One of the longest careers by a bandleader would have to be the one enjoyed by Jan Garber, who was sometimes billed as ‘The Idol of the Airwaves’ during his early radio days*. He was barely an adult when he led his first group and was still directing musicians nearly six decades later, almost up until his death in 1977. Not surprisingly, the kind of music he provided changed through the years, but much of it holds up well even today.
Born in Indianapolis (although sources vary) but raised in Louisville and Philadelphia, Jacob Charles Garber was trained as a violinist, and was good enough to spend time in the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra — after first gaining some experience with his own ensemble. But the young musician eventually turned to the pop music sounds of the era, including early jazz, by forming the Garber-Davis Orchestra with pianist Milton Davis.
Although the music sounds stilted and square to us now, the band built up a following on radio during the 1920s, selling a lot of records with a ‘sweet’ musical style while mixing in the occasional ‘hot’ tune. But by the mid-1930s the public’s tastes in music were changing, and Garber — who had split from Davis years before — changed to a more modern style with a newly constituted band. Although he didn’t completely leave the old standbys behind, he did begin to incorporate more and more of the newer sounds into his songbook and fans responded. By the 1940s he was leading a swing band that approached the level of the top outfits.
In the post-war years the big band era was winding down and many of the musicians were branching off into various directions. Garber was perhaps most comfortable with the softer traditional sounds he’d produced in his earlier years, and he mostly continued to go in that direction in the following decades. Although he had some inactive periods, he stayed pretty busy leading various groups on stage and making the occasional TV appearance, performing an audience-pleasing style of music. When he died, he was in his early eighties. (Again, sources vary.)
* See ‘comments’ below.