“Idiot’s Delight” (1947) Ray McKinley/Eddie Sauter

“Idiot’s Delight”

Composed and arranged by Eddie Sauter.

Recorded by Ray McKinley and His Orchestra for RCA Victor on December 29, 1947 in New York.

Ray McKinley, drums, probably allowing Eddie Sauter to direct his band, which included: Joe Ferrante, Chuck Genduso, Nick Travis and Curley Broiles, trumpets; Vern Friley, Irv Dinkin and Jim Harwood, trombones; Billy Ainesworth and Ray Beller, alto saxophones; Pete Terry and Lou Ott, tenor saxophones; Deane Kincaide, baritone saxophone; John Potoker, piano; Johnny Gray, guitar; John Chance, bass.

With this most unusual Eddie Sauter composition/arrangement, we inaugurate a new category here at swingandbeyond.com, “Far Out!” The term “far out,” as used by jazz musicians during and after the swing era, denoted music (or anything else) that was off the beaten path. To say that Eddie Sauter’s “Idiot’s Delight,” which is performed brilliantly by Ray McKinley and his band, is off the beaten swing era path would be a rather large understatement. Indeed, this composition is so weird that it is the perfect example of being Far Out. It is also a great example of how broad the repertoire of swing bands could be, and how fascinating the piece is as music. Listen, marvel and enjoy!

The story:

Drummer Ray McKinley (1910-1995), was born in Fort Worth, Texas. His parents bought him his first drum set when he was nine years old. Soon after he began playing with a local band called The Jolly Jazz Band in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He left home at age 15 and played with Milt Shaw’s Detroiters and later, the Smith Ballew and Duncan-Marin bands. It was with the Smith Ballew band in 1929 that McKinley met Glenn Miller. The two formed a friendship that lasted from 1929 until Miller’s death in 1944. McKinley and Miller joined the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in 1934. Miller left to join Ray Noble’s new American band in December 1934, while McKinley remained.

The Dorsey brothers split in the summer of 1935. McKinley remained with Jimmy Dorsey until 1939, when he joined trombonist Will Bradley, becoming co-leaders of their own band. McKinley’s biggest hit with Bradley was “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar,” which he recorded early in 1940 (and for which he got partial songwriting credit under his wife’s maiden name Eleanore Sheehy). McKinley is referred to as “Eight Beat Mack” in the lyrics to the song “Down the Road a Piece,” which he recorded as a trio with Will Bradley and Freddie Slack in 1940.

McKinley and Bradley split in 1942, and McKinley formed his own band, which recorded for the newly formed Capitol Records. That McKinley band was short-lived because Ray joined Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band, which he later co-led with arranger Jerry Gray after Miller’s disappearance in December 1944. Upon being discharged from the military at the end of 1945, McKinley formed a big band that featured, along with middle-of-the road dance and pop music, and a substantial helping of novelty vocals by the leader, some wildly original material composed and arranged by Eddie Sauter. But with the road band business in decline, by 1950 the McKinley band had run its course, and Ray began evolving into a part-time leader and sometime radio and TV personality.  (Above left: Eddie Sauter and Ray McKinley – 1947.)

In 1956, capitalizing on the popularity of The Glenn Miller Story feature film starring James Stewart, McKinley was chosen to be the leader of a revived Glenn Miller Orchestra, which he led until 1966. He co-hosted, with former Miller Air Force band vocalist Johnny Desmond, a 13-week CBS-TV summer replacement series with the band called Glenn Miller Time in 1961. After the mid-1960s, McKinley chose his work carefully, but kept as busy as he wished, continuing to perform through the 1980s.(1)

It is not clear how Eddie Sauter came to be associated with Ray McKinley in 1946. My informed speculation, based on the eventual repertoire of the postwar McKinley band, is that McKinley wanted a band that basically had two styles: First and foremost, a middle-of-the-road dance band that featured plenty of McKinley’s folksy singing and novelty tunes (Ray was a fine entertainer), and second a progressive, indeed avant-garde, jazz orchestra, that would compare favorably with the more provocative modernistic offerings of the postwar Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Boyd Raeburn bands.(2) Musically speaking, McKinley was successful in achieving this. Unfortunately, during the late 1940s, business for touring big bands was shrinking steadily, and the audiences that remained generally were not musically cultivated enough to understand or enjoy most of Eddie Sauter’s music. (Above right: Ray McKinley and Eddie Sauter.)

In retrospect, Ray McKinley’s patronage of Eddie Sauter was one of relatively few instances during the swing era where commercial considerations did not override musical ones. Indeed, the musical policy decided upon by McKinley, and carried out by Sauter, was one of the most radically experimental during the swing era or any other era in the history of popular American music.

The music:

Arranger Eddie Sauter’s flirtation with unusual musical sounds began in the late 1930s when he was writing arrangements for Red Norvo’s band, which for a time also included the singer Mildred Bailey. Norvo was something of a musical searcher in those days, and I think that he influenced the approach to dance music that Eddie Sauter was beginning to take then in numerous salutary ways. To hear what that was all about, one must start with Sauter’s sublime arrangement of Irving Berlin’s great ballad “Remember,” which Norvo recorded in 1937. (A link to that recording can be found at endnote 3 below.) Then listen to Sauter’s arrangement for Mildred Bailey and the Norvo band on “Smoke Dreams.” (A link to that recording can be found at endnote 4 below.)

25-year-old Sauter at work on a score for the Benny Goodman big band – 1939. Photo: Sauter family archive, courtesy Greg Sauter and Caroline Meyers.

To start our discussion about Eddie Sauter’s “Idiot’s Delight,” I will cite a passage from the very good liner notes written by Bill Kirchner for the collection of recordings produced in 1995 by the Smithsonian Institution entitled: Big Band Renaissance … The Evolution of the Jazz Orchestra – The 1940s and Beyond. “Sauter became McKinley’s principal musical architect and produced a number of richly inventive scores, including: ‘Hangover Square,’ ‘Sandstorm,’ ‘Borderline,’ ‘Tumblebug,’ and ‘Cyclops.’ Perhaps the most daring of all was ‘Idiot’s Delight,’ which to my ears reflects Sauter’s interests in the work of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. (Sauter had met Bartok when the latter was writing ‘Contrasts,’ a chamber piece for Benny Goodman. When Sauter approached Bartok for advice, Bartok directed him as follows: ‘Young man, study Palestrina.'”

“‘Idiot’s Delight’ is the development of a simple idea: a succession of octave jumps that Sauter treats pointillistically (each tone is a different instrumental color, including cup-muted trumpets, open trombones, saxophones and bass). Also note Sauter’s use of the piano as a counter voice. He then introduces a section of complex counterpoint (that is, using simultaneous independent lines) strongly reminiscent of Bartok. Last, Sauter combines the methods of both sections and builds to a fitting climax and ending.” (Pages 14-15. See note 5 below.)

I will add that the use of syncopated rhythmic octave jumps by Eddie Sauter in the brass, sometime creating a “hiccup” effect, modified somewhat in this composition by the use of the saxophones as the sonority that is heard opposing the brass, was a Sauter trademark in his work with Benny Goodman in 1940. But the centerpiece of this performance is the extraordinary use Sauter makes of the five saxophones. Especially engaging and challenging are the swirling saxophone passages that are augmented here and there by the muted brass. Sauter then adds a piquant sequence where the brass thickens the already dense, dissonant harmony heard in the reeds. This is followed by a contrasting use of the electric guitar playing in unison with the bass and piano, underlined by McKinley’s cymbals and drums, which leads into a humorous tract with individual (or perhaps pairs of) instruments, including trumpets and trombones in different registers, popping out dissonant tones. The open brass, played against the syncopated saxophones, are the essential voices in the wildly syncopated climax of the piece.

One wonders how the pop music audiences that supported Ray McKinley’s band in the late 1940s reacted to this piece. I do not think it rash on my part to suggest that they were probably baffled.

Circumstantial evidence leads to the conclusion that Eddie Sauter liked to go to the movies. The title for this composition was undoubtedly inspired by the feature film Idiot’s Delight. Idiot’s Delight is a 1939 MGM comedy-drama feature film with a screenplay adapted by Robert E. Sherwood from his 1936 Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name. The movie showcases Clark Gable in the same year that he played Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, and Norma Shearer in the declining phase of her career. Although not a musical, it is notable as a film where Gable sings and dances, performing Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” (6) Other Sauter compositions that derived their titles directly or indirectly from films were “Hangover Square,” and “Benny Rides Again,” which in addition to commemorating Benny Goodman’s return to bandleading in late 1940, was Eddie Sauter’s humorous recasting of the title of the Jack Benny film Buck Benny Rides Again, produced by Paramount which was released on May 31, 1940.

Although Eddie Sauter was a fan of Hollywood films, his composition of “Idiot’s Delight” is definitely NOT movie music. It is a free-standing abstract piece that affects listeners in whatever ways they allow it to.(7)

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

Notes and links:

(1) The brief summary of Ray McKinley’s career up to the time he joined forces with Eddie Sauter was derived from the Wikipedia post on him.

(2) Igor Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto in 1945 (finishing the score on December 1) for Woody Herman’s band. It was commissioned by Herman, who was featured in it on clarinet. It was first performed on March 25, 1946 in Carnegie Hall in New York City, by the Herman band, conducted by Walter Hendl.

(3) Here is a link to one of Eddie Sauter’s early masterworks, Irving Berlin’s “Remember,” in the original Red Norvo version, and also in a later version conducted by Billy May: https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/09/22/remember-1937-red-norvo-and-1970-billy-may-and-the-swing-era-orchestra/

(4) Here is a link to one of Eddie Sauter’s early vocal arrangements, “Smoke Dreams,” done for Red Norvo’s band with Mildred Bailey singing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPo9E2FzJuQ

(5) Eddie Sauter was also interviewed at length by Bill Kirchner on August 11, 1980 as a part of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Oral History Project (JOHP) . The transcript of that interview is at the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ.

(6) The information on the feature film Idiot’s Delight comes from the Wikipedia post on it.

(7) Here is a link to a fine website that provides an overview of Eddie Sauter’s career: https://eddiesauter.org/?fbclid=IwAR38r9eMOQLdz5G2y5hdDreOnPNiQ8_2SvJcrFBrprR8p-ayokxY_WZfYD8

Here is a link to Eddie Sauter’s 1940 composition/arrangement of “Benny Rides Again”:


Here is an undoubted Sauter masterwork, his arrangement on George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” written in 1945 for Artie Shaw:


Related Post

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.