“Poinciana” (1943) Benny Carter/Frank Comstock; (1970) Billy May/Les Robinson

“Poinciana”

Composed by Nat Simon (music) and Buddy Bernier (lyric); arranged by Frank Comstock.

Recorded by Benny Carter and His Orchestra for Capitol on October 25, 1943 in San Francisco, California.

Bennett Lester “Benny” Carter, alto saxophone, directing: Freddie Webster, first trumpet; Claude Dunson, Vernon Porter and John Buckner trumpets; Alton Moore, J.J. Johnson, Shorty Haughton, trombones; Porter Kilbert, alto saxophone; Gene Porter and Hubert Maxwell “Bumps” Myers, tenor saxophones; Willard Brown, alto and baritone saxophones: Humphrey Brannon, piano; Ulysses Livingston, guitar; Dillon “Curly” Russell, bass; Oscar Bradley, drums.

The story:

Spanning much of the Second World War, starting on August 1, 1942 and ending finally on November 11,1944, the labor action known as the “AFM strike,” and the recording ban it imposed, greatly shaped the musical landscape of wartime America and the history of popular music in the USA then and into the future. The strike was organized and instituted by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), then the largest union in the world representing professional musicians. The moving force behind the strike was James Caesar Petrillo, the dictatorial president of the AFM. It is unclear what the consensus about this strike was among the rank-and-file AFM members, but it was definitely unpopular. The main issue between the union and the recording companies involved the payment of royalties on recorded performances into a union “trust fund” supposedly for the benefit of unemployed or underemployed musicians. Because a settlement could not be reached through negotiations between the record companies and the union, Petrillo imposed the strike on August 1, 1942. The result was a total ban on AFM members participating in any recording session that would produce records for commercial sale. Recording companies feverishly stockpiled recordings in the weeks leading up to the ban, then during the strike combed through their catalogs looking for reissues that might become hits. (Above right: the president of the American Federation of Musicians, James Caesar Petrillo – 1947. Cowering in a corner, his secretary.)

Decca Records, and its transcription subsidiary World Broadcasting System, looking to grab market share from Victor and Columbia, settled in September of 1943, agreeing to make direct payments to a union-controlled “relief fund.” Capitol Records followed suit, on October 11, 1943. Capitol, which started business in mid-1942, did not have an extensive backlog of recordings. It had issued its first few records on July 1, 1942, only 30 days before the strike began. By October of 1943, Capitol was desperate for new “product.” (See endnote 1 for a link to the article that appeared in Down Beat on August 1, 1942 that provides some background for the AFM strike.)

Benny Carter’s recording of “Poinciana” was made only a couple of weeks after Capitol Records settled with the AFM. Bing Crosby had recorded it for Decca some weeks earlier, and it seemed that “Poinciana” was on its way to becoming a hit. Capitol was looking for a pleasant instrumental cover version of Crosby’s vocal recording. The Capitol A and R man (producer) assigned to the Benny Carter recording session that yielded “Poinciana” wanted Carter to record it in a way that highlighted its attractive melody. The 21 year old arranger Frank Comstock, who had been writing for trumpeter Sonny Dunham’s band, but was also writing arrangements on pop tunes for Benny Carter, was given the assignment of coming up with an arrangement that highlighted both the song’s attractive  melody, and Benny Carter’s alto saxophone playing.(2)

The music: After a bright and brassy introduction, Carter (shown at right) steps forward with 16 bars of the melody of “Poinciana,” taken at a perfect dance tempo. Notice how Comstock uses the saxophones behind Carter: they provide a swirling, eddying background that is a most effective rhythmic and harmonic cushion for Carter to play against. The band comes in on the bridge at a low dynamic level, with Carter adding decorative touches along the way. On the last eight bars of the first chorus, Carter returns, and plays  a fluid lead with the saxophone section. This sequence includes a tip of the hat by Comstock to Carter as an arranger – some double-time playing by the reeds. (BC’s lead alto player was the very capable and bright-toned Porter Kilbert.)

As the second chorus begins, there is a sudden change of rhythm, tempo and mood as the trombones play 16 bars of melody forcefully in call-and-response fashion with the saxophones and straight-muted trumpets over a quasi-tango rhythm. Just as suddenly, Carter reappears on the bridge, playing sensuously in the original tempo and 4/4 metre, a marvelous contrast. The entire ensemble then comes in for the last eight melodic bars of this chorus, yet another effective contrast.

A clever modulation sets up the finale – a brief, serpentine cadenza that leads to Carter’s final high note.

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For comparison, here is a recording of “Poinciana” by Billy May and the Swing Era Orchestra, featuring the alto saxophone playing of Les Robinson.

“Poinciana”

Composed by Nat Simon and Buddy Bernier; arranged by Frank Comstock. Transcribed by Sammy Nestico.

Recorded by Billy May and the Swing Era Orchestra for Capitol on October 5, 1970 in Hollywood.

Billy May, directing: John Best, first trumpet; John Audino, Uan Rasey, Shorty Sherock and Bud Brisbois, trumpets; Dick Nash, Francis Howard, Lloyd Ulyate and Lew McCreery, trombones; Wilbur Schwartz, first alto saxophone; Abe Most, alto saxophone; Justin Gordon and Jules Jacob, tenor saxophones; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; Ray Sherman, piano; Jack Marshall, guitar; Rolly Bundock, bass; Nick Fatool, drums; Les Robinson, alto saxophone soloist.

The richly melodic character of Frank Comstock’s arrangement on “Poinciana” was vivified by Benny Carter on alto saxophone in the original 1943 Capitol recording. Here, the role of melodist is taken over by alto saxophonist Les Robinson. (At left – shown in 1944.) Robinson started his career in Hollywood as a studio musician in 1943, and from that time well into the 1980s was much in demand as a first alto player. As a first alto, Robinson played on many recording dates where Benny Carter, as arranger and conductor, was leading the band. All alto saxophonists in Hollywood during that time admired Benny Carter because he was a complete musician. He played alto saxophone at a virtuoso level. He composed music, and he made arrangements for bands and orchestras of all sizes for many occasions, including as backing for vocalists, and for television and Hollywood films. As his colleague as an arranger and conductor Billy May said when this recording was made, “Benny Carter is a great man. (Musically) he can do no wrong.” (3) (Below right: Billy May conducts at one of the Swing Era recording sessions in 1970. To his left in the background is trumpeter John Best.)

Les Robinson joined the fledgling Art Shaw and His New Music band in March of 1937. Shaw, who was himself one of the top free-lance lead alto players in New York before he became a bandleader, heard something in Robinson’s playing that he liked. For the first year of their association, Shaw essentially tutored Robinson in the basic skills and fine points of playing first alto saxophone in a swing band. Robinson was an excellent pupil. He very soon became one of the best first alto players to emerge in the swing era. He was Shaw’s first alto in all of Artie’s standing pre-World War II bands, serving three stints, 1937-1939; 1940-1941; and 1941-1942. In between times as Shaw’s lead alto, Robinson played second to Toots Mondello’s lead in Benny Goodman’s 1940 band; filled in as lead alto in Tommy Dorsey’s, band in early 1940; returned to BG in early 1941, this time as lead alto, and then played briefly with Will Bradley. After Shaw disbanded in early 1942, Robinson made his way to Los Angeles, intent on getting off the road and establishing himself as a free-lance. In addition to making many recordings as a free-lance, Robinson worked on the staff of Twentieth Century Fox’s studio orchestra in Hollywood for many years.(4)

In addition to showcasing Les Robinson’s excellent alto saxophone playing, this recording allows us to clearly hear the various instrumental blends Frank Comstock used, especially in the recurring saxophone backgrounds in the first chorus. Baritone saxophone master Chuck Gentry adds considerable sonic ballast to the reeds throughout this performance. The bright and swinging first trumpet part is played by John Best.

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

Notes and links:

(1) Here is a link to the Down Beat article from August 1, 1942 explaining some of the background of the AFM strike: http://www.swingmusic.net/Big_Band_Era_Recording_Ban_Of_1942.html

(2) Soon after the Benny Carter recording of “Poinciana” was issued and gained popularity, bandleader Les Brown hired Frank Comstock to arrange for his band. In the Brown band, Comstock met vocalist Doris Day, and they established a good working relationship. When Ms. Day began her movie career, Frank Comstock was often the arranger she turned to to create appropriate settings for her cinematic singing. Comstock went on from there to write extensively for Hollywood feature films and television shows.

(3) The Swing Era 1944-1945, (1970), notes on the music by Joseph Kastner, 59.

(4) Lester A. Robinson (1914 – 01/06/2005) was from the South Bend, Indiana, area. He began his musical career in the mid-1930s as a trumpeter in the Howard Thomas Orchestra, a territory band from Fort Wayne, Indiana. He went on to the Hank Biagini band, by then playing alto saxophone. It was from the Biagini band that Robinson began his association with Artie Shaw in March of 1937.

Here is a link to some of the images that have been used in other posts here at swingandbeyond.com: https://www.google.com/search?hl=en&authuser=0&tbm=isch&sxsrf=ALeKk00hCjgwITH_azdHbcuzxE1Im_G7wg%3A1604144229270&source=hp&biw=1600&bih=757&ei=ZUydX7uNDtqUtAbVtbaYBQ&q=swingandbeyond.com&oq=s&gs_lcp=CgNpbWcQARgAMgQIIxAnMgQIIxAnMgUIABCxAzIFCAAQsQMyBQgAELEDMgIIADICCAAyBQgAELEDMggIABCxAxCDATICCAA6BwgjEOoCECdQkitYkitgxEtoAXAAeACAAe4BiAHuAZIBAzItMZgBAKABAaoBC2d3cy13aXotaW1nsAEK&sclient=img

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1 Comment

  1. Benny Carter was a fine trumpet player as well as a master of the alto sax. Here he is with Lionel Hampton And His Orchestra playing trumpet on “Dinah”
    Benny Carter , Dizzy Gillespie (tp); Edmond Hall (cl); Coleman Hawkins, Joe Sullivan (ts);
    Lionel Hampton (vibraphone); William “Freddie” Green (g); Artie Bernstein (b); Arthur “Zutty” Singleton (d);
    New York, December 21, 1939 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ht9HEzXwhss

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