“Swingtime in the Rockies”
(Known previously in the Earl Hines band as “Take It Easy.”)
Composed by Jimmy Mundy and Benny Goodman; arranged by Jimmy Mundy.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Victor on June 15, 1936 in New York.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: George “Pee Wee” Erwin, first and solo trumpet; Nate Kazebier and Gordon “Chris” Griffin, trumpets; Sterling “Red” Ballard and Murray McEachern, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, first alto saxophone; Bill De Pew, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Dick Clark, tenor saxophones; Jess Stacy, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums.
Benny Goodman and his band opened at the Joseph Urban Room in the Congress Hotel in Chicago on November 6, 1935. Prior to this, they had finished a very successful stand at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles at the end of September, then played a profitable but far from record-breaking week at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles. They then worked their way from Los Angeles east, via Texas. This road trip had as many open dates in it as play dates. As the Goodman band began their stand at the Congress Hotel, they had not yet arrived at a place of secure success.
Fortunately, Benny’s management team had finagled a series of weekly NBC radio sustaining (unpaid) broadcasts from the Congress Hotel. These broadcasts kept Benny’s music on the air from late December 1935 until late February 1936. This enabled BG to begin to gather more fans, and in essence to audition on an ongoing basis for a sponsored radio show, where he and his band would be paid. This plan worked, as the Goodman band was signed for a thirteen-week period to broadcast weekly for Elgin watches, beginning in early March. The program was called The Elgin Review, and emanated from NBC’s Chicago broadcast studios in the Merchandise Mart. (At left: a print ad for the Elgin Review – May 1936.)
Benny also continued to record for Victor Records while he and his band were in Chicago. They made records on November 22, 1935 (7 acceptable takes); January 24, 1936 (four sides recorded); March 20 (three sides); April 23 (5 sides); and April 24 (two sides with the BG trio, and another with the trio and vocalist Helen Ward). They closed at the Congress Hotel on May 23, 1936.
The Goodman band’s almost seven months stay at the Congress Hotel, along with their recording for Victor and broadcasting for Elgin watches had been a break-even proposition for the band financially. However, that residency had garnered several other valuable benefits for Benny and his band. First and most valuable, they had been selected to replace Glen Gray and the Casa Loma band on the successful weekly CBS radio show The Camel Caravan. They would start broadcasting for Camel on June 30, 1036. Over the following three and a half years, that radio show would be the foundation of Benny Goodman’s continuing and increasing success as a bandleader.
The next benefit of the broadcasts from Chicago in the early months of 1936 was that Benny and the band had been signed to appear in a Hollywood feature film, The Big Broadcast of 1937, which would be produced by Paramount Pictures, and begin filming in July of 1936. In addition, their Victor Records contract had been renewed in April, and they were scheduled to appear again at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, working there for a part of the time they were also working on the Paramount film. By the time the Goodman band returned to New York in September of 1936, they were one of the most successful bands in America, and their success was continuing to increase day-by-day. (Above right: June of 1936 – Benny Goodman and Ben Selvin pose for a photo used to announce their taking over CBS’s Camel Caravan radio show. Within a short time, Selvin was out and BG had the show to himself.)
The music- part one:
Although Benny Goodman’s name is on “Swingtime in the Rockies” as a co-composer, he had nothing to do with composing that tune. The actual composer, Jimmy Mundy, shed light on this subject back in 1970: “I’d written this tune when I was with Earl (Hines), so I just brought it with me (to Benny). The original title was ‘Take It Easy.’ ‘Swingtime in the Rockies,’ that was Benny’s idea. I preferred mine.” (1) But the economic realities of the swing era were such that if a popular band recorded an original composition, very often (though not always), the leader of that band took co-composer credit for it as quid-pro-quo for getting the original tune recorded, for lending his name to it, and for performing and broadcasting it with his band as ongoing promotion for it. Also, by mid-1936, Benny Goodman was being promoted as The King of Swing.(*) Use of the word “Swingtime” in the title of this tune reinforced that market identity. Benny has rarely received credit for being market-savvy. But he was. All successful bandleaders had to be, at least to some extent. (Above left: Dorothy and Jimmy Mundy.)
In addition, in early 1936 Benny was looking for an arranger to replace Fletcher Henderson, who at that time was starting his latest band. The Earl Hines band was in Chicago then, working at the Grand Terrace Cafe’, while Benny was working at the Congress Hotel. Benny heard the Hines band, one of the hottest on the scene then, and began sounding out the musicians in Earl’s band who also arranged with offers to buy some of their charts, or to have them arrange a pop tune for him. He had Henri Woode arrange “Goody, Goody,” which was a hit for his band with a Helen Ward vocal. He had Jimmy Mundy arrange “The Glory of Love,” another vocal chart for Ms. Ward that Benny recorded. He also acquired Jimmy Mundy’s original compositions/arrangements on “House Hop” and “Take It Easy.” Previously, Goodman had successfully recorded Mundy’s original composition/arrangement “Mad House.” Benny liked Mundy’s work, so did the musicians in his band. And most important, so did audiences.
Mundy later added some details: “When I left Earl to go with Benny Goodman in 1936, it was on an exclusive basis. Benny and I didn’t get along too well, so I was always quitting. Then he would sweeten the pot (and I’d come back). This went on for quite a while, until 1939, when I had my own band for a time. …I guess my biggest number (with Benny) in terms of royalties, was ‘Swingtime in the Rockies.’ I still (in 1975) get royalties from that.” (1)
Eventually, Mundy wrote dozens of arrangements for Benny Goodman, many of which were recorded.(2) Although Mundy contributed much to the Benny Goodman legacy, he is far less known to Goodman fans than Fletcher Henderson. The two basic reasons for this are that Fletcher played an important role in the ascendancy of Goodman to his initial success, and that Benny genuinely liked him as a person. Mundy came on the Goodman scene a bit later than Henderson, and despite the fact that Benny liked his work as an arranger, he did not like Mundy as a person. Consequently, his work has not received the praise and prominence Henderson’s has received from Benny Goodman himself, and others. (Above right: Jimmy Mundy: He was a talented musician who found himself at the right place at the right time with the right people. He achieved a measure of financial success as a result.)
The music – part two:
This swing era celebration of rhythm opens with the saxophone quartet playing the minimalist main melody of “Swingtime in the Rockies” in their low register atop the chugging BG rhythm section, with Allan Reuss’s guitar prominent in the mix. The brass then appear in a higher register and unmuted, but being played into their metal derby mutes, playing the secondary theme against swirling reeds. The saxophones return to end chorus one. There follows a sequence where the reeds and open brass play riffs against each other antiphonally, building rhythmic excitement. The brass then add a bit of melody as a sonic contrast. They then play tag with the reeds in a swirl of swinging sounds. Trumpeter Pee Wee Erwin’s playing leading the trumpets through this sequence is excellent.
This is followed by the open trombones (and I think the two tenor saxophones) creating a downward riff that is punctuated by tart trumpet and saxophone section interjections. BG then steps forward for a brief solo, backed only by the rhythm section, creating a bridge into the next tract of rhythmic trombones, saxophones and trumpets.
The next chorus belongs to Mr. Goodman, who builds a smoldering solo against a background at first of riffing brass, then of Krupa’s rocking drums and cymbals. (The brass quintet are smoking at the end of this sequence.) Pee Wee Erwin, who was one of the top soloists of the early swing era, and a superb technician, plays some high notes against the powerfully riffing ensemble, to once again add to the rhythmic excitement. (Pee Wee Erwin is shown at left in the mid-1930s.) Benny returns with some more hot clarinet licks, then Krupa begins “dropping bombs” by playing strong off-beat accents on his bass drum more than five years before anyone began describing what he was doing as “dropping bombs.”
The denouement comes via a return to the smoothly swinging saxophone sounds that began this piece, but this time with an added sheen provided by Krupa’s top cymbal.
“Swingtime in the Rockies”
Recorded live in performance by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York on January 16, 1938.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Ziggy Elman first and solo trumpet; Harry James and Chris Griffin, trumpets; Red Ballard and Vernon Brown, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, first alto saxophone; George Koenig, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Irving “Babe” Russin, tenor saxophones; Jess Stacy, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums.
The story and the music:
The story of how Benny Goodman came to play his famous 1938 concert in Carnegie Hall is told elsewhere on this blog.(3) It will suffice to say here that that concert was a watershed event for a number of reasons. When one listens to the recordings made at the concert, magical music can be found quite often. In this recording, the magic comes when Benny plays solo and in conjunction with Gene, and when trumpeter Ziggy Elman plays the solo he had inherited in the Goodman band from Pee Wee Erwin.
The first thing one notices when comparing this recording of “Swingtime in the Rockies” with the BG/Victor recording of it is that Benny set a faster tempo for this performance. (At right: Hymie Shertzer and Ziggy Elman in 1937.) The ensemble unity of this band, as always, was impressive. The way they handled rhythm and accents in the music they played is an object lesson in what it is to swing. The fluid, riffing saxophones open the performance. The manic voice that you hear is Gene Krupa’s. The arrival of the open brass (led by Elman) with the secondary theme provides a strong sonic and dynamic contrast. The antiphonal playing of the reeds against the brass at this galloping tempo is superbly effective.
Mundy’s use of the low-register sounds of the trombones in rhythmic fashion is a key element to this arrangement’s impact. The first solo is played by tenor saxophonist Babe Russin. He was an impeccable section player and a very good jazz soloist. Unfortunately, at this concert his playing did not have much effect on the audience because his sound (and that of the saxophone section) was not amplified. Consequently, with everything else that was going on around him in the music at the time he played, the audience could barely hear him.
Benny’s clarinet solo is an excellent example of his ability to play well and swing at a brisk tempo. Along the way, he and Krupa engage in their patented duo playing at breakneck speed (something Benny had been doing with drummers since his days as a teen-aged sideman with drummer Ben Pollack), Benny’s fingers flying, Gene’s snare drum virtually exploding with rhythm.
Mr. Elman, never a shrinking violet, was confronted with a massive challenge after this demonstration of pyrotechnics: what to play to follow it that would not allow the excitement level drop. He comes on blasting and swaggering, then pulls a musical rabbit out of his hat – he doubles the tempo of his playing, which immediately electrified Krupa, who changed what he was playing to rocking back-beats. This had the effect of increasing the excitement of this performance, no mean feat given the explosive music that had preceded it.
After Elman’s solo, the band finishes the arrangement amidst a fusillade of Krupa drumbeats.
Gene Krupa – the camera loved him almost as much as swing fans.
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(*) Benny Goodman was referred to as The Rajah of Rhythm on NBC broadcasts from the Congress Hotel in early 1936. That sobriquet was undoubtedly devised by the marketing specialists at Music Corporation of America, Benny’s booking agency. However at about the same time, the catch-phrase The King of Swing had been applied to drummer Gene Krupa in various print advertisements, and someone, somewhere, perhaps Benny himself, thought it was a more effective description of him, so he began using it. The rest, is history.
(1) The World of Earl Hines (1977), by Stanley Dance, 200. A massive boost to Jimmy Mundy’s composer royalties for “Swingtime in the Rockies” came in the wake of Columbia Records producing the 1950 album of recordings from Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. That set of records sold extremely well when first released in the early 1950s, and for decades after.
(2) In addition to “Mad House,” “House Hop,” “Swingtime in the Rockies,” Jimmy Mundy arranged these tunes for BG: “Sing Me a Swing Song,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “These Foolish Things,” “There’s a Small Hotel,” “Jam Session,” He Ain’t Got Rhythm,” “Cherry,” and “Ridin’ High,” among many others.
Here are links to a couple of these:
Here are links to a few other Jimmy Mundy arrangements for Benny Goodman’s band:
(3) https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/01/01/reads-and-re-reads-benny-goodmans-1938-carnegie-hall-concert/ This post also includes the recording of “Don’t Be That Way” recorded at BG’s famous Carnegie Hall concert.
Here is another link to more story and music from Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/12/31/blue-reverie-1937-38-duke-ellington-and-benny-goodmans-1938-carnegie-hall-concert/