“Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”
Composed by Richard Rodgers; probably arranged by Charlie Albertine.
Recorded by Les Elgart and His Orchestra for Columbia on August 30, 1960 in New York.
Personnel unknown. Les Elgart on trumpet. The other musicians are likely Manhattan studio musicians. Les Elgart used three trumpets, three trombones including a bass trombone, four saxophones (two altos a tenor and a baritone), guitar, bass, drums, a conga drum and bongos in this performance.(1)
Those of you who visit swingandbeyond.com know that I have carried on a continuing love affair with New York City since I first visited there as a callow seventeen year old in April of 1968. Since then, I have been to New York many times, and have always found something new to appreciate about the city. The year 2020 was the first year in the last dozen when I haven’t been to New York. I was fortunate enough to visit Manhattan in June of 2021 for the first time in nineteen months. The residue of the COVID-19 pandemic is still apparent in the city, especially in the various outdoor dining/drinking/socializing venues that are to be seen and used with exuberance almost everywhere. I found the spirit, vitality, creativity and humor of New Yorkers to be as strong as ever.
When I flew into New York, the plane I was on approached La Guardia airport from the south. That approach began by flying over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and Brooklyn, before the descent and landing in Queens. While we were flying over Brooklyn and Queens, I looked out the window and marveled (as always) at the incredible skyline of Manhattan. But I noticed something new: a mass of towering skyscrapers in the Midtown west area. As soon as I arrived at my son’s apartment, I asked him about that. He said it was the new Hudson Yards development, and that we would be going there during my visit. I did go there on a couple of occasions with my daughter and son, and it blew my mind. [Above left: 30 Hudson Yards – the north tower, with The Edge observation deck, including its clear glass floor panel, protruding as an open deck from the 100th floor of the building. All photos in this post of Manhattan scenes are by Mike Zirpolo – June 2021. This is new Tenth Avenue.]
The Hudson Yards development is on the West Side of Midtown Manhattan, bounded roughly by 30th Street and Chelsea on the south, 43rd Street and Hell’s Kitchen on the north, the West Side Highway on the west, and Eighth Avenue on the east. It is centered on Tenth Avenue. In all of my previous visits to Manhattan, I have found Tenth Avenue to be a rather unimpressive thoroughfare. That has now changed dramatically with the ongoing development of the Hudson Yards district. What hasn’t changed is that every time I am on Tenth Avenue, I think of a certain melody by Richard Rodgers.
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is a ballet with music by Richard Rodgers and original choreography by George Balanchine. It first appeared in the 1936 Rodgers and (Lorenz) Hart Broadway show On Your Toes. This ballet sequence occurs near the end of the play. It is danced while the narrative advances with one dancer, who has fallen in love with a dance hall girl, being shot and killed by her jealous lover, who is in turn shot by the dancer.
The ballet sequence is integrated into the plot of the play by the device of having two gangsters watching it from box seats in the theater in which it is staged. (Above right: Tenth Avenue in Manhattan looking south from 57th Street in June of 2021.)
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was danced by Ray Bolger and Tamara Geva in the original stage production of On Your Toes, and by Eddie Albert and Vera Zorina in the later film version. In Words and Music, the 1948 Technicolor film biography of Rodgers and Hart, the ballet was danced by Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen, with a somewhat revised, more tragic storyline, and new choreography by Kelly. (In Kelly’s version, the boyfriend, in addition to killing the dance hall girl, also kills the hoofer).
The first television performance of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was on NBC’s Garroway at Large program in 1950 or 1951, with the NBC Chicago studio orchestra under the direction of Joseph Gallichio. (Above left: another view of Tenth Avenue in the middle west 50s. This is the old Tenth Avenue.)
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue entered the repertoire of the New York City Ballet in 1968, first danced by Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell.(2)
The music: I have always been fascinated by the bold music of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and also by Richard Rodgers’s use of “slaughter,” a traumatic word to be sure, in its title. But Rodgers’s music is anything but traumatic. It is brightly rhythmic and perfect for expressive balletic dancing, or indeed any other kind of dancing.
Les Elgart, who had established his band as a solid, middle-of-the-road dance band in the early 1950s, began an association with Columbia Records in 1953. His younger brother, Larry Elgart, was a member of Les’s band, and played lead alto saxophone and solos in that band. It has also been reported that Larry was the musical director of the band, and had been largely responsible for developing the band’s musical style. Nevertheless, the band with Larry in it continued to be billed as “Les Elgart and His Orchestra” until as late as 1957. Larry Elgart was not in the band in 1960 when this recording was made, as he had left to form his own band in early 1958, lured away by RCA Victor to record on that label in what amounted to direct competition with his brother. Larry and his band were on the road starting in 1958 until September of 1963, when he rejoined Les. During the period when he was on his own, Larry recorded for MGM in addition to RCA Victor. Les meanwhile continued to record through this period for Columbia. Consequently, the designation “Les Elgart and His Orchestra” was on the album cover of the LP on which this recording first appeared, Half Latin Half Satin, Columbia CS 8367.(3)
The arrangement of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” we hear in this recording is pure swing. It is carried along on what in the late 1950s was called a “cha-cha” beat, and is very well put together. After a bright, brassy fanfare introduction, the Elgart musicians jump into the first chorus of Richard Rodgers’s melody with a rhythmic intensity that recognizes and celebrates this tune’s origin as music for a ballet, albeit one that in this iteration has a distinctly Caribbean flavor. The bass trombone creates the rhythmic bottom in this sequence while the clipped trumpets create the melodic top. A tenor saxophone soloist appears in the last four bars of this sequence to add a piquant jazz obbligato. This pattern continues in the second eight bar sequence. I wish I could identify that tenor saxophonist because his playing enhances the ensemble, and swings nicely.
The bridge has the saxophones playing the secondary melody twice, answered each time rhythmically by the trombones, with the bass trombone prominent.
Then there is an ensemble transition that keeps the mood (and swing) of the piece strong. The next sequence has the open brass carrying the melody, answered by the rhythmic saxophones, with the baritone saxophone creating the sonic bottom, and the tenor saxophone reappearing briefly. The overall register of the music is moving upward in this passage.
The finale spots the open trumpets on top with the melody, the rhythmic saxophones below, and a lovely trombone counterline. Whoever wrote this arrangement clearly had great skill.
(For comments about the technical aspects of this recording, see note 4 below.)
A bit more story: The area where the new Hudson Yards project is now is the same area where at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company developed as a private project (meaning the Railroad paid for it with its own money), including the historic tunnels from New Jersey into Manhattan under the Hudson River, and then from Manhattan to Long Island under the East River, to connect the PRR rail network to the magnificent newly built Pennsylvania Station. That majestic edifice, which was located between Seventh Avenue and Eighth Avenue and West 31st and 33rd Streets, was formally opened in late 1910. This entire project was mammoth and involved great risk on many levels, including financial. It is one of the more inspirational stories to emerge from the late Guilded Age, when the president of the PRR during this project, Alexander Cassatt, a visionary, a canny businessman, and a cultivated human being, wanted to develop this project to make the life of people traveling into and out of New York City more pleasant, indeed edifying. Unfortunately, he died before he could see it completed. But his vision paid handsome dividends for future generations of travelers, as well as for shareholders of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.
Everything about this project, including the profits it was able to generate, exceeded expectations until 1946. From that year forward, losses began to occur. A number of short-sighted business decisions were made by PRR executives throughout the 1950s that ultimately resulted in the demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 1963. Incredibly, this structure, hailed as an architectural and transportation masterpiece, survived for only 53 years. Its demolition has rightly been described as an act of cultural terrorism, and it inspired what has become the movement in the United Stares to preserve cultural landmarks.
The less said the better about the structures that are now on the old Penn Station site, including the rail station. Anyone who has ever gone through that facility will find much in common there with what is described in Dante’s Inferno, especially the part called The Vestibule of Hell. (Above right: parked passenger train cars west of Hudson Yards – June of 2021. They are a reminder of the history of the Hudson Yards area, which deeply involved passenger rail travel.)
One of the ideas floated when Cassatt was struggling with the never-ending challenges of building the Penn Station/tunnels project was to erect a hotel atop the rail station. Cassatt, who was a man of great tact and patience, angrily swept aside this idea, because he immediately understood that it would uglify and destroy the architectural character of Penn Station. Not incidentally, this scheme would have reduced the number of tracks coming into the station. Instead, Cassatt green-lighted the acquisition of land across Seventh Avenue form Penn Station. The hotel, which would be named the Pennsylvania Hotel, was erected there, opening in 1919. It was connected to Penn Station by subterranean walkway tunnels. (Above left: the grand entrance on the east side of Pennsylvania Station in about 1917. The excavation across Seventh Avenue is for what would become the Pennsylvania Hotel.)
As this is written, the Pennsylvania Hotel, which was the site of much music-making during the swing era, is closed, and scheduled to be razed.
Notes and links:
(1) There is unfortunately a paucity of information about the Les Elgart band personnel through the first eight months of 1960. That is why I have presented none in the post above. The arrangement played in this recording was probably written by Charlie Albertine, though John Bainbridge, Al Ham and Roger Middleton were also writing for the Les Elgart band then.
(2) Much of the information about the original Broadway production of On Your Toes, and the various Hollywood film follow-ups comes from the Wikipedia post on Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.
(3) Les and Larry Elgart and their Orchestras, by Richard F. Palmer and Charles Garrod, 16.
(4) I exert every reasonable effort to present the music included in each post here at swingandbeyond.com with both the best possible source recording, digitally remastered by me for optimal sound quality, along with relevant information about the musicians who made the recording. In the case of the Les Elgart recording of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” I was frustrated on both counts. I have been unable to locate a source recording that has not been bathed in excessive reverb by Columbia’s producers. This practice, which I have always considered to be an act of vandalism against the music, seems to have started sometime in the 1950s, and continued on many record labels, through the 1960s. I tried, using the various digital tools at my disposal, to minimize the reverb on this recording. I failed to do so because reduction of the excessive reverb also distorted the music. The music, recorded with care by Columbia’s recording engineers probably at its 30th Street Manhattan studio, is thus buried under a blanket of reverb.
Below are a couple of links to more music in the Elgart manner, in bands led by Larry Elgart:
Here is a link to more music, stories and images of Manhattan: