“There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” (2002) Randy Sandke with Jon-Erik Kellso and Scott Robinson

“There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York”

Composed by George Gershwin; arranged by Bob Haggart. Original Haggart arrangement was provided by Ed Metz, Sr.

Recorded by Randy Sandke and associates for Arbors Records on June 4-5, 2002 in New York.

Randy Sandke, trumpet, directing: Jon-Erik Kellso and Byron Stripling, trumpets; John Allred, George Masso and Wycliffe Gordon, trombones; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Jack Stuckey, baritone saxophone; Ken Peplowski, clarinet; Howard Alden, guitar; Derek Smith, piano; Greg Cohen, bass; Joe Ascione, drums.

The story:

The general outlines of the story of how the great swing era composer/arranger/bassist Bob Haggart  (1914-1998) came to write a series of arrangements on tunes written by George Gershwin for Porgy and Bess for a 1958 Dot LP for Bob Crosby, were presented by the doyen of jazz historians, Dan Morgenstern, in Dan’s extensive liner notes for the 2002 Arbors CD which is entitled: The Music of Bob Haggart …featuring his Classic Porgy and Bess Arrangements, and Other Greatest Hits, under the musical direction of Randy Sandke. (See image and quote below.) In essence, Bob Crosby, younger singing brother of Bing, had forged an independent musical identity for himself during the swing era by leading a successful band. That band featured many arrangements on classic jazz tunes as the core of their presentation. In that band at various times were musicians who went on to long and successful careers in music, including trumpeters Yank Lawson and Billy Butterfield, trombonist/arranger Ray Conniff, tenor saxophonist Eddie Miller, clarinetist/arranger Matty Matlock, and bassist/arranger/composer Bob Haggart. Lawson, Butterfield and Haggart were deeply immersed in work as free-lance studio musicians in New York from the mid-1940s through the 1960s. The number of ad hoc studio recording or broadcast dates each man worked each year ran into the hundreds. In addition, they were a part of a compatible cadre of musicians who worked together periodically as a performing unit identified as the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band. By 1958, Butterfield, Lawson and Haggart were very busy free-lance musicians, but to fans of theirs who knew their histories, they were still identified as members of the classic pre-World War II Bob Crosby band. (Bob Haggart is shown above left in the early 1950s.)

Bob Crosby had gone on from his days as the leader of his pre-war band to lead a couple of postwar bands, then began a successful career in radio as a genial host and sometimes singer. Although Bob Crosby was better looking than Bing, he was not as good a singer. But he had a good voice for radio, and his looks and engaging personality allowed him to also move successfully into television in the 1950s. Consequently, Bob Crosby was a “name” entertainer throughout and indeed after the 1950s. He also had a contract to record for Dot Records in the late 1950s.

Crosby also apparently took gigs where he would travel, and appear with a couple of Los Angeles studio musicians, sometimes including Eddie Miller and Matty Matlock, and present music from the repertoire of the old Bob Crosby pre-war Bob Cats. He would fill in the other chairs in the Bob Cats band on such tours with local musicians. In short, he was working as an entertainer who wanted to keep his career moving in a positive direction.

Although Bob Crosby’s career had taken him largely away from the musical activities of his former sidemen from the old Bob Cats days, he still retained cordial relations with those musicians, and periodically gave them work, both in recording studios and on the outside. The realities of maintaining careers in popular music dictated that their relationship would be non-exclusive, and that worked well for all of the people involved.

There was great interest in Porgy and Bess in the late 1950s. This was kicked-off by a highly touted feature film project, which started when Samuel Goldwyn purchased the rights to make a film version of Porgy from George Gershwin’s estate (Ira Gershwin, executor) for $600,000 as a down payment against 10% of the film’s gross receipts. The contract memorializing that transaction was signed on May 7, 1957. Before the contract was signed, there were contentious negotiations between Goldwyn and Ira Gershwin. Before Goldwyn, there had been many other studio suitors with whom negotiations had been had over several years. In addition to the money issues, there was great disagreement on how the film would be cast and made. Harry Cohn, head man at Columbia Pictures, wanted to cast Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, and have them work in blackface. Gershwin was appalled by this idea, and negotiations with Cohn ended. Goldwyn settled upon the idea that the cast for the film should be black, which Gershwin agreed with.

Casting the film proved to be difficult. Many black actors perceived the entire project as one that would to perpetuate negative black stereotypes. Eventually, a cast including Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr., Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters and Diahann Carroll was contracted, and the film was produced. The film was directed by Otto Preminger. It was released on June 24, 1959.(1) (Above right: Otto Preminger discusses a scene in the 1959 film Porgy and Bess with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge.)

While all of this activity around the film version of Porgy and Bess was going on, musicians, sensing a good opportunity to do some pull marketing off the film, began to record many different interpretations of the music from Porgy.(2) The initial theatrical production of Porgy in 1935, despite the wonderful music in it, had not been very successful. It ran for only 124 performances. In the two-plus decades since it debuted, a number of modifications of the initial stage production of Porgy had met with only minimal success. As it turned out, the late 1950s revival of the music from Porgy, which used the film as a marketing booster, had a lot to do with establishing that opera as an essential part of American music.

When the people at Dot Records decided to present Bob Crosby in the context of the music of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, that concept was joined to one that would involve merging the Porgy music with the musical style of the old Bob Cats. The musicians who could recreate the Bob Cats sound were still playing very well and would be available on an ad hoc basis to record whatever music was prepared for the recordings. The logical choice for the person to write the arrangements for this recording project was Bob Haggart. The band Crosby used for his Porgy LP consisted of: Billy Butterfield, Yank Lawson and Chris Griffin, trumpets; Lou McGarity and Cutty Cutshall, trombones; Bill Stegmeyer, clarinet; Bud Freeman, tenor saxophone; Stan Webb, baritone saxophone; Lou Stein, piano; Carl Kress, guitar; Bob Haggart, bass; and Cliff Leeman, drums. (Bob Haggart’s autograph – above left. In addition to Bob’s musical talents, he was a gifted sketch artist.)

No information about the musicians and/or arranger was included on the liner notes on the reverse of the Crosby Porgy LP, which were written, remarkably, by Nelson Riddle. Presumably, this was done so that when Crosby performed music from that LP while on tour, he would not have to explain to audiences why the stellar musicians who made that recording with him were not in his band on tour. In addition, this project was simply another couple of recording sessions for the musicians involved, who were busy free-lances. The Crosby record soon disappeared into the welter of other Porgy recordings on the market in the late 1950s.

Decades then passed. With the gradual demise of the booming New York recording and broadcast music scene that had begun in the 1930s, but by the early 1970s was only a small fraction of what it had been, there then existed a drastically smaller set of work opportunities for swing era musicians in Manhattan. Musicians scrambled to figure out ways and means of finding work. Fortunately, a phenomenon called the “jazz party” had by 1970 begun to take root at various places across the U.S. One of the earliest of these was the one started by Denver entrepreneur Dick Gibson in the early 1960s. Gibson invited many swing era musicians to a venue in the Denver area, then skillfully promoted what would be a revolving series of sets over a weekend where those musicians worked with each other in different groups. This concept proved to be very successful, and Gibson held jazz parties annually over a period of years. Others followed Gibson’s example.

Among the musicians Gibson invited year after year were Bob Haggart, Yank Lawson, Billy Butterfield and Bud Freeman. In 1968, Gibson persuaded Lawson and Haggart to form a standing band that would tour. He named the band The World’s Greatest Jazzband. This hyperbolic name got the band noticed, and criticized. When I asked Bob Haggart about that name in the 1980s, he rolled his eyes and said:  “That was not my doing. That was Dick Gibson’s idea. He knew all about marketing. That is why he is a wealthy man. I know about music. That is why I’m still out here doing it at a time (age 72) when I should be at home sitting in my rocking chair taking it easy. Putting all that aside, I am very pleased with most of the music we made with that band. We may not have been the greatest, but I think we were pretty good.” (Above right: the WGJ in 1970: at bottom – L-R: Lou McGarity, Bob Haggart, Gus Johnson, Jr.; middle: Bud Freeman, Yank Lawson, Ralph Sutton; top: Vic Dickenson, Bob Wilber and Billy Butterfield.) 

When Bob Haggart was working on a what apparently remains an unpublished autobiography in 1994, he fondly recalled the Bob Crosby Porgy and Bess project. Then, he began discussing that project with: “…Ann Iversen, Haggart’s closest friend in his final years, who conceived of the idea of restoring (Haggart’s) Porgy and Bess (arrangements). ‘She definitely started the ball rolling,’ said Randy Sandke, who picked up the ball and ran it to the finish line.”(3) Basically, Sandke and pianist Dick Hyman then began tracking down whichever of Haggart’s Porgy arrangements were still extant, and also reconstructing arrangements for tunes that appeared on the Crosby LP that didn’t exist anymore. That eventually led to the recording project that produced the recording that is presented here.

The music:

The racial controversy surrounding Porgy and Bess is something that began when Gershwin’s folk opera was first staged in 1935. It has continued, taking on different aspects and dimensions, to the current day. This controversy is understandable for a number of reasons. When the opera was revived as a play in the 1960s, social critic and African-American educator Harold Cruze called it, “The most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western World.”(4)  This controversy offers scholars and cultural historians an opportunity to perhaps resolve some of those cultural contradictions, or at least to understand and explain them. That is something that could and should be done seriously in colleges and universities.

But from my perspective, there is no controversy about Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess music. It is superb. Many of the melodies from Porgy are now a part of the cultural fabric of American music. These include: “Summertime”; “My Man’s Gone Now”; “I Got Plenty o Nuttin'”; “Bess, You is My Woman Now”;  and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”  Less known is the wonderful “There’s a Boat Dats Leavin’ Soon for New York,” which is in act 3 scene 2 of the opera. I have also heard it used as a motive in an Overture to Porgy and Bess.

The introduction sets the mood of the performance – one of relaxed swing and impeccable musicianship. The tempo is perfect. These guys really understand swing: notice how they play just a bit behind the beat. The spicy instrumental mix Bob Haggart created by blending the open brass with the three reeds in the first melody exposition in the first chorus is a delight. Particularly felicitous is the way he used the clarinet, played here by Ken Peplowski. I think Randy Sandke plays the first trumpet part, and as such, he commands but does not dominate the band both rhythmically and by topping the ensembles with his warm trumpet sound. (Above right: trumpeter Randy Sandke with guitarist Howard Alden.)

The secondary melody is presented via a slightly different instrumental mix. That melody is then expertly paraphrased by trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso. (Shown at left.) The ensemble then takes the music into a lower range and dynamic level, then back up, which sets the stage for tenor saxophonist Scott Robinson to enter and play some tasty jazz. His playing through the break is like a delicious appetizer before a gourmet meal. The support he gets from the rhythm section, particularly the comping of pianist Derek Smith, inspires Robinson to create some joyous jazz sounds. (Below right: Scott Robinson.)

After this solo, the ensemble returns with the main melody and an upward moving sequence leading to the bright finish.

These master musicians demonstrate conclusively that swing is an inexhaustible wellspring of jazz…and of great music. Bravo!

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

Notes and links:

(1) Information about the 1959 film of Porgy and Bess in the Wikipedia article on that film was revised and used in this post.

(2) Here is an incomplete list of recordings of the music from Porgy and Bess that were made in the late 1950s:

Pop music versions:

Jazz versions:

(4) Standifer, James (November–December 1997). “The Complicated Life of Porgy and BessHumanities. Archived from the original on February 11, 2005.

Here are some links to other music created by Bob Haggart:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/04/04/im-prayin-humble-1938-bob-crosby-and-bob-haggart-and-1969-the-worlds-greatest-jazzband-of-yank-lawson-and-bob-haggart/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/05/27/big-noise-from-winnetka-1938-bob-haggart-ray-bauduc/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2023/04/06/south-rampart-street-parade-1937-bob-crosby-ray-bauduc-bobhaggart-yank-lawson-eddie-miller-1959-glen-gray-with-conrad-gozzo-gus-bivona-shorty-sherock-and-nick-fatool/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/11/10/reads-and-re-reads/

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