The story: Over the years, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to talk with many great musicians who began long and successful careers during (and sometimes before) the swing era. Most of these musicians played with and for some of the greatest bandleaders of that or any other time. One of my most treasured conversations occurred in 1986 at the Conneaut Lake Jazz Festival with jazz tenor saxophone legend Bud Freeman. Bud was a marvelous storyteller, with a lively, ironic sense of humor, and he especially enjoyed talking with younger people. (When we conversed, Bud was 80 and I was 36.) Back in those days, I knew just enough about jazz and swing to get myself into trouble. But Bud was very patient with my many questions. I was particularly interested in Bud’s recollections of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman,(*) both of whom he worked with for substantial periods of time during the mid to late 1930s.
This post of the joyous romp “Rhythm Saved the World,” by Tommy Dorsey and His Clambake Seven with vocalist Edythe Wright, is one of the earliest Clambake Seven recordings. It was made about two weeks before Bud Freeman joined the Tommy Dorsey aggregation. It always reminds me of the early days of the TD band, somewhat before they began to achieve widespread national popularity.
The first six-plus months after Tommy Dorsey began leading his own band (fall 1935-winter 1936) were a time of grueling one-night stands through cold winter weather in the northern U.S., and scarce money, among many other obstacles. But Tommy wanted with every fiber of his being to become a successful bandleader. Those who were close to TD then, and later, have related that he would have done almost anything to succeed. Bud Freeman put it this way: “His determination to succeed was frightening.” His long-time clarinet soloist Johnny Mince said, “You didn’t want to get in the way when Tommy wanted to do something. He’d run you over.”(**)
There was also the sibling rivalry factor involving Tommy’s brother, Jimmy. Bud Freeman had some illuminating insights regarding Tommy’s relationship with his older brother. “You’ve got to remember that Tommy was Jimmy’s younger brother. For many years, Jimmy got Tommy jobs in bands where Jimmy was already working. And Jimmy got him a lot of jobs, not that Tommy didn’t have the talent to hold them, because he certainly did. But Tommy resented being Jimmy’s kid brother. Also, Jimmy was then regarded far and wide as not only a great technical saxophonist and clarinetist, but as a fine jazz artist. Even though Tommy was an excellent trombonist, in those early years, he didn’t have the reputation Jimmy had. Tommy resented this too. It was inevitable that Tommy would break with Jimmy. Remember, when Tommy left the Dorsey Brothers band (in mid-1935), that band became Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra. Tommy had no band. He had to start from nothing. He was a very angry young man when he started as a bandleader, and he was absolutely driven not only to have a good band, but to have a better and more successful band than Jimmy. Although I didn’t really have any problems with Tommy, except for a few minor blow-offs, he could be absolutely vicious with any musician he thought was slacking. He would shout at them ‘you’re stealing from me!’”
“Tommy’s trombone playing was always excellent, of course, though I thought he could be a little stiff at times. He played adequate jazz, though he seemed to always be denying that he could play any jazz at all. And his straight trombone playing just kept getting better and better while I was with him. When I left in 1938, his playing of ballads and melodies was unbelievably good, and he kept it at that level for many years. Until he died, in fact.”
“I joined Tommy about April 15, 1936. It was a hell of an experience for me. Tommy’s band was just starting to find itself then. My very close friend Dave Tough talked me into joining. I had been with Ray Noble’s band. Of all the big bands I played in, I enjoyed my time with Tommy most. He was insane and vile, at times, but I liked him.”
“I also liked Edythe Wright and Jack Leonard. They were both very good looking, and sang adequately.The public loved them both, so Tommy would use them to warm up audiences so that we wouldn’t scare them too badly when we played jazz. Edythe was a very beautiful woman, in a sultry way. I sat behind her every night for two years as she sang. Guys in the audience fantasized about her. Women envied her. When Edythe was on stage, all eyes were on her.”
“It was an open secret that Edythe was Tommy’s lady then. I can understand this, having spent my entire life in the music business. One’s sexuality does not turn off simply because you are away from your wife and family. In fact, just the opposite occurs. Tommy’s wife Toots, who was a sweetheart, did not see things this way. After I left Tommy’s band, she sued him for divorce. It cost him a bundle. But Tommy was always a ladies’ man.”
“Tommy was so explosive it was at times impossible to deal with him. Most of the guys in the band were much younger than Tommy, and he intimidated them. He tried to do that with me shortly after Dave Tough and I joined. He could be unbelievably vile and crude. One day at a rehearsal he started berating me for something. I quietly began to take my horn apart. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m leaving.’ Dave Tough stood up behind his drums and said, ‘If Bud’s leaving, then I’m leaving too.’ Tommy immediately became rational again, gruffly apologized after a fashion, and we stayed. He never did that again to either Dave or to me.”
The music: The music made by Tommy Dorsey and His Clambake Seven, the smaller brother of the TD big band, basically fell into three categories: First, smooth, danceable expositions of current pop tunes featuring Tommy’s silken trombone, and a vocal chorus by either Jack Leonard or Edythe Wright, the singers featured with Tommy’s big band. Second, humorous take-offs or send-ups that were called “novelty” tunes during the swing era. Third, romping Dixieland-oriented swing. “Rhythm Saved the World” definitely falls into that third category, albeit with a few ironic, humorous touches.
It is helpful when listening to vintage recordings to try to place them in their proper historical context, as much as that is possible. That allows for an understanding of why the music was made as it was. In this instance, after eight-plus decades, we must first of all remember that in early 1936, very much, indeed most of the swing era had not yet happened. Dixieland jazz certainly existed then, and was played throughout much of the 1920s and the early 1930s. Tommy Dorsey’s connection to Dixieland jazz was strong. He was personally acquainted with many of the pioneering Dixieland jazz musicians, and had performed and recorded with them.
Without getting too technical, I can say that the Dixieland jazz often played by Tommy Dorsey’s Clambake Seven contained the basic elements of that musical idiom, 2/4 meter, and a polyphonic use of the instruments in the group. (“Polyphony” means “producing many sounds simultaneously.”) Another characteristic of Dixieland music is collective improvisation. Still, the music of the Clambake Seven also contained elements of swing, as this classic performance demonstrates.
“Rhythm Saved the World”
Composed by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin; arrangement by Dick Jones.
Recorded for Victor on March 27, 1936 in New York by Tommy Dorsey and His Clambake Seven.
Tommy Dorsey, trombone, directing: Max Kaminsky, trumpet; Joe Dixon, clarinet; Sid Block, tenor sax; Dick Jones, piano; Bill Schaeffer, guitar; Gene Traxler, bass; Dave Tough, drums; Edythe Wright, vocal.
After struggling to record two pop tunes on this date, the TD big band were sent home by Tommy. So the Clambake Seven musicians who remained were well-warmed when it came time to record this tune. Although their approach can accurately be described as light-hearted, they are nonetheless most serious about swinging. “Rhythm Saved the World” starts off in a definitely Dixie mode, with Maxie Kaminsky’s aggressive trumpet and Tommy’s tailgate(***) trombone much in evidence. Also, take note of Dave Tough’s dynamic drumming. After the first chorus, Edythe Wright, who had a most sensuous voice, sings the lyric enthusiastically, giving listeners a brief, if facetious, lesson in how rhythm has figured in history. Then clarinetist Joe Dixon plays a bit of bracing jazz, followed by some particularly potent trumpet, courtesy of Max Kaminsky. They both swing hard, atop drummer Tough’s driving rhythm, which is strongly abetted by the plangent and propulsive tones emanating from Gene Traxler’s bass. Ms. Wright provides a few choice comments along the way. This is happy music.
This marvelous performance is facilitated by the romping yet simple arrangement written by Dick Jones, then TD’s pianist. Several months after this recording was made, Jones left Tommy’s band to pursue opportunities as an arranger, initially with the Casa Loma band. Eventually (after World War II service in Artie Shaw’s Navy band), he became one of the top vocal arrangers in the country.
(*) Bud Freeman’s humorous recollections of Benny Goodman are presented on this blog in the post entitled: “Bud, Benny and the High Holidays.” See below.
(**) The quotations from both Bud Freeman and Johnny Mince are from conversations I had with them in August of 1986.
(***) “The trombone first saw use in the jazz world with its entrance into Dixieland Jazz where it played along with the chord changes, mimicking or following a string bass or a tuba, allowing the other musicians of the group to improvise along with it. In a standard Dixie group, the players marched through the streets or were hauled around, playing in an open trailer. The trombone having a slide instead of valves or strings or holes for playing had difficult positioning themselves, and tended to sit in the back of the trailer, gaining the name “Tailgate Trombone”. This style of playing included many trombone specific techniques such as growling, scoops, falls, and slides. These factors provided dixie music with its well known, almost “dirty” feel.” Cited from Wikipedia “tailgate trombone.”
The recording used in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Here is another recording that centers around the musical talent of a woman, the great pianist/arranger/composer Mary Lou Williams.