“I’m Prayin’ Humble”
Traditional Afro-American spiritual tune arranged by Bob Haggart.
Recorded by Bob Crosby and His Orchestra for Decca on October 19, 1938 in Chicago.
Bob Haggart, bass, directing: Rubin “Zeke” Zarchy, first trumpet; Billy Butterfield and Sterling Bose, trumpets; Ward Silloway and Warren Smith, trombones; Joey Kearns, Irving “Fazola” Prestopnick, and Julian “Matty” Matlock, alto saxophones and B-flat clarinets; Eddie Miller and Gil Rodin, tenor saxophones; Bob Zurke, piano; Hilton “Nappy” Lamare, guitar; Ray Bauduc, drums.
The story of how the very good Bob Crosby band emerged from the pack of very good bands on the swing scene in 1938 and moved into a place of national recognition is centered around its lengthy engagement at the Blackhawk restaurant in Chicago, which began in March of 1938 and ran into October of the same year. “From this venue it began a series of coast-to-coast radio shows (11 per week), spreading the good news over the land that traditional jazz was alive and well. There was a resultant upsurge in the band’s record sales and its coverage by the popular press.” (1) As so frequently was the case during the swing era, when a band was being broadcast repeatedly over radio, the public got to know about that band and its music.
The titular leader of the Bob Crosby band was George Robert Crosby, Bing Crosby’s younger brother. Bob Crosby was a good-looking and affable front man for the band who was very effective as the intermediary between the Crosby band itself and its audiences. And of course, his greatest asset insofar as public recognition was concerned, was that his surname was “Crosby.” By the late 1930s, Bing Crosby had embarked on a career in the entertainment business that can only be described as immensely successful. First and foremost, Bing was a wildly successful singer. His recordings on the Decca label were always among the most popular of their time. Secondly, his weekly NBC network radio show, The Kraft Music Hall, was among the most listened-to across the country. Third, the feature films he made for Paramount Pictures were steady money-makers for the studio. Bing understood the power of radio as well as anyone. His weekly broadcasts usually contained performances of tunes he had recently recorded, and segments that presented actors and others who had appeared with him in his most recent film. The inevitable result was that more people bought his records and went to see his movies. The name “Crosby” was entertainment gold in the late 1930s and well into the 1940s (and 1950s).
Bing was generous to his brother, and on many occasions appeared with him on radio and records. The relationship between the brothers was cordial, even though Bing was always so busy with his own career that there was not a great deal of personal interaction.
(Above: a photo of Crosby band members in 1939: L-R: Bob Crosby Jess Stacy, Gil Rodin, Bob Haggart (back), Matty Matlock.)
When I use the word “titular,” I mean it quite literally. Bob Crosby was the leader of the Crosby band in name only. As was mentioned above, he was always a very effective front-man for the band, who sang just well enough to get by. But the business side of the band was run by Gil Rodin, a journeyman saxophone player, but a smart and canny businessman who learned about the band business in the Ben Pollack band of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Among his musical and band business colleagues in that band at various times were Harry Goodman, Benny’s older brother, and Glenn Miller. Both of those men went on to achieve great success in the band business, Harry Goodman with Benny’s band, and Glenn Miller with his own band. Both Harry Goodman (and his brother Benny) and Glenn Miller referred to the Bob Crosby band as “Gil’s boys,” and for good reason. When it came to operating the business of the Crosby band, Gil Rodin made very few wrong turns. (At left: Joey Kearns and Gil Rodin on the Steel Pier at Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1939.)
The musical side of the Crosby band was run on something of a cooperative basis by the three arrangers who essentially developed the musical character of the band in the mid to late 1930s: First, Deane Kincaide and Matty Matlock, and then, Bob Haggart. More than any other swing era band, the Crosby ensemble strove to reshape the music, especially the jazz, of earlier times in a way that would be attractive to swing era audiences. This traditional musical approach was enhanced by the presence in the band of a number of musicians who were steeped in those traditions as observed in their home town – New Orleans. Irving Fazola, Eddie Miller, Nappy Lamare and Ray Bauduc all hailed from the Crescent City.
The Bob Crosby band probably in late 1937 or early 1938. L-R front row: Bob Zurke, Marion Mann, Bob Crosby, Ray Bauduc, Gil Rodin, Joey Kearns, Matty Matlock, Eddie Miller; back: Bob Haggart, Nappy Lamare, Yank Lawson, Charlie Spivak, Billy Butterfield, Warren Smith, Ward Silloway.
I was fortunate to see Bob Haggart perform on a number of occasions, and to speak with him once or twice. He was a tall, handsome man with a warm smile and quick, ironic wit. His contribution to the musical direction and success of the Bob Crosby band was enormous. Although Haggart did not come from New Orleans (he was from Douglaston, Queens, New York, which he always referred to as “Dogtown”), his knowledge of and appreciation for early jazz was tremendous. The Crosby band, at least through the years 1936 – 1938, eschewed riffs and antiphonal use of the various sections of the band that were very much the vogue during those years. Haggart was strongly in agreement with that policy. (Bob Haggart is show above left in the early 1940s.)
In addition to refashioning early jazz classics for the Crosby band, Haggart’s keen musical intelligence and curiosity were always receptive to new ideas that might fit the musical orientation of the Crosby band. Here is how Haggart came to create the musical setting for the old spiritual number “I’m Prayin’ Humble,” as recalled by trumpeter Zeke Zarchy: “One day, Bob Haggart and I took a walk down State Street [in Chicago] a few blocks from where we lived [while the Crosby band was playing a long engagement at the Blackhawk Restaurant], and we wandered into this second hand shop. They had old shellac records on sale for a nickel apiece, and we started browsing. I found one by Paul Whiteman called ‘When,’ and Haggart bought one by a southern gospel group called Mitchell’s Christian Singers. Now I was the only one in the Crosby band with a record player – a portable Emerson that I carried with me on the road. So anyone in the band who had a record would come to my room and play it. Haggart played the record he bought with me that day and it was ‘I’m Prayin’ Humble,’ then he wrote an arrangement based on it.” (2) (Another 1930s vintage 78 rpm record by Mitchell’s Christian Singers is shown above at right.)
Through the vagaries of the world of swing, by the time Haggart completed that arrangement and the Crosby band was ready to record it, trumpeter Yank Lawson, his close friend in the Crosby band, had been lured away by a lucrative offer from Tommy Dorsey. The trumpeter who eventually replaced Lawson, and who played the solo on the recording, was Sterling Bose. Haggart later mused about his arrangement on “I’m Prayin’ Humble”: “It was originally conceived as a feature for Yank Lawson’s plunger playing. Yank was a specialist with that mute, but Bose wasn’t. He did his best, but Yank would have done an even better job of it.” (3)
This performance begins with Sterling Bose, manipulating his plunger mute over the bell of his trumpet while drummer Ray Bauduc establishes an insistent beat on his tom-tom. There is little movement in the harmonic underpinning of this tune, and not much melody. What melody there is is repeated often, creating something of a drone. But there is plenty of rhythm. Tenor saxophonist Eddie Miller has a brief solo before the ensemble builds some intense bursts of sound. Bose returns after the ensemble to generate as much rhythmic excitement as he can with the limited musical materials he is confined to. The band adds some sonic density and volume as this unusual performance ends.
In the 1950s and 1960s, some jazz musicians experimented with various minimalist musical materials, including the Montuno and various drones. This musical experiment, undertaken by Bob Haggart some twenty years before, which is in a similar vein, flew over the heads of swing era critics.
As was mentioned above, Bob Haggart originally envisioned this arrangement as a vehicle for Yank Lawson’s plunger-muted trumpet. As fate would have it, Lawson would get his chance to record this study in minimalism, in 1969, in a very fine band he co-led with his friend, Bob Haggart. Here is that recording:
“I’m Prayin’ Humble”
1938 Haggart arrangement revised by Bob Haggart.
Recorded by The World’s Greatest Jazzband of Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart in 1969 in New York for Project 3 Records.
Bob Haggart, bass, directing: Billy Butterfield, first trumpet, Yank Lawson, trumpet; Lou McGarity and Carl Fontana, trombones; Bob Wilber, soprano saxophone; Lawrence “Bud” Freeman, tenor saxophone; Ralph Sutton, piano; Gus Johnson, drums.
The music and the story:
Drummer Gus Johnson starts this performance by laying down a rhythmic foundation that is part rock, and part boogaloo. Pianist Ralph Sutton then begins what is a percolating, rhythmically intense stream of sounds that will continue flowing, unabated throughout this rhythmically taut performance.
Billy Butterfield (shown above left with Bob Wilber), one of many great trumpeters to emerge from the swing era, plays the first solo, which more or less outlines the minimalist melody of this piece, using a plunger. Bob Haggart then inserted a sort of riffing interlude into his arrangement, which spots the two trombones being answered by Bob Wilber’s curved soprano saxophone. He is followed by tenor saxophone legend Bud Freeman (at right), whose bubbly, rhythmic style fits this performance perfectly. Trombonist Carl Fontana, who came to fame in Stan Kenton’s band in the 1950s, plays a splendid, fluent jazz solo next, an excellent example of his gifts as an improviser. Co-leader Yank Lawson then steps up to play some very tart plunger-muted trumpet. Bob Wilber returns, soaring over the hot ensemble riffs behind him. In this passage, the searing trumpets, led by Butterfield, answered by the powerful trombones led by Lou McGarity, are particularly noteworthy. The intensity level is gradually reduced as Wilber continues to play an obbligato to the band into the finale. This entire performance is a display of master musicians exuberantly at work.
I once (in 1986) asked Bob Haggart about the name The World’s Greatest Jazzband. He rolled his eyes and said, “That was not my doing. That was Dick Gibson’s (4) idea. He knew all about marketing. That is why he is a wealthy man. I know about music. That is why I’m still out here doing it at a time (age 72) when I should be at home sitting in my rocking chair taking it easy. Putting all that aside, I am very pleased with most of the music we made with that band. We may not have been the greatest, but I think we were pretty good.” (Bob Haggart is shown below in the 1980s.)
The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) Notes for the Time-Life CD Big Bands – Bob Crosby, (1984).
(2) Stomp Off, Let’s Go …The Story of Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats and Big Band, (1983) 78.
(4) Dick Gibson was a Denver, Colorado businessman, who first gathered together jazz musicians and friends in an Aspen, Colorado hotel over the three-day Labor Day weekend in 1963 to have a party. That weekend, he created the first Jazz Party, a format that combined jazz musicians and fans in an intimate atmosphere with various combinations of musicians performing in jam sessions all weekend long. Mr. Gibson had a widely varied career. An expert on Oriental rugs and cloisonne’, he also wrote fiction, worked as an investment banker and made a fortune by forming the Water Pik company, which he sold in 1967. In 1968, he provided the business guidance and support which allowed Bob Haggart and Yank Lawson to found and operate the World’s Greatest Jazzband for many years.
Here is a link to a recording by one of the most unusual duos in jazz history:
And here is a link to some great big band swing, “So What Else is New?” composed and arranged by Bob Haggart as a showcase for the trumpet artistry of Clark Terry, and played by the great NBC Tonight Show band in the 1960s:
Here is a link to a showcase for Billy Butterfield’s golden-toned trumpet that is in a completely different mood from “I’m Prayin’ Humble”: