“Big Beaver” (1941) Jan Savitt with Joe Aglora and Al Leopold / (1940) Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys

“Big Beaver”

Composed by Bob Wills; probably arranged by Billy Moore.

Recorded by Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters for Decca on February 27, 1941 in New York.

Jan Savitt, directing: Jack Hansen, first trumpet; George Hosfeld and Jack Palmer, trumpets; Al Leopold, first trombone; Al George and Ben Pickering, trombones; George “Gigi” Bohn, first alto saxophone; Andy Egan, alto saxophone; Sam Sachelle and Joe Aglora, tenor saxophones; Ray Tucci, baritone saxophone; Jack Pleis, piano; Danny Perri, guitar; Howard Cook, bass; Russ Isaacs, drums.

The story:

Commentators who have written and spoken about the music of the swing era over the past several decades have often reported that the raw material for what eventually became swing came from many sources. It is widely understood that the mingling of jazz and American Popular Song, starting in the 1920s and continuing for the next few decades, resulted in much music that is within the swing idiom. A much smaller source of musical grist for the mill of swing was what is often called “classical” music. “Swinging the classics” was terminology used during the swing era denoting the application of the musical devices of swing to melodies that came out of the European concert music repertoire.

No one in the swing era was better equipped to translate European concert music to another idiom than Jan Savitt. He came from a musical family. His father played in Tsar Nicholas II’s Imperial Regiment Band. Jan began playing violin at age 6 in 1913, and emigrated with his family to America (Philadelphia specifically) in 1914. By 1924, he was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Two years later, at age 19, he was playing violin in the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. That association lasted eight years. In 1932, Savitt formed a string quartet which was featured on radio station WCAU, the CBS network affiliate in Philadelphia. Shortly after, he organized and led a 35-piece symphonic jazz orchestra in the manner of Paul Whiteman on WCAU, which was presented weekly on a program called “Fiddle-isms.” From that endeavor, he gravitated to swing. (Above left: Jan Savitt in the mid-1930s.)

To my knowledge there has been some commentary explaining the influence of jazz and swing on the music that developed in the southwestern U.S. in the 1930s and into the 1940s that became known as “Western swing” or “Texas swing.” There has been little or no commentary explaining the reverse of that phenomenon.  But there was a small trickle of music from the world of “Western swing” into the mainstream of swing music. While it may seem incongruous that a superbly cultivated musician like Savitt, would present music derived from the Western swing idiom, we must remember that Savitt’s musical sophistication enabled him to understand almost immediately whether a piece of music, from whatever source, could be adapted to the style of his swing band. The actual translation of Bob Wills’s music into the mainstream swing idiom was accomplished on paper by, (I think), the gifted arranger Billy Moore. Savitt himself facilitated the relaxed, swinging performance you hear on this recording.

This post will highlight an unusual amalgamation of music from the Western swing band of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys into the repertoire of Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters.

I have no direct evidence of how Jan Savitt became aware of Bob Wills’s “Big Beaver.” But I have some informed speculation about how that may have happened. Savitt and his band, under the management of MCA (Music Corporation of America), were toured relentlessly through 1940, and quite possibly either Savitt or someone in his band heard Wills’s record on a radio broadcast as they moved about the Midwest in the summer and autumn of 1940. Also, in the autumn of 1940, there was much talk and trepidation in the world of swing about the threatened ASCAP/radio boycott which was hurtling toward an unprecedented banning of ASCAP composers’ music from the airwaves. If this were to happen, it would result in a prohibition of a very large proportion of the music in all band’s repertoires from radio broadcast. That would severely challenge the creativity of bandleaders and radio executives to put together programs of non-ASCAP music for broadcasts. It did happen, and the period of prohibition lasted from January 1 to October 31, 1941. (Above right: Jan Savitt and fellow bandleader Tommy Dorsey. During the 1941 ASCAP radio boycott all bandleaders whose bands broadcast on radio had to come up with new non-ASCAP material for presentation on radio in a hurry. Most of the leaders empowered their arrangers to compose original tunes. TD leaned on Sy Oliver; Glenn Miller on Jerry Gray; Artie Shaw on Ray Conniff; Benny Goodman on Eddie Sauter; Duke Ellington on Billy Strayhorn. This crisis resulted in a bumper crop of great swing music.)

In late 1940 and early 1941, creative minds in the Savitt band went into high gear. Jan himself, digging deeply into the music of his youth, commissioned (or wrote) arrangements on “Liebestraum” and “Les Preludes” by Franz Liszt, “Nocturne in E-Flat Major” by Frederic Chopin, “The Young Prince and Princess” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, “Meditation” from Thias by Jules Massenet, “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” by Camille Saint-Saens, and many more. At the same time, he turned the arrangers in his band, Jack Pleis and Ben Pickering, loose to come up with either original tunes or charts on non-ASCAP melodies. He also directed  Billy Moore, one of the very talented free-lance arrangers then working in Manhattan, and a Lunceford alumnus, to come up with a swing interpretation of Bob Wills’s “Big Beaver.” Wills was not a member of ASCAP.

The music:

Billy Moore’s arrangement on “Big Beaver” is a highly refined swing chart designed to show off the impeccable ensemble unity of the Savitt band, and also allow ample space for jazz solos. The bright introduction (listen for the “tail” on the brass after their initial burst) gives way to the saxophone quintet playing the melody quietly in unison with oo-ah brass adding color behind as the first chorus begins. The 2/4 meter Moore used in this sequence suggests arranging wizard Sy Oliver’s (who preceded him as Lunceford’s chief arranger) favorite time signature, and the insinuating moods he so often evoked using it. The tune’s secondary theme brings forth the powerful open brass with the saxophones, now richly harmonized, providing a sonic and dynamic contrast. Moore also changes the meter here to 4/4, for even more contrast. This ensemble passage is a build-up for the very tasty tenor saxophone solo played by Joe Aglora. Hear the great backing he gets from the harmonized saxophones and the oo-ah trombones.

Young Mr. Aglora sounds a lot like Georgie Auld did in his first stint (late 1938 to late 1939) as Artie Shaw’s featured jazz tenor saxophone soloist. He was a most capable musician who found his way into Artie Shaw’s Navy band in 1942-1943, and then continued his military service in that band after Sam Donahue took over as its leader after Shaw was medically discharged. Unfortunately, Aglora did not get a lot of solos in that band because Donahue was such a superlative tenor saxophone soloist himself.

The next tract of music has unison open trumpets, playing rhythmically springing Savitt’s most featured soloist, trombonist Al Leopold, into a swaggering improvisation, also against a cushion of harmonized reeds. The open brass follow for a few bars, and then Jack Hansen, Savitt’s excellent first trumpeter, plays solo briefly, keeping the relaxed excitement going.

An ensemble passage is followed by trombonist Leopold again, this time playing more jazz, in bursts of sound delivered with a growl and a plunger muting the bell of his horn – a most colorful solo. This is followed by a bit of interplay between the brass and the saxophones. Then the reprise of the 2/4 unison saxophone melody played at the beginning of the performance leads to the ending ensemble chord.

This is a marvelously relaxed, swinging and colorful performance.

Al Leopold (shown at left), was not only a great trombonist, he was the founding father of a school of swashbuckling jazz trombonists who hailed from Philadelphia. Those who followed his lead included Bill Harris, Warren Covington and Harry DeVito. After Leopold returned to Philadelphia, he began teaching music, and did so successfully for over 50 years, becoming something of a legend in the City of Brotherly Love.


Here is the recording of “Big Beaver” by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Although many spurious stories have circulated over the years regarding the source of the title for this music, it was actually a commemoration of a place near Shidler, Oklahoma called the Big Beaver Dance Hall, where Bob Wills performed.

“Big Beaver”

Composed by Bob Wills.

Recorded by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys for Okeh/Columbia on April 16, 1940 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Bob Wills, violin and vocal; directing: Walter Earle “Tubby” Lewis and Everett Stover, trumpets; Wayne Johnson, Tiny Mott, and Lewis Tierney, saxophones; Jesse Ashlock, violin; Leon McAuliffe, electric steel guitar; Al Stricklin, piano; Eldon Shamblin, guitar; Son Lansford, bass; William E. “Smoky” Dacus, drums.

This recording is a delightful example of Western swing. The band is driven along by the rocking back-beats of drummer Smoky Dacus. The tenor saxophone solo is by Wayne Johnson, and the trumpet solo by Tubby Lewis. I am struck by how much Lewis’s playing evokes his Texas trumpet-playing neighbors Harry James and Clyde Hurley. Though Lewis was from Tulsa, Oklahoma, he obviously supped at the same wells in the early and mid-1930s as young James and Hurley. Tragically, he died in 1941 at the age 24 of pneumonia.

The Jan Savitt recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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