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Those Big Band Days

by Published on

I miss the Big Band era of the 1930s and ’40s. I miss the bands themselves, the songs, the singers, the sidemen, the arrangements and instrumentations. I miss listening to those old Decca and Capitol and Columbia 78s. I miss, for example:

Woody Herman. Let’s face it; the Herman Third Herd was a jazz fan’s delight: “Apple Honey,” “Your Father’s Mustache,” “The Good Earth,” “Wildroot,” “Four Brothers.” That man Herman put together, again and again, bands that soared. They were exuberant, wildly swinging groups. On “Bijou,” trombonist Bill Harris just milked the daylights out of his solo, made his horn cry out in a beautifully wavering wail. Herman himself, although no crooner, no Sinatra, sang on some memorable, easy-on-the-ears sides like “Surrender” and “You’ve Got Me Crying Again,” and let it all hang out on “Caldonia”.

Tommy Dorsey. The first ascending notes of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” were enough, each time, to make the chill bumps come–not just because they were the signal that TD’s radio broadcast was about to start but because that limpid tone of his represented the pure sound that I–aspiring high school trombone player that I was–kept yearning for. Dorsey made his horn sing as no other trombonist did. He was no great shakes as a jazzman–actually rather flatfooted and uninspired–but on “Song of India” and “Marie” he just plain shimmered. When it was sign-off time at the end of his program and he began to repeat his “Sentimental” theme song, I always ached a little as I sat hunched over next to the radio, hearing those lovely notes disappear and leave a sadness in their place.

Stan Kenton. Young people today stick rings in their tongues, spike their hair, put on their black clothes and heavy boots, and stride fiercely forth, challenging the world to just say something about how I look, I dare you. They are marking their territory, asserting–they hope–their differentness. In the late 1940s I did not feel a need to do that kind of rebellious stuff, but by discovering Stan Kenton I knew I was on a special path. At least I felt I was part of something hugely removed from the ordinary.

Kenton–just his name, that single word, summed it up. His arrangements, his personnel, his sound: They were red meat placed before me on a table that had previously been set with bowls of cold oatmeal. “Intermission Riff,” “Collaboration,” “Artistry in Bolero,” “Artistry in Rhythm,” “The Peanut Vendor,” “Concerto to End All Concertos”–I played them until I could anticipate every note, cue every solo. I loved his trumpets–the solid mass of them–flashing and screaming like sudden bursts of silver; his trombones, moaning and majestic; Kenton himself rippling away stylishly on piano; the rasping, rough eloquence of Vido Musso on tenor sax; Eddie Safranski, like a light-fingered thief on bass; and from time to time, bright and shiny, the voice of June Christy, “Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin’.”

Gene Krupa. Sometimes I thought his “Same Old Blues” was the most satisfying record ever made. I would put it on the record player and then sort of float-glide-sink into a chair in the living room and idly let my hand sketch out each change of rhythm, each harmonic shift.

Ah, the crushed-ice-and-diamonds of those muted trumpets in the background: a whole section of them, horsing around a little here, becoming sensible and restrained accompanists there.

The singer, Carolyn Gray, bent her notes, then sent them straight to the listener as a gift. She was young but sounded wise for her years. It was as if she were smiling the lyrics into the microphone.

The brass section rose and fell; the round-and-full-as-a-bucket trombone, sweet as you could want a horn to be, seemed to croon the melody; then the saxes: I could almost see the whole row of them, bending, fingering, swooping as they made their friendly musical comments and then graciously retreated.

Duke Ellington. To a kid growing up in Kerrville–where at summer noon “The Lightcrust Doughboys” were on the neighborhood radios and at night drive-in cafe customers fed nickels into the jukebox for Ernest Tubb–Duke Ellington was like nothing I had ever heard before. His creations were so new to my small-town ears that they seemed like exotic calls from a rain forest. The singers sounded like instruments; the instruments sounded like voices.

I played them in a kind of trance: “Caravan,” “Solitude,” “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “In a Sentimental Mood.” I listened to the strange, haunting harmonies, the deft distortions of sound, the notes that drifted dreamily and then faded. It was like watching wavy images underwater or sinuous dancers in masks swaying, leaning, collapsing, rising, throwing arms here and there.

On “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” Cootie Williams’ muted trumpet growled through a chorus, then ended with harsh, slashing wha-acks, as if from metallic whips. On “Creole Love Call”

ethereal-sounding Kay Davis sang not a song but a sustained, mournful, effortless, wordless cry. On “Black and Tan Fantasy” Barney Bigard’s clarinet kept rising like a sleek bird soaring higher and higher until it burst and showered sound like a Roman candle. On “The Mooche” the open-and-shut waa-waa sound of Bubber Miley’s muted trumpet was matched by vocalist Baby Cox’s own amazing waa-waa scat singing.

I probably had not seen a Picasso drawing while in high school, but if I had come across one I surely would have looked at it and thought, Man, this is Duke Ellington.

Significant Others: Mel Torme, “The Velvet Fog,” gliding breathlessly through “A Stranger in Town;” Johnny Hodges’ elegant alto sax on “Warm Valley;” Billy Eckstine’s big, barrel-round sound on “Everything I Have is Yours;” Benny Goodman’s almost surgically precisioned sextet and his stomping, swinging explosive big band; the incomparably sweet trumpet of Harry James (“I Had the Craziest Dream,” “Velvet Moon”); Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins blues-ing away on “Mean to Me” and “Body and Soul;” Gerry Mulligan blowing up his own baritone sax storms; Sarah Vaughan’s lyrical, pure-as-spring-water “Autumn in New York” and “The

Touch of Your Hand;” Billie Holiday–with a voice so special, so haunting that, like the soloists of the Ellington band, she too seemed more like an instrument than a voice– “Strange Fruit,” “Travelin’ Light,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Good Morning, Heartache”… And the almost endless roll call of still other great groups: Les Brown, Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie, Elliot Lawrence, Charlie Barnet, Claude Thornhill.

Finally, Glenn Miller. On how many ballroom floors did hands reach forth to clasp and faces come together to touch as, at midnight, the dancers heard the first familiar notes of “Moonlight Serenade”? “Moonlight Serenade.” Can anyone who never heard it understand what that slow Glenn Miller theme song meant to middle-class America in the 1940s? It was the essence of sentiment and romance: the perfect melody for the end of a memorable evening. And, as the ’40s came to a close, it served, too, as a kind of benediction: an offering of elegiac notes to end the remarkable era of the big bands.

Frequent Observer contributor Elroy Bode lives in El Paso.