“Harlem Nocturne” (1940) Ray Noble and (1969) Ted Heath

“Harlem Nocturne”

Composed and arranged by Earle Hagen.

Recorded by Ray Noble and His Orchestra for Columbia on August 8, 1940 in Chicago. (*)

Ray Noble, directing: Don Anderson, Bob Goodrich, Bert Harry, trumpets; Earle Hagen and Carl Loeffler, trombones; Jack Dumont, Morty Friedman, Don Bonnee, Bud Smith, Jack Marks, saxophones; Frank Leithner, piano; George Van Eps, guitar; Manny Stein, bass; Bill Harty, drums.

The story: Ray Noble (1903-1978) achieved success as a bandleader and composer of popular songs in England before he emigrated to the United States in 1934. Noble wrote both lyrics and music for many popular songs during the British dance band era, known as the “Golden Age of British music,” the late 1920s into the 1930s. Many of the songs Noble composed were introduced by his longtime friend and associate, singer Al Bowlly.  These include “Love Is the Sweetest Thing,” “The Touch of Your Lips,” “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You,” and his signature tune, “The Very Thought of You.” In 1938, Noble composed “Cherokee” as a part of his five part Indian Suite, which was recorded by him between late 1938 and early 1940. Starting in 1937, he worked on radio with comedy duo George Burns and Gracie Allen.  Noble later worked as a radio comedian opposite ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, whose act featured the dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. This association lasted for 15 years, and moved from network radio to network TV.

When Noble first arrived in New York to work in 1934, he, through his American booking agent Cork O’Keefe, retained the services of Glenn Miller (1) to assist him in organizing an American band of top- flight musicians. (Miller and Noble are pictured at right.) This band started rehearsing in early 1935, and in late February began a network radio show sponsored at first by Coty cosmetics, later by Coca-Cola. They began appearing in the rarefied atmosphere of the Rainbow Room, on the 65th floor of the newly opened RCA Building in Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, on May 31, 1935. The band stayed busy, playing six nights a week at the Rainbow Room, making records, and appearing in a feature film, The Big Broadcast of 1936, for which the scenes including the Noble band were filmed and the music recorded at what is now known as the Kaufman Astoria Studio, located at 3412 36th Street, Astoria, Queens, in New York City. The film was released on September 20, 1935. It is something of a hodge-podge which includes performances by numerous singers, dancers and comedians, including George Burns and Gracie Allen. Burns and Allen were very favorably impressed by Ray Noble, whose song, “Why Stars Come Out at Night,” was written especially for the film and performed in the film by the Noble orchestra.

Ray Noble at the piano in the Rainbow Room, 1935. Note the NBC microphone to his left.

Here is a description of the Rainbow Room, as it existed shortly after the RCA Building was opened in the mid-1930s: “…the Rainbow Room looked like a movie set, with its sparkling chandeliers, huge mirrors and fifteen-foot high windows offering spectacular views. Intimate tables were arranged in green-carpeted tiers on four levels. A circular dance floor thirty feet across revolved gently, and the fantastic ‘color organ’ that gave the room its name bathed revelers in dazzling hues that changed automatically according to the music’s pitch and volume. ‘The reed section produces a sort of pale green,’ wrote jazz critic Leonard Feather. ‘Open brass is bright orange; a cymbal crash evinces a flash of vivid golden yellow; the trombones are represented by a mauve shade, and baritone or bass sax by deep purple.'” (2) (The Rainbow Room as it appears today is shown below.)

The Noble band literally and figuratively started at the top, and as gravity and the vicissitudes of the band business in Depression-era America had their effect, eventually had to come to grips with a number of harsh economic realities. It seems that the band’s gig at the Rainbow Room, with broadcasts, and its commercial radio show continued through 1935 and into 1936. The band began to tour on a limited basis in mid-1936, after the Rainbow Room gig ended. Then the Coca-Cola show run ended. The band’s income had dropped considerably, and not unlike many other bandleaders, Noble asked the sidemen to take a reduction in pay. This was not received well by most of the top-notch players like Glenn Miller, Charlie Spivak, and Johnny Mince, who could work in the New York studios for more money, and not tour. So there was a rather large turnover in musicians in the Noble band, but he continued touring, with many new musicians, into 1937.

The Ray Noble band at the Steel Pier, Atlantic City, New Jersey on May 31, 1936. Noble is standing behind his sidemen. L-R: guitarist George Van Eps; bassist Delmar Kaplan; tenor saxophonist Johnny Van Eps; drummer Bill Harty, violinist Nick Pisani, violinist/saxophonist Danny D’Andrea, trumpeter Sterling Bose, trombonist/arranger Glenn Miller, alto saxophonist Milt Yaner; lead trumpeter Charlie Spivak; clarinetist/saxophonist Johnny Mince; lead alto saxophonist Mike Doty. I think that the man to Doty’s left is pianist Frank Vigneau, and to his left is vocalist Al Bowlly. The man on the extreme left who is only half visible may be trombonist Alex Palocsay. This photo has been cropped on the left. I wonder what was cut out?

Noble disbanded in April of 1937, and went to Hollywood. There he began appearing on the Burns and Allen network radio show regularly, and appeared in a number of films (they loved English accents in Hollywood films in the 1930s, and Noble’s was the real thing), until the summer of 1938, when the Burns and Allen radio show went into hiatus. He then returned to England (with a Canadian band because U.S. musicians’ union rules prevented American bands from playing in Great Britain, and vice-versa), for a tour that was less successful than Noble had hoped it would be. He returned to Los Angeles in the fall of 1938, and organized a band of L.A.- based musicians that he led more or less continuously for the next several years, while he continued to appear in films and on radio with Burns and Allen. He toured with this band on a limited basis, usually when he was on hiatus from the radio shows on which he worked. Noble joined the Edgar Bergen radio show in 1941 (also in Hollywood), and remained with Bergen for the next 15 years, well into the age of television. During this time, he essentially withdrew from leading his band away from its network radio and TV commitments. (Above right is a still from the 1937 RKO film “Damsel in Distress.” L-R: George Burns, Ray Noble and Gracie Allen.)


The music: “Harlem Nocturne” was composed and arranged by one of the very good musicians Noble hired when he organized his first band in Los Angeles in 1938, trombonist/arranger Earle Hagen (1919-2008). Hagen later became a very successful composer for Hollywood films and achieved even more success in television. (I have included a link to his official website below.)

Hagen was a musical prodigy. He was working in big bands when he was 16 years old. (He graduated from high school when he was 15.) After working in a number of bands in the middle 1930s, he was recommended to Benny Goodman in 1937 by Tommy Dorsey, who was much impressed by Hagen’s ability on trombone, but had no openings in his band. Hagen filled-in with BG in late 1937, (and is shown taking a solo with Benny’s band above), but he eventually did join Tommy Dorsey’s band in 1938. (Hagen is shown below clowning onstage with fellow TD trombonist Les Jenkins, and Tommy Dorsey.)

Hagen was a native southern Californian. After spending a brief time in New York, where he made the BG and TD connections, he worked his way back to California in Tommy Dorsey’s band in the summer of 1938. When TD returned east in August of that year, Buddy Morrow was sitting in Hagen’s chair because Earle had joined Ray Noble’s band in Hollywood. Hagen’s connection with Ray Noble would prove to be the all-important first step in his career as a composer and arranger of music for radio, films and television. That, and his composition “Harlem Nocturne,” which has had ongoing popularity since its first appearance on a Ray Noble record in 1940. It has been recorded by hundreds of artists since its debut..

“Harlem Nocturne,” like so many evergreen tunes, has a haunting, memorable melody, the one that is heard first and is in a minor key. One of the most wonderful aspects of the music of the swing era is that so much of it is delightfully melodic. Indeed, the swing era was a time in the history of music when melody was ubiquitous and celebrated. Our American musical heritage is richer for this.

The alto saxophone playing of Jack Dumont is featured throughout the Noble recording of “Harlem Nocturne.” Dumont (pictured below left) was the first alto saxophonist in the Noble band. On one of their brief tours in 1939, the Noble band found themselves in San Francisco, playing an engagement. Jack Dumont picks up the narrative. “We’d gone over (probably to Oakland – see below) on the band’s night off to hear Duke Ellington. Earle Hagen, who played trombone, and I were standing completely enraptured when (Duke’s featured alto saxophonist) Johnny Hodges came out and played one of his marvelous solos. (After hearing that) …Earle said he was going to write something for me. Later that night, at four in the morning, he called me up to his hotel room. He had a little pump organ, and he played this tune. He called it ‘Duke’s Soup,’ but the (music) publisher said that title wasn’t commercial enough, so it became ‘Harlem Nocturne.'”(3)

The mood evoked by this the first recording of “Harlem Nocturne” is definitely Ducal. Listen for the oo-ah brass, the hypnotic shuffle-rhythm ostinato and the hushed dynamics of the primary minor key melody. Young Jack Dumont (he was 21 years old when this recording was made), plays the melody in what is obviously a tribute to the god of many young alto saxophonists during the swing era, Johnny Hodges. Yet Dumont is his own man in this solo, which is a perfect melodic vehicle for his smooth, singing, lyrical approach. The secondary melody, which is in a major key, is played by Dumont leading the saxophone section, atop a 4/4 rhythm. Hagen’s arrangement is beautifully paced and full of contrasts.

It should be noted that Ray Noble graciously facilitated identification of Jack Dumont as the alto saxophone soloist on the label of the Columbia record of “Harlem Nocturne.” This sort of recognition was rarely accorded to sidemen in swing era bands.

Pictured above, the Ray Noble band in the California sunshine at the Catalina Casino Ballroom, summer 1941.This is the band that recorded “Harlem Nocturne” the previous summer. Its composer and arranger, Earle Hagen, is standing fourth from right; alto saxophonist Jack Dumont is standing, second from right. Noble is standing at center, wearing a striped blazer.

“Harlem Nocturne”

Composed by Earle Hagen.

Recorded by the Ted Heath band (*) on May 30-31 1968  in London, England.

Kenny Baker, Stan Roderick, Eddie Blair, Bert Ezard, trumpets; Don Lusher, Johnny Edwards, Keith Christie, Jackie Armstrong, trombones; Roy Willox and Ronnie Chamberlain, alto saxophones; Bob Efford and Keith Bird, tenor saxophones; Don Honeywell, baritone saxophone;  Alan Branscombe, piano; Dave Goldberg, guitar; Lennie Bush, bass; Ronnie Verrell, drums. (My thanks to Anton Cervin of Malmo, Sweden for providing this discographical information.)

I am presenting this great performance of “Harlem Nocturne” by Ted Heath’s band as a comparison with the original Ray Noble recording.

The alto saxophone solo on this 1968 recording was played by long-time Heath sideman Ronnie Chamberlain (shown at right in 1968). His approach, as well as that of the Heath band, has a bit more edge and swagger than that of Jack Dumont and the Noble band in the original 1940 recording.

(*) Note: Ted Heath (1902-1969) suffered a debilitating stroke in 1964. Thereafter, his band performed without him until his death in 1969.

I will be presenting a full-scale post on the Ted Heath band at swingandbeyond.com in the future. (See the post featuring the Heath band playing Jerome Kern’s beautiful song “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.”)

(*) It appears that the Noble band was in Chicago appearing at the Palmer House when it recorded “Harlem Nocturne.”

(1) In 1934, Glenn Miller was a 30 year-old journeyman trombonist and arranger, who had extraordinary gifts as an organizer and “straw-boss” of dance band musicians. He had organized and helped bandleaders, most notably the Dorsey Brothers, operate bands before his work with Ray Noble. It was through his Dorsey Brothers work that he formed a relationship with various people at the Rockwell-O’Keefe booking agency, later known as General Artists Corp./GAC. When Miller formed his own bands in the later 1930s, he was represented by GAC. His tenure with Noble, which lasted from late 1934 into 1936, was lucrative, yielding his largest annual income until a few years later, when he achieved great success with his own band.

(2) The Swing Era …Encore (1971) 46.

Here is the link to the Earle Hagen website. He used his experience as a big band sideman as a springboard to a great career in creating music for radio, films and television.


(3) The Swing Era …1939-1940 (1971) 55. If Jack Dumont’s recollection is correct, the date on which he and Hagen saw and heard the Ellington band would have been Saturday April 22, 1939, at Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland, California. This information is from Duke Ellington, Day by Day … by Klaus Stratemann, (1992) 162.

The recordings posted here were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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  1. Mike, your research is unique!!! I do hope it’s growing into a book. One problem today—I could not find the Ray Noble version of “Harlem Nocturne”. The Ted Heath version is good. Henry Holloway.

  2. Henry and other non-USA viewers, I have noticed recently that the You Tube copyright infringement police have been blocking some non-USA viewers from some of the music I have posted there. When this done at You Tube, it prevents viewers at swingandbeyond.com from playing the You Tube blocked audio/video on the blog.I do not understand why they are doing this. As I have communicated to You Tube previously, I make no money off of what I do. My purposes in operating the blog are strictly for education and raising cultural awareness. These activities by me, if anything, are of promotional value to the copyright holders. I would think that they would welcome my promotional efforts on behalf of their copyrighted works. Nevertheless, it is what it is, whatever that may be. Meanwhile, we keep swinging!

  3. I only recently heard the Noble version on YouTube. I was very familiar with the Glen Gray version of the arrangement which was found on the Gray album “Swinging Decade”. I bought the album in the early 60’s and recently picked up the CD. Skeets Herfert was the alto soloist. He sticks close to the original solo but you can hear a slight variation around 1:57 where the short lick is updated slightly to sound like something Charlie Parker would play. The band on the Gray recording is slightly bigger and the fidelity, of course is much better. One of the interesting things about the arrangement is the high “A” played by the alto at the end the recording . The normal top note for both and alto and tenor saxes is F#. While the range of the sax has been extended by a lot of jazz musicians it seems quite an accomplishment in 1940. I had not heard of Jack Dumont before but a little research shows that he was a very successful studio musician after the end of the Big Band era. He wound up spending a number of years playing in the Lawrence Welk band when they were on TV. Ironically one of his section mates was Don Bonee who also played on the Ray Noble recording. Skeets Herfert later played in the Welk band.

  4. This is a great article. I am currently writing a biography on Ray Noble. Would it be possible to use some of this information in the biography please? I will give you an acknowledgement in the biography of course.

  5. Thanks for your research and postings of the Ray Noble Orchestra. I was fortunate enough to get to know many of the late 1930’s and 1940’s version of Ray’s band members. Many on these men were my dad’s long time colleague’s post his involvement in the Ray Nobel Orchestra (which pretty much ended after WWII) and his career as a Hollywood studio musician. Harlem Nocturne was one of my dad’s early accomplishments and although he was proud of it, I don’t think he ever felt it was one of his best performances. The recording has its place in history and there has been many versions of it since, but like many originals, the recording is what it is.
    Fast forward to the 1970s and my dad was pretty much semi-retired from the music business, as a fun project he started his own big band that ironically included some of the surviving Ray Noble musicians as well as other similar era colleagues from the Goodman, Dorsey, Herman, and Artie Shaw musicians still living in the Los Angeles area. The band was superb with all that experience and arrangements from Skip Martin. For several years, it kind of gave you an idea of what it was like to experience the big band era in its prime.

  6. Thanks John. I really appreciate getting feedback from family members of great swing era musicians. The swing era was a charmed time for musicians of talent. I am reasonably confident that we will not see anything like it again. Alas!

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