“High on a Windy Trumpet”
Composed and arranged by Bob Higgins.
Recorded by Les Brown and His Orchestra for Columbia on March 27, 1946 in New York.
Les Brown, conducting: Al Muller, Jimmy Zito, Don Jacoby, and Bob Higgins, trumpets; Warren Covington, Don Boyd, Dick Gould and Warren “Stumpy” Brown, trombones; Steve Madrick, Mark Douglas, alto saxophones; Ted Nash and Eddie Scherr, tenor saxophones; Butch Stone, baritone saxophone; Jeff Clarkson, piano; Hy White, guitar; Bob Leininger, bass; Dick Shanahan, drums.
The story: One of many great things about the swing era was that the big bands that employed many hundreds if not thousands of musicians provided those musicians with a living while they were doing what they loved – playing music. The bands themselves were a vital part of an ecosystem that included the ballrooms where they played; radio stations and networks that broadcast their music literally from coast to coast; vaudeville theaters where bands appeared with acts of all kinds and a feature film; record and transcription companies that recorded their music; and film companies that included bands, usually not too creatively or successfully, in feature films.
Within each band, a very definite subculture developed that was often an extension of the bandleader’s personality. Charlie Barnet’s band, for example, partied constantly and vigorously because Charlie himself was a party animal. Tommy Dorsey was also a major-league partier, but he kept his musicians working so much and so hard that they were often too tired to party. Benny Goodman also worked his band hard, but when they wanted to party, he preferred to practice his clarinet. Artie Shaw read books to relax between performances (and consorted with movie starlets). Jimmie Lunceford flew (and crashed) his private plane. Les Brown, like Glenn Miller, was a good enough arranger to edit the work of other arrangers to make it better, and excelled at rehearsing his band to get maximum musical results. That is how he left his personal imprint on the music his bands played. (Les Brown is shown below.)
But in all of these bands, and indeed in almost all bands, there was a constant undercurrent of musical creativity beneath the day-to-day demands that had to be met to be successful with the public. The young men (and on rare occasions women) who made up the big bands were all talented instrumentalists. But in each band there were also a few players who could also arrange, or copy out the scores an arranger had made to create the individual parts for each musician in the band to play. Music, good, bad and mediocre was being made, discussed and dissected in these bands six or seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Although the vast majority of effort in all bands was directed toward working with melodic music the public could understand (current pop tunes), often with a vocal chorus sung by a beautiful young woman or handsome young man, there was also, almost always, a proportion of effort directed to the creation of “originals.” In-band originals were compositions, very often jazz-based, that someone in the band created, sometimes without being asked to, so the sidemen could blow off steam in performance to relieve the tedium of playing so many pop tunes. The list of well-known original compositions created by members of the big bands during the swing era is a long and distinguished one. The quintessential in-band original is Jerry Gray’s “A String of Pearls,” composed for and popularized by Glenn Miller’s band. Another such original is “Take the ‘A’ Train,” composed by Billy Strayhorn for Duke Ellington’s band. Both Gray and Strayhorn were non-playing members of those bands – they worked full-time making arrangements. Ray Conniff was a fine trombone player who both performed with and created many jazz originals for the bands he played in. He created “Little Gate’s Special” for Bunny Berigan, and “Prelude in C Sharp Major” for Artie Shaw. (The beautiful young woman who sang with Les Brown’s band, and played a major role it its success, was Doris Day, shown above right.)
Of course many originals were created by musicians who were not members of the band that “adopted” the original, but who played it and popularized it. A classic example of this is Teddy McRae’s “Back Bay Shuffle.” McRae was a member of Chick Webb’s band, but he composed and arranged that opus for Artie Shaw, who performed it, recorded it and popularized it. “Don’t Be That Way” was composed and arranged by Edgar Sampson, who had played in Chick Webb’s band among others. But he sold it to Benny Goodman, who made a hit of it.
Les Brown and his band before they were renowned – 1941. They were posing in a farm field as a publicity stunt. Those shown from L-R: vocalists Ralph Young and Betty Bonney, then Warren “Stumpy” Brown, Abe Most, Eddie Bailey, Bob Thorne, Nat Polen, Johnny Knepper, Eddie Scherr, Bob Fischel, Billy Rowland, Steve Madrick, Don Jacoby, Si Zentner, Wolfe Tannenbaum and Les Brown.
Les Brown led a modestly successful band from the mid 1930s into the early 1940s. He was a clean cut gentleman who was a capable arranger and a mediocre alto saxophonist/clarinetist. But he was also a good judge of musical talent who understood what swing was, and knew how to get tight, swinging performances out of his bands. Among the A-grade musicians he hired as the 1940s began were trombonist Si Zentner and clarinetist Abe Most.
Despite the fact that Les Brown always presented good music played well by talented musicians, his band languished in the second tier of popularity for several years prior to and into World War II. The agent of his breakthrough into the upper ranks of swing bands was a beautiful young woman with a buoyant personality who could sing well – Doris Day (nee’ Kappelhoff).The blockbuster hit recording of “Sentimental Journey “ Ms. Day made with the Brown band in 1944 moved them into the big time.
Brown’s post World War II band was excellent and versatile, and due to their newly achieved prosperity, he was able to hire more excellent musicians. Among the rising stars in this band were tenor saxophonist Ted Nash (shown above left), trombonist Warren Covington (shown below right) and trumpeter Jimmy Zito.
Gunther Schuller was an excellent judge of music, though a less than scrupulous historian. That perhaps is to be expected because Mr. Schuller was a musician, and a very good one, long before he was a historian. But what he said about Les Brown’s band in his monumental survey of the swing era in 1989 is in my opinion very accurate: ” I find it astonishing that jazz histories have so far ignored the Les Brown band and its fine arrangers and soloists, especially since so many ensembles of much lesser quality or consistency are treated with much greater respect. It would seem that to become financially secure and popular with a wider public is still a great liability in jazz circles. But the facts are that Les Brown and his orchestra, once over its shaky beginnings, played more jazz than most and at least as much as many other highly touted ones. Like Basie, Brown evolved a stylistic formula that was broad-gauged enough to allow for variety, that was fresh and modern, yet not complex. Brown’s recordings rarely sound stale or dated. …(Those qualities), allied with a notable degree of taste, integrity, and commitment to jazz (suggest) that the Les Brown band deserves an honorable niche in the history of jazz.”(1)
The music: The title “High on a Windy Trumpet” reflects the youthful, ironic humor of the young trumpeter in Les Brown’s band who composed it, Bob Higgins. It is a parody of the title of the faux-dramatic early 1940s pop tune “High on a Windy Hill.” Originally, Higgins called this opus “High on a Windy Saxophone,” but after trumpeter Jimmy Zito started creating more and more exciting trumpet solos on it in performance, he changed the title. (Jimmy Zito is shown at left in the MGM film DuBarry Was a Lady, where he dueled with Ziggy Elman on the Tommy Dorsey/Sy Oliver blockbuster “Well, Git It.”)
This supercharged performance begins with some fleet playing in the brief introduction by pianist Jeff Clarkson. The first sixteen bars of the first chorus consists of the cup-muted brass and robust reeds stating the main melody. Soon however, the mutes come out of the brass instruments. The saxophones and open trombones spar in the bridge and then the three sections surge upward in the last eight bars of chorus one. Trombonist Warren Covington takes a swashbuckling solo to begin the second chorus, utilizing the methods of the Philadelphia school of rough-and-ready trombone players that included Al Leopold and Bill Harris. Ted Nash swoops in on his tenor saxophone playing an abstraction of the secondary bridge melody before leaping into his high register harmonics, of which he was a master in the mid-1940s. Trumpeter Jimmy Zito is sprung into his high-flying solo by a couple of short, tart fanfares played by his trumpet section cohorts. Zito’s last series of notes show that he had mastered and then used creatively as a basis for improvisation the various workouts in the Arban trumpet book. Pianist Clarkson returns for sixteen tasty bars of jazz where the excitement is retained but the dynamic level drops – a very effective contrast, one of many in this brilliant performance of a most colorful composition/arrangement. (Above right – Jimmy Zito, known as “Zeets” to his musical associates, smiles benignly as a member of the Tonight Show band in 1974.)
The finale is a showcase for a virtuoso swing band playing at the top of its skill.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) The Swing Era ..The Development of Jazz – 1930-1945 (1989), by Gunther Schuller, 759-760.
Here is a link to another great performance by Les Brown and His Orchestra: