“Tango Blues” (1951) Harry James / Glen Gray with Joe Graves (1961)

“Tango Blues” 

Composed by Harry James; arranged by Ray Conniff.

Recorded by Harry James and His Orchestra for Columbia on April 11, 1951 in Hollywood, California.

Harry James, trumpet, directing: Everett McDonald, first trumpet; Dominic “Nick” Buono, Ralph Osborne, Phil Cook, trumpets; Carl “Ziggy” Elmer, Jimmy Palmer, Tommy Greco and Lew McCreary, trombones; Jack Ordean, first alto saxophone; Mascagni “Musky” Ruffo, alto saxophone; Frank “Polly” Polifroni and Jimmy Cook, tenor saxophones; Bob Poland, baritone saxophone; Bruce McDonald, piano; Bob Bain, guitar; Ed Mihelich, bass; Alvin Stoller, drums.

The story:

The early 1950s were a time of great challenge for leaders of big bands. The enormous changes that had swept across the market for music made by swing bands in the late 1940s continued into the 1950s. Those changes were almost all negative from the standpoint of the leaders of bands who had been successful in the late 1930s through the mid-1940s. The overall number of venues where big bands could work, especially ballrooms and theaters, had shrunk substantially. Consequently, the number of big bands also decreased substantially. The places where big bands could work were by the 1950s much more widely spaced than they had been in the golden years of the swing era, when a band could tour Pennsylvania or Ohio, among many other states, for a month and never play the same venue twice. The busses that big bands used to travel between gigs in the early 1950s were very often busses to oblivion. Jumps of more than 300 miles, on pre-freeway highways, were by then a routine part of life on the road for bands.

And even when a booking agent could line up a string of one-nighters for a band, the amount of money to be earned on these jobs had also declined dramatically. The daily reality for bands in the early 1950s, with a very few exceptions, was: less work, more travel and less money. This was not a sustainable business model. But somehow, in this most unhospitable business atmosphere, Harry James was able to continue to lead a relatively successful band. That did not happen by accident.

Someone had to be “minding the store,’ as it were, and that person was not Harry James, at least it was not Harry alone. Like most musicians, Harry’s main objective was to play in what he considered to be a musically positive environment. Although James experimented with various other musical combinations in the early 1950s, including in what amounted to a vaudeville act with his wife, Betty Grable, where he felt most comfortable was as the featured soloist in front of a big band. For that to have worked as successfully as it did at that time required some ingenuity. Since Harry had emerged from the years of World War II as a major media star (he did not serve in the military), his handlers at MCA were able to place him and his band on a string of good-paying radio shows through and after the War. As late as 1948, James and his band were featured on sponsored network (CBS) radio show, Call for Music, on which he appeared with Dinah Shore and Johnny Mercer. That show ended in the autumn of 1948, and was his last. And since he was married to the top box office draw at Twentieth Century Fox, Betty Grable, he was able to secure a number of appearances in Hollywood feature films. The last of these, in essence, was Young Man With a Horn, on which Harry played the trumpet solos on the film’s soundtrack, and also taught the film’s star, Kirk Douglas, how to look realistic while holding and miming playing the trumpet. (Shown in photo above right.)

James’s commercial recording contract with Columbia Records continued through the late 1940s and into the 1950s largely because of the several million-selling records he had made for Columbia during World War II. By 1950, the people at Columbia were wondering how they could make the James band’s records more acceptable to pop music audiences that were by then devoting their attention (and money) largely to vocalists. Recording sessions pairing James with vocalists, including Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney, produced records that contained some good music, but no real hits.

In the late summer of 1941, Frank “Pee Wee” Monte became Harry James’s personal manager. When he took over, Harry was approximately $42,000.00 in debt.(1) Monte took hold of the operations of the James band, imposed a number of common-sense rules affecting how the band operated as a business entity, and soon the band began to operate in the black. Monte continued to act as James’s personal manager for almost all of the next 40 years. He became a relatively wealthy man in the process, while through the 1940s, James, who was always irresponsible with money, began making larger and larger sums, and losing more and more of the money he was earning betting on horse races. Nevertheless, Pee Wee Monte’s guidance and business acumen were major factors in Harry James’s ongoing success as a bandleader. (At left: Viola and Pee Wee Monte in the 1960s. Pee Wee was Harry James’s manager; Viola, his wife, was the James band’s secretary.)

Among the new employment opportunities Harry was able to pursue in the early 1950s was the then-new medium of television. He had his own local Los Angeles television show starting in January 1951 which lasted for twenty-six weeks. That show, while it paid much less than a sponsored network radio show, kept the James band working and in one place. After it ended, Harry was forced to hit the road again. But his management was constantly seeking other work, be it on television or increasingly in Las Vegas, that would reduce the number of days the band had to spend touring. A good bit of Harry’s work was with Betty Grable, who was still an undeniably strong box office draw. That was pretty much the plan James followed through the 1950s. (2)

A print ad for a TV show on which Harry James appeared with his wife, Betty Grable, in the mid-1950s. Throughout the 50s Harry was able to keep working on well-paying, high-profile jobs because of the continuing popularity of his wife, and her advocacy on his behalf.

The music:

Harry James’s musical collaboration with arranger Ray Conniff had started in 1945. In the post-war years, Conniff contributed a string of excellent mainstream swing arrangements to the James band. By 1951, the James-Conniff relationship was nearing its end simply because both men wanted to move in different musical directions. Harry had been flirting with bop for some time, and was certainly capable of playing it. But his audiences were not very receptive when he did. Conniff did not feel musically comfortable in the bop idiom. Moreover, various producers at Columbia Records were employing him more frequently to write arrangements for pop vocalists who were contracted to Columbia. Gradually, Conniff increased his commitment to Columbia Records and decreased his commitment to Harry James. The Conniff-Columbia relationship evolved through the 1950s until Conniff became the leader of his own pop-oriented instrumental/vocal group on Columbia, one that would over the next two decades become and remain extremely successful.

Conniff’s arrangement on “Tango Blues” is ingenious and colorful. The tango rhythm is established from the downbeat, and is maintained throughout this performance. After a quiet introduction that includes piano, guitar and bass, along with a low-pitched ostinato played by the baritone saxophone, we hear the trumpets in Harmon mutes setting forth a bluesy melody, with the open trombones providing dramatic punctuations. Then the saxophones, rising dynamically into a burst of open brass, provide a piquant sequence. Notice how Conniff has incorporated a subtle quasi-bop figure in the brass here, alternating it with powerful brass bursts. The ensemble then falls away.

The rhythm instruments follow providing a quite contrast, continuing the tango rhythm, setting-up James’s dramatic entry on open trumpet. Harry’s playing here is brilliant: He starts in the medium high register, then works his way down into the lower register of his trumpet. Trumpet aficionados will savor how he articulates his notes while in the nether reaches of his horn. He finishes his solo by moving out of the depths back into his middle and higher registers before descending again to a fat low note. Rhythmically, James’s solo is a superb example of how to play the trumpet at a virtuoso level, while swinging compellingly.

A brassy tutti clears the way for tenor saxophonist Frank “Polly” Polifroni to play a fluid, swinging twelve bars of blues, during which he leans into the beat. His solo is followed by another quiet sequence where the tango rhythm undergirds the saxophone quintet playing a bluesly riff quietly. This is followed by the contrasting open brass, with James now playing lead trumpet, blasting through the finale. A boppish coda wraps up this moving performance.

I must thank swingandbeyond.com friend Chuck Par-Due for the Harry James recording of “Tango Blues” I used as a source for this classic performance. I took that recording and did a good bit of digital remastering on it to make it a bit more vivid sounding before presenting it with this post.

“Tango Blues”

Recorded by Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra for Capitol in December of 1961 in Hollywood.

Glen Gray, directing: Conrad Gozzo, first trumpet; Clarence “Shorty” Sherock, Mannie Klein, Uan Rasey and Joe Graves, trumpets; Si Zentner, Milt Bernhart, Francis “Joe” Howard and Lew McCreary, trombones; Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, first alto saxophone; Abe Most, alto saxophone; Plas Johnson and Irving “Babe” Russin, tenor saxophones; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; Ray Sherman, piano, Jack Marshall, guitar; Meyer “Mike” Rubin, bass; Irv Cottler, drums.

The music:

The decade after Harry James made his recording of “Tango Blues” encompassed the arrival of stereophonic sound in the commercial record market. To capitalize on that technical advance, Capitol Records, always friendly to the sounds of swing in the 1940s and 1950s, launched a program of swing era recordings performed by veterans of many of the bands of the swing era in the late 1950s. That project was produced by Dave Cavanaugh, and the recording sessions were conducted by swing era bandleader Glen Gray. The level of performance on the various Glen Gray Capitol LPs was very high, and the sound quality was superb. All the musicians involved turned in a great job.

This homage to Harry James is an excellent example of those things. It presents every musical detail of the of the 1951 James performance in bold relief. In the introduction, we hear clearly the insistent tango rhythm, maintained by the piano, bass, guitar and drums, abetted by the sonorous ostinato played by baritone saxophone master Chuck Gentry. As the first chorus begins, we are able to hear the crisp sonority of the Harmon-muted trumpets, punctuated by blasts from the open trombones, as the insistent tango rhythm established in the introduction continues. (Above right: Chuck Gentry – early 1960s.)

The upward saxophone passage that ends in the explosion of brass is yet another example of the impeccable playing on this recording. The contrasting quiet tract after this reorients the listener to the underlying tango rhythm. Trumpet virtuoso Joe Graves then plays a superlative reconstruction of James’s solo on the original recording of “Tango Blues.” He not only plays the notes that Harry played, his sound is remarkably similar to Harry’s. Plas Johnson’s tenor saxophone solo after the ascending tutti is delivered with his usual strength and massive sound. The contrasting quiet passage after sets up the explosive finale, where Joe Graves takes the trumpet lead from Conrad Gozzo to impart just the right Jamesian flavor to it. (At left: Joe Graves in 1969.)

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

Notes and links:

(1)Trumpet Blues …The Life of Harry James, by Peter J. Levinson (1999), 99-100.

(2) Many of the details about Harry James’s work in the late 1940s and through the 1950s come from Trumpet Blues …The Life of Harry James, by Peter J. Levinson (1999), 163-193.

Here is a link to Harry James’s romping recording of “The Beaumont Ride,” one of Harry’s earliest collaborations with arranger Ray Conniff: https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/07/28/the-beaumont-ride-1945-harry-james-ray-conniff/

Here is a link to a recording that presented the James band with strings, and then a later homage conducted by Billy May with Joe Graves on trumpet: https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/11/28/autumn-serenade-1945-harry-james-billy-may-1971-billy-may-and-joe-graves/

Finally, here is a link to one of the early recordings James made as a bandleader: https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/01/10/im-in-the-market-for-you-1939-harry-james/

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