“Milenberg Joys” (1939) Tommy Dorsey

“Milenberg Joys”

Composed by Jelly Roll Morton(*); arranged by Deane Kincaide.

Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Victor on January 19, 1939 in New York.

Tommy Dorsey, first and solo trombone, directing: Andy Ferretti, first trumpet; Aniello “Lee” Castaldo (Castle), and John H. “Yank” Lawson, trumpets; Elmer Smithers, Ward Silloway and Dave Jacobs, trombones; Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, first alto saxophone; Freddie Stulce, alto saxophone; Johnny Mince, alto saxophone and clarinet; Irving “Babe” Russin and Robert Deane Kincaide, tenor saxophones; Howard Smith, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Gene Traxler, bass; Dave Tough, drums.

Jimmy (left) and Tommy sign autographs – 1939.

The story: Divining the depths of the relative contributions of Tommy Dorsey and his brother Jimmy (shown at left signing autographs – 1939) to the music of the swing era is an interesting exercise. The conventional wisdom about this favors Tommy’s contribution being larger and more important that Jimmy’s. This is because Tommy was undoubtedly the more dynamic stage personality and businessman, and the more ambitious of the two brothers. Also, more of the musicians and singers who worked with Tommy went on in their post TD careers to varying degrees of success. In this group were Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Buddy Rich, Buddy DeFranco, Bunny Berigan, Bud Freeman, and many other fine musicians and singers. Among the arrangers who worked for TD, and then went on to success were Paul Weston, Sy Oliver, Bill Finegan and Nelson Riddle. Indeed, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, TD promoted himself as “The Star Maker,” basking in the reflected glory of his former employees who had gone onto successful careers in the entertainment business.

Tommy.

Tommy’s approach to bandleading from the very beginning was entwined in deep relationships with personal agents, his booking agency (the monopolistic Music Corporation of America), various promoters and impresarios, ad agencies and most importantly, network radio. Later, he immersed himself in Hollywood films and ballroom ownership. The final years of his career were spent in various successful television ventures. Tommy Dorsey lived and breathed not only the music of the swing era, but the business of bandleading and entertainment.

Jimmy Dorsey was every bit as fine a musician as Tommy, and a very effective bandleader, though his style of interaction with the musicians in his band was quite different from Tommy’s. Whereas Tommy would do practically anything to get a musician to play at his best, including insulting or threatening to fire him, Jimmy mostly led by example, and by gentle suggestion. As a result, dozens of musicians passed through the ranks of Tommy’s band, some rather quickly, while many of the musicians who worked with Jimmy stayed with him for years.

Jimmy.

During the swing era, Jimmy had many excellent musicians in his band. His two most famous singers, Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell, were as popular or more popular in their JD years than were Sinatra and Stafford with TD, though less popular in their later careers. Many of the musicians and arrangers who worked for Jimmy also went onto long and successful careers.(1) Jimmy and his band worked at the best venues during the swing era, earning top money. They were featured on radio and in films, and they made many hit recordings. Jimmy had excellent managers and strong representation from his booking agent, General Artists Corporation, for the decade from 1935 to 1945.

Both Dorseys worked non-stop through the years of World War II, achieving their greatest financial successes then. A crest was reached in 1946, when a Hollywood film about their lives and careers was made,The Fabulous Dorseys. But by that time, big bands were finding it much more difficult to keep operating full-time for many reasons. Tommy, sensing the perils ahead, laid off for awhile, plotting a new course of action in a much less favorable marketplace. Jimmy, after a brief vacation, took to the road with a very good band, basically following the same business model that had carrried him to fame. But despite his great successes throughout the late 1930s and early to mid-1940s, and with increasingly weaker management after World War II, he saw his band’s weekly grosses decline steadily. Nevertheless, he carried on stubbornly until 1952, by which time he was exhausted, bankrupt, alcoholic and headed (as a result of chain-smoking) toward what would in a couple of years be his final illness.

Meanwhile, Tommy had aligned himself with a cadre of new (and younger) managers, eventually emancipated himself from the grip of MCA, and pursued as an independent businessman whatever opportunities he saw with an excellent new band that evolved continuously until his premature and bizarre death at age 51 in November of 1956. (Jimmy died six months later from lung cancer.) Tommy continued broadening his scope in the entertainment business throughout the early and mid-1950s, being an aggressive show-business “operator,” pursuing ventures of all sorts to keep his band working and well-paid. At the time of his death, he had just recently secured long-term commitments that would have kept his band working lucratively for the next several years. (Below – Tommy  taking care of business, something he enjoyed almost as much as making music.)

TD taking care of business.

Despite a number of books being written about the Dorsey brothers over the last fifty years, both as individuals and together, none are close to being definitive. Their story is an interesting one. They both played large roles in American music from about 1930 until their deaths, more than 25 years later.

The music: Tommy Dorsey’s 1930s band, which existed from mid-1935 until the decade of the 1940s began, had a varied musical policy. No band made more records during that time than Tommy’s. Many of those recordings are off-the-shelf period piece dance music. But scattered in were some remarkable performances. What remained constant throughout those years was the band’s general excellence as a dance band, and of course TD’s peerless virtuosity as a melodic trombonist. The TD band then also included at various times a number of top-flight jazz soloists including Bud Freeman on tenor saxophone, Max Kaminsky, Bunny Berigan, Pee Wee Erwin and Yank Lawson on trumpet, and Johnny Mince on clarinet. Tommy’s drummer for most of the time from 1936 to 1939 was the great Dave Tough.

Tommy essentially used two arrangers throughout that four-plus year span, Paul Weston (real name Paul Wetstein), and Axel Stordahl. These two turned out literally hundreds of arrangements for the TD band. Despite their talent, and their efforts to create different musical sounds, the inevitable result was that a certain homogeneity was present in much of the music played by Tommy’s band then. Although TD occasionally sought special arrangements from “outside” writers, he did not find a fitting distinction in the music they wrote until he commissioned his first arrangement from Deane Kincaide, a romping treatment of “Beale Street Blues,” which he recorded for Victor on May 26, 1937.

Deane Kincaide in 1935.

Robert Deane Kincaide (1911-1992) was born in Houston,Texas, but he moved with his family to Decatur, Illinois when he was a child. Like so many other musicians who eventually came to success during the swing era, he started his professional career working in regional bands. His first association with a notable musician came in 1932, when he joined trumpeter/singer Wingy Manone in Shreveport, Louisiana. In 1933, he joined drummer Ben Pollack’s band, remaining until Pollack disbanded in early 1935. Soon thereafter, Kincaide (shown at right in 1935) rejoined many of the musicians who had been in the Pollack band in a re-formed band under the nominal leadership of Bing Crosby’s singing younger brother Bob. (The real leader was Gil Rodin.)

Kincaide came into his own as an arranger with the Crosby band over the next couple of years, often trading ideas with the other two arrangers in the band then, Bob Haggart and Matty Matlock. The three of them had a sharp awareness of early jazz, and often cast vintage jazz tunes in an updated, swing-oriented mode which still retained the flavor of the originals. Kincaide’s late-1930s arrangements, which often included ingenious use of clarinets and 2/4 meter, could be described as semi Dixieland/semi swing. Tommy Dorsey, for his part, seemed to favor music in 2/4 meter, not only in his jazz playing, which had its roots in Dixieland, but also in the writing of many of his arrangers, the most notable being Kincaide, and a bit later, Sy Oliver.(2) Kincaide joined Tommy Dorsey’s band on tenor saxophone and as an arranger in April of 1938.

The inimitable Dave Tough.

This recording captures an inspired performance of Deane Kincaide’s arrangement on “Milenberg Joys” by the entire Tommy Dorsey band, with bracing solos by Babe Russin on tenor saxophone, Yank Lawson on trumpet, TD on trombone, Johnny Mince on clarinet, and superb drumming throughout by Dave Tough. (Tough is shown at left at a 1937 jam session.)

Yank Lawson.

After a brief introduction, there is a three-way sequence with the trumpets carrying the melody, and the trombones and reeds (Mince on clarinet) playing contrapuntal supporting roles, very much in the Dixieland tradition. Babe Russin plays a brief but robust solo on tenor sax, followed by a marvelously swinging five saxophone soli. Trumpeter Yank Lawson (at right – 1939) then plays a lengthy and tasty open horn solo which generates a lot of swing. Lawson was a big man, standing six feet four, and he played forcefully, getting a density of sound out of his trumpet similar to that produced by Cootie Williams. Behind him drummer Dave Tough, using his famous Chinese cymbal as his main tool, more or less levitates Lawson. (Also check out Tough’s off-beat rim shots and bass drum kicks.) Behind Tommy’s trombone solo, which is a very capable jazz statement, Tough switches to his high-hats; behind Johnny Mince’s clarinet, he dances all around his drums (including their metal rims) and cymbals. The band comes roaring back before Russin returns for two more solo statements. The finale has the TD-led trombones out front, plus some spirited riffing and ensemble play. The unity and precision of the entire Dorsey band in this out-chorus is impressive.

In 1986, I was fortunate enough to speak at length with Johnny Mince (shown at right in 1940) about his time with Tommy Dorsey’s band (1937-1941). Here is what he said about Dave Tough: “In my career I’ve played with many great drummers, including Buddy Rich, of course. But I can say without reservation that the greatest drummer I ever played with was Dave Tough. His feel for time was incredible. No matter what he did, it swung. And he knew how to back soloists and lift a band. He played simply and never threw things off by trying to be flashy. He completely understood jazz rhythm and he applied what he knew perfectly in either a big band or a small group. He was only interested in making whatever group he was playing in sound better.”

”Milenberg” by the way, was the name of town on the southern shore of Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana.

(*) Although Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have written “Milenberg Joys” alone, other sources say that he had help from Paul Mares and Leon Roppolo of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, an early jazz band.

(1) Included in this illustrious group were: Ray Anthony, Buddy Morrow, Ray McKinley, Si Zentner, Shorty Sherock, Skeets Herfurt, Joe Lippman, Sonny Burke and Toots Camarata.

(2) It is not coincidence that the most famous of all Tommy Dorsey band alumni, Frank Sinatra, also frequently used 2/4 meter in the music he made.

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

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4 Comments

  1. As usual an informative and evenhanded history lesson. Its also a reminder that great bands were still active into the 1950’s and their legacy continues although under appreciated in the world of “Talent TV Shows” that rarely spotlight music and vocalists of the caliber of the Dorsey era.

  2. Thank you for such an excellent article on TD’s “Milenberg Joys” recording along with your perceptive comments on both the Dorsey brothers and their amazing alumni. You’re correct that the “definitive” biography on both brothers still needs to be written. Perhaps you’ll consider this? Your analysis of Kindcaide’s arrangement was excellent also and thank you for giving mention to a rather (and unjustly) forgotten figure who contributed so much to jazz arranging.

  3. Greetings from RojoLand! — A little bit of trivia: The video pictures Victor 26437, the “common” issue of this two-sided recording. But the *original* issue was a “club” release for the Victor Record Society, Victor VRS-2, which is quite rare today. A picture of the side-A label (autographed by Tommy Dorsey) can be seen at https://www.popsike.com/TOMMY-DORSEY-78-RPM-SIGNED-Milenberg-Joys-Part-1-2-VRS2A-VRS2B-E/171050267336.html

    The spliced recording in the video (reverbed; from an LP or CD) is not quite complete — the 78 has a note or two that is omitted in order to join the two parts smoothly.

    Take care,

    J. E. Knox “The Victor Freak”

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