Conversations with Gary Giddins: on Big Bands

May 10th, 2005

Gary Giddins


In the final column of his thirty year career as jazz critic of the Village Voice, Gary Giddins wrote, “I’m as besotted with jazz as ever, and expect to write about it till last call, albeit in other formats. Indeed, much in the way being hanged is said to focus the mind, this finale has made me conscious of the columns I never wrote.”

He went on to lament about not having written columns on the likes of Booker Ervin, Charlie Rouse, George Coleman and other musicians most easily categorized as “underrated.”

His farewell column inspired us to believe “Conversations with Gary Giddins” on Jerry Jazz Musician would be a great opportunity for Giddins to talk about those left behind. This May 10, 2005 conversation — the fourth and last in the “underrated” series — is devoted to big bands.  While the “underrated” theme is a topic of the discussion, Giddins covers a lot of ground, including his thoughts on many of the prominent musicians who have left their mark on big band music and beyond.

I have long wanted to let Jerry Jazz Musician readers know that having a conversation with Giddins — particularly about a topic he is so passionate about — is a provocative, educational, often hilarious, and unbelievably invigorating experience. Everyone who loves the history of jazz should be so lucky to have the opportunity of talking with him for an hour…I am privileged to have had about a dozen of them now.



 Conversation hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.



Weatherbird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century is the new collection of 140 pieces Giddins wrote over a fourteen year period, and is the companion volume to Visions of Jazz, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. In a recent Jerry Jazz Musician book review, Paul Morris writes of Weatherbird‘s riches, a review that includes a variety of book excerpts and sound samples.



The Duke Ellington Orchestra, 1937


“When you went to see Ellington, it wasn’t just him you were going to see; there were a dozen legendary figures in it, among the greatest musicians in the world. By the second or third number of the concert, I was so mesmerized by the band that I started walking toward the bandstand. When I got to the lip of the stage, there were a half dozen other people beside me, all of us with our jaws hanging right in front of the reed section. When those five musicians played together in unison, you could hear the cumulative sounds of the five saxophonists and clarinetists blending perfectly, almost like an organ chord. But at the same time you could also hear each individual voice in the blend. You could always hear Hodges, you could always hear Gonsalves, you could always hear Carney. That just blew my mind, to hear five completely unique and distinct individuals who could blend and be distinct at the same time. That was part of the excitement. Then there was the whole way he manipulated the band. On some pieces he would start out with long piano vamps, and you didn’t know where it was going. Each solo was set up like a beautiful little portrait in the middle of something, and then he would have background riffs for the soloists that were so lively and would seem so spontaneous — it was as though the band were improvising a duet with the soloists.”

– Gary Giddins


– Listen to Duke Ellington’s Orchestra play Black And Tan Fantasy



JJM  The big band era was one of the most important periods in the history of music. Both of us are too young to have participated in the era’s golden age — the swing era of the thirties and forties. What I imagine about the big band era is that it was filled with style, romance and elegance the likes of which I haven’t seen in my lifetime. What comes to your mind about this era?

GG  That’s all true about style and romance. You can’t separate the swing era from dance because the public was so involved with it. I tend to think that there were two big band eras; the first was the dance era of the thirties and early forties, and the second followed in the fifties, when there was a tremendous revival of interest by jazz composers in writing for large groups, led by a new generation of exciting arrangers and composers like Thad Jones, Gil Evans, Bill Holman, Gerry Mulligan, Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster, Sun Ra. The difference was that, unlike the first swing era, when music was performed primarily for dancers, theirs was a concert music featuring a larger group instead of a small group. Another great period began in the mid-sixties when Thad and Mel created the Monday night band at the Village Vanguard, leading to a whole slew of Monday night — or musicians’ night off — bands at various clubs in the seventies and eighties. That, in turn, led to the retro movement, which I found musically unlistenable, for the most part, but which also encouraged a revival of jazz repertory orchestras.

Today, a jazz big band can barely function commercially. It needs some kind of support. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, for example, is dependent on donations. But the Swing Era of, say, 1935-1947, was a period when organizations with fifteen to seventeen pieces, plus singers and arrangers, traveled the entire country, going to virtually every city of every size, playing in any kind of large ballroom, and people were coming out for them. It was a magical period. When we think of the big band era now, we think of the great bands that survived because they had enduring musical interest, and most of them were successful. Count Basie was a huge star, Duke Ellington’s records sold enormously well, as did Benny Goodman’s and Artie Shaw’s and others, but many people who actually lived in that era admired bands we don’t talk about, like Guy Lombardo, Hal Kemp, Sammy Kaye, and Kay Kyser. Kyser was so popular he became a minor movie star, yet he couldn’t play an instrument and got by chiefly on banal novelties.

Many bandleaders then were showmen — front men for orchestras. The point is that these bands — whether they were swing bands or sweet bands, hot or corny — provided dance music that had the whole country jumping in a way that it is hard to imagine now. And, because their music inspired the kind of dancing where people hold on to one another, there was a tremendous amount of romance attached to it. I’m not much of a dancer, but I danced to Ellington and Basie, among others, and there was nothing else like it — dancing to Basie’s band when it played the Palladium was euphoria. My wife and I had just met and we still talk about it.

JJM  People who lived during this time always light up when I bring up the swing era of the thirties. Sure, that may have something to do with the fact it was the time of their youth, but there is no denying the dance band culture was one of elegance and romance.

GG  Yes, it was such a different social era. People went to meet each other to dance, which inspired competitiveness concerning how well they danced and how elegant they were and how they dressed. When you went out, it was a night out to shine, to show yourself off. Martin Scorsese captures some of that feeling in the long opening scene of New York, New York. There was also the dark side, of course, like marathon dances that Horace McCoy wrote about in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which was made into a pretty good film; they were horrific, grueling spectacles almost medieval in their cruelty. Anita O’Day once told me about participating in a marathon. But for the most part, when you went out to a dance, you wanted to look your best, to have a good time, and when the band wasn’t playing, you could hear yourself think. There was silence, moments for conversation. When the band played something incredible, people stopped dancing, the music fans anyway, and hugged the bandstand to watch the musicians. John Lewis said that by 1940, Ellington was so daring that people were afraid to dance to his band, for fear of missing something. Yet people never stopped dancing to his band, till the very end. Most great bandleaders were showmen. Jimmie Lunceford’s band was one of the great dance bands, but it was also the greatest of show bands. People who witnessed that band never forgot its musical precision, the way the players looked and the kinds of tricks they would do, like throwing their instruments up in the air. A lot of things went into it.

JJM  Big band leaders also had to act as talent scouts. Who were the great talent scouts among the big band leaders?

GG  There was such a tremendous pool of musicians, and each band had its own avenues of recruiting. Some bandleaders did most of it themselves, but others assigned it to managers and straw bosses, or relied on recommendations from musicians and colleagues. Some of them didn’t want to put themselves in a position where they had to hire and fire. Ellington was famously disinclined to fire anybody. In the instance of Ray Nance, someone told Duke there was a guy in Chicago he should hear, and as there was an opening in the band, he went to hear him, liked what he heard, and hired him. Paul Whiteman hired Bing Crosby as the first solo vocalist ever to tour with a band on the recommendation of two members of the band who had seen Crosby’s vaudeville act — Whiteman hadn’t even heard him. I interviewed Count Basie and Woody Herman about this subject, and both said that when a musician left the band, it was his responsibility to recommend somebody for his seat.

JJM  Interesting……

GG  One of the reasons that a lot of the bands remained black or white after the war is because when a black musician left a band that was primarily black, he was likely going to recommend a friend. The musicians he grew up with and hung out with were probably black, and the same thing would be true of white players in largely white bands. So although Basie began to hire white guys, it remained a predominantly black band, just as Woody’s band remained mostly white. Herman’s band had a tradition where the departing player had to recommend a new musician to audition. That’s how chairs turned over.

JJM While revisiting some information in preparation for this interview, I was reminded about some of the great talent in these big bands, especially early on. Go down the list of the players in Fletcher Henderson’s band, for instance — Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman, Benny Carter, Cootie Williams — and this is early in the era when many of the players didn’t really have reputations…

GG  Yes and some raiding did take place. It wasn’t considered a nice thing to do, but the most famous example of that would be Goodman raiding Duke for Cootie Williams and apparently also trying for Johnny Hodges. Duke gave him his blessing about Cootie, remarking that he would be back, and he was — twenty years later. It was a big event when Cootie left. The composer Raymond Scott memorialized the occasions with his “When Cootie Left the Duke.” Until 1940 everything was so segregated that white bands only raided white guys, so when Goodman wanted Cootie, it was really something, not only because he was poaching a soloist closely associated with the Ellington sound, but also because he crossed the racial divide.

JJM  Paul Whiteman raided Jean Goldkette’s band, no?

GG  Well, he waited until the Goldkette band was falling apart. When he originally went to see them in Atlantic City, he told them that he didn’t believe in raiding, and had no interest in destroying the band, but if they found themselves without a band, he would be interested in hiring them. Eventually they went with him.

JJM Were big band arrangers more advanced and sophisticated in their thinking than the soloists they wrote for?

GG  I don’t know if they were more advanced, but I think that they had an unusual technical ability because they could think in terms of notating ideas the soloists were playing and expand them into formal musical works. Many arrangers were basically taking what the soloists were doing and using those ideas as the basis of their orchestrations. One of the things that make Benny Carter’s famous reed section episodes so exciting is that they sound like a Benny Carter solo. And Don Redman famously said that after he heard Louis Armstrong play, he changed his entire style of arranging. The Basie band grew organically out of the nature of his rhythm section and the kind of soloists he employed — especially Lester Young. Once arrangers get to know the band’s stylists, they write arrangements or compositions for them. Ellington, for example, was the composer for his own orchestra, and if he assigned things to other people they were going to write in the Ellington style. On the other hand, a band like Woody Herman’s succeeded because it reflected the styles of so many great writers he brought in over the years, and the band constantly changed because of it. It went from being a dance band to a blues band to a bebop band and eventually a concert orchestra. Woody didn’t like playing for dancers, at least in the later years. He told me once that Glenn Miller told him he hated “those motherfucking dancers,” which we both thought was pretty ironic.

JJM Herman was famous for keeping up with the times, and for altering his band to meet the changes.

GG  Yes, he got a very negative review once in the New York Times from John Wilson, who hated the electric piano Woody used in the seventies. After the review appeared, Woody ran into John at the Half Note in midtown Manhattan, and he really accosted him, insisting that Wilson could afford to be behind the times, but that he –Woody — couldn’t. He had to concern himself with appealing to audiences by giving them what they want to hear while also staying on the cutting edge of the music. Everything he said made perfect sense. When the electric piano fad faded, it disappeared from his band as well.

Woody had a powerful sense of integrity. He discovered a trombonist, Jimmy Pugh, who was a tremendously skillful player. After a few years in Woody’s band, he left to do studio work, where he made a good living performing jingles and that kind of thing. Woody was furious. He didn’t feel you get into a band of his quality to end up playing jingles — to him it was about the art, and if you have talent you don’t waste it on selling toothpaste. So the guys who played in that band were very loyal to him because he loved the musicians and he loved the music. It was the same with Basie. Basie ruled without hardly saying a word — he did it all from the piano. He had a straw boss, saxophonist Bobby Plater, who would rehearse the orchestra, and when they got the arrangements letter-perfect, Basie came in and the arrangement would change completely just by the nature of the way his piano altered the rhythm section. At times, if he found passages were cluttered, he showed himself to be a canny editor, cutting stuff until a piece had economy and space to breathe.

JJM Who were some of the underrated big bands?

GG  When you talk about underrated, you have to distinguish between bands that may not have received attention during their era but should have, and those that were popular then but are neglected now. Lucky Millinder’s band, for instance, was influential in its day but never quite broke through at the time because it was playing the kind of jazz/r&b that Lionel Hampton owned. I’m more concerned with bands that may have been large in their day but are now forgotten. I am amazed at how many jazz fans and critics don’t really know Jimmie Lunceford, one of the central figures of the Swing Era. Gunther Schuller thinks his was one of the three most important concepts of orchestral jazz. Sy Oliver was the primary arranger, but Eddie Durham and Eddie Wilcox and others arranged as well. Gerald Wilson played trumpet in Lunceford’s band, and got his start writing for him. Lunceford’s band had an incredible sparkle to it, and the records can knock your socks off. It is hard to believe the things they did, the precision, the irony, the maneuvering between the sentimental and the ultra-hip.

There have been many attempts to recapture the sound of the band — Billy May did one, and of course the American Jazz Orchestra took a shot that I’m very proud of. But Lunceford is ultimately untouchable. The way Oliver’s writing and the Jimmy Crawford rhythm section implied a two beat rhythm even though they were basically playing four gave it a unique bounce. They incorporated popular songs that most other bands wouldn’t dare touch, like “Annie Laurie,” a folk song from the nineteenth century and one of Lunceford’s very best recordings, a masterpiece without a wasted note —every soloist scores, especially Trummy Young. I’d put that on the short list of great big band recordings. Then there’s corny material like “On The Beach At Bali-Bali,” which they turned into something at once coy and passionate, or even “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down.” One of Lunceford’s great recordings is Sy Oliver’s ingenious arrangement of “Organ Grinder’s Swing,” where every eight bars has a different combination of instruments, so it is constantly shifting and changing, yet it has a smooth, delicate, beautifully engaged sense of swing. I don’t know why people don’t get the Lunceford band. Chick Webb’s band is one that doesn’t get as much attention as it should. And Any Kirk’s — the Mary Lou Williams arrangement of her piece “Walkin’ and Swingin'” is flawless.

Because some of the white bands made a lot of pop records, people forget what great jazz orchestras they were, Tommy Dorsey’s chief among them. He hired Sy Oliver away from Lunceford, and had many great players, yet most people think of the Dorsey band as the one in which Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford sang. It had much more than them — Buddy Rich and Joey Bushkin were in the rhythm section, Bunny Berigan played in the orchestra for a while, and Tommy’s trombone sound gave it a special feeling, dark and contemplative. Artie Shaw’s band was terrific. One of the reasons I don’t think he gets the attention he deserves is because it has been fifty years since he was a functioning musician, but with his passing I expect there will be a rediscovery. There has to be, because no one sounded quite like Artie Shaw — the drama and calculation and, when he was really on top, elation. Shaw had his own style of organizing bands, using strings and singers. He was a complete individualist, hiring arrangers of varied backgrounds, taking all kinds of chances, and never feeling compelled to play in the particular style of a particular period.

JJM  You mentioned Bunny Berigan. Is his role in the swing era truly appreciated?

GG  Probably not, because he died so young. Berigan was a great trumpet player who had an unusual career. He made one of the most durable hit records in jazz history, “I Can’t Get Started,” which he actually recorded twice, once for Columbia, and the longer hit version, for Victor. It was a very simple idea — the orchestra played dramatic chords to count off the measures, and Berigan played trumpet phrases based on those chords, jumping away from them and building to a climax. He then sings a chorus, followed by a similar trumpet chorus even more exciting than the first. It was a long record, over four minutes, and at one point was released on two sides. Which may be why a BMG compilation came out a few years ago including only the first half; BMG is a company that frequently does things that seem to have no purpose other than to assure consumers that it really is run by idiots. I don’t think the whole performance is in print as we speak.

Yet this recording was on jukeboxes all over the country well into the seventies. There were bars in New York not long ago that had rock golden oldies on their jukeboxes, as well as Bunny Berigan’s “I Can’t Get Started.” But for some reason, even though that arrangement was an ideal format for him, he never made another record like it. I am a big fan of Berigan’s, and I think that his band made quite a few good records — I like his version of “Caravan” very much, “The Lady From Fifth Avenue,” “Turn on that Red Hot Heat,” “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” “Mama I Wanna Make Rhythm,” and the incomparable “All Dark People Are Light On Their Feet,” which is about dancing, not sexual orientation. I find his Bix adaptations a bit wearying, but he is due for a serious anthology. He didn’t have the hippest arrangers and at times he gave too much face to other players. He was a serious drinker, and so a better sideman than bandleader, which could also be said for Jack Teagarden. But Berigan was there when Goodman was putting together his band, and when Tommy Dorsey was putting together his band, and he usually delivered.

JJM Would you consider Benny Carter an underrated big band leader?

GG  Oh man, his band was the most underrated of the forties. He could never afford to successfully keep a band, which was a great source of disappointment to him. But he wasn’t interested in only having a dance band, and some of his music was just a little too sophisticated for most people. So even though he had a roster of musicians that included J. J. Johnson, Max Roach, and Miles Davis, among others, and so innovative in his use of singers, the band never really had a success. The closest he ever had to a hit was a song he co-wrote called “Cow Cow Boogie,” which Ella Mae Morse recorded, but not with his band. I think he did have a minor hit with a Savannah Churchill vocal — I can’t recall the title and doubt if I heard it. His recording of “More Than You Know,” featuring Benny’s trumpet and Leroy Felton’s bass-baritone vocal is another one for the shortlist.

Another underrated leader like that is Red Norvo. His band had three things going for it that should have put it over the top: Red’s xylophone, Mildred Bailey’s vocals, and Eddie Sauter’s arrangements. While Mildred was one of the great big band singers of all time — she was the first woman ever to tour permanently with a big band while when she joined with Whiteman’s orchestra — Sauter’s music was too subtle for many people. The band didn’t swing hard enough, preferring big, cloudy harmonies, the kind that to some degree are associated with Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans in later years So, while Norvo made a lot of great records like “Remember,” he never went over that big with the public.

Getting back to Carter, I love how his arrangements swing so naturally. There is such a sense of spontaneity in his writing. Somebody once said that nobody can write for a reed section quite like Benny, and I think he and Ellington are the two who really knew how to make unison saxophones charge. Maybe his band, and Norvo’s too, was too introverted to make it with the general public. He spent the peak years of the swing era in Europe, where his influence was decisive. That recording session he did with Django and Hawkins in 1937 is about as good as it gets. Hawk’s work on “Out of Nowhere” is one of the great tenor solos.

JJM  My own experience with him is ever evolving. He and Hodges were the best alto players…

GG  I agree. Certainly in the pre-Parker period, they were the guys on the alto sax, and Benny’s style never dated. I don’t think Hodges did either, but Benny stays modern in a peculiar way. His melodies are so indigenous to him, his approach to harmony so original, and he doesn’t swing in a conventional way. When I was a fellow at the Smithsonian Critics Colloquium in D.C. thirty-some years ago, I had a polite argument with Martin Williams about who swings and who doesn’t swing. We were trying to work up a definition of it, and he said that Benny Carter was a puzzle to him because he didn’t think he swung as a saxophonist, but that he did as an arranger and as a trumpet player. I don’t agree but I know what he meant. His rhythmic approach is different. I think he swings brilliantly, but it is an intellectual kind of pacing that makes you pay attention to what he is playing. He phrases in ways that don’t fall into obvious rhythmic patterns. You are more likely to get lost in parabolas of melody than mindlessly tap your foot.

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2 comments on “Conversations with Gary Giddins: on Big Bands”

  1. Giddins is so knowlegeable and also accessible. I’m an older listener and grew up on the 30s bands, including Lunceford. The Benny Carter/Savannah Churchill side is “Hurry Hurry.” But don’t forget “Poinciana” and “Malibu” from that same period. Mosaic has them on its Capitol Classic Sessions set. And don’t forget his trumpet playing during this 40s period either. Thank you, Gary Giddins.

  2. I’ve read two of Gary’s books and enjoyed them immensely.

    With respect to Kenton — he hired great arrangers, most notably Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, Paich, Rugulo, Holman, Bill Matheiu, Richards, Dee Barton, Gene Roland — let them do their thing, and did his best to record them well. If you don’t dig Rugulo writing for Kenton, check out his glorious writing for June Christy. Thad was also a wonderful writer for singers — check out his charts for Joe Williams, Ruth Brown, and Bill Henderson (“My How The Time Goes By” is exhibit A).

    I view the Mulligan Big Band of the 60s and the Thad/Mel band as the culmination of the Big Band continuum, and worthy of consideration with Duke and Basie. Holman and Johnny Mandel are still at it, turning out great work, and Brookmeyer, certainly in the league of the greatest writers (and a very interesting player), left us a few years ago with a masterpiece called “Standards.”

    Also in the under-appreciated category I’d include Maynard’s band of the 50s and 60s, with great writers and great players.

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