I don’t play the piano. I tried to learn once but gave up on it. But one thing I do remember is how difficult it was to make my fingers cover all the territory they needed to — and I have big hands. That made it even more amazing to me when I learned that Johnny Guarnieri, who was for many years one of the best jazz pianists around, was known for his surprisingly small hands.
John Albert Guarnieri was a native New Yorker who began working professionally when he reached adulthood in the mid to late 1930s. Classically trained, he had transitioned to jazz (although he sometimes combined the two in later years) and had also become proficient in stride piano* in the style of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. It wasn’t long before his talent earned him work in some of the many big bands that roamed the land at the time, leading to a gig with one of the biggest, Benny Goodman‘s. Over the next few years Guarnieri made his name while working with Goodman and then Artie Shaw, another superstar bandleader of the era. In fact, it was his association with Shaw that led to one of his unique accomplishments — the first musician to play the harpsichord on a jazz recording.
During the 1940s Guarnieri led his own group for a while and also spent time with Tommy Dorsey’s band. He made some of his best records during this period, teaming up with stars like Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Don Byas. As the decade drew to a close he landed a position with NBC, which provided him with a base on the musical side of radio and TV, and plenty of opportunities to freelance too.
During the 1950s and 1960s Guarnieri solidified his position as one of the most-respected pianists around, eventually settling in California and finding plenty of work in TV and nightclubs while continuing to make records, including several with the Henri René Orchestra backing Eartha Kitt. As the years passed he also made several successful tours, appearing in Europe for appreciative fans. He stayed active until his death at age 67 in 1985.
* Guarnieri explains ‘stride piano’ at the beginning of the video below.
Johnny Guarnieri Orch (w/ Lester Young) – “These Foolish Things”
Glenn Miller was one of the biggest names around during the the big band era, and he remained an iconic figure even after his tragic death near the end of World War II. But he was also a good friend to many, as Hal McIntye could have attested. Miller not only encouraged his band-mate to form his own outfit but also helped with the financing, and the Hal McIntye Orchestra became a solid success for a number of years.
Harold William McIntyre was a Connecticut native who grew up pointed toward music, learning to play both clarinet and sax at a level that allowed him to work professionally even as a teenager. In fact, he was still in his late teens when he began leading his own small band in the early 1930s, and within a couple of years had logged enough experience to work his way into a spot with Benny Goodman. Even though it was just temporary it allowed him to catch the attention of Glenn Miller, who was in the process of putting together his own band, one that would become a juggernaut.
As one of the original members of Miller’s group McIntyre was a valuable part of the band’s success during the four years he stayed, but in 1941 he decided to try his luck as the leader of his own outfit. His boss and friend encouraged him, helped with financial support, and paved the way for McIntyre to make his debut leading ‘The Band That America Loves’ at one of Miller’s favorite spots, New York’s prestigious Glen Island Casino.
It was the beginning of over a decade of success for McIntyre, as his band became one of the most popular around. During the war years it appeared in most of the big venues, including major hotel ballrooms and the Hollywood Palladium, and also spent a lot of time entertaining the troops overseas. Along the way the band made a lot of well-received records and continued to do so in the post-war years, but as the 1950s began the big band era was drawing to a close. McIntyre’s group made one more big splash by providing the backing for the Mills Brothers’ huge hit record of “Glow Worm,” but things went downhill after that. Tragically, McIntyre was killed in a home fire in 1959. He was just 44 when he died.
Hal McIntyre Orchestra – “I Get a Kick Out Of You”
There’s not much information around about how bandleader ‘Lucky’ Millinder got his nickname. It’s possible that it was just a natural progression from his given name of Lucius, but you could make a case that there might be another reason. Even though he sang a little, Lucky Millinder did not play an instrument and couldn’t even read music, and yet he led one of the most popular R&B orchestras around during the big band era. Sounds like a guy with more than his share of luck.
Born in Alabama as Lucius Venable, he grew up in Chicago during the early jazz age, which meant he was exposed to some of the best music around. But even though music was everywhere in the late 1920s, his path to a show business career began as a dancer, not a musician. Still, he was personable and charismatic, and was sharp enough to learn the in and outs of the business, so within a few years he’d managed to work his way into a spot as a bandleader.
He was still calling himself Lucius Venable at first, but soon changed his name to Lucky Millinder and continued to gain experience. In 1934 he took over leadership of the well-established Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and by 1940 had formed a band under his own name. It was a solid outfit with dazzling stage presence, ‘lucky’ horseshoe emblems on the stands, and a prancing and dancing Millinder fronting the group.
For more than a decade the band was one of the most popular groups around, mostly R&B themed but also very much at home with traditional music. In fact, the band’s biggest selling record was its #1 hit on the sentimental war-time song “When The Lights Go On Again,” but most of its success was based on the kind of music exemplified by singers like Wynonie Harris and the band’s biggest star, the legendary Sister Rosetta Tharpe. They and many other R&B singers and musicians gained valuable exposure during the decade that Millinder’s group held sway, but the band’s popularity faded in the 1950s. Millinder himself spent his later years as a DJ and liquor salesman, dying at age 56 in 1966.
Lucky Millinder Orchestra – “When The Lights Go On Again”