“My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice”
Composed by Camille Saint-Saens; arranged by Billy Moore.
Recorded by Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters for Decca on December 23, 1940 in New York.
Jan Savitt, directing: Jack Hansen, first trumpet; George Hosfeld and Jack Palmer, trumpets; Al Leopold, first trombone; Ben Pickering and Al George, trombones; George “Gigi” Bohn, first alto saxophone; Ted Duane, alto saxophone; Fran Ludwig and Eddie Clausen, tenor saxophones; Ray Tucci, baritone saxophone; Jack Pleis, piano; Danny Perri, guitar; Howard Cook, bass; Russ Isaacs, drums.
For myriad reasons, I never had the opportunity to spend much time in Philadelphia until recently. When circumstances presented me with the opportunity to go there and spend four days, I took it. I found myself billeted in a very nice hotel downtown on Market Street a couple of blocks east of Philadelphia’s historic City Hall. The person I went with had professional commitments all day each day, and that left me with a lot of time to walk around and explore. In the evenings, we had dinner with friends and colleagues. It was a delightful visit.
I got a map of downtown Philadelphia and oriented myself quickly. In the center of things is City Hall, a massive old structure in the Second Empire style, which was completed in 1901 after thirty years of construction. Its 538 foot tall clock tower, with a statue of William Penn on top, is a Philadelphia landmark. Built of brick, white marble, and limestone, Philadelphia City Hall is the world’s largest free-standing masonry building and was the world’s tallest habitable building upon its completion. This structure was built without a steel skeleton, something of a throwback because when it was built the age of steel-skeleton skyscrapers had already begun. City Hall is a masonry building whose enormous weight is borne by granite and brick walls, some of which are up to 22 feet thick. The principal exterior materials are limestone, granite and marble. In the 1950s, Philadelphia city council investigated tearing down City Hall and erecting a new building elsewhere. They found that the demolition costs of this fort-like structure would have bankrupted the city due to the building’s masonry construction. I’m glad it has survived. It is unique and a quintessential part of Philadelphia. (1) (Above right: the north side of Philadelphia City Hall, looking south.)
After having gotten my bearings at City Hall, I headed east on Market Street, looking for the Earle Theater, which was on the southeast corner of the intersection of Market and 11th Street. That theater was a top venue for presenting big bands during the swing era. When I arrived at that intersection, I found no Earle Theater. Instead, I found a most unprepossessing squat two-story structure housing a couple of retail establishments. I took a picture of it. I then positioned myself in the exact place on Market Street looking west where I knew a certain historic photo had been taken some 84 years previously, and took another picture. (See note 2 below.) (Above left: the site of the historic Earle Theater – April 2, 2022.)
I was disappointed but not surprised that the Earle Theater was no longer in existence. Real estate in crowded urban areas is valuable, and old theaters that have not been repurposed as modern entertainment venues simply cannot occupy space that can be put to what is usually a higher economic use. What did surprise me was that what replaced the Earle Theater was hardly a money generator on the scale of the skyscrapers surrounding it. I’m sure there is an interesting story behind that.(2)
I then walked back toward City Hall, and south on Broad Street, which has been renamed The Avenue of the Arts in the area roughly between Walnut and Pine Streets, where a number of historic and more recent buildings house various performance spaces and cultural institutions. On a few blocks within the Avenue of the Arts, I noticed plaques set into the sidewalks on both sides of Broad Street, celebrating Philadelphia musicians and others in the entertainment business “…whose outstanding achievements have significantly enhanced the quality of our cultural lives and the reputation of our city.” Philadelphians are rightly proud of their heritage as a center of musical excellence and hotbed of musical talent. I am strongly in favor of civic pride – it makes for vital communities. I walked along both sides of the Walk of Fame and looked at each plaque. Many famous names are there, and some that are not so famous, at least not to me. Nevertheless, they are famous in Philadelphia, and that’s what counts.
One name I did not see on a plaque on the Walk of Fame was Jan Savitt’s, surely one of Philadelphia’s more accomplished and famous musicians. I think that Jan Savitt’s career in Philadelphia in music and radio the 1920s and 1930s, and then as a nationally famous bandleader fits perfectly within the criteria set forth on the plaque pictured above. (In the 1940s, Savitt worked with Frank Sinatra.) In addition, he provided a national showcase for many Philadelphia singers and musicians, including Carlotta Dale, George “Bon Bon” Tunnell, Al Leopold and Eddie Clausen. I respectfully request that those who consider which names should appear on the Walk of Fame take whatever steps are necessary to have Jan Savitt’s name included very soon in that prestigious walk.
In the autumn of 1940, there was much talk and trepidation in the world of swing about the threatened ASCAP/radio boycott, which was hurtling toward an unprecedented banning of ASCAP composers’ music from the airwaves. If this were to happen, it would result in a prohibition of a very large proportion of the music in all band’s repertoires from being broadcast on radio. That would severely challenge the creativity of bandleaders and radio executives to hurriedly put together programs of non-ASCAP music for broadcasts.
It did happen, and the period of prohibition lasted from January 1 to October 31, 1941. One unintended consequence of this situation was that the leaders of swing bands turned their arrangers, almost all of whom were not ASCAP members, loose to either compose new original compositions, or to dress-up “classical” music themes in the bright garb of swing. Much very worthwhile and memorable non-ASCAP music in the swing idiom resulted.
At the time Jan Savitt recorded “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice,” from the opera Samson and Delilah by Camille Saint-Saens, the rush was on for swing bands to pad their repertoires with music not within the ASCAP catalog. Indeed, of the eight tunes Savitt recorded on December 22 and 23, 1940, six were “classical” themes retooled for performance by Savitt’s swing band, the other two were original jazz compositions by arranger Billy Moore, who was then collaborating with Savitt, and who was not a member of ASCAP.
Moore’s arrangement on “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” is a marvelously paced and swinging showcase for the Savitt band’s excellence as an ensemble, and for a string of fine solos. The soloists in order (according to Savitt’s lead trumpeter Jack Hansen, see note 3 below) were: George “Gigi” Bohn on clarinet; Gabe Galinas on alto saxophone; Jack Hansen on trumpet; Al Leopold on trombone and Eddie Clausen on tenor saxophone.
The four-bar introduction, which spots (in my judgment) Gabe Galinas on clarinet against a cushion of open trombones and the closed high-hat cymbals of drummer Russ Isaacs, sets the mood of the piece: contemplative but rhythmically taut. Gigi Bohn then sets forth the main melody with his singing alto saxophone tone, bouncing the rhythm along with those open trombones. The rock-solid beat and foundation bass playing of Howard Cook is felt as well as heard in this sixteen-bar sequence. The open trombones then play the secondary melody, followed by the robust saxophone quintet.
Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters shown on the job at a formal dance at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the autumn of 1940 shortly before recording “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice.” The tenor saxophonist standing and playing at left (partially obscured) is Eddie Clausen. The third saxophonist from right is Gigi Bohn. The trombonists are from L-R: Al George, Al Leopold and Ben Pickering. Savitt is standing in front of Bohn.
Lead trumpeter Jack Hansen then plays the melodic solo that leads into the transitional, modulating sequence which includes a bit of Eddie Clausen’s tenor saxophone, that sets up the centerpiece of this arrangement – the trombone solo, played with gusto and feeling by Al Leopold.
Although it is obvious that the Savitt band was an absolutely first-rate swing band, and that each of the soloists play well in this performance, I would be remiss not to mention the particularly brilliant contribution of Al Leopold. How he begins his solo with six preparatory upward notes, and then vaults into his instrument’s high register with a breathtaking upward glissando, and then an immediate octave leap downward, is quite dramatic and remarkable. His fluid movement between the upper and lower registers of his trombone, accomplished with seeming ease, mark him as one of the great trombone virtuosos of the swing era. (Al Leopold is shown at left as a member of Jan Savitt’s band around 1940.) Leopold’s solo is so engaging that it is easy to overlook the kaleidoscopic backgrounds arranger Billy Moore fashioned for him to play against. They are brilliant and undoubtedly provided inspiration for Leopold.
Tenor saxophonist Eddie Clausen had the unenviable task of following Leopold, but he acquits himself well by playing a swinging paraphrase of one of Saint-Saens’s melodies. At first, he plays against cup-muted trumpets and one clarinet; then the background changes to the three open trombones in a sonically satisfying blend with the reeds. Through all of this, Clausen builds his solo to a musically effective climax. (At right: tenor saxophonist Eddie Clausen.)
The splendid performance then moves toward its conclusion with the same clarinet figure used in the introduction.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) The details about Philadelphia’s City Hall were derived from the Wikipedia post on that subject.
(2) Incredibly, the Earle Theater in Philadelphia existed for a mere 30 years. That theater, the most expensive entertainment venue in Philadelphia at the time of its opening on March 24, 1924, was originally called the Elrae (Earle spelled backwards), after Stanley Theater Corporation stockholder George H. Earle. It was initially used for Vaudeville, but was later adapted to presenting movies. Through the 1930s and 1940s, the Earle Theatre was a thriving venue for theatrical stage performances, films, and big band jazz. Among the artists presented there were: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmie Lunceford, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Dorsey, Bunny Berigan, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Jan Savitt, Glenn Miller, Charlie Barnet, Billie Holiday and Billy Eckstine. By 1953, the popularity of the theatre had declined due to the growth of television, and the last stage show was presented there on February 26, 1953. The Earle Theatre was demolished later that year and replaced with a two-story retail structure. (Below left: the sidewalk, street and marquee of the Earle Theater in January of 1938, looking west on Market Street toward Philadelphia City Hall. Right: the same place as it appeared in April of 2022.)
(3) Jack Hansen was the first trumpeter in Jan Savitt’s band from the late 1930s into the early 1940s. He wrote the liner notes for a Decca LP reissue of 14 memorable recorded performances by the pre-war Savitt band in the 1970s (DL79243). I used his attribution of soloists on “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” in the post above. However, I am certain that more than one of his solo attributions was incorrect, something that is certainly understandable as he was trying to identify soloist after 30 years had passed, and without a discography to refer to. My informed speculation is that Hansen got the clarinet and alto saxophone soloists switched. My opinion is that the clarinet soloist at the beginning and end of the piece was Gabe Gelinas, and that the alto soloist was George “Gigi” Bohn. Bohn was the first alto saxophonist in the Savitt band, and an accomplished melodic and capable jazz soloist on that instrument.
Here are links to some other great performances by Jan Savitt: