Those of us who are fans of the big band era know that the tenor saxophone was an important part of its success, and in the early years its use was popularized by guys like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. But there was another saxman around in those days who could stake a legitimate claim as one of the pioneers, even if his name isn’t quite as well-known as the others. That would be Bud Freeman, who was sometimes known as ‘The Eel’ because of an early star-making turn.
Like many of his contemporaries, Lawrence ‘Bud’ Freeman’s long career included a lot of different musical styles, but it all began back in the late 1920s when the teenaged Chicago native first began breaking into the music business. Still feeling his way among several instruments, he settled on the tenor sax and began to perfect his play while learning the ins and outs of the early jazz era. Within a few years he’d moved to New York, where he began to work with some of the best bands around, including those led by Red Nichols, Joe Venuti, and Ben Pollack. His breakout moment came while he was with Eddie Condon, on a song called “The Eel” that featured his long, sinuous solo. Although he still had a long career ahead of him, it furnished him with a nickname that would stick.
It would have been exciting to be a jazz musician based in New York in the 1930s, and Freeman kept busy working with headliners like Ray Noble, Tommy Dorsey, and others. Later in the decade he spent a brief period with Benny Goodman before deciding to try forming his own band, but even though his Summa Cum Laude Orchestra was a much-admired group, the approach of World War II might have shortened its life. In any case, Freeman spent much of the war in the Army entertainment division, and in the years that followed he again entered the professional ranks.
During the 1950s and beyond Freeman stayed busy, either leading his own jazz groups or working with other respected pros, and he was at home in just about every kind of jazz. He not only made a lot of successful records but was also a popular attraction on world tours. He even lived in London for a while, but eventually moved back to his native Chicago. He continued to be musically active into his eighties and also wrote an autobiography in 1989. He was 84 when he died in 1991.
Bud Freeman and his Summa Cum Laude Orchestra- “The Eel”
Okay, I’m not going to get all silly and turn this into a new special feature, but I do want to report that I’ve had another one of those funny musical coincidences. You might recall that I wrote about this kind of thing in a previous post titled Mysterious Musical Occurrences. If you’re new to the GMC or if you don’t remember it, then you might want to take a minute to click on the link. It’s pretty spooky how a trio of strange coincidences – all music related – happened to me in a relatively short time. But today I had another one, and I’m wondering if it’s the first of another group of three.
So it all started when I was watching the TV series Mad Men via streaming Netflix. Even if you don’t watch the show you probably know it takes place in the 1960s, but what you might not know is that the soundtrack includes a ton of good music. Every show ends with a song that connects to the content of the episode and it continues playing over the ending credits. Today’s was Bing Crosby’s “Just a Gigolo” (see video below).
But the funny thing is that after it finished, I switched back from streaming to conventional TV, which happened to be set on one of the many music channels our cable provider offers. Guess what song was playing? An instrumental version of “Just a Gigolo” by Harry James and his orchestra. So I was presented with two different versions of the same obscure old song, one right after the other. Of course, coincidences do happen — but you can bet I’m going to keep my eyes open.
Harry James & Orchestra – “Just a Gigolo”
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.
Jan Garber Orchestra – “I’ll See You In My Dreams”