“Undecided” (1938) Benny Goodman – More Tales from the Kingdom of Swing

“Undecided”

Composed by Charlie Shavers; arranged by Eddie Sauter.

Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Victor on December 15, 1938 in New York.

Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Harry James, first trumpet; Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin, trumpets; Vernon Brown and Red Ballard, trombones; Noni Bernardi first alto saxophone; Dave Matthews, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Jerry Jerome, tenor saxophones; Jess Stacy, piano; Ben Heller, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Adolph “Buddy” Schutz, drums.

The story: This recording is from the next to last date on which trumpeter Harry James appeared with the Benny Goodman band on Victor Records. James had joined BG at the beginning of 1937, and through that year, he and drummer Gene Krupa (among a number of other fine musicians in the Goodman band), had helped Benny to establish his musical identity as “The King of Swing” with a wide segment of the youth of America. Although the Goodman band worked as hard as it is possible to work through that year playing in ballrooms, theaters and other venues to live audiences (and appearing in a feature film), their appearances on radio, principally on their weekly sponsored network radio show, The Camel Caravan, were the key to them creating and reinforcing a cultural bond with millions of young people that writers have termed “The Kingdom of Swing.” The King of that Kingdom, of course, was Benny Goodman himself.(1)

In listening to those old radio shows over the years, I have been struck by how well Benny handled the duties of interacting with the various MCs and guests who appeared on the show with him. Benny’s voice, which was deep and resonant, was excellent for radio. He also took elocution lessons so that his enunciation would be good. These details, though largely forgotten now, were of immense importance for any performer who wanted to be successful on radio. Goodman completely understood that his success on radio was the golden key to his overall success as a bandleader. No other bandleader worked harder than Benny Goodman to ensure that his radio show was as good as it could possibly be.

Those Camel Caravan shows are an ongoing diary of what was happening in American pop culture generally, and in the world of swing in particular in the late 1930s. Although the format of the show changed a number of times from the summer of 1936 when BG started appearing on it until the end of 1939, when he left the Camel Caravan, the one aspect of all of the Goodman Camel Caravans was that the music presented by the Goodman band was generally excellent, and Benny’s playing was almost always superb and inspired.

In a practical day-to-day sense, the money that Benny Goodman earned in the three and a half years he was appearing on the Camel Caravan enabled him to keep his band stocked with top-flight musicians (and to become wealthy). Those who went on in their post-BG careers to lead their own bands successfully (James, Krupa and Lionel Hampton), were able to start their own bands because of the public identity they built in their association with Benny Goodman. BG sidemen who were not able for whatever reasons to become successful bandleaders (the names Teddy Wilson, Jess Stacy and Ziggy Elman come to mind), were nevertheless able to have successful musical careers because of their early associations with BG. An association with Benny Goodman was valuable in terms of burnishing any musician’s reputation and earning power. (Above left: Harry James, Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman.) 

No musician would have even gotten an audition with Goodman unless he was a master of his instrument. Many excellent musicians got auditions, were hired and worked effectively with the Goodman band for years. In this category were sidemen who are basically unknown to people today (except to swing era aficionados), like Hymie Shertzer, Arthur Rollini, Jerry Jerome, Red Ballard, Chris Griffin and Vernon Brown. (At right: Ziggy Elman and Jess Stacy smile for the camera, while Hymie Shertzer shades his eyes.) These men were also highly skilled readers of music who could work quickly in rehearsal to prepare and perform new music at top levels. Many more however, came and went, sometimes for reasons that were inexplicable. This post will review some facts about one musician that Goodman hired and stayed (arranger Eddie Sauter), and one who did not, (drummer Buddy Schutz).

Eddie Sauter (1914-1981, shown at left), began his career in the middle 1930s as a trumpeter in the bands led by Charlie Barnet and Red Norvo. It was Norvo who encouraged Sauter to become more proficient as an arranger of jazz-based dance music. Red’s sponsorship and tutelage of Sauter in the years 1936-1938 allowed the young arranger to gain much needed experience writing for the Norvo band, and for its vocalist, Mildred Bailey. As fate would have it, at the very time when Sauter’s brilliance as an arranger began to manifest itself in his work for Norvo, the Norvo band in essence dissolved. This happened in the later months of 1938.

One musician who was in the Norvo band then with Sauter, tenor saxophonist Jerry Jerome (pictured at right), was able to jump from the sinking Norvo band to the high-flying Benny Goodman band in the fall of 1938. Jerome was a very capable jazz soloist whose playing reflected the influences of Chu Berry and Lester Young. He was also an impeccable section player who read music fluently. Jerome experienced something of a shock in transitioning from the Norvo band, which was not working regularly at the end of his tenure there, to the Goodman band that was working constantly. Jerome, as the new kid in the Goodman band, kept a low profile in the first weeks he was there.(2) But he noticed that the Goodman band devoured vast amounts of music each week, much of it new, between its Camel Caravan broadcasts, its various in-person gigs, and the selections it recorded for Victor Records. This was something Benny groused about because there were only a few arrangers whose work satisfied him then, paramount among them being Fletcher Henderson. Jerome also remembered Red Norvo’s constant requests of Sauter that he NOT write like Fletcher Henderson for the Norvo band.

Jerome contacted Sauter and asked him if he would be interested in writing arrangements for Benny Goodman. I was not a witness to this conversation, but surmise that it might have gone something like this: JJ: Eddie, what is going on with Red’s band? ES: It is barely working. The guys in the band are looking for other jobs. JJ: Benny is constantly in need of new arrangements. Do you think that you could write some for him? ES: Certainly, I would love to. Who wouldn’t? JJ: There is one hitch. Benny likes his arrangements to be in the Fletcher Henderson style. Do you think you could write in that style? ES: (Laughing) You mean I’m going to have to un-learn everything Red Norvo has been trying to teach me for that last few years? JJ: Not exactly. You will just have to show Benny that you can write like Fletcher Henderson to get your foot in the door. Then, maybe, he will be more open to some of your more advanced writing. ES: When do I start? JJ: Give me some time. I’ll try to warm Benny up on this, and then I’ll get back to you.

The exact details have not been revealed about how Jerome “warmed up” Benny to the idea of having Eddie Sauter (shown above left) submit an arrangement to Benny. But BG trumpeter Chris Griffin, who also knew Sauter from the early band Red Norvo and Charlie Barnet led alternately, put in a good word for him with Goodman, and in short order, Sauter wrote an arrangement for BG on a brand new jazz original (composed by trumpeter Charlie Shavers of the John Kirby band) entitled “Undecided.” His  arrangement is very much in the Henderson mode: a simple and open framework for a string of jazz solos. Benny played it, liked it, and recorded it at the end of 1938. Eddie Sauter was not hired by Benny Goodman then, but his foot was definitely “in the door.”

The music: Sauter’s streamlined arrangement of “Undecided” comes at the listener directly. There is no introduction. The reed blend in the first sixteen bar melody exposition (eight bars of melody “A” repeated twice) has BG’s four saxophones playing as they usually would, but with Benny playing lead along with them. The open brass provide tart emphases behind this, then take the melody on the tune’s bridge (melody “B”), with the reeds humming along beneath them. The final eight bars of melody “A” in the first chorus is the same as the two earlier eight bar segments.

Benny then plays a full chorus solo (after vaulting in through a one-bar break) atop a cushion of harmonized reeds. It is obvious that BG was inspired by the harmonic structure of this tune: he tucks into his solo like a heavyweight boxer would devour a juicy steak after a session of road work. He is also inspired by the drumming of Buddy Schutz (pictured at left), who plays 2/4 rhythm on his high hats, with rim shot offbeats behind Goodman. The newly arrived Jerry Jerome (shown above right) follows Benny playing through a one-bar break and then into an excellent tenor saxophone solo covering the next fifteen bars. Notice how he uses phrases of different lengths, and plays over the bar line thus breaking up the two and four bar phrases most jazz soloists then used. This creates a linear, flowing improvisation that swings. Once again, drummer Buddy Schutz provides a stimulating rhythmic backing by playing 2/4 time on his top cymbal (later called a “ride” cymbal), against the 4/4 being played by the other rhythm men. Harry James plays his open trumpet on the bridge, backed by Schutz’s aggressive high-hats, and then Jerome returns to finish the chorus.

The third chorus begins after a crackling drum break by Schutz. This chorus is particularly Hendersonian in that it features the brass playing rhythmically, answered by the reeds. Pianist Jess Stacy has a brief solo, and the the ensemble plays melody going out as it did coming in.

The story continues:

It is obvious that Benny and the entire Goodman band were swinging like mad when this recording was made. The straightforward, uncluttered arrangement of Eddie Sauter facilitates that swing, which was greatly enhanced by the drumming of Buddy Schutz.

Soon however, storm clouds would gather over the drummer’s throne. For reasons that are not entirely clear, possibly that Schutz’s aggressive and sometimes loud playing was receiving more applause than Benny thought it should receive, BG began doing things that were clearly calculated to cause Schutz, who had signed a one-year contract with Goodman upon joining Benny’s band (shortly before November 23, 1938), to quit. These included calling Buddy “Adolph,” which was his actual name, but not too popular a moniker in the days when Hitler was running amok in Europe. Various other strategems were employed by Benny to irritate Schutz into quitting, including having Lionel Hampton play drums on various Camel Caravan shows. None of them worked.

Finally, probably in April of 1939, Benny fired Schutz. But Schutz continued to show up for work on every gig, in uniform and ready to play. Benny would not let him play. Schutz, according to Art Rollini, hung around backstage, smoking cigars. When the band bus was ready to leave, Schutz was there. Goodman continued to pay his salary and his travel expenses. This went on until mid-May, to the great amusement of the other musicians in the Goodman band. Benny grew exasperated.

Jerry Jerome (shown at left) recounted the rest of the story many years later: “One day Benny asked Leonard Vannerson (his personal manager) ‘why doesn’t he go home?’ and Vannerson told him ‘because he has a contract.’  …Buddy started putting Benny on. He’d say things like ‘Do you need anything Benny? Can I go out and get you some coffee?’ Oh, it was murder. Finally, Benny couldn’t stand it any more (and paid Schutz off). Buddy absolutely turned the Ray (BG’s infamous method of intimidating his sidemen) around on Benny. He’s the only guy I know who ever did that.” (3)

Schutz left the Goodman band sometime in mid-May, played briefly with Jan Savitt, and was ensconced in Jimmy Dorsey’s band by early June. He would remain there for many years, powering the JD band through many successes. He and Jimmy got along fine. (The picture above right is of Schutz with Jimmy Dorsey’s band in 1942.)

(1) The brilliantly effective label “King of Swing” was created for Benny Goodman by one of the bright young publicists at Music Corporation of America (MCA), the powerful talent agency that represented BG, as a part of the ongoing promotion for the Camel Caravan. 

For most of his run on the Camel Caravan, Benny Goodman was presented on Tuesday nights. Starting on July 8, 1939, Goodman was shifted to Saturday nights, while Bob Crosby and his band were presented on the Tuesday Camel Caravan.

(2) Jerry Jerome later recounted this quintessential Benny Goodman story in which he was required to interact a bit with his boss: “I’d only been with the band a few weeks, and as a new boy I kept a low profile, just doing my job, not asking any favors. We were (playing) in the Waldorf then, and one (evening during the gig) Benny announced a rehearsal for 10:00 a.m. the next morning, and warned everybody to be on time. Well, my grandfather had just died and his funeral was the next morning. I had to go.So I approached Benny with some apprehension, told him what had happened, and said that I was sorry, but I’d have to miss the rehearsal.He didn’t say a word, merely nodded, and I thought, well that was easy. When the last set was over that night, and everybody was headed out, Benny waved me over. I thought he might want to extend sympathy, something like that. But what he said floored me: ‘Hey Pops, can you get out of that thing tomorrow?’  I’ll never will forget that. But I did go to the funeral.”  Benny Goodman …Wrappin’ in Up, by D.Russell Connor, (1996) 19-20.

(3) Swing, Swing, Swing …The Life and Times of Benny Goodman, by Ross Firestone, (1993) 226-227.

The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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2 Comments

  1. Another great article. People today don’t realize the power of radio in the late 1930’s. That period has been described the “golden age of radio”.

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