“The Right Idea”
Composed and arranged by Skip Martin.
Recorded by Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra for Bluebird on October 9, 1939 in Hollywood.
Charles D. “Charlie” Barnet, alto and tenor saxophones, 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.
We here at swingandbeyond.com have recently hosted our 350,000th visitor. We can’t think of a better way to celebrate that than to delve into the music and story involving that master of swing, the “Mad Mab,”(*) Charlie Barnet, and his first great band.
Hazards and risks. Anyone who ventures out into the world encounters them. In the world of swing, there were many hazards and risks that the musicians who made up the bands had to anticipate, especially if they were traveling, which they frequently were. Automobile and bus breakdowns were frequent occurrences. Things like tire blow-outs happened far more often than they do today. Highway detours on 1930s and 1940s decidedly un-super highways happened without warning. The normal negligence of people driving on highways, often exacerbated by alcohol, resulted in many collisions, many were serious, some fatal. These hazards and risks were pretty much known and appreciated by musicians.
Then there were the hazards and risks that were unanticipated. The destruction of the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on October 2, 1939 by fire, while Charlie Barnet and his band were playing there was one such. That fire destroyed not only the Palomar Ballroom, it also destroyed all of the Barnet band’s musical instruments and its book of arrangements. The only bit of not totally bad news that resulted from this disaster was that the Barnet band was playing its next-to-last night at the Palomar. Consequently, they were not thrown out of work for days or weeks. (Above right: Charlie Barnet surveys what is left of his instruments and music – October 3, 1939.)
Barnet later recalled what happened immediately after the Palomar disaster: “We had a rehearsal to see what we could remember of the old (arrangements). …The guys were able to remember an amazing amount. In addition, we had a whole lot of head arrangements, that is, those that were conceived orally and not written down. Carlos Gastel, a real band music fan, was running the Domar Ballroom, down in Hermosa Beach. He let us play there one night to get ourselves organized. (Then,) Basie and Benny Carter both helped me (by sending) arrangements.” (1)
Members of Charlie Barnet’s band search the ruins of the Palomar Ballroom in a vain effort to recover their musical instruments.
I assiduously avoid making reference to anything relating to American jurisprudence here at swingandbeyond.com because the connection between that and American music is complicated and vexing. However in this instance, I will cite a favorite aphorism that undergirds the legal concept of assumption of risk to illustrate a point. In a case that wended its way to the highest court of the State of New York in 1929, Chief Judge Benjamin N. Cardozo set forth his analysis of assumed risk. He said that one who “…takes part in … sport accepts the dangers that inhere in it so far as they are obvious and necessary.” That case involved a plaintiff who fell from an amusement park ride called “The Flopper,” and suffered a leg injury. “Nothing happened to the plaintiff except what common experience tells us may happen at any time as the consequence of a sudden fall…” “Many a skater or a horseman can rehearse a tale of equal woe… . One might as well say that a skating rink should be abandoned because skaters sometimes fall. …The timorous may stay at home.”(2) Without getting too analytical, what Cardozo expressed was the idea that if someone knows and appreciates the risk of a given activity, but proceeds to engage in that activity anyway, if there is injury to that person, he or she will bear the consequences, not a third party (absent insurance). (At right: Benjamin N. Cardozo.)
The musicians who made the music of the swing era clearly knew the risks of touring across the country with bands. They chose to accept those risks. They were not timorous and had no intention of staying home. They wanted to make music.
Charlie Barnet dealt with the hazards and risks he confronted as the leader of a touring band in a way that few other bandleaders had the luxury of doing. He simply called his doting mother, and asked her to send whatever money would be needed to resolve the immediate crisis.
I can imagine that the phone conversation between Charlie, in Los Angeles, and Mrs. Barnet in New York, about the Palomar fire went something like this: CB: Hello, Mother, it’s Charles. Mrs. B.: Hello, Darling. How are you? CB: Not so well. Mrs. B.: Are all those girls still throwing themselves at you and complicating your life? CB: No, Mother. I have a bigger problem this time. Mrs. B.: Really. What might that be? CB: The ballroom we were playing in burned to the ground and it destroyed all of our instruments and music. Mrs. B.: Oh Dear! That’s terrible! How much is it going to cost to solve these problems for you? CB: About $10,000.00. Mrs. B.: I will get my banker to wire the money to you immediately. CB: Thanks Mother. You are a jewel. Mrs. B.: I’m so sorry this has happened to you Charles. CB; Well, things happen. The band and I will get past this, thanks to you. Mrs. B.: Son, you are so wonderful! CB: You are wonderful too Mother. Thanks for your help.
The money arrived, new instruments were purchased, and Barnet had the various arrangers in his band then, who included Billy May, Skip Martin and Bill Miller, get busy rewriting the arrangements that had burned. Soon, the Barnet band was back in business. (Above left: Betty Barnet, Charlie’s last (9th and 10th) wife, CB, and Charlie’s mother, Charline.)
Incredibly, a mere seven days after the Palomar disaster, the Barnet band was in Victor’s Hollywood recording studio. They made an amazing eight recordings on that date. This is a testament to the band’s astonishing ability to quickly rebound after losing all of their music. Of the eight tunes recorded, four were arranged by Billy May, then and throughout his long career, a fast writer. Two were by Skip Martin. One was a collaboration between May and Martin, and one was from an arranger outside the band, Los Angeles-based Phil Moore.
“The Right Idea” is arranger Skip Martin’s take on the magic formula used by Count Basie to make his band swing. The impact the Basie band had on young musicians in the world of swing in the late 1930s was great. The elements of Basie-style swing were lean arrangements with plenty of space for improvised solos; use of riffs to build rhythmic momentum; and supporting it all, a light but propulsive rhythm section of guitar, bass, piano and drums. The X-factor was Basie’s uniquely aphoristic piano. It ignited swing no matter what else was going on at any given time in the performances of the Basie band. (At right: saxophonist and arranger Skip Martin.)
In “The Right Idea,” the Barnet band demonstrates that they were capable of swinging, in their own way. A bright fanfare leads into the introduction played by pianist Bill Miller. He manages to pay homage to Basie yet remain himself at the same time. Note the support he gets from his rhythm section cohorts Phil Stephens on bass, Ray Michaels on drums, and especially Bus Etri on guitar. This tract sets the pattern for what will follow: a section of instruments playing with only the support of the rhythm section. It gives the music a streamlined effect.
Next we hear the cup-muted brass, riffing away for the first sixteen bars of chorus one. Barnet then plays a tasty eight bars of improvisation on his alto saxophone on the bridge. The muted brass finish the first chorus.
The second chorus is a showcase for the Barnet reed quartet, augmented by Barnet playing lead on his alto saxophone, to make it a quintet. This full chorus soli, in addition to being played beautifully, and swinging, is something that was rarely done in 1939. Arranger Martin deftly uses the oo-ah trombones to fill in the spaces between eight bar segments. Notice the brass “stingers” that point up the sound of the flowing saxophones on the bridge. These touches are minimal, but effective as colorful sonic contrasts.
The third chorus begins with trumpeter Bob Burnet swaggering through sixteen bars of bracing jazz supported by the roiling saxophones. Barnet follows him, now playing his tenor saxophone on the bridge, with tart open brass behind him, and then for another eight bars without, to finish the chorus.
Rhythmically intense riffs by the oo-ah brass played against the swirling saxophones occupy the next sixteen bars. Bill Miller returns for a bit of jazz on the bridge. Then the riffing cup-muted brass, now muted, fill the last sixteen bars and bring this swinging performances to a close.
Skip Martin was a very talented arranger who knew how to built intensity in an arrangement to a climax, and then to fashion a satisfying denouement and ending.
“The Right Idea”
Composed and arranged by Skip Martin.
Recorded in performance by Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra from a broadcast emanating from Cedar Point Ballroom, Sandusky, Ohio on August 2, 1940.
Charlie Barnet, alto and tenor saxophones, directing: Sam Skolnick, first trumpet; Lyman Vunk, Billy May and Bernie Privin, trumpets; Don Ruppersberg, Bill Robertson and Claude Murphy, trombones; Gene Kinsey and Leo White, alto saxophones; Kurt Bloom, tenor saxophone; Jimmy Lamare, tenor and baritone saxophones; Bill Miller, piano; Bus Etri, guitar; Phil Stephens, bass; Cliff Leeman, drums.
The story continues:
The Barnet band left Los Angeles after the Bluebird recording session they made there on October 9, 1939. They spent the next six weeks on the road, finally returning to New York around Thanksgiving. They played a week at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem starting on December 1. They remained in the New York area through December, though they did make a few short trips into New England, and south along the eastern seaboard to a one-night dance date at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. New Years Eve found them in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.
January of 1940 had the Barnet band making records in Manhattan on the third, then one-nighters and at least one week at a theater, the Howard in Washington, D.C (January 5-11). Another recording session in New York took place on February 7, and then the band finally settled down in one spot for an engagement at the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in Manhattan running from February 9 to March 22. During that time, the band also made several Bluebird and Thesaurus recording dates. (Above right: Charlie Barnet leads his band at the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln, early 1940.)
In February, the band also played for a week at the Paramount Theater on Times Square, and made a recording session for Thesaurus and one for Bluebird. Just before they left the Blue Room, they made one more recording session for Bluebird. The pattern that had been set in the first three months continued through the next three months, including another stand at the Paramount Theater (May 22-June 4), and sporadic engagements at Hotel Lincoln. The Lincoln appearances were important because they provided the band with radio exposure. The last date they played at the Lincoln was July 26, 1940. After that, they began a tour that continued into mid-September.(3)
The week of August 2 – 8, 1940 found Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra at the ballroom located at the Cedar Point amusement park, near Sandusky, Ohio. At various times during this engagement, the Barnet band was broadcast. This performance was recorded from one of those broadcasts.
It is quickly apparent when listening to this performance that the Barnet band was in excellent shape, with the swinging drumming of Cliff Leeman making what had been a strong rhythm section even stronger. The tempo in this performance is a bit slower than the Bluebird recording, but the swinging intensity of the band is equal to or greater than that recording. Bill Miller once again plays the piano solos. The saxophone soli here benefits from Jimmy Lamare playing baritone saxophone. Trumpeter Bernie Privin’s cup-muted jazz solo is excellent, including his interpolations of “Comin’ Thru The Rye.” Barnet’s two solos are levitated by Cliff Leeman’s off-beats.
The ballroom at Cedar Point amusement park as it appears today.
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(*) From Down Beat August 1, 1943: “While Barnet was playing Cedar Point, a local melodrama theater circulated yellow handbills on which were written: ‘Where is the wild mab?’ The boys in the (Barnet) band promptly advised the acting company that the wild mab was leading the band (at Cedar Point ballroom), and ever since Charlie has been known as The Mab.”
(1) Those Swinging Years …The Autobiography of Charlie Barnet with Stanley Dance (1984), 88.
(2) Murphy v. Steeplechase Amusement Co., (1929) 250 NY 479.
(3) Details of the Barnet band’s activities in late 1939 and the first seven months of 1940 come from Charlie Barnet …An Illustrated Biography and Discography (2002), by Dan Mather, 42-53.
Here are links to other recordings by Charlie Barnet that show what an excellent band he led during the swing era: