“Blue Prelude” Isham Jones with Sonny Lee (1933); and Woody Herman (1940)

“Blue Prelude”

Composed and arranged by Joe Bishop.

Recorded by Isham Jones and His Orchestra for Victor on April 6,1933 in New York.

Isham Jones, directing: Johnny Carlson, first trumpet; George Thow and Joe Hostetler, trumpets; Thomas B. “Sonny” Lee, first trombone; Sterling “Red” Ballard, trombone; Milt Yaner, first alto saxophone; Vic Hauprich, alto saxophone; Maynard “Saxie” Mansfield, tenor saxophone; James “Jiggs” Noble, piano; Jack Blanchette, guitar; Richard Kissinger, bass/tuba; Wally Lageson, drums.

The story:

Isham (pronounced eye-sham) Edgar Jones (1894-1956), if he is remembered at all today, is usually thought of as the composer of several of the best melodies of the 1920s and early 1930s, including: “It Had to Be You,” “The One I Love (Belongs to Somebody Else”), “On the Alamo,” “Swingin’ Down the Lane,” “Spain,” and “There is No Greater Love,” among numerous others. But he also led a very good dance band through the 1920s and well into the 1930s, and made and sold a lot of records for Brunswick throughout the 1920s. (Isham Jones is shown above left in about 1930.)

Jones was born in Coalton, Ohio to a musical and mining family. His father, Richard Isham Jones (1865-1945), was a violinist. The Jones family moved to Saginaw, Michigan when Isham was a child. He grew up and started his first ensemble for church concerts there. 

In 1915 Jones moved to Chicago. It appears that he worked primarily as a composer there in the period 1915-1918. In 1918, he served in the U.S. military.(1)

The first Isham Jones tune to be recorded was probably the comic “Oh Min!” It was sung by Edward Meeker on Blue Amberol 3514, issued in August 1918. Another 1918 composition by Jones is “Indigo Blues,” recorded by Ford Dabney’s band in early 1919, and issued on Aeolian-Vocalion 12097 in April of that year, backed by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Oriental Jazz.”(2)

After military service, Jones returned to Chicago and joined a dance hall orchestra that would eventually take his name. He learned to play C melody saxophone at this time but switched to tenor saxophone by 1920.

The early Isham Jones band – 1922.

The story of the initial success of Isham Jones as a bandleader, and then his progression to a preeminent position as the leader of one of the most successful dance bands of the 1920s and early 1930s, is inextricably intertwined with the development of a culture and business environment in Chicago in the 1920s that allowed live music to flourish there. The key element of this culture was the development of a business model of creating opportunities for musicians started by Chicago bandleader and businessman Edgar Benson, and then perfected and extended exponentially by Jules Caesar Stein, founder of Music Corporation of America (MCA).  From the early 1920s through the mid-1940s, MCA enormously expanded the business of booking live bands from coast to coast. (Jules Stein is shown at left in the 1930s.)

Another major force in the music-business environment of Chicago in the 1920s was the labor union that evolved into the Chicago Federation of Musicians and eventually into the American Federation of Musicians, led by James Caesar Petrillo. By organizing musicians, Petrillo’s union was able to bargain more strongly and effectively with the owners and operators of venues in Chicago where live music might be presented. This resulted in musicians having some job security and being paid more for their services. (James C. Petrillo is shown at right in 1928.) The nature of the relationship between Stein and Petrillo was shadowy, as was Petrillo’s relationship with the Chicago underworld. What is known is that those relationships were very successful for all concerned.

The ongoing development of the industry of making and selling phonograph records through the 1920s also allowed musicians to have another outlet for their work. Several recording spaces existed in Chicago in the 1920s, and were well used.

The development of radio through the 1920s and especially through the 1930s, however, gave a massive boost to the dance band business nationwide. Nowhere was this development more rapid and widespread than in Chicago in the 1920s. “In 1925 people in Chicago led the nation in seeking radio station licenses, with 136 applications. Companies quickly bought time on the stations to capitalize on radio’s formidable power as an advertising medium for their products. Some companies started their own stations.”(3)/(3A) The most famous of these is WGN-Chicago. Those call-letters began being used in 1924, when the Chicago Tribune purchased what had been radio station WDAP, and changed the call-letters to WGN, which stood for world’s greatest newspaper. Isham Jones, along with a band led by Guy Lombardo, and the Coon-Sanders Night Hawks, were among the earliest beneficiaries of radio broadcasts emanating from performance venues in Chicago.

This is a print ad for MCA from 1926, just before Jules Stein signed Guy Lombardo, who would become one of MCA’s most profitable dance bands.

The name imprinted on its early records, Isham Jones Rainbo Orchestra, reflects the band’s engagement at Chicago’s famous 1920s dance palace known as the Rainbo Gardens, operated by Fred and Al Mann. It was located at the intersection of North Clark Street and Lawrence Avenue. Talking Machine World establishes that in mid-1921 Jones regularly played at the Marigold Gardens (817 West Grace Street, west of Broadway), operated by brothers named Eitel. The Jones band toured heavily through 1921. In early February 1921, they were featured in Florenz Ziegfeld’s “Midnight Frolic” on the Amsterdam Roof in New York City. By 1922, the band returned to Chicago, and took up residency at the Hotel Sherman’s College Inn, remaining as its main attraction until February 1925, when Vincent Lopez’s band replaced Jones’s. The Jones band played elsewhere in Chicago between long stands at the College Inn. For example, in mid-1923, they played for six weeks at the new Trianon Ballroom in Chicago.

Jones toured England with his orchestra in 1925, and then disbanded for a time to rest from his extensive travels.(4) Chicago remained his home until 1932, when he settled in New York City. In New York, Jones continued to have success. He was a full-time bandleader whose band traveled, worked at the best venues for excellent money, made records and appeared on radio. But the early 1930s were still a period of challenge for the Jones band because of the economic fallout caused by the Great Depression. Isham himself felt no financial drafts during this period, as he was independently wealthy as a result of the stream of earnings he received from royalties from his hit songs. But he was past the age of forty, and had been a bandleader for 15 years by 1935. One of his young sidemen in 1936, Woody Herman, explained Isham’s attitude then: “He was a very successful song writer the whole time he had a band. I think he was tired of the whole thing, and he was in a financial position where he didn’t need much. He was an ASCAP triple-A writer, and he wasn’t hurting, to put it bluntly. Our last date was in Nashville in September of 1936.” (5) (Above left: Isham Jones pictured in 1925.)

The music: “Blue Prelude” was composed and arranged by Joe Bishop, who sometimes played flugelhorn in the Isham Jones band in the early to mid-1930s. Bishop apparently completed the music for “Blue Prelude” in late 1932 or very early 1933. It was first recorded as an instrumental by the Casa Loma band on January 31, 1933 for Brunswick. The performance heard here was recorded by Isham Jones for Victor a little over two months later. These two recordings gained some popularity, though record sales in 1933, due to the Depression, were at a nadir. On June 13,1933, Bing Crosby recorded a version of “Blue Prelude” with a lyric written by Gordon Jenkins, who was then an arranger for the Jones band, and very soon would become a composer of memorable melodies, including Benny Goodman’s closing theme song, “Good-Bye.” Crosby’s recording, as so often was the case then, established “Blue Prelude” as a semi-standard.

Joe Bishop’s arrangement is a great showcase for the sound of the early 1930s Isham Jones band. This band was renowned for its rich, resonant ensemble sound, aided immeasurably by the sonority of a tuba, played on this recording by Richard Kissinger. The most prominent instrumental sound to be heard throughout this performance however, is the melodic trombone of Sonny Lee.(6) The performance starts without an introduction, but with a cunning blend of Lee’s cup-muted trombone, a clarinet probably played by Milt Yaner, in dialog with the cup-muted trumpet of Johnny Carlson, played atop whispering rhythm for sixteen bars. This mixture continues into the bridge of the tune, but the open trumpets and the trombone of Red Ballard provided the response to Lee and Yaner’s call. The sequence that follows has the open brass, played quietly, being answered by three clarinets. Lee and Yaner finish the chorus with a dramatic octave leap. (Above right: the trombone virtuoso Thomas Ball “Sonny” Lee.)

After a brief transition, tenor saxophonist Maynard “Saxey” Mansfield plays melodically but dramatically, indeed, melodramatically. Mansfield’s playing is certainly adequate for the time. He was one of the most popular members of the Jones band. A young and callow George T. Simon wrote this about Mansfield in December of 1935: “And while on the subject of hot men, there is, of course, the justly famed Saxey Mansfield in the sax section. One of the truly great hot tenor men of the day, though it’s a bit upsetting to find Mansfield forsake his unique style of rhythmic hot tenor, at times, in favor of a more flowery and perhaps a bit more melodic style along the lines of Hawkins and Chu)….” (7) History has shown that Mr. Simon had his opinions backwards: Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry were both great jazz performers on tenor saxophone. Saxey Mansfield was not. To his credit, when Simon was assembling his Sights and Sounds book in 1971, he acknowledged this, with the benefit of 35 years of jazz history as his guide: “I blush a bit when I read this. Saxey wasn’t really that great.” (8)

The Isham Jones band shown probably in late 1932, just before the arrival of trombonist Sonny Lee. My best information (subject to correction) identifying the personnel is: front row L-R: Vic Hauprich, Milt Yaner, Maynard “Saxey” Mansfield, Isham Jones; Jack Blanchette, possibly Nick Hupfner, Eddie Stone; middle: George Thow, Johnny Carlson, Joe Hostetler, Jack Jenney and Red Ballard; back: Walt Yoder, Jiggs Noble, unknown, unknown.

“Blue Prelude”

Composed by Joe Bishop (music) and Gordon Jenkins (lyric); arranged by Joe Bishop.

Recorded by Woody Herman and His Orchestra for Decca on February 5, 1940 in New York.

Woody Herman, clarinet, directing: Bob Price, first trumpet; Steady Nelson and Cappy Lewis, trumpets; Neal Reid and Toby Tyler, trombones; Joe Bishop, flugelhorn; Herb Tompkins and Ray Hopfner, alto saxophones; Nick Caiazza and Maynard “Saxie” Mansfield, tenor saxophones; Tommy Linehan, piano; Hy White, guitar; Walt Yoder, bass; Frankie Carlson, drums.

The story continues:

When Isham Jones retired from bandleading in September of 1936, his band essentially split into two, with one group, inclined to play sweet dance music, organizing under the leadership of violinist/vocalist Eddie Stone, and the other swing-oriented group organizing as a collective band, where each member owned a share of the band, under the leadership of Woody Herman.

With the benefit of decades of hindsight, we think of Woody Herman as sort of an elder-statesman bandleader, someone who always gave his bands strong leadership. But in the mid 1930s, Woody was a young musician (born in 1913) who was steeped in the traditions of show business. He first went on the road as a part of a vaudeville show at the age of eight. (Above left: Woody Herman at age fourteen, when he switched from vaudeville to dance bands.) As a performer, he was versatile enough to be an asset to any bandleader who had to be concerned about entertaining audiences. Here is how Woody described his hiring by Isham Jones: “…when I went over to meet Isham backstage, …he said ‘Do you play tenor’? and I said yes. ‘Do you play the clarinet’? and I said yeah. ‘Do you sing’? Yeah. ‘These guys tell me that you dance, is that right’? and I said yes. Then he said ‘if you do all those things, then I better hire you.’ And that’s the way he hired me.” (9) In other words, in addition to being a good musician, Woody Herman was an entertainer with a bright personality. These qualities would make him a good front man for a band. In addition, Woody was “street smart,” and wise in the ways of the band business. These reasons, and the fact that he was ambitious, are why he was elected leader of the new cooperative band.

Between mid-September 1936, when Isham Jones retired, and November 3, 1936, when the new Herman band debuted at the Brooklyn Roseland Ballroom, the twenty-two year-old Woody Herman married Charlotte Neste, a beautiful red-haired showgirl, whom he had met five years before while working in a theater in San Francisco. They were married for 46 years before she passed in 1982. Woody later recalled that happy time: “We spent our honeymoon on 52nd Street in New York City, my wife and I. We were married in Armonk, New York, and went right to 52nd Street. Beautiful! With no job in sight, I cashed in an insurance policy and we were swinging.” (10) (Above right: Woody and Charlotte Herman – late 1930s.)

It is safe to assume that during the month of October 1936, Woody and the men from the Jones band who elected to join him in his new cooperative band, began to rehearse, and fill the open chairs in the new band. At some point, they signed a management contract with General Artists Corporation (GAC). The new Herman band began recording for Decca Records almost from its inception. Their first Decca recording session was on November 6, 1936. The band successfully passed an “audition booking,” at the Brooklyn Roseland ballroom, and were then moved up the the Manhattan Roseland. They stayed there for a while, then went on the road. Although the new Herman band scuffled through the years 1937 and 1938, they continued to improve as a performing unit. By early 1939, they were a very good swing band. Their Decca recordings of “Woodchopper’s Ball” and “Dallas Blues,” recorded on April 12, 1939, are documentary evidence of how good they were. “Woodchopper’s Ball” was a steady seller from its initial release in 1939, and eventually sold far more than a million copies. Still, overall success was very slow to come to the Woody Herman band.

As 1940 dawned, they opened for an engagement at the Famous Door on 52nd Street in Manhattan. Residencies at this venue, with live remote radio broadcasts, had done a lot to move the Count Basie and Charlie Barnet bands toward mainstream recognition. Although the Herman band was good and their Famous Door broadcasts were good, there was no immediate improvement in the band’s commercial success. Woody and his bandsmen would have to toil in the vineyard for another four years before they achieved great commercial success and lasting recognition.

Woody Herman and his band playing in the Panther Room of Hotel Sherman in Chicago February – March 1940. The personnel are back L-R: bassist Walt Yoder, drummer Frankie Carlson; trumpeters Carroll “Cappy” Lewis, Bob Price, and Horace “Steady” Nelson; to Carlson’s left are: Joe Bishop, flugelhorn; Toby Tyler and Neal Reid, trombones; front row: the guitarist is Hy White; the saxophones are Nick Caiazza, Herb Tompkins, Ray Hopfner and Maynard “Saxey” Mansfield. Woody is standing in front.

The music: The composer of the music for “Blue Prelude,” Joe Bishop, was still with Woody when this recording was made, playing flugelhorn in the band and making arrangements. Bishop, who wrote the arrangement Isham Jones used when he recorded this tune in 1933, updated that chart for the 1940 Herman band. The basic difference between the two is that Bishop added a series of instrumental obbligati to this new arrangement as a recurring motive, and of course,  created a showcase for Woody’s singing, always one of the strongest commercial assets of the Herman band.

The first obbligato is played by Woody on clarinet, as a contrast to the brass and ensemble sounds in the first eight bars of the tune. This was done not only as an effective and dramatic sonic contrast, but also as an identifying musical device, as by the time this recording was made, Woody had been using “Blue Prelude” as his sign-on/sign-off theme song on radio broadcasts for several years, and was then featuring his clarinet playing. After that first eight bar segment, the remote radio announcer would tell the radio listener that they were listening to the music of Woody Herman and His Orchestra from wherever they were broadcasting. (11)

The second  segment of the first chorus, sixteen bars long, has the piano of Tommy Linehan and the plunger-muted trumpet of Horace “Steady” Nelson providing the obbligati, against shifting instrumental backgrounds, first the two trombones and Bishop’s flugelhorn playing as a section, and then the saxophones. (At right: Horace “Steady” Nelson in 1940.) Maynard “Saxey” Mansfield, another veteran of the Jones band, takes the melodic tenor saxophone solo in the eight bars after this. (By this time, although Mansfield, a tall, good-looking man with a brilliant smile, was very popular with audiences, and a part owner of the band, Woody had added a musician to the saxophone section who was a capable jazz improviser, Nick Caiazza.)

A brassy interlude brings Woody to the microphone to sing, something he did from his band’s earliest days until his last performance in the mid-1980s. He was a very good singer, and audiences always appreciated his vocal efforts whether on a moody ballad like “Blue Prelude,” or a manic romp like “Caladonia,” one of his big tunes from the mid-1940s. Here he delivers song’s lyric with feeling, but not bathos, with the quiet saxophones and Nelson’s plunger-muted trumpet behind him. At the very end, there is a brass swell as a final and contrasting instrumental color.(12)

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

Notes and links:

(1) The details of Isham Jones’s early life are derived from the Wikipedia post on him.

(2) The details of Isham Jones’s early career as a songwriter and bandleader come from this source:  https://syncopatedtimes.com/isham-jones-and-his-orchestra/

This source is referred to hereafter as Syncopated Times – Isham Jones.

(3) A wealth of information about the development of the dance band business in Chicago in the 1920s is to be found in That Toddlin’ Town …Chicago’s White Dance Bands and Orchestras 1900-1950, by Charles A. Sengstock, Jr., Hereafter Sengstock.

(3A) Sengstock, 38.

(4) Syncopated Times – Isham Jones, and Sengstock 41.

(5) Woody Herman …Chronicles of the Herds by William D. Clancy and Audree Coke Kenton, (1995), 20. Hereafter Chronicles of the Herds.

(6) Thomas Ball “Sonny” Lee (1904-1975)  was one of the very best trombonists of the swing era. He excelled at playing beautiful melodic solos and leads, and was also a very fine jazz improviser. Lee, who was born in Huntsville, Texas, worked his way through various territory bands in Texas and middle America in the 1920s, playing with among others, Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer and Pee Wee Russell. In the late 1920s, he gradually moved up to higher profile bands. He worked with Vincent Lopez just before joining Isham Jones in early 1933, replacing Jack Jenney. Lee remained with Jones until Jones retired in September of 1936. He then free-lanced in New York until he was hired by Bunny Berigan in the early summer of 1937. Lee joined Jimmy Dorsey in April of 1938, and remained with JD into 1946. He returned to Texas in 1949, working for Columbia Records in promotion and distribution. He continued playing until the mid-1950s, when he gave up performing and entered the insurance business. His death was caused by a series of strokes.

(7) Metronome, December 1935, included in Simon Says …The Sights and Sounds of the Swing Era 1935-1955 by George T. Simon (1971), 57.

(8) Ibid. 

(9) Chronicles of the Herds, 17.

(10) Chronicles of the Herds, 21.

(11) Near the end of 1940, Joe Bishop (1907-1976) was forced to leave the Herman band because he had contracted tuberculosis. Just before he departed, he composed a new theme song for Woody to see him through the ASCAP-radio dispute, “Blue Flame.”  Since Bishop was an ASCAP member, some sort of sub rosa agreement was made between him and his colleague from the Isham Jones band, James “Jiggs” Noble, allowing Noble’s name to be used as the apparent composer of “Blue Flame.” This temporary expedient lasted for 45 years, as Woody continued using “Blue Flame” as his band’s closing theme song until the end of his performing career. This information comes from Chronicles of the Herds, 40.

(12) The brass swell ending Joe Bishop used on the Woody Herman arrangement of “Blue Prelude” in early 1940 (and likely before) was borrowed by arranger David Mendelsohn for the finale of Artie Shaw’s recording of “St. James Infirmary,” which was made in late 1941.

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1 Comment

  1. Very glad to find this informative discussion of this haunting ballad, in these atmospheric and greatest treatments, as well as the Jones and Herman bands as their times. Isham (the pronunciation of whose given name strangely seems to mystify so many) led what I consider the finest white dance orchestra of the pre-Swing Era and is among my most admired composers. His band had a very distinctive sound in the early ’30s — with the tuba’s presence in the rhythm section, at a time when most outfits were switching to stringed bass alone, being one of its most attractive features. Among its best soloists was, of course, the great Sonny Lee. Though not a sliphorn operator who is often mentioned by casual Jazz Age-to-Swing Era fans, Sonny was among the finest trombonists in this stylistic field, equally adept as a melodic and jazz player. The very versatile Woody Herman, too, was a huge asset to the orchestra in its waning days. As far as his own orchestra goes, though I enjoy every phase, with the First and Second Herds being highlights, my favorite period has always been that which is represented by “Blue Prelude,” his “Band That Plays The Blues.” … Gotta say, with all due respect to the talented Mr. Mansfield, Simon’s ’35 comment in which he contrasts Saxey’s hot style with those of Hawk and Chu is hilarious. No wonder George felt compelled to walk that back years later.

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