“Anitra’s Dance” (1939) John Kirby Sextet and (1970) Billy May

“Anitra’s Dance”

Composed by Edvard Grieg; arranged by Charlie Shavers.

Recorded by the John Kirby Sextet for Vocalion/Columbia on May 19, 1939 in New York.

John Kirby, bass, directing: Charlie Shavers, trumpet; William “Buster” Bailey, clarinet; Russell Procope, alto saxophone; Billy Kyle, piano; O’Neill Spencer, drums.

The story: Swinging the classics was a tradition long before the swing era. Many musicians who worked in pop music idioms found it easier sometimes to communicate with their audiences by playing their interpretations of recognizable melodies from the “classical” music repertoire than trying to bring audiences along with newer, less recognizable melodies. Although there was always a small segment of most bands’ repertoires that included some familiar “classical” themes, this cross-idiom borrowing reached its peak in 1941, during the ASCAP-BMI dispute, when ASCAP-licensed tunes were prohibited from being broadcast over radio. During that interval, many more classical themes were retooled for presentation by swing bands because they were not licensed by ASCAP. Indeed, many of them were not even copyrighted.

But in the case of the John Kirby Sextet’s interpretation of Edvard Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance,” the reason why this classical theme was used was entirely unrelated to copyrights and their licensing. Kirby’s trumpeter and arranger, Charlie Shavers (shown at left in the 1950s), explained: “At the time I arranged ‘Anitra’s Dance,’ (composer) Morton Gould also had a small woodwind group. We gave some concerts together at the Museum of Modern Art. Gould would play classical music like ‘Anitra’s Dance’ as it was originally written. Kirby would follow-up with the swing version. Our concerts were big successes!’ (1)

Here is some background on “Anitra’s Dance”: Peer Gynt, Opus 23, is the incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play of the same name, written by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg in 1875. It premiered along with the play on February 24, 1876 in Christiania (now Oslo), Norway. Grieg later arranged two suites from his Peer Gynt music.

The classic John Kirby Sextet – 1941. L-R: Russell Procope, Billy Kyle, John Kirby, Buster Bailey, Charlie Shavers and O’Neill Spencer.

It has been said that the music of the John Kirby Sextet was in some ways a derivative of that of the then very popular (due to a lot of CBS radio network exposure in the late 1930s) Raymond Scott Quintette (which was really a sextet). The instrumentation of the two groups was the same, except that the Kirby group used an alto saxophone instead of a tenor saxophone. Both groups were accused by various contemporary critics of trafficking in musical pastiche, though for different reasons. The Kirby band unabashedly reworked “classical” themes because the audience they built delighted in these swing versions of old chestnuts. That made those audiences more receptive to the original music presented by the Sextet, including “Jumpin’ at the Pump Room,” “Milumbu,” “20th Century Closet,” “Blues Petite,” “Zooming at the Zombie,” and many others. My take on this is that although the two groups had a surface similarity in sound, and both had top-flight musicianship, the Kirby group was more musically interesting. It had a broader musical scope, and more impressive jazz, especially from Charlie Shavers on trumpet and Billy Kyle on piano. And the Kirby band did swing harder.

The John Kirby Sextet evolved into the precision performance unit that we here in this recording of “Anitra’s Dance” over a period of time through 1937 and 1938. They kept busy working at various venues along Manhattan’s fabled “swing street,” West 52nd, and by accompanying various singers on recordings including Mildred Bailey, and Maxine Sullivan, who was married to Kirby for a time. By 1939, all the musical pieces were in place.

For reasons that have not been clearly explained over the years, the Kirby band became very successful in the years 1939-1942. At some point, probably in late 1939 or early 1940, after the group had achieved some of its initial success, they were taken on by Music Corporation of America (MCA), the largest and most powerful band booking agency of the time. Clearly, what they did musically, which was far more subdued than what most jazz-based big bands were presenting then, was attractive to audiences that were somewhat different from those who patronized most mainstream big bands. The group seemed to fit in at upscale venues where the patrons wanted the music to be quieter, though still interesting and exciting. In 1940 and into 1941, the band embarked on a series of engagements at high-toned venues such as the Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago (for over five months), then the Trocodero in Los Angeles, the Waldorf-Astoria and the Copacabana in New York, the Copley Terrace in Boston. They continued making records through this time, and made the jump into network radio in 1941, being regularly featured on the popular CBS “Duffy’s Tavern” comedy show, and the NBC “Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street.” (2)

John Kirby (shown at left), was an outwardly dour man who nevertheless had a sense of humor, and was very effective as the leader of his small band. He was also attractive to women, despite his rather staid stage personality. Russell Procope, who played alto saxophone in the Kirby Sextet recalled: “He’d go buy a suit and we’d be waiting for him to show a little flash, and when he’d come back, he’d look exactly as he had before. He wouldn’t even put on a red tie. We used to call him ‘the insurance man’ because that’s exactly what he looked like.” Procope continued: “I haven’t the faintest idea how he did it, but women would always give him everything. There were always women who wanted to take care of him. He would get up there on the stand in his insurance man suit, and women in the audience would sit up. He did attract attention.”  Charlie Shavers added: “If I told you the names (of some of the women he attracted), you would be surprised, and I mean movie stars.” (3)

The music: “Anitra’s Dance” is a perfect example of the classic (prewar) Kirby band’s approach. Charlie Shavers’s clever reimagining of “Anitra’s Dance” is one that is definitely grounded in the musical conventions of swing era. That is apparent from his wildly percussive four-bar fragment which opens the introduction and is then repeated again (which may well have been a subtle parody of the music of Raymond Scott), all the way through the Kirby Sextet’s performance. Shavers’s arrangement is packed full of contrasting musical sequences. His exposition of Grieg’s melodies in the first chorus, with his agile cup-muted trumpet in the lead, is delivered with syncopated rhythm, punctuated by bursts from O’Neill Spencer’s drums. Clarinetist Buster Bailey (shown at right), and alto saxophonist Russell Procope, engage in a bit of instrumental dialogue in the second chorus. Then Bailey plays solo against rhythmic drums and tasty piano chords, and plays hide-and-seek with Procope.

The intensely rhythmic four bar fragment from the introduction reappears as a transition into the reprise of Grieg’s melodies by the ensemble in the next chorus, and then a snappy coda wraps up this demonstration of swing virtuosity.

The John Kirby Sextet’s recording of “Anitra’s Dance” was successful both musically, as something that swing era audiences enjoyed listening and dancing to, and commercially in that many copies of it were sold. It had a lot to do with sending the Kirby band on its way to substantial popular success.


“Anitra’s Dance”

Composed by Edvard Grieg; arranged by Charlie Shavers. The Shavers arrangement was reconstructed by Billy May.

Recorded by Billy May for Capitol on July 13, 1970 in Hollywood, California.

Billy May, directing: Clarence F. “Shorty” Sherock, trumpet; Abe Most, clarinet; Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, alto saxophone; Ray Sherman, piano; Rolly Bundock, bass; Nick Fatool, drums.

The music: One of the great things about recordings that attempt to recapture the essence of earlier classic recorded performances is that on rare occasions, the newer performances not only capture the spirit of the original, they move beyond it. This is one such performance. As was explained above, the original John Kirby Sextet was a band that was comprised of very talented musicians who worked together so often (including rigorous rehearsals), and so long, that their performances were not only incredibly together, but were often models of group virtuosity. This performance by Hollywood swing era veterans is not only an example of their virtuosity, it also possesses a certain joie de vivre that is hard to achieve, no matter how proficient the musicians are on their instruments. Trumpeter Shorty Sherock assumes the role Charlie Shavers originated for himself, while clarinetist Abe Most and alto saxophonist Skeets Herfurt  are the other major protagonists. These guys were not only nailing the music in the technical sense, they were enjoying themselves. (Above left: Abe Most and Skeets Herfurt at one of the Swing Era recording sessions. At right: Shorty Sherock.)

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.


(1) The Swing Era 1938-1939 (1970), notes on the music by Joseph Kastner, (59-60).

(2) Details of the John Kirby band’s series of high-profile engagements in 1940-1941 come from the liner notes to: The Complete Columbia and RCA Victor recordings of the John Kirby Sextet, Definitive Records CD  DRCD11168, (2000), by J.G. Calvados.

(3) The Swing Era Into the ’50s (1973), essay on the Kirby band by Frederic Ramsey, Jr., (50-51).

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1 Comment

  1. Although criticized as being too formulaic by some critics, the John Kirby Sextet was considered sufficiently significant in the history of jazz by the Smithsonian Institution to warrant the issuance of a 2 record set titled “The Biggest Little Band.” That collection includes an alternate take of “Sweet Georgia Brown” that approaches bebop before there is a breakdown due to an early entrance by Buster Bailey. You mention how much the Billy May crew enjoyed these recreations. Quite some time ago, I asked Milt Bernhart if he had fun making the Glen Gray recreations. He said it wasn’t fun at all and it was just another job. He did say he enjoyed making the non-recreation album “Jonah Jones/ Glen Gray” and he marveled at how quickly Jones picked up the Benny Carter arrangements, which he was seeing for the first time just like the studio orchestra. An interesting contrast to the Kirby record would be to compare a Raymond Scott record such as “Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner” with a recreation of the same tune by Dave Harris and the Powerhouse 5 on the album “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals.” I think that album clearly exhibits a joie de vivre by all involved.

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