Archive for the ‘Big Band’ Tag
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”
She was just 15 when she first sang in a Hollywood film, and within a year was co-starring in two Jungle Jim movies, but in spite of her early start Betty Jane Rhodes had plenty of ups and downs over the course of her career. She managed to find spots in a number of films through the years and also introduced a classic wartime song on screen, but other singers had more success with it. She also had several highly-charted records, among them her biggest seller, “Buttons and Bows” — but even that was overshadowed by the better-known Dinah Shore version. She just never quite broke through to the next level.
A native of Rockford, Illinois, Rhodes came up via the radio route, making singing appearances from age eight and continuing on into her teens. By the mid-1930s she was embarking on her movie career and got off to a pretty good start. Sometimes billed as Betty Rhodes or Jane Rhodes, she also continued to work on radio as a featured singer and even had her own show for a while.
The early 1940s saw her best period of movie success, with featured parts in several Westerns and her notable performance in 1942’s Sweater Girl, which included her introduction of “I Don’t Want To Walk Without You,” a song that would become World War II classic. Unfortunately for her, Helen Forrest‘s recording with Harry James‘ band would become a #1 hit and is now remembered as the definitive version, but Rhodes continued to enjoy memorable parts in movies for the next few years.
During the post-war years and on into the 1950s, she found herself enjoying her biggest success as a recording star, although she also went through some lulls. Her successes included good-selling records on songs like “Rumors Are Flying,” “Tonight Be Tender to Me,” and her biggest, “Buttons and Bows.” Although her recording career wound down after that, her 1945 marriage to a TV network executive probably helped pave the way for her to further her career in that medium, and she was also a popular attraction in nightclubs before finally retiring for good. She was 90 when she died in 2011.
Betty Jane Rhodes – “Buttons and Bows”
We haven’t featured Latin jazz in quite a while, and even though the subject might bring to mind guys like Xavier Cugat, Perez Prado, and Tito Puente, there were many others who were a big part of the history of the music. The popular bandleader known as Machito was an early star who had a lot of success for many years, but part of the credit should go to his brother-in-law, the talented Mario Bauzá, who ably served as the musical director of the band known as the Afro-Cubans.
Machito was born Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo in Havana, although one source says Tampa, Florida. In any case, the son of a cigar maker grew to adulthood in Cuba and was fully immersed in the local music scene by the late 1920s, working as a percussionist and singer. During the 1930s he found his way to America and logged some valuable experience working in the bands of established stars like Cugat and others. By 1940 he was in New York and forming his own band, which he called the Afro-Cubans.
Although the charismatic Machito was usually fronting the group, singing and shaking his maracas, the band didn’t really hit its stride until his brother-in-law Mario Bauzá came aboard as musical director. Bauzá was the consummate pro, a classically trained musical prodigy who could play several instruments and had already spent time in the top-tier bands of Chick Webb and Cab Calloway. With his help, the band soon became a polished, dynamic outfit; one that presented an audience-pleasing fusion of Latin percussion and big band brass.
The band’s popularity grew through the war years and beyond, and to add to the appeal the group began incorporating a lot of collaborations with conventional jazz stars like Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, and Buddy Rich. The band’s success continued into the 1950s, peaking in popularity during that decade’s mambo craze, but it continued to do well in the 1960s and 1970s. Bauzá’s death in 1976 slowed things down, but Machito continued to forge ahead and for several more years he was able to find plenty of spots for the group while continuing to make the occasional record. He was in his late seventies when he died in 1984.
Machito & The Afro-Cubans – “Adios”
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”