“The Duke’s Idea” (1939) Charlie Barnet with Bill Miller and Bob Burnet

“The Duke’s Idea”

Composed by Charlie Barnet; head arrangement by Barnet and his band.

Recorded by Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra for Bluebird on September 10, 1939 in Hollywood.

Charlie Barnet, alto saxophone, directing: John Owens, first trumpet; Billy May, Lyman Vunk and Robert W. “Bob” Burnet, trumpets; Don Ruppersberg, Bill Robertson and Ben Hall, trombones; Gene Kinsey, first alto saxophone; Don McCook, alto saxophone; Lloyd V. “Skip” Martin, tenor  and baritone saxophones; Kurt Bloom, tenor saxophone; Bill Miller, piano; Anthony “Bus” Etri, guitar; Phil Stephens, bass; Ray Michaels, drums.

The story:

The popularity of Charlie Barnet’s band grew steadily through 1939. They spent the first almost eight months of that year in the east. From January 17 until March 22, they played an engagement at the Famous Door, a club on 52nd Street in Manhattan. They broadcast from there frequently over network radio. After that, they played for two weeks at the Paramount Theater on Times Square for two weeks (closing on April 4), to earn some much-needed cash to balance the steady cash losses incurred during the Famous Door gig. Then they played a lot of one-night dance dates with a few weeks at theaters mixed in to keep the band’s cash-flow on the positive side. The band settled down for what was supposed to be a one-month stay at the Playland Casino, a ballroom in Rye, New York, from June 16 to July 16. They were facing stiff competition from the up-and-coming Glenn Miller band, playing nearby at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle. (The Miller band was swamping Barnet because they were being broadcast from Glen Island Casino almost nightly.) Consequently, their gig at Playland was cut short, with their last night there being July 4. On July 17, 1939, they recorded Billy May’s great arrangement of “Cherokee,” and the Barnet band soon had their first big hit record. After that, they one-nightered around the east and into the Midwest, finally ending up in California, opening a six-weeks engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on August 23. (1) (Above right: Charlie Barnet on the bandstand at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles – September 1939.)

The Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles – September 1939. Charlie Barnet’s band would be the last to appear there.

The opening night for the Barnet band at the Palomar was a big one, drawing over 6,000 dancers. Business after that was good. On the night of October 2, 1939, the night before they were to close there, over 2,000 dancers were present.

That night, something happened that long ago entered the legendary lore of the swing era: the Palomar Ballroom was destroyed by fire. Almost from the very occurrence of this event, misinformation began to spread about it. I will not repeat that misinformation here. Instead, I will quote at length from an article written by jazz historian Floyd Levin, who was actually at the Palomar Ballroom on the night of October 2, 1939. (2) According to Mr. Levin, the fire started at 12:45 a.m. “I was seventeen years old, and considered myself an expert on big band music. …During most of the evening, I stood against the bandstand enjoying the thrill of listening to live renditions of the vary familiar (Barnet) recordings that (L.A. disk jockey) Al Jarvis played daily on his radio program. The fire occurred during the intermission before the last set. The master of ceremonies, comedian Lionel Kaye, was entertaining on the stage in front of the curtain that covered the empty bandstand; I was seated on the dance floor in front of him. During his ‘daffy auction,’ he ‘sold’ souvenir matches, napkins and candles from the Palomar Terrace (restaurant and bar) tables. 

As Kaye continued through his routine, a quiver of smoke emerged from beneath the curtain on the left side of the stage. A fan called it to his attention, and he quipped about the Palomar being ‘the hottest place in town.’ But as the smoke increased, he realized that a serious problem existed. Remaining calm, he suggested that we slowly leave the building through the Third Street exit ‘until this situation is corrected.’

As we moved toward the doors, Kaye stayed at the microphone, casually instructing us not to rush. He continued his witticisms and calm assurances that we were not in danger. As we neared the exit, a few wisps of flame flickered beneath the curtain at his back. When I reached the door, Kaye was still on the stage. The curtain behind him was beginning to blaze, and a cloud of smoke was filling the ballroom. He continued to say, ‘Walk slowly. You can all return when this little fire is under control.’ Lionel Kaye continued his banter until the last patron was safely outside. He was later observed seated on a fire truck’s fender, bleakly watching the flames consume the building. (Above left: Comedian Lionel Kaye, who still had his “auction” hammer prop in his hand, watching the Palomar Ballroom burn – October 2, 1939.) 

Contrary to published reports, we were not ‘forced to flee.’ There was no rushing, no panic. No (patron) was injured. Lionel Kaye prevented potential chaos and kept two thousand frightened patrons from trampling each other while dashing for the exits. Few newspaper accounts gave Kaye proper credit for his courageous conduct.

After exiting the building, we stood in the parking lot watching the fire redden the sky, and waited for the fire engines to arrive. By the time sirens announced their approach, the flames were leaping high into the air, threatening several adjacent apartment houses. Shortly after the firemen arrived, the roof of the Palomar collapsed. A quivering shower of brilliant sparks splashed down on us and ignited the roof of a convertible in the parking lot. In little more than an hour, the Palomar was little more than a box of embers. Beneath the rooftop minarets, the darkened marquee announcing the forthcoming opening of Count Basie remained clearly visible in the amber haze.” (Above right: Charlie Barnet surveys his ruined instruments and charred pieces of music in the wake of the Palomar fire.)

Some fifty-five years later, Floyd Levin was able to interview the person who was falsely accused in many press accounts with carelessly starting the fire, Barnet’s bassist, Phil Stephens. As one would expect, Stephens’s memories of the fire were quite vivid. “As far as the fire is concerned, they tried to blame it on me. They said ‘the bass player threw a resin rag in the floodlights.’ I never owned a resin rag! Here is the truth about how the fire started. We heard that a potential fire was averted during the engagement of a band that preceded us (at the Palomar). Their vocalist was seated on the left side of the bandstand next to an electrical outlet. It began throwing sparks that scorched the coat draped on her chair. Fortunately, the sparks subsided. One night about two weeks after we opened, the sparks started again. Charlie ran over and threw a pitcher of water on the source. We asked the management to repair the faulty outlet, but they didn’t do a damn thing about it. And that’s where the fire started the night the place burned down–in that same electrical outlet.

Charlie Barnet and his band on the bandstand of the Palomar Ballroom in September of 1939. Front L-R: Skip Martin, Don McCook, Gene Kinsey, Kurt Bloom, Barnet, Judy Ellington; middle: Bill Robertson, Don Ruppersberg, Ben Hall, Bus Etri, Bill Miller; back: Lyman Vunk, Billy May, Johnny Owens, Bob Burnet, Ray Michaels, Phil Stephens.

If we had been on the bandstand instead of taking a break, we’d have been able to put it out again. They said I threw a rag in the footlights–but the fire started on the other side of the stage, and I was across the street in a bar when it started. The newspapers said, ‘Hot bull fiddle player causes fire.’ That was a lotta crap! (When we were on the bandstand) I was on the other side of the stand on a riser near the piano. Later, a police officer came to me and wanted to know who paid me to start the fire.”

Levin also discovered other evidence that substantiated Stephens’s version of what happened: “Sound engineer Cecil Charles, who was employed by Kelly Music, across the street from the Palomar, recalled servicing the venue’s sound system and advising the management that the circuit was dangerously overloaded. Apparently, as Stephens said, the problem was not corrected.”

Phil Stephens had other memories of that night: That night, during our last intermission, many of us went out the side door and had a couple of drinks at Smitty’s Bar across the street. I ran into arranger Phil Moore and was talking to him. I looked out and saw people running from the Palomar. I said, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ I ran across the street and back into the Palomar. The bandstand was full of flames. I jumped up on the bandstand and grabbed my old Italian bass–it was burning–and grabbed Johnny Owens’s trumpet and Charlie’s mouthpiece, and I ran out. There was a gas station across the street, and I used a hose there to put out the fire on my bass.”

“Soon, we watched the roof collapse. The Palomar was burning furiously, and finally the fire engines came. They had gone to Third and Fremont instead of Third and Vermont. All the firemen did was run in and grab the booze from the bar. We watched them load up the fire truck with all that liquor. Later, the fire got worse, and they tried using the ballroom’s fire extinguishers. Not one of them would work. They didn’t give a damn about the place. They let it burn.” (2) (Above right: Barnet’s bassist Phil Stephens – no fall guy.)

The music:

Charlie Barnet’s admiration of the music of Duke Ellington was well-known during the swing era. Over the years, Barnet recorded many tunes that either had been composed by Ellington or had a Dukish feel. One of the best of the Barnet originals that evoked Ellington is “The Duke’s Idea.” It contains a number of musical devices that had been employed and perfected by Duke, including his own moody piano playing, both in solo and in accompaniment, the plunger-muted trumpet, perfected by Duke’s star trumpeter Cootie Williams, and the expressive alto saxophone, always handled masterfully in the Ellington band by Johnny Hodges.

Critics at the time, including George T. Simon and Dave Dexter, accused Barnet of “aping” Ellington. Others saw his refashioning of Duke’s music as derivative. They missed the point, which jazz critic Leonard Feather (and Duke himself) got: that Barnet Dukish was actually rather different from Duke Dukish. Whatever Ellington music Charlie played, it was always refracted through either his own musical personality, and/or that of one of his talented arrangers. The result was always strictly Barnet, rather than second-hand Duke. (NOTE: CB himself was a capable arranger. However, he rarely had the time to sit down and write a complete arrangement.) (Above left: Charlie Barnet shakes hands with his most consistent musical inspiration, Duke Ellington.)

In the case of “The Duke’s Idea,” we have a “head arrangement,” one that evolved in communal fashion over time in the Barnet band and had coalesced beautifully into the performance we hear here. It was recorded while the Barnet band was being presented at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. I suspect that at some point probably just before it was recorded, the final version of the head arrangement was put down on paper by one of the arrangers then in the Barnet band. These included Billy May, Skip Martin and Bill Miller.

This marvelous performance starts with an eight-bar  piano introduction that features some tasty harmonies and some swinging rhythms, played by Bill Miller. As the first chorus begins, and to enhance to the Dukish mood, trumpeter Bob Burnet adds a few piquant notes using his plunger-muted trumpet (with a pixie straight mute in the bell) against a background of richly voiced saxophones (Barnet on lead alto) and oo-ah brass. (Eight bars.) Barnet then follows on solo alto saxophone, playing against a cushion of open brass. (Eight bars.) The next sequence is fashioned like the first eight bars of the chorus with Burnet’s plunger trumpet in front of the saxophones and oo-ah brass. (Eight bars.) (Above right: pianist Bill Miller. In his post-Barnet career, he worked with Frank Sinatra for several decades.)

The second chorus, for a contrast, has Barnet playing a bit of bluesy jazz, being accompanied a la Duke by Bill Miller’s tasty piano chords. (Twelve bars.) There follows a three-way sequence with the oo-ah trumpets on top, the bluesy saxophones in the middle, and the wa-wa trombones on the bottom. (Twelve bars.)

Then a highlight of this performance: Bob Burnet’s twelve bar blues exposition on plunger-muted trumpet, played against surging, rhythmic saxophones. Burnet had total command of his trumpet, and was a very fine jazz soloist, as this recording demonstrates. His playing here is full of passion. Burnet is not well-remembered today because his only high-profile work during the swing era was documented in relatively few solos on recordings with Charlie Barnet’s band in the period from 1939 through 1941. (Bob Burnet is pictured above left. See the note (*) below for more information about him.)

After Burnet’s solo, the saxophones return with their riffing theme. Barnet adds a few bluesy notes and then Bill Miller reappears with the Dukish pianisms he first presented in the introduction. The finale is an ensemble swell like the ones Duke used on some of his 1930s recordings, that suggest the sun rising as the performance ends.

This is yet another example of how painstaking and focused Charlie Barnet was when it came to making music. Although he made sure that his bands partied often and vigorously, his top priority was always creating the best music he could.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(*) Trumpeter Robert W. Burnet was born on July 16,1912 in Evanston, Illinois. He was featured, intermittently, as a trumpet soloist with Charlie Barnet’s band during a period when Barnet began to enjoy substantial success (1939-1941). Burnet began on drums when he was five, and later played piano and banjo. In school at one point he traded a classmate his watch for a trumpet, and quickly mastered the instrument. He evidently matriculated at Yale for a time, played for a while in hotel bands in Bermuda, and was with Eddie Neibauer’s band in Chicago prior to joining Barnet in 1938. He was in and out of the Barnet band until 1941. During one of his hiatuses from the Barnet band, he led a short-lived interracial sextet at Café Society and Nick’s in New York City. He served in the Army during World War II, worked in the electronics field after the war. It appears that post-World War II he returned to Chicago, and that his musical activities from the late 1940s to the late 1950s were part-time. His last known recordings were with Freddy Wacker’s Windy City Seven in 1957, for the Dolphin label. Burnet moved to Mexico in 1958. In his later years, he sometimes played flute with a symphony orchestra in Guadalajara. He died on August 3, 1984 in Guadalajara.

(1) Details about the activities of the Charlie Barnet band through the first eight months of 1939 come from Charlie Barnet …An Illustrated Biography and Discography, by Dan Mather (2002), 32-41.

(2) Floyd Levin’s article entitled The Palomar Ballroom Fire was published initially in the IAJRC Journal in the late 1990s. Subsequently, it was included in a compendium of Mr. Levin’s writing, a book entitled: Classic Jazz …A Personal View of the Music and the Musicians, (2000), 233-240.

Here are some links to Barnet music, some in the Ellington mode, some not:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/08/11/harlem-speaks-1941-charlie-barnet/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/06/10/afternoon-of-a-moax-1940-charlie-barnet/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/01/21/the-sergeant-was-shy-1939-duke-ellington-and-charlie-barnet-billy-may-1940/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/09/09/victors-24th-street-new-york-recording-studio-cherokee-1939-charlie-barnet/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/10/07/swing-and-swing-redux-pompton-turnpike-1940-charlie-barnet-and-billy-maxted-1967/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2021/08/10/night-and-day-1940-charlie-barnet-with-bernie-privin-and-bill-miller-1942-frank-sinatra-1956-ella-fitzgerald/

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1 Comment

  1. I’ve seen that famous photo of Charlie — the bemused expression, the burned saxes melted into weird, Daliesque shapes, the now useless pile of charts — so many times that it’s imprinted on my brain! What an awful shame that poor Phil Stephens got the blame for that tragic incident. It’s as if someone had been trying to concoct a plot for a B movie. Lionel Kaye was a real hero that night, and we’re lucky to have Floyd Levin’s vivid account of the comedian-MC’s grace under fire — literally.

    With the exception of “The Wrong Idea,” whose satire, however accurate, becomes a little wearisome after a couple of hearings, I’ve always loved the Barnet “Idea” sides, somewhat in the spirit of Clinton’s Studies. Simon and Dexter’s implied criticism of the band was simply facile, merely an attempt to pigeonhole a very talented and distinctive outfit to fill up their widely read columns. Yes, the orchestra’s many treatments of Ellington material alone reveal Charlie’s admiration for The Duke, but there could be no mistaking Barnet’s crew for Ellington’s. In my opinion, Charlie’s band had one of the most swinging and easily identifiable rhythm sections in the business. Though I love Bill Miller’s “cliff hanger” — and, yes, Dukish — chords at the forefront in both the opening and closing of the side, I also dig Bus Etri’s loosely swinging acoustic comping and Michael’s and Stephens’ support in this passage — very groovy stuff!

    I feel that Bob Burnet was among the unsung trumpet greats of the era. A big guy, he was one of the Barnet band’s “Lumberjacks, as the physically imposing trumpets were known. Billy May’s “Lumby” immortalized the section, although Burnet was out of the band at the time of that session. His pungent work on “The Duke’s Idea” reveals that he had great ideas of his own as well as beautiful technique and feel.

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