“To a Wild Rose” (1946) Johnny Bothwell

“To a Wild Rose”

Composed by Edward MacDowell; arranged by Paul Villepigue.

Recorded by Johnny Bothwell and His Orchestra for Signature in May of 1946 in New York.

Johnny Bothwell, alto saxophone, directing: Paul Leichter, John Dillinger, Marty Bell, Pete Carlissi (later Carlisle), trumpets; Dick Kenny, Tony Klenna, Herb Randall, Andy Pastor, trombones; Jack Raffa, alto saxophone; Ed Redell and Marty Carmen, tenor saxophones; John Agee, baritone saxophone; Buddy Eanelli (previously Ianelli), piano; Danny Martucci, bass; Mike D’Aquina, drums.

The story:

Success in any endeavor depends on many factors. Some of those factors are often outside of the control of the person seeking success. During the various phases of the swing era, different opportunities and challenges existed. In 1935, the environment dance bands operated in was vastly different from what it became, say in 1939 or 1940. Then that environment was very different in 1945. There were a few factors that remined constant: musicians wanted to work, even if that work involved endless one-night stands on tours that led nowhere in particular. But by the end of World War II, a good many veteran dance band musicians came to realize that if they were going to attempt to have any kind of settled life involving a spouse, a home and children, they would have to find employment, musical or otherwise, that kept them in one place for substantial periods of time. So they left the bands that played for the most part on the road, and either returned to their home towns, where if the played music at all, they did so only part-time, or they settled in either New York or Los Angeles, where opportunities to work full-time as a musician were relatively plentiful. Still, in order to become successful as a free-lance in either of those cities, the musician involved had to have at least three major attributes: great skill as a musician; tenacity; and patience. It took even the best musicians a period of time to become known to those who employed musicians. That would lead to some work, usually not very inspiring or lucrative, at first. But if a musician was a first-rate professional, those early jobs would inevitably lead to other better work. In any case, he or she would have to be patient and persistent.

The interior of Moonlight Ballroom in Canton, Ohio in the post-World War II years. This facility could accommodate 4,000 dancers. In the 1950s and after, it was frequently empty.

Because of the pervasive racial discrimination of the time, this paradigm did not include black musicians. The best of them found a secure place in a successful band, and stayed there, road challenges and all, for years, sometimes decades. With only a very few exceptions, black musicians were unable to find work as free-lance musicians in New York or Los Angeles during the swing era, or indeed for a long time after the swing era.

There was another factor that was always at play among at least a few musicians, often those with extraordinary musical talent, or who were dynamic performers or pleasant stage personalities. This was a condition known among musicians as “star eyes,” or “leaderitis.” This condition involved several attributes: a healthy ego and a strong desire to succeed were fundamental. It helped if the person so afflicted was also a good musician, and was good-looking, and had a certain polish or ease onstage before audiences. Being a good public speaker was also a big plus.

When the swing era was going full-blast in the late 1930s and early 1940s, many sidemen moved into the ranks of bandleaders. A few of them had long and successful careers. Far more had varying amounts of success, and they either hung on during fallow periods, usually longer than was prudent, or gave up bandleading. As the swing era was winding down, starting in 1945, many bandleaders, including those who had been good box office draws, began to slowly realize that the earth was shifting beneath their feet, and they either left the field, or modified their modus operandi in an attempt to deal with the many harsh new realities they were forced to deal with to stay in business.

Tex Beneke’s opening at the Hollywood Palladium – December 26, 1947. It drew 6,500 dancers, but Tex was riding on Glenn Miller’s name and music. By 1947, this kind of business in a ballroom, no matter what the attraction, was the exception, not the rule.

Generally speaking, the years immediately after the end of World War II were not an opportune time to start a new band. Nevertheless, band booking agents were very persuasive in convincing anyone with “star eyes” or “leaderitis” that if the big guys were leaving the field, that meant more work for new bands. Of course, the fallacy in this argument was that the field itself was rapidly shrinking: many venues were either downsizing their operations, often operating only on weekends, or were closing. One night stands that had during the swing era been separated by one or two hundred miles were in the postwar period separated by four or five hundred miles, often with a day or two open between them. This business environment was clearly not a healthy one for new bands. Nevertheless, among those who had leaderitis, a mood of irrational exuberance prevailed. Fools rush in…

One of the swing era musicians who had a bad case of star eyes was alto saxophonist Johnny Bothwell (1919-1995). Bothwell’s name band career started in late 1942 and into 1943, when he worked for Tommy Dorsey. He then started his sporadic employment as a member of Boyd Raeburn’s band in 1943. From there, he joined Woody Herman, then Sonny Dunham. Then for a spell in 1944 and into 1945, he was back with Raeburn. In February of 1945, Bothwell began making recordings bearing his name as leader for the small Signature label. It appears that those four recordings were made by an ad hoc band at a one-off session, probably to see how well they would sell. They must have sold well enough to merit a second recording session, in May of 1945. But that session was for Guild/Musicraft. Six tunes were recorded at that date, again by Bothwell and  a pick-up band. Johnny Bothwell then spent the summer of 1945 as a member of Gene Krupa’s band.

In the autumn of 1945, Bothwell seems to have resolved to become a leader, but he had not yet decided what kind of band to lead. “The Down Beat November 1, 1945 issue carried a fascinating story that Bothwell was to lead a string section jazz orchestra in Chicago (that was to play) arrangements originally written by Lennie Tristano for a rehearsal band led by Emmett Carls.”(1) This came to nothing. In December of 1945, Bothwell was leading a jazz group that played for a time at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street in Manhattan. At around the same time (perhaps a few weeks earlier), he made a two-tune recording session for Signature using New York studio musicians to back his wife, Claire Hogan, and a vocal group, led by Dave Lambert. (Above left: Johnny Bothwell and Claire Hogan – mid-1940s.)

The January 1946 Down Beat popularity poll listed Bothwell “…number four, coming in just behind Toots Mondello and just ahead of Charlie Parker.”(2) This undoubtedly caused booking agents to lay siege to Bothwell, and encourage him to form a standing, touring big band. By February of 1946, he had signed with a booking agency and began putting together his own big band. It is unclear if the new Bothwell band played any dates in the period from February to June of 1946. I suspect that they did indeed play during that period, probably in whatever ballrooms where they could, to break-in as a performing unit. By May, the band was well enough integrated to record. In that month, they made six recordings, including the lovely version of Edward MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose” which is presented with this post.

The music:

Those who visit swingandbeyond.com regularly know that I am a fan of classic cinema. Although the conventions in American film-making were evolving to a place of greater reality in the period just before World War II, one still finds various anomalies (by today’s standards) in many films from that time. These usually involved what now appear to be lame attempts at either comedy or of comic relief. We must remember that in the years before World War II, vaudeville was still a part of mainstream entertainment. Comedy in vaudeville was often either outrageously broad, as in slapstick, or at the other extreme, sentimental. In fact, sentimentality provides a rather large undercurrent in many Hollywood films from the pre-war period.

Recently, I viewed the 1941 film Penny Serenade again. It was directed by the talented George Stevens. Stevens specialized in frothy comedies in the prewar years, but in Penny Serenade he began to examine the emotional trauma couples often feel when they want to have children, but cannot. That is a heavy subject. The major dramatic role in the film, that of the wife, was played brilliantly by Irene Dunne. Her performance when seen today still has a remarkable ring of truth in it. Her husband was played by Cary Grant. In 1941, Cary Grant was in the early stages of becoming Cary Grant. Although he always had a sure grip of comedy, his comedy became more effective when subtly used to counterbalance the dramatic suave mystery he was beginning to project. In this film, unfortunately, his performance often nears the edge of burlesque.

But putting aside all of that, what is interesting is how the musical underscore, by W. Franke Harling, which is largely undistinguished, utilized the melody of Edward MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose” as a recurring prompt to various emotions in the film’s audience. (Also interesting and dramatically effective is the use of the lovely, but troubled Ms. Dunne playing old records as a set-up for a number of flashbacks that advance the film’s narrative.) Clearly, Mr. Harling understood that music can evoke feelings in the people listening to it.

One of the many beauties of great music is that it not only evokes feelings in the people who listen to it, very often, the same music can and does evoke different emotions in different people. Dealing with and evoking gradations of human emotion is the business of poets, dramatists, and of course, of musicians. The greatest among them are expert at making fine adjustments that can take a performance out of the realm of sentimentality, banality or cliche’ and into the realm of sadness or wistfulness, or a range of other emotions.

To a Wild Rose” is the first piece from Woodland Sketches by the American composer Edward MacDowell. It was completed in 1896. Woodland Sketches, Opus 51, is a suite of ten short piano pieces. It was written during a stay by MacDowell at his Peterborough, New Hampshire summer retreat. Each piece was inspired by a different aspect of the nature and landscape surrounding his cabin there.(3)

In the world of jazz, “To a Wild Rose” was recorded by several artists in the early 1940s, most notably Fats Waller and Nat Cole. It is my informed speculation that Johnny Bothwell became aware of this lovely melody via Cole’s recording of it, which was made on May 23, 1945 for Capitol, and released in the summer of 1945.

MacDowell’s piano sheet music for “To a Wild Rose” is marked with simple tenderness, and that is exactly the way Johnny Bothwell played it on this recording.

The arrangement Bothwell played on “To a Wild Rose” was written by Paul Villepigue, whom he had met in the Boyd Raeburn band. Villepigue was one of several young arrangers to emerge in the mid-1940s with an orientation toward thicker instrumental and harmonic textures, and a generally more complex musical approach than what one usually found in mainstream dance bands during that time. Although Villepigue’s arrangement is not as “far out” as many played by the Raeburn band, it is definitely music that can readily be associated with postwar big band jazz. This is not to say that Bothwell plays anything resembling bebop on this recording. He hews closely to MacDowell’s lovely and memorable melody, and that certainly seems to be a valid approach within Villepigue’s arrangement..

The twin objectives of Villepigue’s score were: 1) to celebrate a great, memorable melody; and 2) to create an appropriate showcase for Johnny Bothwell’s singing alto saxophone playing. Whenever any musician has a lot of technique, be it as a performer or as a writer, that person is constantly fighting an internal battle between showing off his or her “chops,” and using that technique more subtly and expressively in service to the music that is being performed. In this arrangement, Villepigue balances that equation on the side of musical subtlety, which is perfect as a setting for Bothwell’s melodic playing. (Above left: Johnny Bothwell playa a solo in front of his band in 1946.)

The most obvious feature of this performance is the rich-toned but intimate alto saxophone sound of Johnny Bothwell. When Bothwell began being noticed as a soloist in the early 1940s, one critic dubbed him “the white Johnny Hodges.” Although that opinion at first made people curious about Bothwell’s playing, soon it became a liability, as it provided other critics with a reason to peremptorily dismiss Bothwell’s playing as derivative. As is often the case with critical opinions, all of that was not really helpful to anyone who wanted to listen to and appreciate Bothwell’s music.

From my perspective, whatever Bothwell did and however he did it, the result in this case was an impressive, affecting musical performance.

Paul Villepigue’s arrangement provides a balanced background for Bothwell in that it is harmonically rich, yet subtle enough not to distract from his melodic solo. The floating introduction includes the sound of a flute, an instrument that was rarely used in bands during the swing era. His use of sustained organ-chords in the brass and reeds behind Bothwell in the initial melody exposition, and at various other places throughout this arrangement, is especially attractive, as is his layering of sonorities. Villepigue’s use of the baritone saxophone throughout this arrangement provided vintage mid-1940s coloration, and of course a sonic contrast to the sound of Bothwell’s alto saxophone. The saxophone soli and ensemble writing (and brief tempo change) in the second chorus show Villepigue flexing his muscles as an arranger, and providing various other contrasting sounds and dynamic levels. (Paul Villepigue is pictured at right in the mid-1940s.) But this performance is really about MacDowell’s lovely melody and Bothwell’s singing alto saxophone, and they soon return, leading to a tasty, fluttering cadenza at the end.

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


(1) Liner notes for Johnny Bothwell and His Orchestra …Street of Dreams – 1946, Hep CD 54 (1997) notes by Alastair Robertson. Emmett Carls was a tenor saxophonist who was associated in the mid 1940s with jazz pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Basic information on the composing of information for “To a Wild Rose” comes from the Wikipedia posts on that subject, and on Woodland Sketches.

(4) Here is the Wikipedia post (edited) for Paul Villepigue. Paul Fabian Villepigue, Jr. ( July 12, 1919 – 1953 (?) was an American jazz composer and arranger. He was born in Ottowa, Kansas. His most famous composition is “Lonely Street” (1947)  An important source of influence for Villepigue was the music of Duke Ellington (and Billy Strayhorn).  Villepigue played the ukulele as a child, and took up the clarinet at age ten. At thirteen he wrote his first arrangements for a revue at school. In the late 1930s he was active in the territory bands of Allyn Cassel and (as an arranger) Jerry Pettit. Around 1941 he played clarinet and baritone saxophone in the orchestra of Ike Ragon in Chicago, for which he also arranged. He also arranged for Boyd Raeburn, and the Chico Marx band, which was fronted by Chico Marx, but under the musical direction of Ben Pollack. Villepigue served in the U.S. Army in the period 1943-1946, during which time he played in various army bands and taught arrangement. After his military service, he lived with his family for some time in New York City, where he arranged for Johnny Bothwell (1946). After this he moved to Los Angeles where he was active as a free-lance arranger for, among others, Herb Jeffries, Paul Nero (1946); Ike Carpenter (1947); Charlie Barnet (late 1940s into the 1950s); Harry James (1949-1950); Maynard Ferguson (1950). Villepigue also taught for a time at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles. It appears that he committed suicide in 1953.

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  1. Thank, you, thank you, thank you. Not only am I a fan of Bothwell and his music, but I have just been working on this piece in my piano practice. A side note: Johnny’s leaderitis continued into the 1950s, and he is caught on screen with a group billed as “his Highland Swing,” appearing in kilts. If you have a chance, could you forward me a copy of this on MP3? I’d love to keep it on the desktop for a while.

  2. It’s good to see this very fine side being spotlighted. I bought the Hep label’s Bothwell disc back when it came out, many years ago, and was quite impressed by some of the tracks, from that twilight period in the Big Band Era, in which I’m very interested. Although in some instances I find Bothwell’s own style to sound like a somewhat theatrical exaggeration of Hodge’s beautiful ballad approach, I believe “To A Wild Rose” to be a perfect balance of expressiveness and restraint. Villepique’s chart, too, is wonderful — modern, interesting, respectful of MacDowell’s piece and providing an ideal showcase for “Star Eyes” Bothwell’s melody statement. The use of the bari sax, in particular, is most affecting.

    I’m a Golden Age cinephile, too, and it’s almost impossible for me to hear “To a Wild Rose” … or “Just a Memory,” “Poor Butterfly” or “My Blue Heaven” without thinking of PENNY SERENADE and Irene and Cary’s record collection. Also, “Missouri Waltz,” which they danced and whistled to. … Herman Chittison also made a very lovely recording of TAWR, in ’45.

    The Star Eyes/Leaderitis topic is fascinating. I guess it just goes to show that one can be a masterful musician — or masterful anything else — and still have poor instincts regarding one’s financial interests or the work for which one is temperamentally best equipped. Jess Stacy and Ziggy Elman are two examples that come immediately to mind of superb sidemen who, apart from instrumental expertise, were not at all suited to bandleading. To make matters worse, their timing was rotten. Interestingly, Jess sagely observed, “Like they say, when you’re a bandleader, you automatically become a prick. Automatically.” It sounds as if he went against his own categorical statement — but, or because, he didn’t make it in that position.

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