Composed and arranged by Ralph Burns.
Recorded by Woody Herman and His Orchestra on August 20, 1945 in New York.
Woody Herman, alto saxophone, directing: Walter “Pete” Candoli, first trumpet; Sonny Berman, Neal Hefti, Ray Linn and Conte Candoli, trumpets; Bill Harris, Ralph Pfeffner, Ed Kiefer, trombones; Sam Marowitz, first alto saxophone; John LaPorta, alto saxophone; Joseph “Flip” Phillips and Pete Mondello, tenor saxophones; Skippy DeSair, baritone saxophone; Tony Aless, piano; Billy Bauer, guitar; Chubby Jackson, bass, Dave Tough, drums.
The story: Ralph Burns, the composer and arranger of “Bijou,” was also a capable pianist. Indeed, he played piano with the Herman band all through 1944 and into 1945 before he prevailed upon Woody to get someone else to play piano in the band, so that he could devote all of his time for writing for the Herman ensemble. This happened beginning in the spring of 1945. The previous summer and into the fall, Burns had to keep up with the heavy demands of the Herman band for music on its weekly network radio show, sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes.(1) This usually involved arranging current pop tunes. But increasingly, Burns would also compose original music for the band. One of the first of Burns’s original opuses created in mid-1945 was “Bijou,” subtitled “Rhumba A La Jazz.”
(The story of the development of Woody Herman’s mid-1940s powerhouse band is told in another post from elsewhere on this blog. Click on the link below to view that post.)
“Bijou” is an unusual piece of music for a number of reasons. Its subtitle hints at the rhythmic ambiguity of the piece. Is it a rhumba; is it swing; is it jazz? In later years, Woody, a man who had a great sense of humor, referred to the rhythm of “Bijou” as “stone-age bossa nova.” The principal definer of the rhythm of “Bijou” is drummer Dave Tough. (Shown at right with the Herman band in 1945.) His playing throughout this classic performance is rhythmically varied, and very creative. And then there is the superlative trombone solo played by Bill Harris. While this memorable, indeed iconic, solo is the centerpiece of this arrangement, there is so much more going on musically before ,during and after it, that it would really be misleading to characterize “Bijou” simply as a setting for Harris’s solo trombone. It is more of a demonstration of brilliant arranging, performed by a virtuoso big band, that includes a great trombone solo.
Burns revealed many years after he composed “Bijou” how the melody out of which the arrangement grew was created: “It was something I used to diddle around with on the piano. Woody, or maybe it was Chubby Jackson heard me playing it and told me to write it down. I named it after a friend’s cat.” (2)
The music: The quirky and memorable introduction to “Bijou,” which covers eight bars and is performed by the rhythm section, is to me the most suggestive of slinky feline movement.The piano (played by Tony Aless), the guitar (played by Billy Bauer) and the bass (played by Chubby Jackson) play the melody in unison atop drummer Dave Tough’s fluttering double-time brushwork.
The first chorus begins with a sort of rhumba rhythm supporting the main melody carried by straight-muted trumpets led by Pete Candoli, and Woody’s clarinet. The harmonic pads under this 16 bar segment are provided by the open trombones and massed reeds. Woody switches to his alto saxophone to play a secondary theme (bridge) for 8 bars. He then finishes the last 8 bars of the first chorus with his alto.
A counterpoint between the saxophones and the bold open trombones provides the fanfare that brings on Bill Harris for his trombone solo.
“Bill Harris (1916-1973), was a transitional figure between swing and bebop. He is best known as the featured trombone soloist with Woody Herman’s big band, off and on from 1944 to 1959. He also co-led jazz groups with tenor saxophonist Charlie Ventura and bassist Chubby Jackson.
Although Harris’ style was firmly rooted in the swing era, he was one of the first trombonists to acquire the technical command of the trombone that allowed him to play at the breakneck tempos associated with bebop. Harris constantly surprised the listener by his frequent use of contrasting stylistic elements. He was fond of varying his articulations between legato and staccato, and playing first simply and then more complex. His use of vibrato also differed between the terminal vibrato – used by most swing era horn players – and a straight tone (little or no vibrato), as well as combinations of the two. Harris also had an irrepressible sense of humor that showed in his playing.” (3)
Harris was an idiosynchratic trombonist. It is difficult to describe his style, which was based on great, if unorthodox, technique. Unlike many jazz trombonists, Harris was capable of playing the most flamboyant, up-tempo improvisations, but was equally adept at playing melodies in a romantic, legato manner.
Many of Harris’s stylistic hallmarks are present in this classic full chorus solo. He starts out with a shouting declaration of his solo presence through a four bar break. He then improvises in smooth legato fashion on the first sixteen bars of the main melody, but becomes more rhythmically and dynamically intense playing the eight bar bridge. Harris turns up the volume to build intensity in the last eight bars of this solo. Notice the backgrounds Burns has created as a harmonic and rhythmic underpinning for Harris’s solo. (At Left: Ralph Burns at the keyboard with Bill Harris behind.) Basically, the richly harmonized reeds are used as cushion for Harris’s bright open trombone sound. But listen to how they interact with Chubby Jackson’s bass and Dave Tough’s drums. This chorus is a great example of perfect integration involving a marvelously creative jazz solo placed against a brilliantly arranged, inspirational musical background.
After this, the band comes in with waves of sound, brass on top, reeds below, before Harris returns, barking out high notes to take this performance to its climax. During this sequence, Tough is a whirling dervish of double-time rhythm played by him with brushes on his snare, interspersed with sparkling cymbal crashes. As the band returns for the denouement, Burns provides one more delightfully inspired touch. After a brief taste of Tough’s rumbling tom-toms, the piano, bass and guitar lay down a low chord, then the trombones blast out a two note upward growled phrase, which catapults the the open trumpets into a sonic explosion, followed immediately by a quietly descending saxophone section phrase which terminates with a long held note. Burns has painted in musical fashion a perfect picture of a blast of fireworks soaring into the nighttime sky, exploding brilliantly, and then fluttering down.
Post Script: When we try to understand the context out of which brilliant music like Woody Herman’s “Bijou” sprung, we must remember that many of the musicians in the Herman band, in addition to being very talented, were very young men, in their early 20s. Implicit in this is that there was usually some craziness going on in the band. Trumpeter Pete Candoli, already a veteran of several big bands at age 21, was one of the more colorful characters in a band full of them. Woody reported that after Pete got his 16 year old brother Conte into the band during the summer of the year between Conte’s junior and senior year in high school, he delighted in busting Conte’s chops (figuratively), as only an older brother can: “Pete was beautiful! He made Conte carry his trumpet case, and like pistol-whipped him twenty-four hours a day. ‘Get up Conte! Up boy. Down boy.'”(4) On the band bus, to amuse his bandmates, Pete would get up in front of the bus and do impressions of Hollywood movie stars. After viewing this show once, fellow trumpeter Ray Linn said just loud enough so that everyone could hear “Hey, that was great, Walter Camden.” (Walter was Pete’s real first name.) The band fell out laughing, and from then on Pete was known as Walter Camden in the Herman band.(5) (Above: the infamous Walter Camden – November 1945.)
Note: The three trombonists pictured at the top of this post are L-R: Ralph Pfeffner, Bill Harris and Ed Kiefer, Woody Herman’s trombone section throughout 1945.
It is interesting to compare the classic Woody Herman performance of “Bijou” with one recorded fourteen years later, by Henry Mancini.
Composed by Ralph Burns; arranged by Henry Mancini.
Recorded by Henry Mancini and His Orchestra for RCA Victor in Hollywood on August 14, 1959.
Henry Mancini, directing: Dick Nash, first trombone; Jimmy Priddy, John Halliburton and Karl De Karske, trombones; Vince DeRosa, John Cave, John Graas, Dick Perissi; French horns; Ted Nash, alto saxophone; Harry Klee and Ronny Lang, flutes; John T. Williams, piano; Bob Bain, guitar; Rolly Bundock, bass; Shelly Manne, drums; David Frisina, Lou Raderman, Felix Slatkin, Dan Lube, Sam Freed, William Miller, Ambrose Russo, Samuel Cytron, Danny Guglielmi, Sarah Kreindler, Mort Herbert, Benny Gill, violins; Milton Thomas, Stanley Harris, Harry Hyams, Bob Ostrovsky, violas; Raphael Kramer, Edgar Lustgarten, Kurt Reher, Armond Kaproff, celli.
The story continues: By the late 1950s, Henry Mancini (1924-1994) had quite unexpectedly become a very successful recording artist. This success came in the wake of the release of his first RCA Victor LP, which presented his original music from the hit television series Peter Gunn. Other very worthwhile LPs followed, including one released at the end of 1959 called The Mancini Touch, from which the version of “Bijou” presented here was taken.
Mancini’s roots extended deep into the swing era, both personally and professionally. After military service in World War II, he joined Glenn Miller alumnus Tex Beneke’s band, as both pianist and arranger. While with the Beneke band, Mancini met Virginia “Ginny” O’Connor, a singer, whom he later married. He also met one of his idols, the great swing era arranger Jerry Gray, who became a mentor, a friend, and the best man at his wedding. (At right: Tex Beneke with Mancini – 1975.)
Henry Mancini was steeped in the music of the swing era. He, like many other young big band musicians in the mid-1940s, was deeply impressed by the music that was then being created for the Woody Herman band by Ralph Burns. As a composer and arranger himself, his admiration for Ralph Burns’s “Bijou” increased over the years as he analyzed it. Finally, in 1959, he got the opportunity to create his own arrangement of “Bijou” for a recording of it by his own orchestra. He asked Jimmy Priddy, a trombonist who started his swing era career as a member of Glenn Miller’s pre-war band, and who worked for many years as Mancini’s copyist (and sometimes trombonist), to notate the great trombone solo Bill Harris had played on the 1945 Woody Herman recording. This solo, like Harris’s on the Herman record, would be the centerpiece of Mancini’s arrangement. The twist would be that Mancini would voice that solo for four trombones, with the young trombone virtuoso Dick Nash playing the lead. (Below left, Dick Nash is pictured in the late 1950s.)
The music: Drummer Shelly Manne, whose early drumming idol was was Dave Tough, leads the rhythmic introduction into Mancini’s arrangement of “Bijou.” (Mancini himself adds a few strategic taps on a tambourine.) Mancini followed the basic formal blueprint created by Ralph Burns, but he does it in quintessentially Mancini fashion, by using flutes, Harmon-muted trombones, French horns and strings in place of saxophones and trumpets. The quirky rhythms of “Bijou” are present in the Mancini version, albeit modified a bit by Shelly Manne to reflect a middle-eastern influence. The bright-toned alto saxophone solo is by Ted Nash, brother of trombonist Dick Nash. The transitional sequence leading into the trombone soli shows Mancini’s mastery as an arranger, especially his use of the French horns and strings. The soli itself, which is brilliantly performed by the trombone quartet under Dick Nash’s dynamic lead, represents a Supersax concept for trombones, done more than a decade before Supersax. It is a celebration of Bill Harris’s iconic trombone solo.
Note: The word “bijou” is French for “jewel.” It has acquired a number of other meanings in English.
The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo
(1) The Herman band was featured on the CBS Old Gold Show with singer Allan Jones from July 26 to October 4, 1944.
(2) The Swing Era …The Postwar Years (1972), 58-59.
(3) This synopsis is derived from: http://trombone.org/articles/library/evojazz2-4.asp, by Dave Wilken.
(4) Woody Herman …Chronicle of the Herds (1995), by William D. Clancy with Audree Coke Kenton. 62.
(5) Ibid. 60.