Tuesday, December 1, 2015

My Man George, Wettling ... that is: A Tribute

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"George Wettling had great enthusiasm for life and for music. And, undoubtedly, he was the most important drummer in the Chicago style of jazz."

"A good band is based on good drums and good piano. Give me a good piano and George Wettling and I'll give you a good band any

“George Wettling had his own way of doing things. But his roots were quite apparent. Like a number of his contemporaries, he was genuinely inspired by the music of the New Orleans jazz pioneers. His love for jazz in general — the New Orleans style and its Chicago offshoot in particular — was so intense that he built a life around them. Even in his last days, the fire burned brightly. ‘Some guys get old and tired and get out of Jazz,’ he noted. ‘I'll never do that. Hell, man, Jazz's been my whole life.’

His favorite drummers were Baby Dodds, the classically inventive New Orleanian who also influenced Gene Krupa and Dave Tough; Zutty Singleton, another marvelous New Orleans drummer; and others, including Harlem's George Stafford, Benny Washington (who played with Earl Hines), Tubby Hall, Ben Pollack, Chick Webb, and Krupa. But Dodds was his man; you could hear it in his playing.
Wettling began in the manner of most drummers — he heard the drums and was captivated. ...

Wettling had a fine touch, ample technique, and a distinctive sound on the snare drum. He was a good listener and responded inventively to ensembles and solos. He would change the background behind each soloist, adapting, giving and taking, building, serving as the time center and as another interesting voice in the ensemble. …

Because he was a fine reader of music, a very flexible drummer, and an excellent tympanist, Wettling held a variety of jobs, including several in radio and TV. For approximately ten years, 1943-1952, he was a staff man at ABC Radio. But he devoted the major portion of his time to bringing fire and intensity to small bands, most of which were traditional.”
-BURT KORALL, Drummin’Men

“De même que Dave Tough était un amoureux de la littérature, George, lui, se passionnera pour la peinture - d'où sa grande ouverture d'esprit. Il est, en effet, très important pour un artiste de pratiquer d'autres modes d'expression que le sien afin d'élargir le champ de ses connaissances et d'affiner sa sensibilité. Cette culture à maintes facettes est nécessaire pour alimenter et approfondir l'art dans lequel on est spécialisé.

“As Dave Tough was a lover of literature, George Wettling was enthralled with painting - hence his open mind. It is indeed very important for an artist to practice other forms of expression than his own in order to expand the scope of his knowledge and sharpen his sensitivity. This culture of many facets [i.e.: a broad background in arts and letters] is required to power and deepen the art in which one specializes.”
- Georges Paczynski, Une Historie De La Batterie De Jazz

I owe drummer George Wettling [1907-1968] a huge debt of gratitude, which may sound like an odd compliment from someone who was essentially steeped in modern Jazz drumming.

But if it hadn’t been for George’s tutelage, which I came by indirectly through countless hours of listening to his classic Jazz recordings, I would have missed out on one of the happiest gigs of my life

George was one of the young white Chicagoans [many of home attended Austin High School in Chicago’s West Side] who fell in love with Jazz as a result of hearing King Oliver's band (with Louis Armstrong on second cornet) at the Lincoln Gardens in Chicago in the early 1920s. Oliver's drummer, Baby Dodds, made a particular and lasting impression upon Wettling.

Wettling went on to work with the big bands of Artie Shaw, Bunny Berigan, Red Norvo, Paul Whiteman, and even Harpo Marx: but he was at his best on (and will be best remembered for) his work in small 'hot' bands led by Eddie Condon, Muggsy Spanier, and himself. In these small bands, Wettling was able to demonstrate the arts of dynamics and responding to a particular soloist that he had learned from Baby Dodds.

Wettling was a member of some of Condon's classic line-ups, which included, among others, Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Edmond Hall, Peanuts Hucko, Pee Wee Russell, Cutty Cutshall, Gene Schroeder, Ralph Sutton, and Walter Page.

Listening to George's playing, and to other “Chicago-style” drummers like Gene Krupa and Dave Tough, I realized that what they were doing was essentially phrasing 2-beat New Orleans or Dixieland Jazz with the 4/4 time feeling that came of age in the Swing Era. The music was so alive and I just really enjoyed everything about it.

So when the opportunity arose to join a Traditional Jazz Band at a club in Glendale, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles, I jumped at it.

As Grover Sales explains in his seminal Jazz: America’s Classical Music, provides the historical context for the evolution of Traditional Jazz:

“Five years before the arrival of bebop, a New Orleans revival was afoot, fueled by the mounting resentment of purist white critics and fans against the heretical sophistication of Ellington, Tatum, Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, and similar modernists who they believed had tainted the purity of jazz by injecting European antibodies into what had been an incorruptible native folk art. Since history assures us that jazz from its earliest beginnings was a mixture of every cultural transplant to the New World, European as well as African, such notions seem quaint today. But these notions were cherished as articles of faith by keepers of the flame like French critic Hugues Panassie, who insisted that bebop was "degenerate noise" and a short lived fad that lay wholly outside the "true" jazz tradition. This position found its fullest expression in The Heart of Jazz, by William L. Grossman and Jack W. Farrell:

Much of Dizzy Gillespie's bop ... is characterized by a nonsensicality of content, an end result Armstrong never intended but which came from an almost inevitable consequence of the departure . . . from traditional values and meanings. Ellington . . . might help find a way to perpetuate the eternal values in New Orleans jazz while expanding the idiom, but his musical imagination turns to the theatrical. He is, indeed a sort of jazz Wagner. He has the same sort of dramatic feelings about Negroes that Wagner had about Germans.

The New Orleans revival got off to a modest start in 1940 when collector Heywood Hale Broun issued recordings of veteran New Orleans blacks in quavering versions of blues and parade music of their youth around the turn of the century. The following year saw the beginning of white revival bands in San Francisco, when Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band copied the instrumentation, the tunes, and as far as they were able, the style of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band recordings made twenty years earlier. By the time bebop was in full bloom dozens of white revival bands were thriving throughout the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and in England where a fever for "trad" (traditional) was rampant among the youth, including some of the founders-to-be of British rock.

The revival brought elderly blacks out of retirement—Bunk Johnson, George Lewis—and provided work for young whites — Turk Murphy, Lu Watters, and England's Chris Barber. It also forced modernists like Earl Mines, Jack Teagarden, and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell reluctantly into the dixieland camp during a doctrinaire era that split the jazz world into two warring factions. It is significant that, without a single exception, no young blacks could be found participating in the revival movement either as players or as listeners. They would as soon be seen chomping a watermelon on the front steps of city hall as partaking in what they scorned as "old-time slave, Uncle Tom, minstrel-man jive." Tempers ran high as lifelong friends and colleagues Hugues Panassie and Charles Delaunay stopped speaking because of bebop. Fistfights broke out in Parisian cabarets where Dizzy Gillespie performed, punctuated with cries of, "You dare to call this music!" The jazz press abounded with hate-ridden jeremiads about the "modernist degenerates of bebop" and the "moldy-fig reactionary revivalists," reminiscent of the doctrinal fury of sixteenth century Catholics and Protestants.

In retrospect, the revival produced foolish rhetoric but much also of lasting value, as did the ragtime revival three decades later; it rescued from obscurity a long-neglected style of collective improvisation and an imposing repertoire of excellent tunes. The best of these revival bands, Wilbur de Paris's New New Orleans Jazz (Atlantic 1219), exudes a vitality that bears repeated hearings today, but the same cannot be said for most revival players venerated to sainthood by their white idolaters, some of whom launched a serious campaign to run Bunk Johnson for the presidency. What seems most remarkable about the revival movement is the emotional heat and religious fervor it unloosed—and why.”

I didn’t know anything about any of these Camps or Schools or Schisms, all I knew was that for three nights every week from 9:00 PM until 2:00 AM, I got to play classic New Orleans tunes like That’s A Plenty, Muscrat Ramble, St. James Infirmary and some later adaptations of this style in tunes like China Boy, Hindustan, and Wolverine Blues in a hot Chicago-style or Traditional or whatever Jazz band made up of trumpet, trombone, clarinet, piano, bass and drums [aka Me!] and it was a blast.

At first I was greeted with some hesitation by the older guys mainly along the lines of “He’s too young to know much about this music;” He’s probably a Bebopper;” “He doesn’t know any of the tunes.”

But thanks to George Wettling, I more than held my own.

With few extended solos, most of the tunes lasted only 3-4 minutes so that meant that we played a bunch of songs each set, sometimes as many as 15 a set totaling around 60 a night. I had a ball. Loved every minute of it.

My chops loved it, too; as my hands got stronger, my wrists were able to relax thus increasing my speed and power.

I added some heat and sizzle to the the usual four-bar drum breaks or “kickers” that help serve as tags to take most tunes out, but I made sure that I kept my bass drum doing four-beats to the bar so that the “old timers” could count when to come back in.[Grins].

And I owe it all to George Wettling.

Mention his name today and all you get are blank stares; very few drummers have ever heard this style of Jazz drumming. But in fairness, when they are introduced to it they light up like the proverbial Christmas tree and make comments like: “Listen to what that Dude is doing with accents off a press roll;” “His time is so bouncy - he makes the music come alive!;” “What a snap and pop he brings to his back beats.”

Here’s more about George from Richard M. Sudhalter’s Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945.

“George Wettling had been (with Tough and Krupa) part of the original Chicago circle and, like them, spent most of the '30s playing in big bands. His were the brushes backing Bunny Berigan's vocal on the best-selling "I Can't Get Started," his the steady but non-intrusive beat that lifted the bands of Artie Shaw, Red Norvo, Paul Whiteman, and others. A well-schooled musician, he'd worked regularly in radio and commercial recording studios.

But Wettling seemed happiest by far in the small, unfettered jam groups which were Eddie Condon's specialty. Overshadowed to some degree by Krupa's flamboyance and Tough's sheer brilliance, Wettling more than matched them in his ability to unify and steer a rhythm section. Like Krupa, he'd learned by listening to Baby Dodds, Ben Pollack, and other pioneers and had retained the flavor, the ability to blend into an ensemble. Wettling's small-group work, with Condon and countless others, is remarkably subtle in its sense of mood and pace, its control of a finely calibrated sense of abandon. In Burt Korall's authoritative words:

"His time was firm; it bubbled and danced. His breaks had an inner life and logic. His solos were well-crafted bursts of energy. Wettling had a fine touch, ample technique, and a distinctive sound on the snare drum. He was a good listener and responded inventively to ensembles and solos. He would change the background behind each soloist, adapting, giving and taking, building, serving as a time center and as another interesting voice in the ensemble.”

His propulsive drumming enlivens hundreds, even thousands, of records, and (hose with Condon are among the best. It's Wettling's accented press roll, a Baby Dodds legacy, that carries Bud Freeman to the very edge of anarchy on the Commodore "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland," Wettling's drive that sends the nor-I mally demure Bobby Hackett careering through the final ensemble of the uptempo blues "Carnegie Jump," Wettling's and Jess Stacy's quiet prodding that gets Pee Wee Russell rocking happily on "Rose of Washington Square."

Wettling was a master — some would contend the master — of that overused and frequently misunderstood hallmark of so many "dixieland" performances: the four-bar end-of-performance drum break. Following a final tutti, especially at faster tempos, it's a kind of eight-bar melody reprise, the drummer taking the first four bars and the band returning, all pistons firing, to finish out the cadence. In some bands it becomes a sixteen-bar reprise, drummer and ensemble taking eight apiece.

Done right, it functions as both tension release and "kicker" in the journalistic sense: the punchy last line that leaves the reader's senses sharpened, tingling. Some drummers — Cliff Leeman, Nick Fatool, Ray McKinley — have understood this and done it with masterly finesse. Depending on the player, that means either a display of technique, a witty or imaginative "four" in the bebop sense, or even (Fatool is outstanding at this) a melodic paraphrase.

But in George Wettling's hands this modest device became a small-scale work of art. Again and again he'd seem to hurtle out of an ensemble and into the break with a force, an irresistible momentum, that swept the band right along with it. There was no sense of an ensemble stopping for the drummer to do some little trick before the horns returned: a Wettling break was part of the action—in a way it was the action.

Examples, a few among dozens: "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise" (from Brother Matthew, ABC-Paramount), "I've Found a New Baby" (Eddie Condon's Treasury of Jazz, Columbia), "Runnin' Wild" (Dixieland in Hi-Fi, Columbia /Harmony)—which also offers a nimble full-chorus Wettling solo; "China Boy" (The Roaring Twenties, Columbia).

Perhaps the definitive example of Wettling's ability to energize a band is on a ten-inch LP issued by Columbia in 1951 under his own name. It's a Condon unit, of course, with "Wild Bill" Davison, Edmond Hall, and other regulars. Each of the eight titles works steadily, inexorably, to a climax of drive and almost demonic energy. Wettling's four-bar break at the end of a swaggering "Memphis Blues" employs a kettledrum to great and humorous effect. "Collier's Clambake" (basically the chord sequence of "St. James Infirmary" at a medium-bright tempo) starts at a high intensity level, Davison punching out the kind of virile, aggressive lead that earned him his nickname. Even by the standards of Condon groups, "After You've Gone" is extraordinary. Like "Clambake," it opens hot: "They sound as if they've been playing the number for five minutes, heating up to this pitch, before turning on the microphones," pianist Dick Hyman has remarked. That's largely Wettling's doing. He hits it hard and keeps cranking things up, through solos by Sullivan, Hall, and trombonist Jimmy Archey (Condon's guitar strong and audible behind them), to a stomping final ensemble.

This is no random collection of seven men playing together: it's a bond, a team, component parts fused into a splendid performance engine fueled by Wettling and cornetist Davison; bars 13-16, for example, are a furious ensemble explosion, Davison tearing up to his high E-sharp and cascading down over four bars, to be deftly caught by Wettling's bass drum "thwack" on the last beat of bar 16.

(Among Wettling's fans was the great American abstract painter Stuart Davis, whose brand of modernism was as stubbornly individualistic as the styles of the jazzmen he liked to hear. The two men struck up a friendship, and before long the drummer, a gifted amateur painter, had become a Davis student. By 1950 he'd mastered a style which, though strongly influenced by his teacher, was skilled and vigorous on its own, winning him several well-received exhibitions _ in the '50s. Adorning the Columbia album cover was a photograph of the band, superimposed on a Wettling painting representing the same scene. It's good work, strongly in the spirit of such jazz-influenced Davis canvases as "The Mellow Pad," 'Rapt at Rappaport's," and "Something on the Eight Ball," from the same period. Though Pee Wee Russell's paintings later attracted more publicity, it is Wettling who is the superior craftsman.)

The following video features a performance by guitarist Eddie Condon’s All-Stars of Hindustan that contains all you need to know about George Wettling’s marvelous drumming in less than 3 minutes!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Frank Sinatra - "Inhabiting the Lyrics"

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Bud Shank, the late, great alto saxophonist is often quoted as saying: “The one thing you need to play this music is concentration.”

But each musician goes about their business in a different way with regard to said “concentration.”

I would checkout the lead trumpet and first alto parts of a big band arrangement and memorize where the cues were for the “kickers” so that I could really pop the drum fills that powered the arrangement forward.

The legendary guitarist Tal Farlow memorized the rapid harmonic runs of the monster pianist Art Tatum so that he could insert these in the parts of his solos where they would work - some trick!

Vocalists Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday channeled Louis Armstrong’s trumpet phrasing into the manner in which they enunciated the lyrics to popular songs in order to make them sound “Jazzier.”

But the epitome of the use of concentration in order to bring out the special inner qualities of a song’s melody may be the one described in the following piece by the author James Kaplan that appeared in the November 29, 2015 issue of The Wall Street Journal.

“A friend of mine was flying back from Europe a few years ago and began talking with his seatmate, a gentleman who happened to be a Swedish opera singer. Somehow Frank Sinatra came up, and, as my friend told me, the singer suddenly turned very grave. “Ah,” he said. “That is a voice without equal.”

Something about Frank has sunk in deeply, from San Francisco to Stockholm. In his centennial year — he was born Dec. 12, 1915 — Sinatra is much in the air, and with good reason. We celebrate his artistry, his matchless personal style, his undying charisma, his apparently inexhaustible effect on American culture.

One question I’m often asked as a Sinatra biographer is what surprised me most about my research. I usually have the feeling—Frank being Frank — that some juicy tidbit of gossip, heretofore unearthed, is what I’m being asked for. My answer probably lets people down: The most surprising thing I found out was how very hard he worked on his singing.

Though he dropped out at 16 from A.J. Demarest High School in Hoboken, N.J., Frank had a brilliant and inquisitive mind; he was verbally gifted, with an original way of expressing himself in the many notes and letters he wrote over the decades. For instance, in 1988 Daniel Okrent wrote an Esquire essay praising Sinatra’s late-age durability. In response, the Chairman sent Mr. Okrent a graceful missive thanking him for helping to “explain me to me with a rose in your prose” and for applying his “X-ray word-processor to see so deeply into the heart and soul of this very lucky son of Hoboken who remains eternally overcome at God’s plan for his life.”

Sinatra was a self-educated man, a lifelong reader, mainly of biographies. When it came to popular songs, the lyrics mattered as much to him as the music, if not more. And as soon as he began singing professionally, he started a practice that he continued throughout his career.

“I take a sheet with just the lyrics. No music,” he once told the casino mogul Steve Wynn.“At that point, I’m looking at a poem. I’m trying to understand the point of view of the person behind the words. I want to understand his emotions. Then I start speaking, not singing, the words so I can experiment and get the right inflections. When I get with the orchestra, I sing the words without a microphone first, so I can adjust the way I’ve been practicing to the arrangement. I’m looking to fit the emotion behind the song that I’ve come up with to the music. Then it all comes together.”

Once he sang that number, on record or on stage, he inhabited that lyric, felt it so deeply that anyone listening felt it, too. Combine that with his genius ear and the phrasing he learned from Billie Holiday’s vocals and Tommy Dorsey’s trombone solos. The result is that Sinatra gives the eerie impression that he is thinking these thoughts, feeling these feelings, in the moment the listener is hearing about them. Nobody else quite manages to bring this off.

I’ve studied and written about Frank Sinatra for 10 years, and though I’ve sometimes disliked him, I’ve never been bored with him. His best singing—of which there is a very great deal—still gives me goosebumps, every time. I believe that we will still be celebrating Sinatra, and listening to him, next year, and the year after that, and (as the title of another of his numbers has it) a hundred years from today.

Mr. Kaplan is the author of “Sinatra: The Chairman,” just out from Doubleday.”

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Charlie Barnet - Big Band Fun

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Charlie Barnet (1913-91)
Born into a wealthy New York family, Barnet took up playing sax and was at work in Harlem - where he broke the colour bar- and everywhere in the city by the mid-'jos. But his band struggled until 1939, when he began making records for Bluebird, and broke big. He kept on through the '40s but disliked the way big-band music was going and quit bandleading in 1949, going into hotel management and leading groups only when he pleased, in the 50s, '60s and 70s. As an alto and soprano player, he idolized Johnny Hodges, He was married more times than even Dinah Washington.

***(*) The Capitol Big Band Sessions [Capitol 21258-2]

This was Barnet's 'bebop' band. He knew he couldn't play the new jazz and that he didn't really want that kind of band, but he was shrewd enough to hire players who were adept enough to handle a really tough score such as Cu-ba, the sort of thing that was coming out of Dizzy Gillespie's book. Arrangers such as Manny Albam and Pete Rugolo posed plenty of challenges for the band, and here and there are pieces which pointed the Barnet men in the direction of Stan Kenton, which was the last thing their leader wanted. After he famously broke the band up in 1949, there came a new version, which cut the last four 1950 tracks here, with strings added. This is little-known jazz and it's a welcome addition to Barnet's CD showing, even if much of it is atypical of his best work.
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

"It is a tragedy of our civilization that the presence of (some superb) Negro musicians has kept sponsors of commercial radio programs away from Barnet's door, and has closed swank hotels and certain big-time theater engagements to the band."  … Harlem flocked in record numbers to hear this band...He is doing a lot to break down racial prejudice. It's the same with his music. He plays only what he likes and the standard of popular music is improved thereby."
- Les Zimmerman, in a 1943 Metronome Magazine profile

Dave Pell is a tenor saxophonist, long time member of the Les Brown’s “Band of Renown,” leader of his own octet, record producer, photographer and occasional member of the sax section of various versions of the Charlie Barnet Big Band.

I remember asking him once why Charlie is not mentioned with the same reverie that musicians who were on the Kenton, Herman, and Brown band’s reserve for Stan, Woody and Les, respectively.

He said: “That’s because they were totally different experiences, musically, I mean.”

Although, I wasn’t familiar enough with Charlie Barnet’s music to understand the distinction that Dave was making and there wasn’t an opportunity for him to elaborate on his remark at the time, I made a note of it in one of the small spiral bound notebooks the I always carry in my hip pocket as a hedge against the increasing encroachment of “senior moments.”

I came across that dog-eared notebook recently, and finding Dave’s remark set me off on a quest for an explanation as to what it meant. I guess I could have called him and asked him - he’s a really nice man - but I wanted to do some research and see what answers might come up.

Besides, I thought it would make a fun blog feature to do it this way.

When it comes to the history of Jazz Big Bands, Gunther Schuller, George Simon and Loren Schoenberg are pretty hip guys and as you will no doubt note, each gives a slightly similar and yet distinctive explanation as to what made Charlie Barnet’s band “different,” “musically,” that is.

Let’s start with - when it comes to big bands - the always enthusiastic, George Simon and these excerpts from his classic book on the subject - The Big Bands, 4th Edition.

"The band business was a romping, stomping thing, and everybody was swinging, and I can't help but think back to the group of boys in the band— it was a happy band, and even with the one-nighters it was a ball."

For Charlie Barnet and the many fine musicians who played in his ever-swinging outfit, the big band days must indeed have been a ball. For Charlie was the kind of a guy who believed in a good time — not only for himself, but also for all those around him. He and his cohorts projected a happy, carefree, swinging feeling both in their music and very often in their attitude toward life. They were disciplined in their playing, for Charlie always respected music, and they took their task seriously. But take themselves seriously —no! This was a band that reflected the wonderful ad-lib spontaneity that characterizes jazz. Its music always had a beat. And, like its leader and many of his sidemen, it was always, but always colorful.

Barnet was a handsome, Hollywood-hero sort of man—in fact, at one time he tried making it as a movie actor, appearing in two films, Irene and Mary and Love and Hisses. But his heart wasn't in acting, for it always remained so very much in jazz.

As a kid he revolted toward jazz. His family wanted him to study piano. He wanted to play drums, so he began banging on his mother's hat boxes and sundry pots and pans, probably expensive paraphernalia too, because his was a wealthy family. His mother's father, Charles Daly, had been the first vice-president of the New York Central Railroad, and Charlie's parents had all sorts of "respectable plans" for their son. They sent him to Rumsey Hall and Blair Academy, two very respectable boarding schools, and he was enrolled at Yale. But this wasn't for Charlie. By the time he should have been preparing for his freshman midterms at Yale, he was in the South, blowing his wild tenor sax in various local outfits.

Admittedly Barnet's style was influenced greatly by that of Coleman Hawkins. When Charlie was twelve his family gave him a C-melody sax, which is a cross between an alto and tenor. "I learned to play hot by fooling around with the Victrola," he recently told writer George Hoefer. "I was nuts about the Fletcher Henderson band, and when I heard Hawkins play, I just naturally switched to the tenor." Later, when he heard Duke Ellington’s Johnny Hodges play alto and soprano sax, he just naturally switched to those horns too.

Ellington's band had a profound effect on Barnet, and when, after having fronted a fairly commercial outfit for several years, Charlie decided to cash in on the big swing-band craze, he patterned his arrangements after those of the Duke. As I noted in an August, 1939, review of his band (headed "Barnet's—Blackest White Band of All!"), he and his musicians made no attempt to hide the fact "that they're aping Duke Ellington, copying many of his arrangements, adapting standards and some pops to his style, using his sax-section setup of two altos, tenor, and baritone and his growling trumpets and trombones." So dedicated was Barnet to the Duke that, it has been noted, when he built a fallout shelter after the war, he stocked it with a superb collection of Ellington recordings.

Charlie's first important band, formed as early as 1933, featured some unusually good and even advanced arrangements written by two of his trumpeters, Eddie Sauter and Tutti Camarata. The third trumpeter was Chris Griffin, who a couple of years later became a mainstay of the Goodman section that also included Harry James and Ziggy Elman. For a singer, Barnet used, believe it or not, Harry Von Zell, later to become a famous radio announcer.

Barnet also sang, and sang well too. His voice was rather nasal, but he had a good beat and a good sense of phrasing, and in later years I often wondered why he didn't sing more. Of course he featured his tenor sax a great deal— an exciting, booting, extremely rhythmic horn. He could also play very soulfully too, as he proved on several Columbia sides he made in 1934 with an all-star group led by Red Norvo. Two of these, "I Surrender, Dear" and "The Night Is Blue," are highly recommended, not only for Norvo and Barnet, but also for three then-obscure recording musicians, clarinetist Artie Shaw (this was his first featured solo), pianist Teddy Wilson and trombonist Jack Jenney.

Barnet liked to surround himself with inspiring musicians. Many of them were black, and it could well have been because of his liberal attitude on the racial question (especially liberal for those days) that his band was not picked for any of the commercial radio series that featured the big name bands. He even had some troubles securing engagements in certain hotels because he clung so strongly to his principles.

Not that Barnet was entirely a do-gooder. He could get into trouble, some attributable to his zest for having a ball and presumably not worrying too much about the consequences, and some over which he had no control. For example, in 1939, just after his band had opened an extremely important engagement at the famed Palomar in Los Angeles, the ballroom burned to the ground. The band lost everything—its instruments, its music, even most of its uniforms. Barnet, though, took it in stride. "Hell, it's better than being in Poland with bombs dropping on your head!" he exclaimed. He also showed a kooky sense of humor by featuring on the band's first engagement after the fire two new swing originals titled "We're All Burnt Up" and "Are We Hurt." It's significant to note that Ellington as well as Benny Carter, then, as now, one of the world's most respected arrangers, upon hearing of Barnet's plight, shipped him batches of new scores.

Two years later, also out on the West Coast, the Barnet band was again hit when Bus Etri, its brilliant guitarist, and trumpeter Lloyd Hundling were killed in a car crash.

Although Charlie was doing fairly well in the mid-thirties, playing the 1936 summer season at the Glen Island Casino, where he introduced a new vocal group out of Buffalo, the Modernaires, and spotting such black jazz stars as John Kirby and Frankie Newton in 1937, it wasn't until 1939 that his band really caught fire—figuratively this time. This was the year in which it recorded the wild, romping version of Ray Noble's tune "Cherokee," which soon became the band's theme song. (Before then the group had used a lovely ballad, which probably everyone has since forgotten, called "I Lost Another Sweetheart.") It was also the year in which Billy May joined the band as trumpeter and, perhaps more importantly, as arranger.

The cherubic, humorous, wildly imaginative May and a more staid but equally effective writer named Skip Martin began to build a book for the Barnet band that gave it a recognizable style that it theretofore had never been able to achieve.

The band was really cooking. It made a slew of great sides for Bluebird, including "The Count's Idea," "The Duke's Idea," "The Right Idea," and "The Wrong Idea." The last, a takeoff on the day's mickey-mouse bands, was subtitled "Swing and Sweat with Charlie Barnet." Then there were "Pompton Turnpike," "Wings over Manhattan," "Southern Fried" and "Redskin Rumba," which was a follow-up to "Cherokee" and bore an expedient resemblance to it, since the latter was an ASCAP tune, and ASCAP tunes, because of the Society's war with the radio networks, were not permitted to I be played on the air.

Many of the sides featured vocals by Mary Ann McCall, a good, jazz-tinged I singer. Then early in 1941 Barnet took on a new vocalist, one who had I made some sides with Noble Sissle's band. Her name: Lena Home. She I recorded four tunes with the band, the most notable of which was "Good I for Nothin' Joe." Bob Carroll, the robust baritone who sang with Barnet at I the time, recalls the day Lena joined the band. "We were working at the I Windsor Theater in the Bronx, and something had happened to the girl we I were using. Somebody remembered this pretty girl who was working in a I movie house, and they sent for her. It was Lena. I remember she had long, I straggly hair, and her dress wasn't especially attractive. She ran down a few I tunes in the basement of the theater, and then, without any arrangements, I she did the next show—not only did it but stopped it cold. She was just great!" Charlie had a knack for finding fresh talent. By the following year he had I assembled a slew of outstanding young musicians: trumpeters Neal Hefti, Peanuts Holland and Al Killian, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and pianist Dodo Marmarosa, plus a new singer, Frances Wayne, who, like Hefti, was to become an important part of Woody Herman's most famous Herd several years later.

Other stars followed: singers Kay Starr, Fran Warren, Dave Lambert and Buddy Stewart, pianist-arranger Ralph Burns, trombonist Trummy Young, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and some years later trumpeters Clark Terry, Jimmy Nottingham and Doc Severinsen.

If you talk to almost any of these people, you'll find that they have pretty much the same remembrances about their Charlie Barnet days. "It was a ball," they'll say. "Charlie was a terrific leader to work for. He had great musical and personal integrity, and even though things got kind of wild sometimes and maybe even out of hand, it was a rewarding experience. Most of all you could say that things never got dull — never."

Eventually, Barnet gave up his big band. He settled down on the West Coast, headquartering in Palm Springs, and for years he led a sextet or septet, always finding enough work to keep him occupied. In the mid-sixties he headed a romping big band, organized especially for an exciting two-week stint at New York's Basin Street East. Financially he has never had any real worries. He has been able to do pretty much what he has wanted to do. He has owned his own homes and flown his own planes. And he has had at least ten wives and, one suspects, many attendant alimony payments.

Charlie Barnet, now in his sixties, has mellowed. But that great charm and vitality are still there. And so is his undying love of pulsating big band sounds that communicate with large audiences. "I still like to hear the beat," he said recently. "I don't like it when it's too abstract. To me, jazz should be exciting.  Remember, there's a difference between 'exciting' and 'startling,' which is what some of the younger kids don't realize."

Charlie Barnet was one of the "younger kids" for a long time.”

By comparison, Gunther Schuller takes a more academic or scholarly approach in this quotation from his The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945.


“There are some interesting parallels between Artie Shaw's and Charlie Earner's lives and careers—apart from their multiple marriages (eleven(!) for Barnet, only eight for Shaw). They both formed numerous bands, although Barnet's were much more consistent stylistically than Shaw's. Both got the Wanderlust as young men, early on pursuing a musical life against family wishes: Barnet working on transatlantic oceanliners, playing his tenor sax; Shaw starting to play professionally at age fifteen and leaving home a year later to work in Cleveland, also playing tenor sax. Both men ended up freelancing in New York in the early thirties (and even played together on a Red Norvo date in 1934). Both left music temporarily early on: Shaw in 1934 to try farming in Pennsylvania, Barnet in 1936 to try an acting career in Hollywood (he actually appeared in two feature films).

There the parallels stop. For the two men had quite different orchestral conceptions — as we have seen, Shaw alone had several — and in their careers as bandleaders developed quite dissimilar styles. Moreover, whereas Shaw was a restlessly inveterate searcher for an individual identity, steadfastly opposed to modeling his band after other prevalent jazz modes, Barnet spent a good part of his career enthusiastically imitating and re-creating the music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. As a saxophonist, Barnet’s unabashedly overt models were Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges. Interestingly, Barnet managed consistently to keep these twin influences discrete, the one reserved for his tenor playing, the other for his alto and soprano saxophones. Moreover, Barnet regularly populated his orchestras with players who could accurately re-create various prominent solo styles, particularly those of leading black players. A case in point is trumpeter Robert Burnet, who was as adept in simulating Cootie Williams's plunger-and-growl style (or for that matter Rex Stewart or Roy Eldridge) as Barnet was in reproducing Hodges. The eclectically gifted Bill Miller, long-time pianist with Barnet, could re-create quite readily two so divergent piano styles as Duke Ellington's and Count Basie's.

To ensure stylistic authenticity in the orchestral and ensemble realm, Barnet either used scores he bought directly from Ellington (as well as from Benny Carter, the Henderson brothers, and Don Redman) or had transcribed by Andy Gibson, a talented black arranger, who had earned his trumpet-playing spurs with such bands as Zack Whyte, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, and Lucky Millinder and had actually done some arranging work for Ellington.

Barnet's very earliest bands had little identity of their own. They were essentially hotel-style bands (Barnet worked many of the top hotels in New York), venturing occasionally into a "hot," more jazz-oriented dance style. Curiously, some of the Benny Carter compositions/arrangements Barnet acquired—Nagasaki and On a Holiday (1935), for example—leaned very much in the direction of the Casa Loma band; or perhaps their vertical staccato-mannerisms were more a matter of Barnet's interpretation of Carter's scores.

When Barnet organized his second band, following his Hollywood acting interlude, an appreciable expansion of jazz spirit became noticeable in the band's repertory. It had progressed from such dubious jazz material as The Swing Waltz and Fra an Old Cowhand (in 1936) to such 1939 jump-swing pieces as Jump Session, Swing Street Strut, Midweek Function, and quite explicit Ellington evocations like Echoes of Harlem, Jubilesta, Merry-Go-Round, and Rockin in Rhythm.

And yet, if one can describe certain orchestras and musicians as "coming into their own" at a certain point (say, Ellington and Lunceford in the early-to-mid 1930s, or Woody Herman in 1945), it is impossible to do so in the case of Barnet, since what he and his band "came into" was not "their own" style but that of Ellington and Basie, alternatingly, and a wide assortment of other then-current fashions. Significantly, even these latter influences were in the main black. And even such breakthrough popular hits for Barnet as his famous Cherokee of 1939 owed more to black musical influences than to any of the leading white bands of the time, i.e. Goodman and Shaw.

And yet, while we may admire Barnet for his excellent taste in picking such superior models to emulate, and respect him for so genuinely wishing to bring an awareness of true jazz to his largely white audiences—Barnet had a strong following amongst blacks, and was the first white band to play the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, the musical mecca for all black musicians—when judged at the highest levels, his accomplishments constitute a kind of pyrrhic victory. For, ironically, Barnet—like Shaw—believed that he was avoiding the kind of excessive stylization with which he charged Goodman and Miller (also Shaw's favorite targets). Little did Barnet realize that he too had arrived at a definite stylization, only it wasn't a self-created one as in the case of Glenn Miller, but one borrowed from two other creators, Ellington and Basie.

In a sense the issue under discussion here is not so much one of style but of repertory: that is, is there, can there be, should there be such a thing as a jazz "repertory," much in the sense that there is a classical repertory (which now stretches from the twelfth century to the present)? My answer would be a resounding yes, as long as we recognize that certain types of jazz (totally, spontaneously improvised) or certain major jazz figures simply cannot be re-created— or should not be, because it would be pointless: a Louis Armstrong, a Tatum, a Parker. And we must differentiate here on the one hand between a specific, conscious re-creation/imitation for its own sake and, on the other hand, a deep, probably unavoidable influence of one artist upon another in the way that, say, Taft Jordan, Oscar Peterson, and Sonny Stitt relate to the three above-mentioned artists respectively. Predominantly orchestral or ensemble jazz, with or without intermittent "improvised" solos, lends itself very well to re-creation, to re-interpretation, through hands other than the original creator's. As for solos, it is a matter of two viable options: one, whether to re-create literally the originally improvised elements of a performance, or, two, to re-interpret them in an at least stylistically authentic and respectful manner. The choice would depend upon the nature of the original material and the abilities, both creative and recreative, of the reinterpreting musician. The range from slavish imitation to complete re-interpretation affords a wide latitude of interesting possibilities. Here judgment, taste, and sheer ability to accomplish whatever the task at hand, must be the final arbiter.

Charlie Barnet was undoubtedly the first well-known jazz figure consistently to perform other major jazz composers' repertories. And he did so not in the name of plagiarism or exploitation of others' materials for his own self-aggrandizement, but as a genuine tribute to their greater talent and an honest desire to make such repertory more widely known. Indeed, one could argue that Barnet suppressed his own individuality in order to serve the ''higher" cause of proselytizing the works of those he considered the real masters of his field.

It needs to be said, however, that at times Barnet's re-creations and borrowings fell short of their mark.”

My preference among all of Charlie’s recordings is The Capitol Big Band Sessions [Capitol 21258-2] and the insert notes to the CD version written by Loren Schoenberg underscore many of the reasons why the music on it is so high on my list of favorites.

“Charlie Barnet realized something early on in his career that he never lost sight of over the three decades years he led big bands, and that was to have fun. His joy in jazz rhythm in its various forms lies at the root of all the music heard in this collection. The chore of leading a big band, day in and day out, dealing with the various personalities both within and without, is enough to vaporize the pleasure quotient. Factor in Barnet's financial independence (his was the story of the rich kid who escapes the conventionality of his family, and revels in the company of jazz musicians and bohemians), and his dedication to the music becomes clearer.

The late 1940's was a truly crazy time for big-bandleaders in the United States. A decade earlier, they had been at the helm of the popular music industry. A song could be featured in the movies and/or on the radio, but until there was a big band recording of it, the financial potential remained unrealized. This drove the entire music world of composers, publishers, recording companies and the musicians who created the music. Even artists who managed to stay relatively pure, such as Charlie Barnet's inspiration Duke Ellington, did so through the income generated by their hits (in Ellington's case, Mood Indigo, Solitude and the rest). Vocalists had taken over the spotlight, and now it was the imprimatur of a Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Billy Eckstine, or Nat "King" Cole that determined which way the Billboard charts

And if that wasn't enough, there was the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker that had affected the first sea-change in the jazz vocabulary since the advent of Lester Young. Every jazz band had to find a way to deal with their contributions, and Charlie Barnet's have stood the test of time quite sturdily. Unlike many of his peers, Barnet was not only not scared of the younger generation of players, he welcomed them. He had hired the nascent avant-gardists Oscar Pettiford, Howard McGhee and Dodo Marmarosa in the early 40's, and featured the most racially integrated of all the top bands. After the war, Barnet, confident in his own musicality, stayed away from trying to play "bop" saxophone for the most part (though a few awkward attempts are included herein) and let those who lived it play it.

This edition of the Barnet band lasted less than a year, but its reputation far outstrips its brief life. Among the bands that bit the dust in late 1948 was Stan Kenton's, and Capitol Records, anxious to not lose the lead in the "progressive jazz" field, encouraged Barnet to take up the slack. Staying true to his roots in swing, Barnet hired arrangers who could write modern while retaining the essence of the dance and of the grace that characterized the Swing Era. They were Manny Albam, Gil Fuller and Pete Rugolo, all of whom had already distinguished themselves with a wide variety of bands. The first selection, REDSKIN RHUMBA was recorded in mid-1948, as Barnet was heading towards his "bop" band (note Bud Shank on tenor). It was fashioned out of a head arrangement by Andy Gibson, a long-time Barnet cohort who was one of the most creative and original voices of the late 30's and early 40's, yet whose name is unjustly forgotten today. There are also arrangements by saxophonist Dave Matthews (the rather over-ripe Ellington Portrait is his-he seems to have thrown away the wheat and saved the chaff); Paul Villepigue and Johnny Richards, who bring the band perilously close to Kentoniana and Hollywood, a tendency Kenton's own Pete Rugolo avoided in his work for Barnet; and one masterpiece by the drummer Norman "Tiny" Kahn, known for his tremendous girth, the elegance of his touch and his Mother Earth swing.

The personnel is relatively stable, which accounts for the high level of ensemble precision and coherence. The trumpet section boasted three of the all-time powerhouse lead men in Doc Severinsen (who also gets several solo spots) , Ray Wetzel and Maynard Ferguson and the tasteful solos of the Swede, Rolf Ericson. Barnet had some marvelous trombone players in the band, and you can hear a chase chorus between Dick Kenney, Harry Betts, and Herbie Harper on REALLY?. Alto saxophone solos were by Vinnie Dean (later with Kenton) and the cool tenor heard several times is decidedly not the leader but Dick Hafer (later with Goodman
and Charles Mingus). Indeed, it seems that the second take of CHARLIE'S OTHER AUNT was made for no other reason than to replace Barnet's bodacious solo with one by the more reflective Hafer. The shank of the baritone work is covered by the amazing Danny Bank, who colors any ensemble he plays in (hear his rare solo on CU-BA.). The rhythm section was similarly first-rate with Claude Williamson and the virtuoso Eddie Safranski holding the piano and bass chairs respectively. A big band is only as good as its drummer and Barnet had two true masters in Kahn or Cliff Leeman, already a veteran by this time and another unsung individualist of the drums.

The last four tracks were recorded a year after the "bop" band broke up. Barnet himself is highly featured , as are a string section and a radically different aesthetic, but as usual, Barnet had constructed another top-flight band (this one including the young Bill Holman). Though his full-time bandleading days were drawing to a close, Charlie Barnet kept a foot in the big band business through 1967, and maintained something very rare-a sterling reputation amongst both his sidemen and the public. As Buddy DeFranco, an alumnae of the 1943 Barnet band told Ira Gitler:"...(Charlie) had a feeling on the instrument, and he had a feeling in his heart, and he had a happy thing about everything in the band." Who could ask for anything more?
—Loren Schoenberg”

The following video features Charlie Barnet Big Band’s performance of a Bill Holman arranged of Bobby Troup’s Lemon Twist from a May, 1958 Stars of Jazz TV  program that was hosted by Troup.