“The Minor Goes Muggin'” (1945) Tommy Dorsey/Sy Oliver with Duke Ellington, Sid Cooper, Charlie Shavers and Buddy Rich

“The Minor Goes Muggin'”

Composed and arranged by Sy Oliver.

Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Victor on May 14, 1945 in New York.

Thomas F. Dorsey, Jr., first and solo trombone, directing: Vito “Mickey” Mangano, first trumpet; George Seaburg, Gerald Goff, Seymour “Sy” Baker and Charlie Shavers, trumpets; Dick Noel, Tex Satterwaite and Karl De Karske, trombones; Sid Cooper, first alto saxophone; Arcuiso “Gus” Bivona, alto saxophone; Livio “Babe” Fresk and Vido Musso, tenor saxophones; Bruce Branson, baritone saxophone; Edward K. “Duke” Ellington, piano; Bob Bain, guitar; Sid Block, bass; Bernard “Buddy” Rich, drums.

The story:

Victor Records was to many people the top record label during the swing era, and indeed before it. The Victor Talking Machine Company was an American recording company and phonograph and manufacturer that operated independently from 1901 until 1929 when it was purchased by Radio Corporation of America (RCA), and then subsequently operated as the RCA Victor Division of Radio Corporation of America. The designation “Victor” continued to be used on records produced by the company until well into1945, when it was changed to RCA Victor.

Headquartered in Camden, New Jersey, Victor was the largest and most eminent firm of its kind in the world, best known for its use of the iconic His Master’s Voice trademark, the production, marketing, and design of the popular Victrola line of phonographs and the company’s extensive catalog of operatic and classical music recordings by world famous artists on the prestigious Red Seal label. After its acquisition by RCA in 1929, Victor maintained its eminence as America’s foremost producer of records and phonographs until the 1960s.(1)

The first major recording star, Enrico Caruso, was a Victor artist in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded for Victor starting in 1917. Victor, and its budget label Bluebird, which was inaugurated in 1934, played a major role in recording the greatest artists of the swing era including Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and many others.

The advent of radio as a home entertainment medium in the early 1920s presented Victor and the entire record industry with new challenges. Not only was music becoming available on radio free of charge, but live broadcasts made using high-quality microphones that were heard over high-quality radio receivers provided clearer, more realistic sound than contemporary phonograph records. After plummeting sales and much resistance from Victor’s senior executives, the company switched from the acoustical or mechanical method of recording to the new microphone-based electrical system developed by Western Electric in 1925.(1) (At right: the tower at Victor Records’ manufacturing and recording facility in Camden, New Jersey. The four stained-glass windows at the top of the tower depict Victor’s His Master’s Voice trademark, with Nipper the dog looking into the acoustical speaker of a Victrola. That facility now houses condominiums.)

That episode in Victor’s history is significant. Because of its position as the leader in the early years of the development of the recording industry, and for myriad other reasons, Victor tended to be conservative and slow to recognize trends in the recording industry, including trends in the music they recorded. The onset of the Great Depression, which coincided with the spectacular rise in network radio in the early 1930s, would have bankrupted Victor were it not for it having been acquired in 1929 by Radio Corporation of America. RCA also owned the radio networks of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), which were doing booming business all through the Depression of the 1930s and then through the 1940s.

Tommy Dorsey’s history with Victor began when, as an eighteen year-old, he recorded for the label while he was a member of Jean Goldkette’s band. That first TD-Victor session took place in Detroit on March 27, 1924. After the session was completed, Tommy ran out of the studio with his trombone and began exuberantly playing it on Woodward Avenue, telling passers-by that he was “now a Victor recording artist.” Tommy became a Victor recording artist in earnest in September of 1935, only a few days after he became the leader of his own band. From then until the end of 1950, Tommy Dorsey made literally hundreds of records for Victor, and sold millions of records for the label. (Above left: A young Tommy Dorsey. He understood that recording for Victor was a big deal.)

Duke Ellington first recorded for Victor on October 26, 1927 and continued recording for that label until May 9, 1934. During all of that time, he also recorded for other labels. Duke returned to the Victor stable of artists early in 1940, and recorded exclusively for the label until 1946.

Unlike some of Victor’s competitors, especially Decca Records, which was formed in mid-1934, Victor rarely allowed their artists to make “guest” appearances on record with other Victor artists. Probably through the machinations of Tommy Dorsey, who was a more astute record producer than most of the people at Victor with that title (2), “…he recruited Duke Ellington to guest-star on the Victor recording of Sy Oliver’s “The Minor Goes Muggin’.” It was a reciprocal deal, whereby Tommy guested with Duke’s band on their Victor recording “Tonight I Shall Sleep.” The two recordings were issued by Victor with the Dorsey band performance on side “A” of record number 45-0002, and the Ellington band performance on side “B”. (3)

The music:

One of Tommy Dorsey’s biographers included an insightful recollection of the recording session which produced “The Minor Goes Muggin'” by Bob Bain, who was then playing guitar in Tommy Dorsey’s band. Duke, apparently, had not been given any of the music for “The Minor Goes Muggin'” beforehand, and came into the session without ever hearing it. But he had his ears and his musical intelligence to guide him. None of “…the members of the band were given notice of Ellington’s appearance on the recording session. ‘The arrangement changes keys and goes right into Duke’s piano solo,’ Bain later remembered. ‘The band was playing in F-minor, and then there’s a drum break or something, and then it (is supposed to) start out with a piano solo in B-flat minor. Duke, to me, was still playing in F-minor. After we rehearsed, I went over to him and said ‘You know that…’ And he said, ‘I know that now. But it sounded kind of outside didn’t it?'”(4) (Above left: Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey pose in the Victor recording studio on May 14, 1945, the day they recorded Sy Oliver’s “The Minor Goes Muggin’.”)

Jazz historian Loren Schoenberg also has provided worthwhile observations about this recording: “Ellington’s abstract piano stylings are heard to great advantage (in this recording). (Writers) Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray have noted the presaging of Thelonious Monk in more than one spot. The (Dorsey) band was galvanized by Duke’s presence, and Buddy Rich seems especially inspired. His closing solo is a …ferocious statement. At moments like this, Tommy Dorsey had a jazz ensemble that could hold its own against all comers – quite an accomplishment when you consider that his main profile was as the ‘Sentimental Gentleman of Swing.'”(5)

I must add a few of my own observations about this recording: Ellington plays the band on in the introduction, at first being joined by drummer Rich’s soft cymbals and then by bassist Sid Block. The first chorus begins with Mr. TD playing the riffy melody for sixteen bars, being prodded along first by a growling trumpet, possibly played by relief lead man George Seaburg, and then by lead alto saxophonist Sid Cooper. The eight bar bridge has Cooper playing against oo-ah trumpets, open trombones and surging saxophones. Dorsey, Seaburg and Cooper then finish the first chorus in a manner similar to the first sixteen bars. (Above right: Duke Ellington – as a piano player he was, as he was in most every aspect of his personality, unique.)

There is then an interlude where the band plays Sy Oliver’s version of jungle music in honor of Duke, atop Buddy Rich’s rumbling tom-toms. This is followed by Duke’s piano solo, which does indeed point the music in the direction jazz pianist Thelonoius Monk would travel in the 1950s and beyond. Notice the background Oliver provides for Duke’s piano in the first sixteen bars: subtly played open trombones; piquant plunger muted trumpets, and low-register reeds with the baritone sound (Bruce Branson) anchoring the section much in the manner of Duke’s Harry Carney. Ellington bobs and weaves through the bridge, supported mainly by Rich’s high-hat cymbals and bassist Block. Duke finishes his chorus accompanied by the rhythm and the soft but rhythmically intense open trombones. (Above left: Sy Oliver and Duke Ellington in the mid-1940s. Their expressions make it clear that they admired each other’s work greatly.)

The next chorus showcases the power of the band. The open brass riff against the robust saxophones, while Rich’s drumming becomes more forceful. Trumpeter Charlie Shavers swings hard through the eight-bar bridge, capping his solo with a soulful screech. This is followed by more strong playing by the entire ensemble, moving the dynamic level up.

Duke returns for some really tasty and rhythmically intense playing that springs the band into a blasting downward figure, played atop Rich’s driving bass drum accents. The solo Buddy plays is as Mr. Schoenberg has observed …ferocious. (Above right: the ferocious Mr. Rich.)

As a final observation, listen for TD’s very aggressive lead trombone in all of the brass ensembles.

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

Notes and links:

(1) The information about the history of Victor Records is derived from the Wikipedia post on that subject.

(2) The term “A and R” was the one used before the word “producer” by record companies. “A and R” is short for Artist and Repertoire.

(3) “The Minor Goes Muggin'” entered the repertoire of Tommy Dorsey’s band in the autumn of 1942. Because of the musicians’ union recording ban, which started on August 1, 1942, TD could not record this piece until Victor settled with the union, in mid-November of 1944. Nevertheless, he did not record this composition until May of 1945. One wonders if he was trying to work out the reciprocal deal with Ellington that eventually had each man guesting with the other’s band during this span of months. The Ellington band, with TD as guest soloist, recorded “Tonight I Shall Sleep” on May 14, 1945 also.

(4) Tommy Dorsey …Livin’ in a Great Big Way (2005) by Peter J. Levinson, 195-196. Ellington’s joking reference to playing “outside” referred to the technique of some avant-garde musicians to play a given piece of music in two different keys simultaneously. This is also called “bitonality.”

(5) Liner notes for the RCA/BMG/Bluebird LP entitled: Tommy Dorsey …Yes Indeed – Featuring Classic Swing Arrangements of Sy Oliver, 9987-1-RB (1990), by Loren Schoenberg.

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  1. Mike, I always thought that this performance of “The Minor Goes Muggin'” should be on any RCA Victor “best” compilation of Tommy Dorsey. To me, the band is on fire and, while I think there are other TD Victor performances just as good (“Well, Git It!,” “Opus One,” et al), I don’t consider any of them to exceed this.

  2. I consider “The Minor Goes Muggin'” to be one of the TD orch’s last truly magnificent recordings. First of all, I think the writing of Sy Oliver, my all-time favourite arranger, is spectacular, if maybe a little untypical. Second, the inclusion and showcasing of the great Ellington was a genius move on Tommy’s part. Most of us here, I’m sure, have encountered the line about Ellington’s true instrument being his orchestra. Well, while there’s no question that he was one of the most innovative and brilliant arrangers and, equally important, persuasive bandleaders ever, I feel that the “band was his instrument” perspective gives short shrift to his abilities as a pianist. No less a musician than Cootie Williams cited Duke as his favourite accompanist. As a soloist, Ellington could be extremely effective, simply by so thoughtfully choosing his notes. His ideas and execution thereof on “Minor” are vital to the resounding artistic success of this side. Charlie Shavers, who was the star soloist of the Dorsey band in this period, delivers, as always, coming in at a relative lull, near the end of the performance, and making of it a high point. Sid Cooper’s singing alto provides the perfect contrast to the brass-heavy ensemble sound, early in the arrangement. Buddy Rich, from intro to triumphant conclusion, is masterful. “A force of nature” has, it’s sad to note, become an overused superlative but, I have to say, it certainly applies to Buddy, as is abundantly evident on this side. Finally, I consider it a real treat to hear Tommy’s solo trombone in a somewhat atypical role. He doesn’t improvise, obviously, merely playing a written part in Oliver’s chart, but nevertheless, he brings to his trilled figures an improvisor’s individuality as well as his technical excellence. “Minor” and “Tonight I Shall Sleep,” on which TD and Duke swap bandleader and soloist roles, are extraordinary sides; together, they make one fantastic Victor record.

  3. Chris, it appears from the discographical info for that date that Tommy and his orchestra were in the studio for several hours, making six (!) masters before Ellington arrived. Tommy was careful beforehand not to let the band know that Duke would be recording with them. I can imagine the excitement they felt when Duke was suddenly in their midst, to actually play with them on one of the TD band’s World War Two blockbusters. I’m sure that was a memorable experience for everyone involved.

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