“Gabriel’s Heater” (1947) Erskine Hawkins with Haywood Henry and Julian Dash

“Gabriel’s Heater”

Composed and arranged by Russ Case and Erskine Hawkins.

Recorded by Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra for Victor on December 23, 1947 in New York.

Erskine Hawkins, solo trumpet, directing: Sammy Lowe, first trumpet; Robert Johnson, James Harris, C.H. Jones, trumpets; Bob Range, David James, Raymond Hogan and Matthew Gee, trombones; Robert “Bobby” Smith, first alto saxophone; Jimmy Mitchelle, alto saxophone; Aaron Maxwell and Julian Dash, tenor saxophones; Haywood Henry, baritone saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Don Michael, piano; Leroy Kirkland, guitar; Lee Stanfield, bass; Joe Murphy, drums.

The story:

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the music of Erskine Hawkins and his orchestra have received far less attention and critical comment than that of other great Afro-American bands from the swing era. Both Duke Ellington and Count Basie led bands for decades, bucked pop music trends, and presented consistently good and sometimes great music. Consequently, the body of work they created continues to interest musicians, fans and scholars.

Jimmie Lunceford led excellent bands through the 1930s and well into the 1940s before his premature death in 1947. Though not as well-known as the Ellington and Basie bands today, his music has nevertheless continues to find favor with swing cognoscenti, and a biography of Lunceford has been published. Chick Webb, another great musician who lived far too short a life (1905-1939), led bands from the late 1920s until his death. He was in the spotlight with the greater American public for only a few years in the late 1930s, and then, despite his fiery drumming and the quality of his band’s music, largely due to the contributions to his music made by the talented young singer Ella Fitzgerald. He too has been the subject of a biography. The multi-talented Benny Carter, who led bands sporadically from the early 1930s through much of the 1940s, and had a successful career in music covering seven decades, has fared better than many of his contemporaries with historians and scholars. Books about Carter do exist, but a comprehensive, scholarly biography is yet to be written.

Cab Calloway, another man who led very good bands through the 1930s and 1940s, and after that had a long and successful career as a nonpareil entertainer, has had at least one book written about him. The music of his bands nevertheless, is not of much interest to most swing aficionados, except for the recordings that present solos by the great, short-lived saxophonist Leon “Chu” Berry, and the great trumpeter John B. “Dizzy” Gillespie.

If one carefully listens to the music made by Erskine Hawkins and his orchestra from the late 1930s through the 1940s, most of which was recorded for the Bluebird subsidiary of Victor Records at first and later on the Victor label, one can find many performances that are on the same level of excellence as those of many of the best bands of the swing era. Indeed, the ensemble unity and quality of solos by the Hawkins band in many instances exceeds that of bands that were much better known to the general public.

The Hawk flies: Erskine Hawkins and his brass section in a photo taken at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in the mid-1940s. The trumpeter second from left is lead trumpet/arranger Sammy Lowe. The trombonist at far right is Bob Range.

Hawkins, like Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald, was represented by the Moe Gale Agency. Moe Gale himself, in addition to running his booking agency, had a business interest in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Although Gale operated successfully from the mid-1930s well into the 1940s, he like many other businessmen during the swing era, did not adapt successfully to the changes that swept the world of swing in the post-war period. Erskine Hawkins, who was grateful to Gale for turning him into a marquee bandleader in the late 1930s, followed Gale’s instructions to the letter. From the late 1930s well into the 1940s, Gale’s system of management worked well. However, in the post-war years, Gale continued doing what he had always done successfully to manage his artists, but found that the results he was getting were less and less successful. Whatever adjustments Gale made were not sufficient to counterbalance the large changes occurring in the pop music and jazz worlds of the late 1940s. Consequently, the success that Erskine Hawkins was able to achieve began ebbing through the late 1940s.

Although Hawkins continued operating a big band into the early 1950s, he found that doing that was becoming less and less feasible from a financial perspective. From the mid-1950s until well into the 1980s, he continued working, usually with small groups in venues where he didn’t have to travel. This satisfied his need to perform before audiences. The royalties he continued to receive for the music he had composed and recorded, especially “Tuxedo Junction,” provided him with a comfortable income. Unlike Ellington and Basie, Hawkins did not have the need to push himself to the limit at all times to advance his career.

The music:

Russ Case (1912-1964) was a trumpeter, arranger and conductor who worked during the 1930s primarily as a trumpet-playing studio musician. In the 1940s, he began to work more extensively as an arranger and conductor, and for a time in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, he was affiliated with Victor records as an A and R man (producer). He began a long and successful collaboration with singer Perry Como in the late 1940s on Victor Records. (Russ Case is shown at right in the 1940s.)

It is probably as a result of his work as a Victor producer that he came into contact with Erskine Hawkins in 1947. It is my informed speculation that Case supervised one or more of the Hawkins band’s Victor recording sessions, and that he and Hawkins decided to see what Case could come up with as the composer and arranger of an original tune created specifically for the Hawkins band. The result is the splendid “Gabriel’s Heater.”

This performance begins with a brassy four-bar introduction. The first chorus has the unison saxophone quintet presenting the main melody with tart brass punctuations. Notice the trills in the saxophone parts. The riffy bridge or secondary melody has the reeds, richly harmonized with Haywood Henry’s baritone saxophone prominent out front, supported by bursts of brass.

The second chorus is given over to the versatile and swinging Mr. Henry, now playing a bracing jazz chorus on clarinet. The pointillistic open trombones brass and syncopated saxophones in the background for the first half of this solo are a felicitous arranging touch by Russ Case. The backgrounds for the second half are different, centered around sighing open trombones. Haywood Henry demonstrates here that his jazz playing was excellent. (Above left – Haywood Henry swings out on baritone saxophone at the Savoy Ballroom – mid 1940s.)

After a brassy interlude that spots unison trumpets, tenor saxophonist Julian Dash (shown at right) steps forward with sixteen bars of jazz, presented with his big sound and swing. Supporting this solo are once again very colorful backgrounds courtesy of arranger Case.

Another interlude, this one showcasing the electric brass, sets the stage for Maestro Hawkins’s climactic open trumpet solo.

Based on research I have done over many years, I can say with reasonable certainty that Erskine Hawkins rarely improvised his trumpet solos. At least at first he didn’t improvise. His usual practice was to work with whoever arranged a piece and prepare his solo, and then have it written out as a part of the arrangement. After he’d played the prepared solo several times, he would begin to deviate from what was written, but not always. His solo here was in all likelihood worked out in collaboration with Russ Case, the composer and arranger of “Gabriel’s Heater,” who also happened to be an excellent trumpeter. It is a fine well-constructed solo, and he plays it with his usual mastery.

The last chorus is give over to ensemble riffing that shows how well-integrated this ensemble was. An upward key change provides the tonal impetus for a satisfying conclusion.

This is a very good swing recording that presents the Erskine Hawkins band playing an imaginative arrangement impeccably, along with three top-notch solos.

The title of this piece is a play on words. Erskine Hawkins was billed as The Twentieth Century Gabriel.” His “heater” was his trumpet. In addition, there was a radio commentator in the 1940s called Gabriel Heatter, whose World War II era sign-on was: “There’s good news tonight.” This became both his catchphrase and his caricature, as inevitably during the War, he often delivered news of Allied setbacks and casualties that were hardly “good news.”

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

Links:

Here are other great performances by Erskine Hawkins and his band:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/06/20/norfolk-ferry-1940-erskine-hawkins/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/08/26/soft-winds-erskine-hawkins-1940/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/01/16/song-of-the-wanderer-1940-erskine-hawkins/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/11/22/tuxedo-junction-erskine-hawkins-1939-and-glenn-miller-1940/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2022/06/24/swing-out-baltimore-bounce-and-gin-mill-special-1940-live-erskine-hawkins/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2021/03/13/tippin-in-1945-erskine-hawkins-with-bobby-smith-bobby-johnson-and-julian-dash/

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