Composed by Tiny Bradshaw, Eddie Johnson and Bobby Plater; arranged by Mel Powell.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Columbia on January 15,1942 in New York.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: James K. “Jimmy” Maxwell, first trumpet; Al Davis and Bernie Privin, trumpets; Robert L.”Lou” McGarity and Robert Dewees “Cutty” Cutshall, trombones; Clint Neagley and Sol Kane, alto saxophones; George Berg and Vido Musso, tenor saxophones; Charles Thomas “Chuck” Gentry, baritone saxophone; Melvin D. Epstein (Mel Powell), piano; Tom Morgan, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Ralph Sylvanus Collier, drums.
The story: Despite being one of the most spectacular clarinet virtuosos in the history of American music, and a great jazz improviser, Benny Goodman’s playing thrived on musical inspiration from the musicians with whom he performed. This is not to say that he could not create memorable music without external inspiration, because he certainly could and did do that throughout his long career. But whenever someone in his band did something that for whatever reason inspired him, Benny’s playing would very often move to a higher level. The names of some of the musicians he derived inspiration from during the swing era is an honor roll of many of the greatest musicians then playing: Bunny Berigan, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, Vido Musso, Lionel Hampton, Ziggy Elman, Harry James, Bud Freeman, Dave Tough, Charlie Christian, Count Basie, Lester Young, and Cootie Williams.
Benny Goodman and his band at The Ice Terrace Room of Hotel New Yorker – late 1941. L-R: front: vocalist Art Lund; pianist Mel Powell; vocalist Peggy Lee; BG; saxophonists Vido Musso, Clint Neagley, Julie Schwartz, George Berg and Chuck Gentry; middle: bassist Sid Weiss; trombonists Lou McGarity and Cutty Cutshall; back: trumpeters Jimmy Maxwell, Billy Butterfield and Al Davis. Guitarist Tom Morgan is hidden behind BG. The man behind Mel Powell is probably the CBS remote radio announcer.
When Goodman organized a new band in the autumn of 1940 after being away from the scene for three months to have back surgery and then recuperate, he found that some of his former sidemen who had been sources of inspiration for him had moved on. Ziggy Elman had taken a place as the featured trumpet soloist in Tommy Dorsey’s band; Lionel Hampton was in the process of organizing his own band. Charlie Christian returned to work with Goodman in late 1940 and through the first half of 1941, but in the summer of 1941, Christian became progressively more ill with tuberculosis, and was out of the Goodman organization by the early summer of 1941. Seeking a new source of inspiration as Christian became more ill, he hired the spectacular drummer Sidney Catlett in the summer of 1941. That ended badly as Big Sid got a little too much applause with his drum solos, causing Benny to eventually fire him.
In June of 1941, Benny was casting about to find a piano player that satisfied him. His pianist of choice in the years 1939 to early 1941 had been the excellent Johnny Guarnieri. Guarnieri was a capable jazz soloist and a splendid accompanist, something Benny appreciated. But like several other members of the Goodman band, Guarnieri left BG to join Artie Shaw in the summer of 1940 when Benny broke up his band to have surgery. Guarnieri enjoyed playing with Shaw’s band (on piano) and Gramercy Five (on an electric harpsichord), and Artie paid better than Benny. But Shaw disbanded in March of 1941, and Guarnieri returned, albeit briefly, to Goodman. By early June of 1941, Benny Goodman had hired a new pianist, eighteen-year-old Melvin Epstein. (Shown above left.)
Melvin D. Epstein (1923-1998), born in Bronx, New York, was an accomplished pianist with great keyboard facility and a deep understanding of the technical aspects of music. He had studied piano since age four with a number of teachers, discovered jazz through his older brother, and by age 12 was leading a Dixieland sextet in Nyack, New York. He graduated from high school at age 14. In 1937, his brother took him to hear and see the Benny Goodman band at the Paramount Theater in Times Square. It was a life-changing experience for the 14 year-old prodigy. He later said about this event: “I had never heard anything as ecstatic as this music.”(1) He spent the years 1939 to mid-1941 playing with various traditional jazz groups at Nick’s in Greenwich Village, learning more about the jazz idiom. His piano jazz influences were Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller.
By the time Epstein/Powell auditioned for Benny Goodman at MCA’s Manhattan office around June 1, 1941, he was known professionally as Mel Powell.(2) Young Powell was in awe of Benny Goodman, and the other older more “sophisticated” members of the BG band then. He got to work with Charlie Christian and Sid Catlett for only a short time, but that was long enough for those men, and trumpeter Cootie Williams, to make deep impressions on Powell. By mid-October, all three of those stars were gone, and the Goodman band was undergoing a personnel shakeup. Lead alto player Skip Martin left BG to join Glenn Miller for more money. He was replaced by Julie Schwartz. The new bassist was Sid Weiss, the new drummer was Ralph Collier. As the new band members settled in, the Goodman band opened a lengthy stay in the Ice Terrace Room of Hotel New Yorker on October 9.
Benny was so focused on replacing his band’s pianist when he hired Mel Powell, that he did not know at first that Powell could also arrange. Soon enough, he found out, and then Powell began writing arrangements on tunes and began creating original composition/arrangements for the Goodman band. Among Powell’s most interesting composition/arrangements in the autumn of 1941 were “The Earl,” dedicated to Powell’s great pianistic inspiration, Earl Hines, which included a joyous chase sequence between Powell and BG, and “I’m Here,” an instrumental tour-de-force. Although Eddie Sauter was writing most of the arrangements for the Goodman band, as 1942 began, Powell was contributing ever more charts to the band’s repertoire. By early 1942, Mel Powell was definitely providing musical inspiration for Benny Goodman.
“Jersey Bounce” is a song written in 1941 by Tiny Bradshaw, Eddie Johnson and Bobby Plater, with a lyric by Buddy Feyne who used the pseudonym Robert B. Wright. Bradshaw was a bandleader and entertainer, Johnson and Plater were saxophonists in his band. Buddy Feyne was a professional lyric writer. Mel Powell’s arrangement of “Jersey Bounce,” as recorded by Benny Goodman, became a substantial hit in 1942. Many other top bands recorded cover versions of “Jersey Bounce,” and it soon became a part of the fabric of American pop culture.
During World War II the title was popular as a nickname for military aircraft, which were being flown by young men who were fans of swing music.
Mel Powell’s arrangement on “Jersey Bounce” is a subtle tribute to Duke Ellington, both as a pianist and bandleader, and his sidemen, bassist Jimmie Blanton, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, clarinetist Barney Bigard, and trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton. In the Goodman performance, these roles are assigned to bassist Sid Weiss, tenor saxophonist Vido Musso, BG and trombonist Lou McGarity. Powell himself plays the Duke-like piano fills throughout. Benny and his musicians do not in any way imitate the Ellington soloists, they are simply presented as themselves, within Powell’s cleverly Dukish showcase.
This performance opens as so many Ellington performances opened, with an aphoristic piano introduction.Here, Powell’s piano is entwined with Sid Weiss’s active bass lines. (Bassist Sid Weiss is shown at left.) The main theme is stated in the first chorus by the unison saxophones, with Vido Musso’s big tenor sound prominent. Notice how Powell has the saxophones begin each melodic phrase, and then he completes the phrase with a spot of piano. The bridge is taken by the descending open brass, answered by the saxophones, plus Benny’s clarinet. The first chorus ends with an eight-bar reprise of what was played before the bridge, with Powell’s piano fills containing handfuls of Duke’s decorative filigree.
Musso steps forward with a rough-hewn sixteen-bar jazz solo, which contrasts nicely with Goodman’s more fluid solo on the bridge, which follows it. Note how Powell uses the muted brass behind Vido: straight muted trumpets alternating with plunger muted trombones in the first sixteen bars. Musso returns to play the last eight bars and finish the second chorus.
The third chorus begins with the entire band perking up to provide a warm entry for Lou McGarity and his burly open trombone for a few bars. Powell then plays a sparse solo on the bridge, followed by a plunger-muted McGarity evoking Joseph Nanton as the band (note oo-ah brass) comes back in for the coda. (Above right: Vido Musso and BG stir things up on the stage of the Paramount Theater In New York at the end of May 1942.)
Drummer Ralph Collier plays basically with brushes on his snare drum throughout this recording. I suspect that he had received one or more lectures from Benny around the general theme of: “just use the fly-swatters,” in the wake of BG’s recent experience with Sid Catlett, Collier’s predecessor.
The story continues:
“Jersey Bounce” was so popular in the early 1940s that almost every band had an arrangement on it in their book. Although bandleader Tommy Dorsey had an arrangement on “Jersey Bounce” in his band’s book (written by Sy Oliver), he asked Oliver to create something new that sounded like “Jersey Bounce,” yet would be a tune unique to the TD band. Oliver mixed elements elements of “Jersey Bounce” with what I think are elements of Ray Noble’s ubiquitous jazz anthem “Cherokee,” and came up with exactly what his boss wanted, an original tune called “Opus One,” which became a mammoth hit for the TD band.
After the swing era, Mel Powell eased out of jazz and into composing and teaching long-form “classical music.” He had a successful career in these endeavors from the 1950s through the 1980s. He was the founding dean of the music department at the California Institute for the Arts. Before doing that, Powell taught first first at Mannes College of Music at the New School in Manhattan, then at Queens College in Manhattan, then at Yale University, and finally at Cal Arts. In 1990 Powell received the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his composition Duplicates: A Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra.
Powell was quite contented to remain rather an anonymous professor in academia because he delighted in surprising successive classes of his students with his profound understanding of and involvement with jazz. Many years after he had left the world of jazz, he told writer Gene Lees: “Very often in class, we’ll be talking about something technical, say (the music of) the Renaissance, and I’ll point out certain syncopations. Then I’ll say, ‘that’s very much like what happens in jazz.’ And at the end of the class, students will say, ‘Mr. Powell, how come you know so much about jazz?’ I will come back and say, ‘the right question is how come I know so much about the Renaissance.’ Then I’ll tell them about my past. And they are stunned.” (3) (Mel Powell and Benny Goodman on the stage of the Paramount Theater – late May 1942.)
Here is Mel Powell’s 1990s reflection on his days in the world of swing: “It’s really so long ago, one ought to be able to invoke a statute of limitations. I played with Benny Goodman for two years, and I’ve been composing for 40. At the time, swing music, big-band music and Benny Goodman in particular were so boundlessly popular that people who made room for it in their lives have never forgotten it. So I get calls from people who are in a kind of time warp, who ask me about this period of my life as though it were the present. But I’ve moved on to other things.”(4)
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(2) According to The Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band – Sustineo Alas/I Sustain the Wings, (1989) by Edward F. Polic, vol. 1 page 678, Melvin Epstein changed his name “legally around 1Feb43.” Since Mel Powell was “drafted in New York, New York on 11Feb43,” it is safe to assume that the legal process of Epstein changing his name had been in process and completed prior to February 1, 1943.
(3) Arranging the Score …Portraits of the Great Arrangers – The Worlds of Mel Powell, by Gene Lees (2000), 236.
Here are a couple of other performances by Benny Goodman with Mel Powell:
Here are links to other great pianists whose work inspired Mel Powell: