutters’ Ball. L. RUSSELL: Lucille. HUDGENS-BROOKS-LIVERMASH: You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb. WHITE-LOVETT: After the Lights Go Down Low. GLOVER-TOOMBS: I’m Sticking With You, Baby. WALLER-RAZAF: Strange as it Seems. ARLEN-KOEHLER: Public Melody Number One. HEYMAN-GREEN: I Cover the Waterfront / Catherine Russell, voc; Jon-Erik Kellso, tpt; John Alfred, tb; Dan Block, a-sax; Andy Farber, t-sax; Mark Lopeman, bar-sax; Mark Shane, pno; Matt Munisteri, gtr; Glenn Patscha, Hammond B3; Lee Hudson, bs; Mark McLean, dm/perc / Jazz Village JV 579001

I ran across this album by accident while perusing some old swing records on YouTube, had no idea who Catherine Russell was or what she sounded like, clicked on it and was immediately charmed and amazed. It turns out that Catherine was a late addition to the family of Luis Russell, the legendary Panamanian pianist-arranger-bandleader whose most famous composition was Call of the Freaks way back in 1929. As Jelly Roll Morton put it, Russell was never really a jazz musician because he didn’t improvise, but he was very highly respected because he was a superb pianist, a great sight reader, and an excellent arranger and bandleader. He was born in Panama in 1902 and died in 1963; Catherine was born in 1956, which makes her five years younger than yours truly.

In addition to this solo album, Russell has a long list of credits as a backup singer for Madonna, Steely Dan, David Bowie, Rosanne Cash, Lizz Wright, Cyndi Lauper, the Asbury Jukes and the Spin Doctors, most of these acts that I rarely if ever pay attention to. This seems to be the fifth of seven albums that she has made as principal vocalist to date; it was issued in 2014. And it’s a winner.

In an era when most female jazz singers sing soft and whispery, Catherine Russell does anything but. She sings out, she swings, and she has a very nice, distinctive voice. The opening selection, Bring it Back, is almost more of a blues than a swing piece, but it shows to great advantage Russell’s excellent instincts for singing in a jazzy manner. By this I mean that although she doesn’t improvise with the voice the way Billie, Ella, Anita and Carmen McRae did, she does sing with a great jazz feel. She knows how to pull back on the beat or push it forward, all of the little tension-and-release things that make a jazz singer sound good. There’s a bit of the blues shouter in her, too, relating her to singers of that genre, and for the most part this album focuses on old 1930s and early ‘50s songs associated with such legendary performers as Ida Cox (You Got to Swing and Sway), Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong.

In addition, her backup band knows how to work their way around every style she recreates here, headed up by famed retro trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and pianist Mark Shane. If you simply imagine that this album was recorded in mono on shellac records, you can easily imagine these being discs from the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s.

A whispery jazz singer she is not. Russell cuts loose with her voice in virtually every track, and she gives her talented sidemen plenty of solo space. In addition to Kellso and Shane, I was very impressed by trombonist John Alfred, tenor saxist Andy Farber (whose work channels Coleman Hawkins) and the overall arrangements, most of them by Farber but one (Ida Cox’s You Got to Swing and Sway) by Kellso. Some of Russell’s phrasing reminded me a little of Rosetta Tharpe, some like Ivie Anderson, but in the end her style, though eclectic, is entirely her own. Of course, the Sister Rosetta influence comes out strongest on the bluesy numbers like Bring it Back and Aged and Mellow, though on the latter she pulls back on the volume to give a more sultry (but by no means wussy) delivery.

Russell, with the help of arranger Farber, completely revamp the old (1917) Darktown Strutters’ Ball to give the song a Professor Longhair/Allen Toussaint kind of beat. She and the band also update her father’s composition Lucille, giving it a sort of mid-‘40s swing treatment in a chart that wouldn’t have embarrassed Woody Herman’s First Herd. There’s a wonderful passage around the 3:10 mark where her voice and the band click together in perfect synchronization, both pulling the beat in exactly the same direction. In You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb, the band does a wonderful job of recreating Fats Waller’s old arrangement—all that was missing were the trumpet and tenor sax solos. Guitarist Matt Munisteri does a nice Al Casey imitation. On I’m Sticking With You, Baby, Russell extends her style to encompass out-and-out R&B, and by golly, she can do this, too.

Moreover, Russell sings every song with great sincerity. You believe her when she sings these lyrics; she has the rare ability to make it sound as if these songs were part of a repertoire she’s been singing all her life. On Strange as it Seems, she’s accompanied only by Shane on piano; you can almost imagine her singing in a New York jazz club at one in the morning. Indeed, the juxtaposition of these different styles and her command of all of them is what makes this album so treasurable. She doesn’t just stay in one groove.

This is a wonderful album; had it been a new one, it would surely go to the top of my list for jazz vocal albums of the year.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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John Bailey’s “Can You Imagine?”

Bailey Cover

CAN YOU IMAGINE? / BAILEY: Pebbles in the Pocket. President Gillespie Suite. V. LEWIS: The Touch of Her Vibe. BAILEY: The Blues House. O’FARRILL: Ballad from Oro, Incienso y Mirra. DILLARD: Elite State of Mind. BUARQUE-HIME: Valsa Rancho. LEWIS: From the Heart. MERRILL-STYNE: People / John Bailey, tpt/Fl-hn; Stacy Dillard, t-sax/sop-sax; Stafford Hunter, tb; Janet Axelrod, fl/a-fl/bs-fl; Earl McIntyre, bs-tb/tuba; Edsel Gomez, pno; Mike Kam, bs; Victor Lewis, dm/perc / Freedom Road Records FRR 001

For whatever reason, many jazz musicians today seem to be politicizing their CD releases. This one is less offensive to me than most, so I decided to review it. The backstory of this album is Dizzy Gillespie’s run for President in 1964. It was, like so many things Dizzy did, a quixotic, half-in-jest campaign (Duke Ellington was to be Secretary of State, Louis Armstrong Secretary of Agriculture and Miles Davis CIA Director!!!), but, as the liner notes tell us, it had a serious side. Gillespie was trying to bring the country’s attention to “human rights, education, disarmament and human dignity.”

This was a true picture of America in 1964. We were deeply embroiled in a moronic war with Vietnam, run by one of the educated power elites (Robert McNamara) who was sending thousands of young men to the battlefield to be killed or maimed every year. America was still in the midst of its second and even more contentious battle for African-American and black Americans’ civil rights (black Americans being those people of color who had no African heritage). Martin Luther King was being spied on by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI at the orders of the Kennedys. It was a pretty awful time. I know; I lived through it, and it wasn’t fun.

I also agree with the claim in the liner notes that “America in 2019 is as divided as at any time since the 1960s,” but dispute the claim that “Americans are now desperate for leadership that embodies the compassion and decency that used to define America.”

Name me this “leadership that embodies the compassion and decency that used to define America” other than Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan. Lyndon Johnson was a power-hungry megalomaniac who did nothing to diffuse dissention and allowed the FBI to continue spying on MLK. Richard Nixon was neurotic, paranoid and insecure. Bill Clinton, both of the Bushes, Obama and Trump acted/act as dictators in the White House, just with different personal styles. Donald Trump is arrogant by nature but, like Reagan and Carter, cares deeply about our republic (yes, folks…we don’t have a democracy, we have a constitutional republic. Look it up. They aren’t the same). What is different from the 1960s is that we now have a new Power Elite directing the narrative THEIR way and ONLY their way, and that is the corrupt and ideological media—a media that was only too happy to allow President Obama to censure and ban reporter Helen Thomas, a veteran of the compassionate, decent yesteryear (the first president she covered was JFK), from his White House press briefings because she didn’t march in lockstep with them. If you want to stop hatred and division in this country, go after the mainstream media. Ignore them. Crush them. Stop watching, listening to and reading their hatred, lies and distortions. If you do, you’ll be surprised how many people on “the other side” you can love, embrace, and have things in common with. As for “social justice,” we have it. People of color have NEVER been more respected, admired or accepted into the mainstream of society as they are today. I know. As I said earlier, I lived through the ‘50s and ‘60s. Pepperidge Farm remembers.

I have spoken. And that’s the last time I’m going to bring it up on this blog.

As for the music, Pebbles in the Pocket is a fast 6/8 tune that is played in the top line as if in 4. When Bailey hits his first high note, coming out of a theme statement with the sax, he is flying. No, he does not sound entirely like Dizzy Gillespie—Dizzy could fly around his horn with a speed that left most of his competitors in the dust—but he does incorporate some Dizzy-isms into his own aesthetic. Stacy Dillard is up next on tenor sax, flying around the horn with an almost manic feel and playing an absolutely magnificent couple of choruses. Stafford Hunter is also brilliant on trombone.

The President Gillespie Suite is divided into three sections, titled “The Humanitarian Candidate,” “Road to the Blues House” and “President Gillespie’s Birthday Song.” The music has a Latin feel to it, possibly reflecting Gillespie’s infatuation with Latin jazz dating back to the 1940s with his Afro-Cuban big band. The music develops interestingly through Hunter’s plunger-muted solo, later intertwining with the saxophone and, later still, mixing in with the leader’s trumpet until it sounds for all the world like a Charles Mingus composition—then, suddenly, around 7:05 we shift to a straightahead bop beat, with trumpet, trombone and tenor sax playing a different theme in unison before Dillard comes flying out with a great solo, followed by Bailey. They then engage in a chase chorus with Victor Lewis adding his two cents’ worth on drums. Bailey plays a nice coda to wrap it up.

The Touch of Her Vibe, written by drummer Lewis, also has a quasi-Latin beat but moves at a slower pace with the music in the minor to start with, giving it a somewhat more ominous sound. At 1:18 the beat changes somewhat as we shift to the major, and the meter sounds asymmetric to me. At 2:47 the tempo becomes more upbeat, the theme changes, and Bailey plays a nice flugelhorn solo. The music continues to morph as Dillard and Hunter engage in the fray. The Blues House harks back to an early-‘60s, Blue Note kind of style, with that medium-tempo feel and funky beat. (I could just imagine Alfred Lion dancing around the studio with a grin on his face as it was being recorded.) Hunter has a really nice, Jimmy Knepper-ish solo for two choruses, followed by the leader playing a nice, relaxed style, a little reminiscent of Lee Morgan. Bassist Mike Kam also has a very nice chorus on this one just before the ride-out chorus.

Ballad From Oro also has a Latin feel, more like a samba than a bossa nova, and here Bailey shows off his outstanding breath control by playing half of his first chorus in one breath (or, perhaps, using circular breathing as Rafael Mendez used to do). At 1:47 the tempo suddenly doubles, then at 2:28 falls back to more of a ballad pace as we finally get to hear a piano solo, pleasant but undistinguished, by Edsel Gomez. Bailey returns to dominate the second half of this tune with occasional commentary from Dillard and Hunter.

Dillard’s own composition, Elite State of Mind, follows, a nice jazz waltz which features flautist Janet Axelrod playing the theme, with Dillard joining in on the breaks, then both Dillard and Bailey in the second chorus. Hunter then also joins the ensemble and later plays a subtle but very tasteful solo. Although all of the soloists play well here, it is only pianist Gomez who I felt was really comfortable enough with the 3/4 beat to play a really imaginative solo.

Francis Hime’s Valsa Rancho is mostly, but not entirely, a ballad dominated by the lush but musically uninteresting playing of Axelerod’s alto flute, although later the tempo picks up and Dillard plays a very fine solo, here on soprano sax (and he has a good tone on the instrument, too). Lewis’ drums also add to the excitement as he kicks up a ruckus behind Dillard before we suddenly return to Axelrod for the finale. Happily, we get a somewhat uptempo number next in Lewis’ From the Heart, mostly ensemble in the early going until Dillard bursts in with another fine tenor solo. Bailey plays a nice trumpet solo, more emotionally dramatic than musically creative but with his usual excellent tone and technique, and Gomez adds a pretty good piano solo. Hunter also plays very well in spot solos during the ride-out.

Sadly, the album concludes with People, a piece of dreck that I’ve always detested (and, as far as I can remember, very few jazz musicians ever tackled because it was a piece of dreck). Not even this talented band can make much out of it, but here it is for those who like it.

Overall, a good album of primarily straightahead jazz, well conceived and executed.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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