With the approach the High Holidays of the Jewish faith each year, I think of the pioneering jazz tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman. Although Bud was Jewish, I think it accurate to describe him as a secular or non-practicing Jew. However he practiced his faith, he was aware of the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, what they represented to Jews, and when they occurred each year.
I had the great good fortune to have heard Bud play on a number of occasions, and on one memorable September afternoon in 1986, I had the opportunity to speak with him at length.
Lawrence “Bud” Freeman was born in Chicago on April 13, 1906. In the early 1920s, he was a part of the so-called “Austin High Gang” of white teenagers who embraced jazz, and dedicated their musical careers to the then new and exotic music. From his earliest days in Chicago, he was closely associated with the drummer Dave Tough. Freeman worked in many commercial bands in the late 1920s and early 1930s, including those of Art Kassel, Roger Wolfe Kahn, and Red Nichols. He also worked in the jazz influenced bands of Ben Pollack, Joe Haymes, and Ray Noble, before joining Tommy Dorsey’s band in April of 1936. After leaving Dorsey in April 1938, he spent six months in Benny Goodman’s band, before embarking on a career as a soloist in the jazz field which would span the next five decades. As a jazz soloist, Freeman was a rugged individualist. His light tenor saxophone sound predated Lester Young’s sound by many years. His playing, always rhythmically robust, was vivid and imaginative.
Bud Freeman was always small of stature, and by the time I talked with him, he appeared to be an octogenarian elf. He was a marvelous raconteur and he had a highly developed sense of irony. I always had the feeling, when talking with him, or listening to him talk between tunes on the bandstand, that, music aside, his greatest interest was in John Barrymore, because he frequently sounded just like the great actor. Bud Freeman died on March 15, 1991.
I caught Bud right after the Saturday brunch session at the Conneaut Lake Jazz fest in 1986. He and I sat together on a park bench in Conneaut Lake Park (which was just west of Meadville, PA), watching kids and their parents enjoy the amusement rides. Bud and I spoke about many of the bands he played in during the swing era including Ray Noble’s (with Glenn Miller), Tommy Dorsey’s, and Benny Goodman’s. After Bud’s stint with Goodman ended in late 1938, he spent the rest of his career working with small jazz groups, many of which he led. The recordings he made as Bud Freeman and His Summa Cum Laude Band are wonderful examples of small band swing.
We spent a good bit of time talking about Tommy Dorsey (pictured above left) and the band he led through 1936 into 1938 when Freeman was a member of it. “I thought Tommy’s band was very good while I was there. He always had several good soloists, and of course the great Dave Tough on drums! (The photo at right shows TD sidemen in 1936, L-R: trumpeter Max Kaminsky; vocalist Jack Leonard; drummer Dave Tough [in front]; arranger Axel Stordahl [in back]; tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman.) The problem that I detected when I was there was that he relied too much on the arranging of Paul Weston. Paul was then a very bright young man who had graduated from Dartmouth, Phi Beta Kappa, not that he would ever admit it. He was very modest and soft spoken.”
“Paul was a wonderful arranger, capable for writing excellent jazz arrangements. Some of my favorites of the ones he did for Tommy were: ‘After You’ve Gone,’ ‘Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now’,’ and ‘Royal Garden Blues.’ I used to drive him mad by phrasing my part a tiny bit looser than the other saxophones. Anyway, Tommy attached himself to Paul, and he had him write hundreds of arrangements, mostly on pop tunes and ballads for Jack Leonard and Edythe Wright to sing. Many of these were recorded. I don’t think any band made more records than Tommy’s did while I was with him. How Paul had any creativity left after that, I don’t know.” (But he most certainly did. After leaving Tommy Dorsey in 1940, Weston went to Hollywood, became associated with Johnny Mercer and the fledgling Capitol Records. He had great success with these activities. He then married the great pop singer Jo Stafford, and had even greater success as her arranger and conductor.They also had a successful marriage.) The photo at left shows L-R: Paul Weston in back with glasses; TD’s business manager John Gluskin; TD cutting the cake; and arranger Axel Stordahl. The occasion was the second anniversary of Tommy’s band in the fall of 1937.
“Paul’s real last name is Wetstein, which I assumed was German-Jewish. As time passed, I noticed that for a Jew, Paul seemed awfully un-Jewish, not observing the Jewish holy days and so forth. So one day I asked him why he wasn’t observing Yom Kippur. He said, ‘Well Bud, it’s because I’m Catholic.’”
Here is a great example of Bud Freeman’s work with Tommy Dorsey, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
Music composed by Jerome Kern; arranged by Axel Stordahl.
Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra on July 20, 1937 in New York.
Tommy Dorsey, first and solo trombone, directing: Andy Ferretti, first trumpet; Joe Bauer and George “Pee Wee” Irwin, trumpets; Les Jenkins, Walter Mercurio, trombones; Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, first alto saxophone; Johnny Mince, Freddie Stulce, alto saxophones; Lawrence “Bud” Freeman, tenor saxophone; Howard Smith, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Gene Traxler, bass; Russ Isaacs, drums; Axel Stordahl, arranger. Solos by Tommy Dorsey, Bud Freeman, and trumpeter Pee Wee Erwin.
In April of 1938, Bud Freeman joined Benny Goodman’s band to be its featured jazz tenor saxophone soloist. As we began to discuss Benny Goodman, it became apparent to me that Bud did not like Benny, and said the time he worked in Benny’s band in 1938 was like “working in a factory, on an assembly line. I was required to do the same thing over and over again, hundreds and thousands of times.” But Bud did not blame Benny for this. He understood that Benny’s popularity with a wide segment of the populace required that he play the same tunes over and over many times. What
Bud did not like about Benny was that “he became envious if any musician in his band played a good solo, and got more applause than he did. When that happened with me, Benny told me more than once: ‘this is my band. If you want to be a leader, get your own band.'” As one can imagine, this created a lot of tension between Benny and Bud. After this happened a few times, Bud, who had created a very good reputation for himself as a result of his long associations with Ray Noble and Tommy Dorsey before he worked for Benny, began extending feelers about starting his own band.This was happening in the fall of 1938. (The Benny Goodman band in May of 1938 is pictured at right. Bud Freeman is third from left in front row.)
“I finally gave Benny my notice. We were playing at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. It was a great job because of all the lovely people who showed up every night. Between sets, the fellows in the band would go to the band room to relax, and Benny would go to his private dressing room, which had a record player in it. One night, I went to Benny’s dressing room and knocked on the door.This was after I had given him my notice. He admitted me.There had been quite a bit of discussion among the members of the Goodman band in the fall of 1938 about Artie Shaw, because by then, his recording of ‘Begin the Beguine’ had clearly become a hit, and it seemed that he might now be in a position to challenge Benny a bit. Whenever Benny overheard any of these discussions, he would say dismissively, ‘Artie is a good clarinet player. But what he and his band are doing now, at least the little of it I have heard, does not compare with what we are doing.’ I had a record with me, Artie Shaw’s ‘Nightmare,’ which had just come out. (Bud was referring to the Bluebird record of “Nightmare.”) Benny saw the record, and then said, ‘are you here to take back your notice?’ I said I wasn’t but wanted to play something for him. So I put the record of ‘Nightmare’ on the record player. He listened intently. When the record was finished playing Benny said one word: f—. Then he said, ‘play that again.’ Once again he listened intently. When it was finished the second time, he said, ‘no one will ever listen to that, it’s got no melody.’ I thanked Benny for listening, went out into the hallway, closed the door, and starting laughing like mad.”
Although Bud Freeman recalled that he didn’t get get enough solos with the Goodman band, he did get some. Here is one of his best:
Composed by Eddie Durham and Edgar Battle, arranged by Eddie Durham.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Victor November 10, 1938.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Harry James, first trumpet; Ziggy Elman, solo trumpet; Chris Griffin, trumpet; Vernon Brown and Sterling “Red” Ballard, trombones; Ernani “Noni” Bernardi, first alto saxophone; Dave Matthews, alto saxophone; Lawrence “Bud” Freeman and Arthur Rollini, tenor saxophones; Jess Stacy, piano; Ben Heller, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Lionel Hampton, drums.
Noteworthy in this bracing performance are excellent solos by pianist Jess Stacy, trumpeter Ziggy Elman, tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman, and Benny Goodman on clarinet. The ensemble blend and great swing of the entire Goodman band is also a joy to hear. And don’t miss Lionel Hampton’s very tasty drumming.