Swing Redux – The Unheard Artie Shaw – “Stairway to the Stars” (2016) – the New York All-Star Big Band

“Stairway to the Stars”

Composed by Matty Malneck and Frank Signorelli (music), and Mitchell Parish (lyric).

Arranged by Jerry Gray.

Recorded by the New York All-Star Big Band on August 8-9, 2016 in New York.

James Langton, tenor saxophone, directing: Dan Levinson, solo clarinet; Brian Pareschi, first trumpet; Joe Boga and Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpets; Jim Fryer, Harvey Tibbs, and Matt Musselman, trombones; Marc Phaneuf, first alto saxophone; Matt Koza, alto and baritone saxophones; Mark Lopeman, tenor saxophone; Mark Shane, piano; Molly Ryan, guitar and vocals; Mike Weatherly, bass, Kevin Dorn, drums.

The story:

The music of the swing era remains vital and of interest to jazz musicians playing today. Playing the music of the swing era, or indeed of any time period since the swing era, in a way that swings, is a tricky business for many reasons. Swing, like jazz, cannot be taught, but it can be learned, through lots of listening, lots of study, and lots of practice and playing, where mistakes are made, learned from and improved upon. Generally, this is a slow almost evolutionary process which may take years. Jazz musicians have described this process in various connotative ways, for example as “woodshedding” or “dues paying.” And even if a musician reaches a point in his/her playing where swing is happening, it is not something that necessarily happens every time they play. It is elusive, even among masters of the art. So when a group of musicians today makes music that swings, it is something to be celebrated.

Recently, a CD has appeared on the Hep label (Hep 2104) entitled: The Unheard Artie Shaw, performed by the New York All-Star Big Band directed by James Langton, featuring the clarinet solos of Dan Levinson. The premise of the CD is to present music that was performed by swing era legend Artie Shaw in the years 1938 and 1939, the time when he was ascending to a preeminent position in the world of swing via a feature film, some film shorts, a sponsored network radio show, many unsponsored network radio broadcasts, and an amazing series of commercial records for Victor/Bluebird. Although more than half of the eighteen selections on the CD have appeared on Artie Shaw recordings of some sort (most of these were airchecks of sustaining/unsponsored radio broadcasts), the other selections, the truly unheard arrangements that Shaw commissioned and his band played, but for various reasons were never recorded, will provide listeners with an enjoyable experience of musical discovery.

I should make it very clear that all of the music on this CD is well-performed and will provide swing fans with much enjoyment. The musicians who comprise the New York All-Star Big Band are seasoned professionals who know their instruments and the history of the music they play very well. The selections that have appeared on Shaw recordings invite comparisons with the originals in terms of the performances of Artie himself and his supporting players, versus by the performers on these new recordings. Aside from the question of whether the new performances capture the spirit of the originals (and they most certainly do), comparisons with the originals can become a distraction. My intent in this post is to make the point that, comparisons aside, all of these performances stand on their own merits as fine music in the swing idiom.

Vocalist Molly Ryan.

All of the solos on this CD that call for jazz have been improvised by the musicians who play them. (In other words, they do not play the same solos as on the historical Shaw recordings.) The main soloists, aside from Dan Levinson on clarinet, are Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, and Mark Lopeman on tenor saxophone. Musicians in the ensemble whose contributions are noteworthy are: lead alto saxophonist Marc Phaneuf, whose bright and pliant sound is particularly fitting in these performances; the strong and swinging lead trumpet of Brian Parchesi; the propulsive beat of bassist Mike Weatherly; and Mark Shane, whose glistening piano is most effective in both accompaniment and solos. Kevin Dorn’s continuously swinging and supportive drumming is a joy to hear, and is clearly an inspiration to the musicians in this band.

Vocalist Molly Ryan has fine singing voice with good range and pitch accuracy, and she swings. She has her own singing identity, which she projects quite nicely on “Stairway to the Stars.” She is also successful in evoking the spirit of Billie Holiday, (who was featured with Shaw’s band throughout much of 1938, but regrettably made only one recording with them), which she does on the wonderful sleeper “The Moon Looks Down and Laughs.” She also pays tribute the Ms. Holiday in a stimulating rendering of the great ballad “You Go to My Head,” and a couple of other songs. Molly Ryan’s singing on this CD of some of the arrangements Billie Holiday performed with Artie Shaw makes the listener wonder what might have been if Billie Holiday had been able to record more sides with Shaw. (1)

Clarinetist Dan Levinson and drummer Kevin Dorn.

Clarinetist Dan Levinson had the daunting challenge of playing the role of Artie Shaw in these performances. His approach, which was very successful, was not to imitate Shaw’s playing, but to capture and then project the Shavian spirit into the music. In order to do this, he got his Zen together, and played beautifully.

The music:

“Stairway to the Stars,” was written by a couple of 1920s jazzmen. Frank Signorelli was the pianist for the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the best known of the early white jazz bands, and of the Original Memphis Five, which may have been musically the finest of the early white jazz bands. When Signorelli joined Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in the 1920s, he met Matty Malneck. Malneck had studied violin under Wilberforce Whiteman, Paul’s father, who was the head of the music department of the Denver public school system. Malneck and Signorelli teamed up to write the lovely ballad “I’ll Never Be the Same” in 1928 (with a lyric added in 1932 by Gus Kahn), and then followed it up in 1934 with “Stairway to the Stars.”(2)

“Stairway to the Stars” was initially a part of an extended concert work called Park Avenue Fantasy, which was commissioned by Paul Whiteman in 1934, and played by him on his network radio show and recorded by him. The piece then languished from 1935 until early 1939, when Malneck used the thirty-two bar song we hear in this post as the theme for his radio show, Music by Malneck. At that time either Signorelli or Malneck approached Mitchell Parish to write a lyric for the final section of the piece. Parish was a perfect choice since he was a specialist in “retrofitting” lyrics to instrumentals, honing his craft on such hits as “Star Dust,” “Solitude,” and “Sophisticated Lady.”

Among the first recordings of “Stairway to the Stars” as a song was Glenn Miller’s, with a vocal by Ray Eberle, which was made on May 9, 1939, as Miller was on the verge of achieving great popularity. Miller likely beat Shaw in the race to record “Stairway to the Stars” because in the spring of 1939, Artie and his band toured across the US to Hollywood, where they would make their first feature film, for MGM. Also, Shaw suffered a serious illness while he was in Los Angeles, and was out of action completely for about six weeks, being hospitalized for a part of that time. Although Artie’s band carried on without him to fulfill commitments, the Shaw music development department, which included Artie and arranger Jerry Gray, was slowed considerably by Shaw’s absence. Thus, they missed the opportunity to record “Stairway to the Stars” before Glenn Miller.

Jerry Gray visits Artie Shaw in the hospital – Los Angeles, April/May 1939.

Both Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller were contracted to Bluebird Records (Victor’s 35-cent budget label) in 1939, and Victor/Bluebird had an in-house rule that generally prohibited two of their recordings artists from recording the same song on the same label. Consequently, swing fans have been listening to Glenn Miller’s recording of “Stairway to the Stars’ since 1939. The Shaw arrangement of this tune, by Jerry Gray, which is excellent, and quintessential 1939 Shaw, was completed on July 15, 1939. Unfortunately for posterity, only lucky Shaw fans in 1939 were able to hear him and his band (and vocalist Helen Forrest) perform Gray’s most musical arrangement of it. Until now.

The music:

                                                                                                      I am struck by the brilliant way that Jerry Gray employed variously the instruments (fourteen, plus Artie’s clarinet and vocalist Helen Forrest), in Shaw’s band, both in melodic exposition and as backgrounds. There is variety, balance, pacing, and above all else there are singing melodies in Gray’s arrangement of “Stairway to the Stars.” This performance starts with a two note introduction.The brass carry the melody in the first eight bars, then the saxophones in the second eight.

The next passage is interesting in that it appears where the bridge is in the song as composed. It contains a transitional sequence written by Jerry Gray where Dan Levinson’s solo clarinet and the reeds and brass have some interesting interplay. I asked Dan Levinson about this: “…I was the one who copied that into Sibelius (music software) from the original parts where Artie played the four-bar transitional passage 17 bars into “Stairway to the Stars”. I edited it for our recording session, but before I edited it I saved a version of the original Artie Shaw clarinet part. It’s written out exactly as Jerry Gray wanted him to play it, with no chord changes.” In other words, Gray wanted Shaw to play the music as he wrote it in that passage. I have listened to a lot of Jerry Gray’s writing, for both the Shaw band, and for Glenn Miller’s, and I cannot recall another instance of him essentially substituting his own writing for what was a part of the composition he was arranging. It is different from what he normally did, and it is brilliant music. I wonder what Artie’s reaction to this was. 

This leads to a quick modulation (Gray was famous for them) into the vocal chorus. Molly Ryan’s voice is supported by the singing saxophones in her first sixteen bars, then by the muted brass in the bridge. The reeds return to carry Ms. Ryan’s voice and the melody upward in the last eight bars of the vocal chorus. Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso plays a perfectly apt melodic paraphrase on the bridge before the climactic ensemble finale, which includes some choice clarinet notes by Dan Levinson.

I strongly suspect that if Artie Shaw had recorded this arrangement of “Stairway to the Stars” for Bluebird Records in 1939, it would have been very popular with swing fans.

(1) Over the last several decades, I have pursued a number of leads in the hope of finding some airchecks of Billie Holiday singing with Artie Shaw’s band in 1938. Regrettably, none of those leads have produced any more Shaw/Holiday recordings. Ms. Holiday could not record on Victor/Bluebird with the Shaw band because she was contracted to ARC/Vocalion to make her own commercial recordings at the same time. This was not a surprise to Artie Shaw. He participated as a session musician in Billie’s first Vocalion recording session as a featured artist on June 10, 1936. Then she made three recording sessions for Vocalion while she was with the Shaw band: on May 11, 1938 (when she recorded “You Go to My Head,” and “The Moon Looks Down and Laughs”); on June 23, 1938; and on September 15, 1938.

(1) The Swing Era – One More Time, Time-Life Books (1972), 59.

The recording presented here was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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