“Yard Dog Mazurka”
Composed and arranged by Gerald Wilson.
Recorded by Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra for Decca on August 26, 1941 in New York.
Jimmie Lunceford, directing: Eugene E. “Snooky” Young, first trumpet; Paul Webster and Gerald Wilson, trumpets; Russell Bowles, Elmer Crumbley and James “Trummy” Young, trombones; Willie Smith, first alto saxophone; Ted Buckner and Dan Grissom, alto saxophones; Joe Thomas, tenor saxophone; Earl “Jock” Carruthers, baritone saxophone; Eddie Wilcox, piano; Al Norris, guitar; Moses Allen, bass; Jimmy Crawford, drums.
The story: By the summer of 1941, Jimmie Lunceford had been leading his band for well over a decade. He was renowned for being a strict musical disciplinarian. He lived and ran his band by the credo Precision, Punctuality and Presentation, the Three Ps. Jazz historian Stanley Dance pinpointed what this actually meant in the daily operation of the Lunceford band: “Although it did not play concerts, Lunceford’s was a show band par excellence, a smash hit in black theaters like the Apollo in Harlem, the Royal in Baltimore, the Howard in Washington, and the Regal in Chicago. As well-dressed as it was well rehearsed, its stage presentation was the slickest and most precise of any in the business. Arranger Eddie Durham remembered his impressions in The World of Count Basie (1) of the show when he saw it for the first time at the Apollo: ‘There was nobody that could play like that band! They would come out and play a dance routine. The Shim Sham Shimmy was popular then, and six of the guys would come down and dance to it like a tap dance, crossing their feet and sliding. Then Willie Smith would put his bonnet on and sing a sort of nursery rhyme. Eddie Tompkins hit the high notes and did a Louis Armstrong deal. Then they had a Guy Lombardo bit and a Paul Whiteman bit. See, they imitated bands. The lights would go down and they’d all lay down their horns and sing a glee club. They had solo singers like Henry Wells too. The next number, they’d be throwing their horns and hats up to the ceiling. That was all novelty and I liked it.'” (2)
In addition to the showmanship, the Lunceford band had very strong musical performers in its ranks.Although there was little personnel turnover in the band throughout the 1930s, two trumpeters arrived at the end of that decade who were extraordinary: the lead trumpeter Snooky Young, and the fledgling composer/arranger Gerald Wilson. (At right, L-R: Gerald Wilson, Snooky Young and Paul Webster – 1941.) These men, and indeed everyone in the Lunceford band, were together so long and worked so diligently at being the finest musicians and performers they could be, that the degree of ensemble unity and exhuberance they achieved was astonishing. Paradoxically, Lunceford himself was the antithesis of the jivey bandleader in the Cab Calloway mode. He was a tall man with a brilliant smile, but onstage, with his baton, he resembled a schoolmaster. He directed the band with a minimum of theatricality. His high-energy musicians, though, had boundless enthusiasm in their presentations.
One of the ongoing musical strengths of the Lunceford band was that most of its repertoire was created by musicians in the band. Throughout the 1930s, Eddie Wilcox and Sy Oliver provided much of the music the band played, either original compositions/arrangements, or arrangements of other composers’ music, all done very much in the Lunceford style. After Oliver left in 1939, young Gerald Wilson began contributing original compositions and arrangements to the Lunceford book. By 1941, Lunceford recorded two of them, the harmonically advanced “Hi Spook,” and the driving riff tune, “Yard Dog Mazurka.”
The music: Musician/historian Loren Schoenberg has made these observations about “Yard Dog Mazurka”: “‘Yard Dog Mazurka’ was originally just an introduction to ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy.’ At the suggestion of Roger Segure (another Lunceford arranger), Wilson added a bridge and fleshed it out. The song’s structure is unusual and the composer put in some Durham-like crescendos and additional voices in counterpoint, thereby giving the piece tension and a rich texture. Wilson (on trumpet) shows that he could growl with the best, and ‘Yard Dog Mazurka’ ends with a brief chase sequence between (the other two trumpeters) Paul Webster and Snooky Young.” (3) Perhaps to expand on these comments, the open trumpet solo after Wilson’s plunger/mute solo was played by Paul Webster. The finale does contain a few bars of Snooky Young’s trumpet working its way into the high register, but that sequence also is played largely by Webster. Webster was the high-note specialist in Lunceford’s trumpet section then. Young was at the beginning of his long career as one of the great first trumpeters in the swing tradition.
“Yard Dog Mazurka” was not a hit recording. However, young musicians, especially those working in big bands, heard something in it they liked. One such musician was the trumpeter Ray Wetzel. (See below.)
”Mazurka,” by the way, is a Polish folk dance in triple meter, usually at a lively tempo, and with strong accents placed unsystematically on the second or third beat.
Below is a link to a wonderful interview of both Snooky Young and Gerald Wilson done in 1995 by Monk Rowe. Thanks Monk!
Composed and arranged by Ray Wetzel, with much input from Kenton band members.
Recorded by Stan Kenton and His Orchestra for Capitol on January 14, 1946 in Los Angeles.
Stan Kenton, piano, directing: Ray Wetzel, first trumpet; Buddy Childers, John Anderson, Russ Burgher, and Bob Lymperis, trumpets; Fred Zito, Milt Kabak, Ray Klein, tenor trombones; Bart Varsalona, bass trombone; Al Anthony, first alto saxophone; Henry W. “Boots” Mussulli, alto saxophone; Vido Musso and Bob Cooper, tenor saxophones; Bob Gioga, baritone saxophone; Bob Ahern, guitar; Eddie Safranski, bass; Ralph Collier, drums.
The story: By the time this recording was made, Stan Kenton and His Orchestra were well on their way to being one of the most popular bands in the US. Stan had worked without let-up for about five years to establish his band as an ensemble that was immaculately rehearsed, played often adventurous music that was more welcome in concert halls than it was in ballrooms, yet also had an unmistakable jazz orientation. Having five trumpets, four trombones and five saxophones, the Kenton band could and frequently did blast. (Stan Kenton and bassist Eddie Safranski are shown at left.)
There was much debate in the 1940s (and after) about the ability of the Kenton band to swing. Indeed, there was debate within the Kenton band about this. Stan himself eschewed arrangements that were in the mainstream swing idiom, because he didn’t want his band to sound like Count Basie’s or Tommy Dorsey’s. Many of the musicians in the band however, thought the band had to have at least a few swinging arrangements in its book. It is accurate to say that over its entire history (which extended through the 1970s), there were always some arrangements in the band’s repertoire that were designed to swing.
In listening to “Intermission Riff,” it is readily apparent that it was derived from the Gerald Wilson composition/arrangement “Yard Dog Mazurka” that was recorded by Jimmie Lunceford’s band. Some have observed that it also evolved from the brief introduction or some backgrounds in the arrangement Kenton alto saxophonist Boots Mussulli wrote for his Kenton saxophone section comrade, Vido Musso, as a tenor sax showcase on “Body and Soul.” (That arrangement was recorded by Kenton for Capitol on November 27, 1945.) I must say that any resemblance between “Intermission Riff” and the introduction or any backgrounds in Kenton’s “Body and Soul” is minimal.
The overall design of “Intermission Riff” suggests that it was essentially a head arrangement that evolved in the Kenton band from a brief “chaser” riff they played to alert dancers that a break was coming up. It is a loose framework for solos by Vido Musso on tenor saxophone, Boots Mussulli on alto saxophone, and some well-placed brass explosions at its climax. And to my ears, it does swing. The man who skillfully assembled all of the pieces of “Intermission Riff” was Ray Wetzel, one of the lead trumpeters in the Kenton band then.
The music: Kenton and bassist Eddie Safranski fashion a brief introduction, and Stan sets the tempo after which the trombones, with Bob Gioga’s baritone sax adding low notes to the verile trombone sonority (including Bart Varsalona’s bass trombone), set up the basic riff. Then the unison saxophones appear with a sleek countermelody. It is apparent that the Kenton rhythm section, guitarist Bob Ahern and drummer Ralph Collier, led by bassist Eddie Safranski, are immediately locked into a swinging groove. Kenton himself, who had an ambiguous (at best) relationship with swing, basically lays out for the rest of the performance, and lets the other rhythm players maintain the swinging pulse.
Tenor saxophonist Vido Musso appears and plays an exuberant solo. Vido always played with a lot of chromaticism, and swing. His massive sound could be heard in the Kenton band, even if all of the other musicians were playing fortissimo. Musso and Kenton had a long history together, having first met as young musicians working their way through various bands in southern California in the mid-1930s.
After Musso’s solo, the saxophones, now including Gioga’s baritone, and richly harmonized, return to riff against the trombones, continuing the swinging momentum.
Alto saxophonist Boots Mussulli then plays a marvelously careening sixteen bar solo. Mussulli’s bright sound and smooth swing float atop a background of an intensifying exchange of riffs by the saxophones and trombones.The ensemble climax comes with massed brass, now including the five trumpets (with Ray Wetzel on lead), soaring into their high register. (Mussulli, holding his alto saxophone, is shown at right with Kenton and other Kenton sidemen listening to a playback in a recording studio – 1946.)
This arrangement, though it was created rather informally, is beautifully paced with many contrasting instrumental colors and dynamic variations. When talented musicians worked together seven days a week for months on end, they could and very often did produce remarkable music together.
The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.