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 fact, the original “front man” was violinist Henry Bagnini, and he remained with them even after Glen Gray was elected as the leader in 1932. In 1930 they played a highly successful gig at the Casa Loma castle in Toronto, and shortly thereafter renamed themselves after that edifice. 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.
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.”
Listening 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 Kay Kyser, 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.
Interestingly, several key musicians later complained that although they were paid a living wage, very few of them got that “corporation money.” Trombonist Billy Rauch claimed that he never received any of it, and other musicians said the same thing. Apparently, the highest-paid musician in the band was Sonny Dunham, who received (over the years) about $60,000 of corporation money.
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.
Casa Loma 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.
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 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.
In 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 and 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
One Dozen Roses
Blues on Parade (recreation of Woody Herman hit)
Memories of You
After Hours (recreation of Erskine Hawkins’ hit)
Boogie Woogie Man
Come and Get It
No Name Jive
Just an Old Manuscript
Dance of the Lame Duck
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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