“St. James Infirmary”
Composed by Joe Primrose; arranger unknown (*)
Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra for Victor on November 12, 1941 in New York.
Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Steve Lipkins, first trumpet; Aniello “Lee” Castaldo (later Castle), Max Kaminsky, Oran “Hot Lips” Page, trumpets; Jack Jenney, first trombone; Ray Conniff, Morey Samel, trombones; Les Robinson, first alto saxophone; Charlie DiMaggio alto saxophone; Mickey Folus, Georgie Auld, tenor saxophones; Artie Baker, baritone saxophone. (All saxophonists doubled on B-flat clarinet except Folus, who doubled on bass clarinet); Johnny Guarnieri, piano; Ed McKinney, bass; Mike Bryan, guitar; Dave Tough, drums. Violins: Leo Persner, Bernard Tinterow, Raoul Poliakine, Leonard Posner, Max Berman, Irving Raymond, Bill Ehrenkranz, Alex Beller, Truman Boardman; Violas: Morris Kohn, Sam Rosenblum, Leonard Atkins, Celli: George Taliarkin, Fred Goerner, Edoardo Sodero.
(*) Various sources have identified the arranger of “St. James Infirmary” as David Mendelsohn. I have attempted to either verify or disprove this attribution without success. I have found no information about David Mendelsohn, despite a diligent search. If anyone has information about who arranged Artie Shaw’s version of “St. James Infirmary,” please either post a comment at the bottom of this post, or contact me. Please go to the comments section of this post for some additional information about David Mendelsohn.)
The story: Artie Shaw organized a new orchestra in August of 1941 that consisted of a 17 man (including himself) jazz band, and a 15 man string section. Shaw would be the featured soloist. The 32 piece aggregation was the largest standing, touring orchestra Shaw ever led. His initial musical approach for this orchestra was guided to some degree by the various orchestras Paul Whiteman had led in the 1920s and 1930s. Shaw was a long-time admirer of Whiteman as an orchestra leader and successful businessman. This new Shaw orchestra would play, at first, music written by various arrangers who had been associated with Whiteman including Lennie Hayton, Bill Challis and William Grant Still.
But Shaw also wanted this orchestra, which could and did sound lush with its 15 piece string section, to be able to play music that reflected the developments in swing that had occurred since the mid-1930s. The arranger who was most important to that, at least at first, was Ray Conniff. Conniff had played trombone in Shaw’s previous band with strings for a few months, and created a number of swinging original compositions for that band. Shaw was impressed by Conniff’s work as an arranger whose charts provided the jazz soloists in the band, and that definitely included Shaw, a comfortable framework within which they could swing. Those soloists included Hot Lips Page, both as a fiery trumpeter and as a singer, Georgie Auld on tenor saxophone, Johnny Guarnieri on piano, and Conniff and Jack Jenney on trombone. No matter what else this orchestra did, it had to swing. Key to this was its rhythm section, led by the great drummer Dave Tough.
The rhythm section of Artie Shaw’s 1941 orchestra at a rehearsal. L-R: Mike Bryan, guitar; Johnny Guarnieri, piano; Ed McKinney, bass; and drummer Dave Tough, who was the catalyst when it came to swing.
After a good bit of rehearsal in New York in August, Shaw took his new orchestra on the road for some break-in dates. Then they returned to New York and recorded a few tunes before playing on September 5, 1941 at the Marine Ballroom on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. From there, they were to have toured through several southern states. That didn’t happen.
Shaw, in his film biography (1), told the story of how an extensive and lucrative tour had been booked for this orchestra through the southern U.S.A. When the tour was about to start, he was informed that one condition had been set by some of the promoters: “Hot Lips Page could not sit with the rest of the (white) members o the orchestra. He had to sit not less than fifteen feet away from the nearest white man.” When this was explained to Artie, he angrily told his managers to cancel the tour, which they did. They then hurriedly put together a string of dates through Pennsylvania and the Midwest, ending with a stand at the Chicago Theatre at the end of October.
This new Shaw orchestra really came together musically on that tour. Both Artie and Ray Conniff had vivid recollections of the musical power of that group. Trumpeter Max Kaminsky, who was also a member, told me similar stories. Shaw: “Every once in a while, we would get out on a job somewhere and take a thing like Ray Conniff’s ‘Just Kiddin’ Around’ and go for twelve to fifteen minutes, with the band and the soloists building and building. One night in the wilds of Pennsylvania, what happened was absolutely amazing. We just stared at one another. Under the right circumstances, that band could be absolutely magical!” (2) (A link to Shaw’s recording of “Just Kiddin’ Around” is at the bottom of this post.)
On the Steel Pier at Atlantic City, New Jersey – September 5, 1941: L-R: Oran “Hot Lips” Page, Shaw, Max Kaminsky, Ray Conniff, Steve Lipkins, Morey Samel.
Conniff: “…the second of Artie’s bands I was in, the one with ‘Hot Lips’ Page on trumpet…, one night we played in the Midwest somewhere. The places we used to play sometimes… they were Quonset huts. These metal barracks type things. …. A promoter would get a hold of the materials and put one of these things up in the middle of nowhere, somewhere out in Kansas or Missouri, you know. We’d go in this place and we’d say, ‘My God, nobody’s ever going to come in here.’ We’d be warming up, and about an hour and a half or two hours before the date, someone would come in and open the concession stand, and a half hour or so before the date, people would start coming, and they’d pack the place.”
“Well, one night we played in one of these places in the summer. I think it was in Kansas. I’ll never forget this. I’ll bet Artie would know….. any guy that was in the band at night would remember. The temperature in the sun must have been up to 115 or 120. … It was unbearable. And you can imagine this metal barracks at 8:00 p.m. when we were going to start. It was like a furnace in there. It was absolutely stiflinq and the place was packed. The temperature was so high that all the brass instruments were sharp because of the change in the size of the metal. We couldn’t get tuned to the piano. Artie didn’t even come up on the stand. He was down in the dressing room somewhere in the basement.”
“Hot Lips Page was the first to play a solo. I don’t know what happened, but something he played just suddenly inspired the whole band. Even the people in the Quonset hut, about two thousand or twenty-five hundred of them, sensed that something was happening on the bandstand. it was an electrifying thing. The band started to swing like I’ve never heard a band swing before or since. The people stopped dancing and got as close to the stand as they could. As each guy played, he just played way over his head. I remember when I played it was like I wasn’t moving the slide myself. Everything went automatically by itself.”
“Artie, down in the dressing room, trying to keep cool with a fan or something, could even hear it down through the ceiling. He sensed from down there that something was going on. He grabbed his clarinet and came up on the stand and joined in. When we got to the end of the arrangement, he gave the signal with one finger up and we all went back to the top again. We didn’t even stop. We just went back to the top of the whole arrangement and played it down through again; we all played solos again. That was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life in the music business.” (3) (Above: Artie Shaw’s right hand and Hot Lips Page at a rehearsal in August of 1941.)
The Shaw orchestra worked at least sixteen one-night dance dates through the month of September, then played for a week at the Palace Theater on Playhouse Square in Cleveland, Ohio, starting around October 1. After that engagement ended, they resumed touring, playing at least another 14 one-nighters, until they reached Chicago on October 30 for a recording date.
It had become apparent through the previous two months that this orchestra was performing at a very high level, and that its four-man rhythm section, led by drummer Dave Tough, was swinging as hard or harder than any rhythm section in any previous Shaw band. The musical magic Artie was looking for was definitely starting to cause things to happen in this orchestra. Shaw now had an orchestra at his disposal that was capable of playing the kind of music he was seeking to play, with conviction.
Shaw and his musicians had little time to settle in Chicago (they had played the previous night in Clear Lake, Iowa at the Surf Ballroom), before he took them into Victor’s studio there, which was then located at 445 N. Lake Shore Drive.(*) It was the only time in his association with that company that he recorded in Chicago.
The Shaw orchestra onstage at a major theater – autumn 1941. The jazz part of the orchestra consisted of: L-R: back – Max Kaminsky, Steve Lipkins, Lee Castaldo, Hot Lips Page, Dave Tough and Ed McKinney; middle row: Morey Samel, Ray Conniff, Jack Jenney, Mike Bryan; front row: Artie Baker, Mickey Folus, Chuck DiMaggio, Les Robinson, Georgie Auld, Johnny Guarnieri. Shaw is in front.
As if by serendipity, while the Shaw orchestra performed for a week starting on October 31 at the Chicago Theater, a young arranger with advanced musical ideas called Paul Jordan, through an intermediary (Ray Conniff, whom he sought out backstage), began to bring some of his original compositions/arrangements to Shaw, who was greatly impressed by them. These works, some of which were definitely avant-garde vis-a-vis the music of the swing era, were much closer to the musical concept Shaw had in mind when he organized this orchestra, which was a blend of jazz and “classical” music, later called “third-stream” by conductor/composer/historian Gunther Schuller. The musical collaboration between Shaw and Jordan, which began in Chicago in November of 1941, was unfortunately short-lived – only three months – but it produced a remarkable amount of music and expanded the musical palette of this orchestra in a very interesting way. A detailed account of the Shaw-Jordan musical relationship will appear in a future post here at swingandbeyond.com.
The music: “St. James Infirmary Blues” is a blues of uncertain origin. Louis Armstrong made a notable recording of it in 1928 on which Don Redman was credited as composer of the tune. Later recordings attributed composer credit to “Joe Primrose,” a pseudonym of music publisher and swing era tycoon Irving Mills.(4) Each chorus of “St. James Infirmary” is 8 bars long, unlike most classic blues, where the choruses are 12 bars long.
Though the arrangement the Shaw orchestra used on “St. James Infirmary” is rather minimalistic, it is nevertheless well-written, well paced and colorful. It contains a number of creative touches, especially in the backgrounds against which the soloists perform. Its purpose was to provide an uncluttered showcase for Shaw’s solo clarinet, and the singing of Hot Lips Page in the first half, and then the solos of tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld, pianist Johnny Guarnieri, and trombonist Ray Conniff (using a pixie straight-mute and a plunger),in the second half, before the big finale, provided by Page’s passionately played open trumpet. (Above right: lead alto saxophonist Les Robinson shows Georgie Auld how a passage goes, while a disgruntled (though hip) string player looks on.)
I am struck by the way that Shaw, as always, had this orchestra well-prepared to make this recording. Artie was a masterful and inspired leader at rehearsal. Their playing on this issued second take (as well as on the first take presented below), is excellent. Indeed, many bandleaders would have been ecstatic to have achieved the results Shaw got on take one. Not Artie – he wanted to do it better, and he succeeded with the second take.
Shaw’s first solo, sixteen bars long, essentially sets out the melody and builds dramatically. Then the muscular ensemble topped by Steve Lipkins’s throaty first trumpet, takes the music into a modulation played by the sizeable string section, then into the vocal by Hot Lips Page. Page was not only a spectacular trumpeter, he was one of the best blues singers of the swing era. Here he sings four eight-bar choruses, stamping each one with his strong musical identity. In Page’s first chorus, we hear trumpeter Max Kaminsky playing an obbligato behind Hot Lips, using a plunger mute. In the second chorus, Ray Conniff plays behind Page muting his trombone with a pixie straight mute and a plunger. In chorus three, Shaw adds some dramatic playing behind Hot Lips’s singing. There is also some very tasty writing for and playing by the various sections of the orchestra backing Page in his third and fourth vocal choruses.
Part two begins with the brass leading the way into Georgie Auld’s sixteen bar solo. In the first eight bars, he plays softly in the lower register of his tenor saxophone; in the second he moves into his higher register dramatically, adding a most expressive rasp to his tone. The backing he gets from the plunger wielding trumpeters and the open trombones is noteworthy – another fine touch by the arranger of this piece. Pianist Guarnieri follows with eight bars of aphoristic playing. Note the support he gets from guitarist Mike Bryan and drummer Dave Tough. Trombonist Conniff continues the pensive mood established by Guarnieri, playing the fist six bars quietly into his plunger mute, then ripping off a great two-bar growl (a tip of the hat to Page) to finish his chorus. Shaw follows with a stratospheric solo that contrasts greatly with what was played previously. (At right: pianist Johnny Guarnieri.)
A transitional passage in which there is a three-way round robin between the saxophones, the trumpets and the trombones, all played against a richly voiced set of chords played by the strings sets up Hot Lips Page’s passionate open trumpet finale which includes a cadenza and majestically growled final note.
Below is take one of “St. James Infirmary.” It was made just a few minutes before the second and final take presented above. As you will hear when you listen to it, it is an excellent performance, but it contains a few minor imperfections that caused Artie Shaw to call for a second try.
In addition to the comments I made above about take two, I must add here that the accompaniment provided throughout these two performances by pianist Johnny Guarnieri is superb and inspirational for the orchestra and the soloists.
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(*) The information about Victor’s Chicago studio was provided by Victor expert Joe Knox. I appreciate Joe’s efforts to make the historical record as accurate as possible.
(1) The film biography of Artie Shaw is called Time Is All You’ve Got. It was produced in 1985 by Canadian documentary film maker Brigitte Berman.
(2) Liner notes to The Complete Artie Shaw, Vol. V, RCA Bluebird, AMX2-5576 (1981).
(3) I must thank my friend, big band historian Christopher Popa, for kindly allowing me to use this excerpt from an interview he did with Ray Conniff on May 5, 1983. Christopher Popa and his brother and my friend Jay operate the fine website Big Band Alliance. Here is a link to it: https://www.bigbandalliance.com/
(4) In addition to publishing music, Irving Mills was the personal manager of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway among other bandleaders during the swing era.
Here is a link to the swinging Shaw recording of Ray Conniff’s “Just Kiddin’ Around”:
And here is a link to another great performance by Hot Lips Page with Artie Shaw: