In Finegan’s Wake: a Salute to Master Arranger Bill Finegan – Part 1.

Bill Finegan.

The story: This post is not about James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Rather, it is a look back at the musical heritage that master swing era (and later) arranger Bill Finegan has left us.

William James Finegan (1917-2008), lived a long and musically productive life.Indeed, he was writing music professionally for over seventy years. Aficionados of his music often cite his “first” notable arrangement, a lengthy exercise in contrasts on “Lonesome Road,” done by Finegan for Tommy Dorsey, whose tentacles seemingly reached everywhere in the pop music world he occupied and helped define in the late 1930s and through much of the 1940s. That arrangement, which filled two sides of a 78 rpm Victor disk, was recorded by Tommy on May 15, 1939. But there had been some very productive Dorsey-Finegan musical interaction before that.

How Finegan first came to Dorsey’s attention is not clear. But it seems that in late 1938, TD was sufficiently impressed by the young arranger’s work that he gave him an assignment: to create a setting for TD vocalist Jack Leonard on a then current pop tune entitled “In the Middle of a Dream.” Dorsey recorded Finegan’s chart on this tune on January 19, 1939. This arrangement is astonishingly masterful and richly musical, considering that it was written by a young man who was not yet 22 years old, who had had no previous experience with Tommy Dorsey and his band.

At this same time, it appears that Finegan had sold at least one arrangement (on Horace Henderson’s “Rug Cutter’s Swing”), to Glenn Miller, who was then very much still a struggling bandleader. Miller played that arrangement on a broadcast from Boston’s Roseland-State Ballroom on November 6, 1938.(*) The relationship between Finegan and Miller continued fitfully from late 1938 into early 1939. Miller, who was an arranger himself, and knew well how to put the pieces of an arrangement together to make a cohesive whole, immediately recognized superior talent, taste and skill in Finegan’s work. As Miller slowly began to establish a financial base for his band in early 1939, he took the fledgling arranger on, paying him $40.00 a week to write as many arrangements as he could. The first Finegan arrangements Miller recorded, on February 6, 1939 (for RCA-Bluebird), were on “Cookoo in the Clock,” a humorous Johnny Mercer-Walter Donaldson opus, and “Romance Runs in the Family,” a lightweight pop tune, both sung by Miller’s girl vocalist Marion Hutton. These arrangements sound more like Glenn Miller’s arranging than Bill Finegan’s. I am sure that Miller, then sensing the earliest stirrings of possible success for his band,exercised strong editorial control over young Finegan. In fact, it would be some time before Finegan’s musical sensibility, instead of Miller’s, became predominant in his arrangements for Miller.

“In the Middle of a Dream”

Composed by Al Stillman, Einar Swan and Tommy Dorsey; arranged by Bill Finegan (1) (See post script below.)

Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Victor on January 19, 1939 in New York.

Tommy Dorsey, first and solo trombone, directing: Andy Ferretti, first trumpet; Aniello Castaldo (Lee Castle), and John “Yank” Lawson, trumpets; Elmer Smithers, Ward Silloway and Dave Jacobs, trombones; Johnny Mince, clarinet and alto saxophone; Freddie Stulce, alto saxophone; Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, Deane Kincaide and Irving “Babe” Russin, tenor saxophones; Howard Smith, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Gene Traxler, bass, Dave Tough, drums; Jack Leonard, vocalist.

TD band in action – early 1939: L-R: front Tommy Dorsey standing, playing trombone; Deane Kincaide, Johnny Mince; Freddie Stulce; Babe Russin; middle: Carmen Mastren and Gene Traxler; back: Pee Wee Erwin, Andy Ferretti and Yank Lawson.

The Music: What is most interesting is that even at this early date (the beginning of 1939), Finegan was more himself writing for Tommy Dorsey than he was writing for Glenn Miller. Proof positive of this is his marvelous arrangement for Tommy on “In the Middle of a Dream.” In listening to the Dorsey band’s performance of this chart, it seems to me that Tommy told Finegan that he wanted two things in the arrangement: a prominent place for his own melodic trombone, and the somewhat characteristic TD reed voicing that employed Johnny Mince’s clarinet as the lead voice, as well as a part written for bass clarinet, something TD used consistently in his two decades as a bandleader. Other than that, Finegan was on his own.

Vocalist Jack Leonard.

The performance starts with the Dorsey reeds, voiced as TD had specified, playing a floating eight-bar introduction atop drummer Dave Tough’s whispering cymbals and subtly muted brass. Tommy follows on open trombone playing the melody against a background of reeds (with Mince playing lead on clarinet and Skeets Herfurt playing the bass clarinet part). Dorsey’s playing here is a classic example why he was called the “Sentimental Gentleman of Swing.” He had a lovely sound, perfect command of his instrument, and his very special technique of phrasing that involved playing long phrases in one breath, and breathing a bar or two beyond the bar line. (Here, he starts the first eight bar exposition of the melody, plays one bar, then finishes the next seven bars, plus two bars into the next eight bar section, in one breath.) The effect he created was at once wonderfully flowing, relaxed and intensely musical.

Finegan also created another superb showcase for TD’s lovely trombone sound within this arrangement: he had Tommy play the eight-bar bridge in the first chorus as the lead voice with the other three trombonists in the Dorsey band. Nearly five decades after this recording was made, Johnny Mince recalled in a conversation with me hearing the sumptuous sound created by the Dorsey-led trombone quartet. “When Tommy would play solo and then immediately segue into four or eight bars leading that four-trombone section, it was so beautiful it made the hairs stand up on your arms. I just loved that.”(**) By the way, TD plays over the bar line at the end of the bridge before breathing. Then he finishes the chorus.

Bill Finegan – late 1950s.

Jack Leonard, Frank Sinatra’s predecessor in the Dorsey band, sings the vocal chorus with both intimacy and assurance. Leonard does his own bit of long-phrasing:he sings the first eight bars of the vocal chorus in one breath. Clearly, Frank Sinatra was not the first male vocalist in Tommy Dorsey’s band to learn about phrasing and breath control from TD.Johnny Mince recalled Jack Leonard when we spoke in 1986: “Jack was a great guy, and very popular singer. Some critics have been unkind to him over the years, and I have disagreed with them. They always compare him unfavorably with Sinatra. I don’t think the comparison was that unfavorable, at least not when Frank joined the band. Jack was phrasing over the bar line, like Tommy would play his trombone, long before Frank, and Paul (Weston) and Axel (Stordahl) had set the pattern for Jack and Tommy on ballads well before Frank joined the band. But Jack was kind of shy in front of the band. Frank, of course, was very confident and outgoing, and very talented too. And then, he had that special something beyond talent. What do they call it today?  Charisma?  That’s why Frank is the great star he has always been since his days with Tommy, and Jack is a just a pleasant memory.”

But good as Finegan’s arrangement on “In the Middle of a Dream” is, his reputation was made with Glenn Miller, not Tommy Dorsey.(***) This is interesting for many reasons. As was mentioned above, Miller was an arranger, as well as being a very strong leader. His band was going to sound like he wanted it to sound. Most people think of the “Miller Sound” as being the reed voicing of the clarinet and tenor sax playing in unison an octave apart. And that is certainly a part of the “Miller Sound.” But there were many more musical devices that went into the totality of the “Miller Sound.” Principal among those was the use of the oo-ah brass muting technique, achieved by flexing and extending the hands of the brass players in front of the bell of their instruments. Miller also had his own ideas about how the brass in his band should phrase what they were playing. Curiously, the Miller reeds phrased in a different way. The Miller band also had a few other idiosyncrasies, centering around the playing of many of its musicians, both good (Willie Schwartz’s highly individual clarinet sound), and not so good (the less than stellar playing of pianist Chummy MacGregor). All of this would be involved on an ongoing basis in Finegan’s musical interaction with Miller and his band from early 1939 until the Miller band broke up in September of 1942, when Miller entered the Army Air Corps.

More posts will appear here discussing the evolution of Bill Finegan as an arranger for the Glenn Miller band. It was a fascinating process that eventually resulted in much great music.

(*) Moonlight Serenade …A Bio-Discography of the Glenn Miller Civilian Band, by John Flower (1972), page 30.

(**) Johnny Mince spoke with me at the Conneaut Lake Jazz Festival in August of 1986.

(***) Finegan worked very effectively with Tommy Dorsey in the post-World War II years.

(1) Post Script. Since I posted this first installment of what will eventually be a series of posts devoted to the music of Bill Finegan, I have done some additional detective work regarding who, other than Bill Finegan, might have written the arrangement presented above on “In the Middle of a Dream.” As I have said on this blog before and undoubtedly will say again, history is not written in a straight line. There are zigs and zags. New information presents itself, often in unexpected ways, and the story evolves.

Without getting into all of the details about how this story has evolved, I will say that I am now convinced that this arrangement was written by Bill Challis, not by Bill Finegan. (My initial attribution of this arrangement to Finegan was based on information I obtained from a very scholarly source.) This revelation came from none other than Bill Finegan himself. Very late in his life, Finegan, in a recorded conversation with a friend/fan/history buff, made specific reference to the modulation we hear in this arrangement that leads to Jack Leonard’s vocal chorus, and stated that it was written by Bill Challis. And then he sang a part of that modulation. This struck me as remarkable, because the time span between this recording being made and Finegan singing its modulation was over sixty years. But Bill Finegan was a remarkable person. I pondered all of this, sought additional information from knowledgeable people, and continued to wonder. Perhaps the elderly Bill Finegan was mistaken.

Then some seven months later, I stumbled across another recorded interview of Bill Finegan, this one done by historian Loren Schoenberg in the early 1990s, where this subject came up again, albeit obliquely. Finegan recounted attending a rehearsal of Tommy Dorsey’s band at Hotel New Yorker late in 1938, where he was waiting for Tommy to play the arrangement he wrote for them on “The Lonesome Road.” As the rehearsal progressed, Finegan heard the Dorsey band play music written by its regular arrangers, Paul Weston, Axel Stordahl and Deane Kincaide. Then, unexpectedly, Tommy played an arrangement by Bill Challis, the one that had that modulation. Finegan was deeply impressed by that modulation, so deeply impressed that he could sing it over sixty years later! Although in this interview, Bill Finegan does not identify that tune arranged by Bill Challis as “In the Middle of a Dream,” I am now convinced by this series of his recollections that what he heard that night was indeed the arrangement Bill Challis wrote for Tommy Dorsey on “In the Middle of  Dream.”

Here is a link to part 1 of Loren Schoenberg’s interview with Bill Finegan:


The story continues: Bill Finegan’s career continued after Miller entered military service. Essentially, he worked extensively with Tommy Dorsey throughout the mid to late 1940s, spent two years (1948-1949) in Europe studying and writing for bands there, then formed the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra in 1953, which he co-led with arranger Eddie Sauter until 1957. After that, he free-lanced in New York for the next fifty years.

One of Finegan’s most felicitous collaborations came in 1961, with vocalist Carol Sloane (1937-2023 ). Here is Ms. Sloane’s delightful recording of the standard “Deep Purple.”

“Deep Purple”

Composed by Peter DeRose (music) and Mitchell Parrish (lyric); arranged by Bill Finegan.

Recorded By Carol Sloane for Columbia Records on November 27, 1961 in New York City.

Carol Sloane, vocalist: Al Klink, flute and clarinet; Nick Travis, trumpet; Bob Brookmeyer, trombone; Bernie Leighton, piano; unknown strings and harpist; Bill Finegan conducted the ensemble and played celeste.(*)

The music: Among many things that are remarkable about this recording on first hearing is the fact that Finegan’s sorcery as an arranger is so tremendous that the listener is carried away by the subtle swirls of sound, unaware of the musical instruments that are creating those sounds.The ensemble Finegan used to support Ms. Sloan’s excellent singing is small. In addition to the instruments listed above, there were also a few string players.(*) But again, the music is so totally integrated that one is barely aware of which instruments are playing when. Also notable is the fact that much of the performance is done almost entirely without any discernible beat. This rubato, out-of -tempo approach allows the music to float.

Carol Sloane sings Mitchell Parrish’s lyric with perfect intonation, relaxed phrasing, and a rich contralto voice that shows that she was one of the best female singers to appear in the 1950s. This great recording appeared on her 1962 Columbia album entitled Out of the Blue. Here are Ms. Sloane’s comments about that album:

“This is my first release for Columbia Records in the fall of 1961, a contract which came as a direct result of my appearance at The Newport Jazz Festival that year.The arrangements were written by legendary Bill Finegan of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, and the band was comprised of equally famous musicians such as Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer. To say I was quaking in my 21-year old boots would be a major understatement. In this period, individual tracks from a recording were eligible for a Grammy Award. “My Ship” received a nomination in this category. (Should have gotten the actual award for Bill’s work, if I may say so).”

I am happy to report that Carol Sloane is very much alive, and continues singing and teaching. She will conduct master classes/ workshops on jazz singing in Boston on Saturdays through December 2017 and January 2018. I’m no singer and never will be, but I would love to see how this great singer imparts the essence of jazz singing to talented young people. For more information about Carol Sloane, check out her website:

(*) There may be a few other musicians on this recording: I think I hear a bass clarinet, and possibly an oboe.


For yet another example of Bill Finegan’s masterful arranging, listen to his kaleidoscopic refashioning of George Gershwin’s “Soon,” recorded in 1966 by Les and Larry Elgart here:

The recordings posted here have been digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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