“John Silver” grows up — Jimmy Dorsey 1938/1944

James Francis Dorsey was the older of the Dorsey brothers, and the smaller, in terms of both physical stature and ego. He was a master musician whose virtuosity on both clarinet and alto saxophone was a source of fascination and inspiration for reed players far and wide, including jazz titans Lester Young and Charlie Parker. In fact, Parker was watching JD on television in 1955 when he (Parker) died.

Jimmy Dorsey’s interest in Afro-American music led him frequently, unlike most other white bandleaders, to Harlem, where he listened to and studied the music of the great black musicians and bands that played there. Many arrangements from those bands appeared in the book of arrangements he and his band had. He hired a black female vocalist (*) for his band when such a thing was unheard of.

Since he was the older of the two brothers, he went first into professional music, played first in the better bands of the era, and was the first to learn the ropes of the music business. His brother always followed, and learned. But at a certain point, during the operation of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in the mid-1930s, Jimmy Dorsey learned two very important things about his brother: First, Tommy, due to his gregarious personality and charm, was a better front man for their band. So he and Tommy agreed that Tommy would front the DBO. Second, that he and Tommy could not possibly be the co-leaders of that band. Tommy completely understood these things also. They both knew that something had to give. The lingering question was… when?

Although there had been many verbal and physical battles between the Dorsey brothers prior to May 30, 1935, it was on that date on an important summer residency at Glen Island Casino, that Tommy, after Jimmy questioned a tempo Tommy had set as he counted off a tune, simply packed up his trombone and left the Dorsey Brothers band. He soon was the leader of another band, and would remain a bandleader for the rest of his life. The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra became Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra, with Jimmy reluctantly becoming the front man. (At right: Tommy Dorsey in the early 1930s, before he became the Sentimental Gentleman of Swing.)

Although there was no doubt that Jimmy was every bit as effective musically as a bandleader as Tommy (who in fact had learned most of those skills from Jimmy), at first, there was some uncertainty about the future of Jimmy’s band. Fortunately, the band soon stabilized musically and as a business entity. Jimmy, who had a much more relaxed approach to bandleading than Tommy, was and continued to remain a bit awkward as a front-man/public personality. He worked on becoming more effective as an intermediary between his band and the public. But he never displayed the ease, indeed the relish, that Tommy had for interacting with audiences, either in-person, via radio or indeed on TV. Nevertheless, Jimmy and his band went on to finish the summer engagement at Glen Island Casino (from which Tommy walked), and then embark on an unbroken series of musical and commercial successes that would reach into the late 1940s.

“John Silver”

Composed by Jimmy Dorsey and Ray Krise; arranged by Ray Krise.

Recorded by Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Decca on April 29, 1938 in New York.

Jimmy Dorsey, alto saxophone and clarinet, directing: Ralph Muzzillo, first trumpet; Clarence F. (Shorty) Sherock, trumpet; Thomas B. “Sonny” Lee, lead trombone; Bobby Byrne, Don Matteson,trombones; Milt Yaner, first alto saxophone; Leonard Whitney, alto saxophone; Charles Frazier and Herbie Haymer, tenor saxophones; Freddy Slack, piano; Roc Hillman, guitar; Jack Ryan, bass; Ray McKinley, drums.

The story: After the Jimmy Dorsey band left the Glen Island Casino gig in the summer of 1935 (it lasted until October 1), they worked in New York for a short spell, doing the routine work of a big band during the swing era. They made commercial recordings for Decca, and one marathon session (thirty-one tunes), of recordings for Associated Transcriptions.(**) But bigger things were in the works for Jimmy and his band. Paul Whiteman, who had employed both Dorseys in the 1920s, was in his final months as the leader of the featured band on the Kraft Music Hall, a high-level NBC network radio show which was broadcast from New York. Backstage machinations in the summer of 1935 had resulted in the announcement that fall that as 1936 began, singer Bing Crosby, who had also worked for Whiteman, would replace Whiteman as the featured performer on that radio show, and that Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra would be the featured band. Due to Crosby’s ongoing work in Hollywood films (at Paramount Pictures), the Kraft Music Hall broadcasts would emanate from Los Angeles. (Below left: the Jimmy Dorsey band at a New Years Eve party, December 31,1935. Many of the band members are in drag. L-R back: trumpeter/arranger Toots Camarata: vocalist Kay Weber as Topsy: Jack Stacey, tenor sax; George Thow, trumpet; JD as one of the Three Musketeers; Jim Taft, bass (shirtless); Ray McKinley, drums, as Groucho Marx; Joe Yukl, trombone. L-R front: Don Matteson, trombone; Roc Hillman, guitar; Bobby Byrne, trombone; Skeets Herfurt, tenor sax, as Mickey Mouse; Bob Eberly, vocalist; Bobby Van Eps, piano. (Fud Livingston, alto sax/arranger, and Dave Matthews, alto sax, are not in picture.)

JD and his happy sidemen, began the trek west in a caravan of automobiles in mid-October. On the way to California, they played a six-week residency at a place called The Grove, in Houston,Texas. When they finally arrived in Los Angeles around December 1, they began their work with Crosby immediately. Throughout December, Crosby, with Jimmy’s band, was featured on brief “teasers,” segments that were inserted into Whiteman’s last few Kraft Music Hall shows, to prime that show’s audience for what would be presented after Bing took over the show on January 2, 1936.

Although the Dorsey band’s work with Bing Crosby on the Kraft Music Hall was glamourous, well-paid and a source of great publicity, it required relatively little time each week. So Jimmy and the Rockewll-O’Keefe booking agency, his managers, kept the band busy by securing what turned out to be a lengthy (January 6 to April 14, 1936) engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. They also continued making records for Decca. Most importantly, they were off the road.

Jimmy, his wife Jane and their daughter Julie settled into a lovely home in the San Fernando Valley for the duration of the Kraft Music Hall commitment. (In fact, Jane like the house so well that she had Julie remained there after Jimmy returned east.) He joined the Lakeside Country Club and played a lot of golf with Crosby and many other Hollywood luminaries. He was a good golfer, often shooting in the mid-80s. Life was good for Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra in 1936.

Meanwhile, Jimmy’s brother Tommy and his band were grinding out one-night stands in the East, traveling to them in primitive mid-1930s buses and cars over snow-covered and icy roads. The most glamorous thing they were doing was making records for Victor.

The music: In preparing for this post, I went back and listened to a number of recordings made by Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra in the mid and late 1930s. I found that whatever the band played was always played well. Clearly, Jimmy was a fine leader who knew how to get the best out of his musicians. His sidemen were quite good, and capable of playing excellent solos. His vocalists, especially Bob Eberly and June Richmond, were very effective. And his solos were invariably solid. What seemed lacking was an overall identity for the band. In other top bands, this was usually derived from the work of one or two chief arrangers, closely supervised by the bandleader. It seems that although Toots Camarata, a trumpeter in the band, was writing many of the arrangements used by the band, a good many also came from outside arrangers, like Larry Clinton. And it also seems that Jimmy himself was making few, if any, adjustments to these arrangements. Consequently, the music played by the band seemed to be lacking in individuality.

Despite this, everything about their recording of “John Silver” is in perfect balance. The arrangement, by Ray Krise, another outsider, is wonderfully colorful, with many instrumental contrasts. The solos, from pianist Freddy Slack and guitarist Roc Hillman’s introductory vamp, through excellent outings by Jimmy on alto sax and clarinet, Herbie Haymer (tenor sax), and Shorty Sherock (trumpet), are delightful. All of the music is supported creatively and with humor, by drummer Ray McKinley, whose voice we hear manically declaiming: “fifteen men on a dead man’s chest!” (Ray McKinley shown at left, 1937.)

(*) Her name was June Richmond, and she was a very good singer. Her time with JD unfortunately was marred by numerous incidents of racial discrimination–not by Jimmy or his band members, who tried to support her, but by venue owners and/or managers who feared that her presence would scare off potential customers. After several months of these incidents, she left the JD band and went to Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy, an Afro-American band, where she had great success. Sadly, Jimmy Dorsey and June Richmond’s unsuccessful experiment in racial integration was an idea too far ahead of its time.(At right: Herbie Haymer. At left: Shorty Sherock with a cornet. He played trumpet with JD.)

(**) Radio Transcriptions were recordings made in a recording studio that were later leased to radio stations to be played on the air. They were usually made in marathon sessions where from a dozen to over fifty tunes (Benny Goodman achieved that dubious distinction (51 tunes) in 1935), were recorded, one take only. Bands and vocalists making transcriptions were identified by pseudonyms, thus eliminating any market competition with the band’s commercial recordings.

***********

“Long John Silver”

Composed and arranged by Ray Krise, with “head” revisions by the JD band.

Recorded on July 12, 1944 at the N.B.C. Studios in Hollywood for V-Disc.

Jimmy Dorsey, alto saxophone and clarinet, directing: Bob Alexy, Tony Picciotto, Shorty Solomson, Claude Bowen and Ray Linn trumpets; Thomas B. “Sonny” Lee, Simon “Si” Zentner, Nick Di Maio and Andy Russo, trombones; Jack Aiken and Frank Langone, alto saxophones; Charlie Frazier and Bobby Dukoff, tenor saxophones; Bob Lawson, baritone saxophone; Marvin Wright, piano; Teddy Walters, guitar; Jimmy Middleton, bass; and Adolph “Buddy” Schutz, drums.

The story: What is or was a V-Disc? Here is a concise explanation courtesy of Wikipedia:

“V-Disc (“V” for Victory) was a morale-boosting initiative involving the production of a series of recordings during the World War II era by special arrangement between the United States government and various private U.S. record companies. The records were produced for the use of United States military personnel overseas. Many popular singers, big bands and orchestras of the era recorded special V-Disc records. These 12-inch, vinyl 78 rpm gramophone recordings were created for the U.S.Army between October 1943 and May 1949. Navy discs were released between July 1944 and September 1945. Twelve-inch discs were used because, when 136 grooves per inch were cut, they could hold up to six and a half minutes of music. Not all releases were pressed on vinyl; many were of the much less durable shellac compound used for standard 78 RPM records of the day.”

My own comments: V-Discs contained new recordings made by artists during World War II, as well as dubs of commercial recordings that had been made previously. (This recording of “Long John Silver” was indeed made especially for V-Disk.) V-Disks were not sold anywhere. They were produced and distributed via military channels to armed forces of the U.S. The U.S. military took the position that all V-Discs belonged to the U.S. government, so military personnel could not lawfully take V-Discs home with them. In fact, all V-Discs were gathered by the U.S. military after World War II, and destroyed. This was done so that these morale-boosting records could not be used as black-market competition against the commercial recordings made by the artists who had lent their commercial recording masters to V-Disc in the case of dubs, or donated their performances to V-Disc in the case of new recordings. Fortunately, the Library of Congress had a complete collection of V-Discs, from which all currently circulating V-Disc recordings have been produced.

The music: It is obvious when listening to this performance of “Long John Silver” after listening the the performance of “John Silver” above how quickly swing was evolving in the years 1938 to 1944. By 1944, most big bands were simply bigger, almost always having five saxophones, including a baritone that was a regular part of the section (not just a double), and eight brass–four trumpets and four trombones. (The fifth trumpet here, Ray Linn, an L.A. freelance, was added to handle the solos on this ten tune recording session.) This meant more power of course, as well as more harmonic possibilities. Consequently, swing was becoming more complex music. Nevertheless, the virtuosic performance here by Jimmy Dorsey’s 1944 powerhouse band is impressive for several reasons. First, the ensemble unity and rhythmic drive of the band (at a faster tempo than the original), led by the dynamic drummer Buddy Schutz. Second the brief but swinging solos by Jimmy on alto saxophone; Bobby Dukoff on tenor saxophone; Ray Linn on trumpet; Jimmy on clarinet, and Buddy Schutz, who gives his tom-toms a workout, on drums. At the conclusion of Schutz’s solo, listen to how he cues the band to come back in, and how strongly they do come in. (Above left: drummer Buddy Schutz and Jimmy Dorsey in 1940. At right: Schutz with the 1942 JD band.)

The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo. In addition, I had to do a bit of sonic reconstruction on the V-Disc “Long John Silver.”

 

2 comments on ““John Silver” grows up — Jimmy Dorsey 1938/1944”

  1. Michael House says:

    There is a video clip on YouTube of Jimmy and the band performing John Silver in the movie “Lost in a Harem.” The movie was filmed shortly before the V-Disc was recorded. The clip begins with Jimmy dressed in middle east attire standing alone in the spotlight playing an “oriental” sounding cadenza on clarinet. Then the whole band appears also dressed in middle east attire and immediately jump into John Silver. This all seems very incongruous, but after all, this is an Abbott and Costello movie!

  2. Mike Zirpolo says:

    Michael, incongruities abounded in movies made in the swing era featuring top bands and musicians. The producers of those movies seemingly didn’t know how to present the bands in ways that were optimal for viewers to watch the bands make music. Clearly, they thought that simply presenting a band making music, by itself, was visually boring. That is why we see all the incredible gimmicks that almost always surrounded the bands’ performances.

    Thanks for your observation and the info about “Lost in a Harem.” The JD band was flying very high when that movie was made.

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