“Smoke Rings” (1937) and (1932) Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra

“Smoke Rings”

Composed and arranged by H. Eugene Gifford.

Recorded by Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra for Decca on July 23, 1937 in New York.

Glen Gray, saxophone and B-flat clarinet, directing: Walter Smith, Frankie Zullo and Grady Watts, trumpets; Billy Rauch, Fritz Hummel and Pee Wee Hunt, trombones; Art Ralston, Danny D’Andrea, Pat Davis, Clarence Hutchenrider, Kenny Sargent, saxophones and B-flat clarinets; Joe Hall, piano; Jacques Blanchette, guitar; Stanley Dennis, bass, Tony Briglia, drums.

The story: Many people think the swing era began with Benny Goodman. There are a lot of reasons for this misconception, which I won’t get into at this time. Instead, I will focus on one of the bands that predated Goodman’s initial successes in 1935 and 1936, and in many ways was a forerunner for what BG was able to do so successfully in the late 1930s. This was the Casa Loma band, later known as Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra.

What eventually became the Casa Loma band began in 1924 in Detroit as one of the bands operated by Detroit ballroom operator Jean Goldkette. It was initially known as the Orange Blossoms band, and was fronted by a violinist called Hank Biagini. Its lead alto saxophonist was Glen Gray Knoblauch. The band worked from its home base in Detroit throughout the Midwest territory in the late 1920s, but occasionally got as far east as Toronto, Ontario. It played an engagement at Casa Loma(1) in Toronto starting in the fall of 1927, stayed there for eight months, and forever after was known as the Casa Loma band or orchestra. (Casa Loma in Toronto is pictured above at left.)

Unfortunately, the Orange Blossoms/Casa Loma band was pulled down by various financial reverses affecting Goldkette, and by 1929 ceased to be affiliated with him. It was also scuffling for work. At this dire moment, Glen Gray Knoblauch (shown at right in 1931) stepped forward.

The “Glen Gray” whose name eventually was used in the band’s billing, was born in rural Illinois in 1900, came to music in his teens, worked a number of small potatoes dance band jobs, and landed in Detroit in 1924. There he began his association with the Goldkette Orange Blossoms band. After the dire events of early 1929 threatened the continuing existence of the Casa Loma band (which struggled along for a time as the Goldkette Casa Loma band, – with Goldkette’s consent), Gray contacted band booker Francis “Cork” O’Keefe, who had been booking some of the Goldkette bands in Detroit, but who was now in New York. With O’Keefe’s assistance, the band was able to stay afloat throughout the summer and fall of 1929. By the fall of that year, they were ensconced in the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan, and had made their first recordings, on October 29, for the Okeh label. It appears that Biagini continued as front-man for a time after this, though increasingly, the actual bandleader was Glen Gray. (Gray is shown above right in the mid-1930s.)

Glen Gray, in addition to being an imposing (he was six feet five), handsome man, and a person with considerable business acumen, was also a talented diplomat, who had the ability to persuade and lead the musicians in the Casa Loma band in ways that would avoid future difficulties like the harrowing fiasco they had just gone through because of Goldkette’s shortcomings as a businessman. Under Glen Gray’s leadership as a businessman, the Casa Loma band was incorporated, with each sideman being a shareholder in the new corporation.

Casa Loma band at Glen Island Casino – 1934 –  L-R back row: Glen Gray, Pee Wee Hunt, Kenny Sargent, Joe Hall, Sonny Dunham, Jack Blanchette, Pat Davis; front: Grady Watts, Clarence Hutchenrider, Billy Rauch, Stan Dennis, Bobby Jones, Mel Jenssen, Tony Briglia. Photo courtesy of Scott Wenzel.

Jazz historian Frank Driggs provided the details in his essay in The Swing Era 1937-1938, Time-Life Books (1971), page 44: “Gray gave the band continuity. Soon after reaching New York, the sidemen, acting in concert, fired Biagini as leader and formed a corporation (in April of 1930) with Glen Gray Knoblaugh as president and Francis O’Keefe as business manager. Sidemen held all other corporate offices. The musicians shared the band’s income equally, and as the band prospered, their weekly salaries increased.” (MZ note: All of this was happening as an ever deepening Depression began to cause widespread damage to the US economy.)

“Because the corporation held salaries to a reasonable limit, it eventually had money left over after meeting all expenses. Any surplus was paid out in annual or semiannual dividends, or invested. (The disappointing results of some of these investments were a sore point with a few Casa Lomans.) The stockholders met whenever necessary and wherever they happened to be to set rules like the fine ($50) for showing up for work drunk, and to consider admission of new members. Nobody got into the band unless he was someone the sidemen considered to be not only a first-rate instrumentalist, but also personally congenial to the group. A writer of the period called Casa Loma ‘the band that’s organized like a corporation and run like a college fraternity.'” (Above: Glen Gray conducts a meeting of the Casa Loma band corporation – mid 1930s.)

Curiously, after engineering all of these business changes for the Casa Loma band, Gray continued working in the band as an unobtrusive sideman for a number of years, while another musician, violinist Mel Jenssen, was brought in by the band members as a front man, but not shareholder. (Biagini was in essence fired by the band in February of 1930. Jenssen arrived in March of that year.) Gray was a competent but not particularly talented saxophonist, though he was able to play a number of different saxophones in the Casa Loma saxophone section well enough to keep up with the other musicians. In addition, he apparently couldn’t (in the early 1930s) set proper tempos for the band (or perhaps tempos the band members didn’t agree with), and Jenssen could. Jenssen continued to front the band until 1937. Since the years from 1930 to 1937 were years of great success for the Casa Loma band, I suspect that Gray and his Casa Loma associates took the attitude of not fixing something that wasn’t broken.

By the fall of 1931, the Casa Loma band was becoming very popular along the eastern seaboard. The photo above is from their sold-out stand at the Marine Ballroom on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey in September 1931. A year later, they had a similarly successful engagements at Bellerive Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, and Hotel Lowery in St. Paul, Minnesota. The following summer (1932), they were booked for the first time into Glen Island Casino, New Rochelle, New York for a lengthy stay, with frequent sustaining (non-sponsored) radio broadcasts. This started the development of the band’s national reputation. That fall, they were booked into the posh Essex House on Central Park South in Manhattan. The largest boosts to the band’s national popularity however, were provided by its weekly ongoing appearances on a new CBS network radio show called The Camel Caravan (sponsored by Camel Cigarettes), which began broadcasting nationally on December 7, 1933.

The Casa Loma band continued to be featured on The Camel Caravan until mid-1936. Being featured on a sponsored network radio show in the 1930s was like being featured on network television today. It provided a band national exposure, and very good regular pay.

But throughout the mid-1930s, market forces were at work that would eventually pull Glen Gray out of the saxophone section to the front of the Casa Loma band. Branding became a problem. The earliest recordings made by the band were identified simply as by “The Casa Loma Orchestra.” Soon, people began to ask: “Is there a Mr. Casa Loma?” In other words, who is the leader of this band? Then the band, which had continued to record for Okeh and a little later for Brunswick, also had the opportunity to record for a short spell in early 1933 for Victor. The records they made for Victor bore labels identifying the band as Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra. Standing six feet five inches tall with regal bearing, having wavy dark hair and an Errol Flynn moustache, Glen Gray was a most impressive man to have standing in front of the band. Eventually, in March of 1937, despite Gray’s apparent difficulty setting tempos, he left the saxophone section and began leading the band. He quickly proved to be quite comfortable and successful as the as a smiling, glamorous intermediary between the Casa Loma band and their audiences.

I should also mention that the Casa Loma Orchestra pioneered the presentation of big bands from the stage of the Paramount Theater, 1501 Broadway at 43rd, in Times Square in New York City(3) during the week of Christmas in 1935. This led the way for hundreds of other bands to be presented at the Paramount Theater during the swing era, and started a trend where big bands were presented in movie houses all across America to the delight of their fans.

Glen Gray and Billy Rauch – “Smoke Rings” on the air – 1938.

The music: The tune that eventually became the Casa Loma band’s theme song, “Smoke Rings,” was composed in early 1932, and first recorded by them for Brunswick on March 18, 1932. “Smoke Rings” fit perfectly as the haunting, evocative melody heralding the Casa Loma band’s comings and goings on The Camel Caravan, and became the band’s identifying calling card, opening and closing all of its appearances. (At right, Glen Gray conducts as Billy Rauch gets close to the CBS radio microphone as he plays “Smoke Rings,”  1938.) Its composer was the band’s banjoist/guitarist/arranger, Gene Gifford.

The 1932 Brunswick recording of “Smoke Rings” shows that all of the pieces that would eventually be present in the classic 1937 Decca recording were already in place. The initial combination of instruments you hear making the melody statement are Billy Rauch’s cup-muted trombone, blended with two (some say three) B-flat clarinets. Then, clarinetist Clarence Hutchenrider plays a gentle improvisation, which leads to the softly played but rhythmic brass-led climax of the piece.

I was conflicted about including the 1932 recording(2) with this post, but decided to present it because it offers a very good comparison of what many dance bands sounded like in 1932, versus how they sounded a mere five years later. The evolution, especially toward legato rhythm, is plain to hear.

Also, it bears mentioning that the use by Gene Gifford in his 1932 arrangement on “Smoke Rings” of the cup-muted trombone and B-flat clarinets against the chugging rhythm of the banjo is similar though not identical to the sonic mix and mood created by Duke Ellington in his famous recording (Victor – December 10, 1930) of “Mood Indigo.” (Duke used a trio of cup-muted trumpet, cup-muted trombone and one B-flat clarinet.)

“Smoke Rings”

Composed and arranged by H. Eugene Gifford.

Recorded by the Casa Loma Orchestra for Brunswick on March 18, 1932 in New York. (2)

Mel Jenssen, violin, leading: Bobby Jones, Grady Watts and Sonny Dunham, trumpets; Billy Rauch and Walter “Pee Wee” Hunt, trombones; Glen Gray, Clarence Hutchenrider, Kenny Sargent, Pat Davis, saxophones; Joe Hall, piano; Gene Gifford, banjo; Stanley Dennis, tuba; Tony Briglia, drums.

The 1937 Decca recording of “Smoke Rings” was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Here is Frank Driggs’s summary of what Casa Loma was: “The Casa Loma is a vast turreted pile of gray stone assembled in the period 1911-1914 as a private residence for Major General Sir Henry Mill Pellatt, a high-living soldier turned financier. Sir Henry spent $3,500,000 building, and $1,500,000 furnishing his monument, which had its own private telephone system, an electric elevator, an indoor swimming pool, a 165 foot shooting gallery in the basement, one of the largest  wine cellars on the North American continent, 15 bathrooms, 5,000 electric lights and a kitchen range which could roast an ox whole. The place employed forty servants. …Sir Henry planned to spend the rest of his life in Casa Loma and then will it to the City of Toronto for a museum. Financial reverses forced him in 1923 to give up the plan and the castle.”

(2) I thank AllAbout78Records for posting the 1932 Brunswick recording of “Smoke Rings” on You Tube that is presented above.

(3) The Paramount Theater no longer exists. It was converted to office space decades ago. But the famous marquee is still there.

Here is a link to a wonderful Casa Loma swinger, Larry Wagner’s “No Name Jive”:


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1 Comment

  1. Absolutely great post! Smoke Rings ….what a simple gorgeous piece . Great to hear that at least the Marque is still there , I will be in NY about October , so thanks to that information you have thoughtfully supplied I will so be going there!

    Jeff Harvey , Auckland New Zealand.

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