In 1967, Macmillan published the first edition of George T. Simon’s The Big Bands, an entertaining and essential account of the era that was hailed at the time by the Los Angeles Times as “the definitive volume in its field.” Simon, whose credits include being an early drummer in Glenn Miller’s band, was editor of dance band publication Metronome from 1939 – 1955, and during the 1960’s wrote regularly as a critic for the The New York Post and The New York Herald-Tribune.
In Part Four of the Second Edition (printed in 1971), Simon visits with several of the iconic big band leaders he profiles in his book, and asks them to express their opinions about rock and roll, the Beatles, and the generation gap. Their responses — now 43 years in the rear-view mirror, and excerpted here from Simon’s book — are worth revisiting.
“…when people who interview me ask me about certain types of things in music, like little things that’s going on — I can’t comment on some of them, because I don’t know what it’s all about. Of course, when they ask me about rock, I tell them I think some of it is real great and I think a lot of the kids are composing some nice songs. We don’t know how long they will last. I do think the Beatles have done some fine things. Everybody likes ‘Something’ and ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Michelle.’ And they have lasted.”
How does one begin to understand types of music that at first hearing don’t make too much sense, or at least strike some affirmative response? “Well, let me tell you about what happened when we played on the same bill with a group in San Francisco a couple of years ago. I really didn’t know what was going on the first night, so I went back very early the next night to listen. The kids were all sitting on the floor, listening. And I began to understand it a little better than I did the night before, and I began to see that there was something going on there that was a little interesting. And then, more and more I heard a little more and more and more of this thing, and finally I began to get a little closer to this movement.”
Count Basie, 1971
“Let me tell you something strange about this thing we call the generation gap. We’ve been like getting away and not even trying to meet them in any kind of way.”
What did “this movement” show Basie? Did it mean the kids were into something of substance? “It’s got to be! It’s got to be! Anytime you can catch a bunch of kids — and these kids weren’t full of anything — they weren’t juiced — they weren’t drugged — all sitting on the floor, strictly obedient, listening — this has got to mean something. Now, if they could be that obedient to an artist or a group, something’s got to be happenin’ there. Later, when we played they all stood up and some of them danced when we played some of our slower things. Then, when we played our faster things, they looked up and they tried to understand what we were doing. I don’t know whether they respected our age, or whatever it was, but they were very nice to us and they were very receptive. And then, when we were done and their kids came on, they sat down again and listened. There’s something there — really!
“Let me tell you something strange about this thing we call the generation gap. We’ve been like getting away and not even trying to meet them in any kind of way. But it’s a little different with them. They are always sittin’ around and thinking, and listening, too. It’s wonderful. Like they say, ‘We want you to know, Mr. Basie, we really enjoyed your concert tonight, and I’m only fourteen, or I’m only seventeen, and we liked it very much.’ They’re trying to dig it. And sometimes, we play universities, they ask us to play certain charts they play, because they say they want to see if they sound anything like them.
“All the kids are beginning to dig the big bands now. ‘We like the sound,’ they say. But, if there’s going to be hope for the big bands, they’re going to have to play a little different music. Maybe you can still play your style, but it’s got to bend toward their way – meet them halfway, at least – give it a little of their flavor. We do a little of that – not too much – just a couple of little licks, or two or three, here and there, just enough to let them know that we know they’re alive. That means so much. And the adults want to hear those new touches, too. Of course, there are still the die-hards who yell, ‘Play “Shiny Stockings”‘ or ‘Play “Every Tub.”‘ But they’re gettin’ fewer and fewer now.”
Then Bill turned to the great musical leveler, the blues. “Now you know there’s one thing that won’t EVER die! In some way, there’ll always be room for the blues – maybe some slight changes, like a little note here and a little note there, but it’s still the blues and it still makes it and it always will. Today, it’s got to be a little ‘contemp’ in there, but you can still hold on to your own identity. You just can’t stay back there anymore. You got to step up a little bit. The kids are tryin’ to step back a little toward you, so who are you not to step up a little bit toward them!”
Woody Herman, 1971
Unlike some other Big Band Era leaders, Woody digs many of the young composers. “Take the Beatles. As composers, as individuals and collectively, they have proven that they have a complete understanding of the music they dig and want, and they can produce it and produce it very well. And it has stood up extremely well, right from the beginning, songs like ‘Michelle’ and ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Something’ — the ones that the Boston Pops and all the legitimate people throughout the world picked up on. This proves that their melodies, their lyrics and their harmonic structure have lasting qualities. For me, ‘Something’ is one of the most unusual pieces of all times. Every one of their pieces has had something to say with a certain amount of freshness. Probably their only predictable thing is ‘Let it Be,’ which is like ‘Sittin’ in the Amen Corner’ or ‘Amen’ or all the things that we did a hundred years ago. Of course, I’m not talking about the teeny-bopper things they wrote for a specific audience and sang and played for a specific audience, because that was just taking care of business.”
Harry James, 1971
Harry’s opinions about today’s music reveal the same degree of tolerance and respect for true talent that has characterized his earlier opinions. Of rock, he says, “It has definitely matured. The singers are singing better, and the bigger orchestras have made it all more interesting. And some of those young musicians play very well. You know, I was one of the first Blood, Sweat and Tears fans. I got them into Las Vegas. I loved the fact that they were all such good musicians.”
James found in recent years a growing enthusiasm for big bands. “You can see it in the bigger bands the kids are using and listening to. But there’s more to it than that. There are the adults, too. They’re coming out more again. It seems like they’re saying, ‘To hell with the kids having all the fun. Let’s us have some too!’ And they are – thank goodness!”
And what about today’s audiences? Do the kids have the proper perception, or shouldn’t they be messing with jazz? Stan isn’t sure. “I have a feeling that many of the young people are getting more sophisticated in their desires. A lot of them are through with this kindergarten music. But I still think that the big problem is that today’s tunes are so adolescent. The lyrics are so childish. The melodies are so simple. As far as the Beatles are concerned, I think most of their music is still children’s music.”
When Stan wants to make a point, he talks very slowly — for him. “If the Beatles can be credited with one thing,” he almost drawled, “it is that they came along and they made fans out of six- and seven-year-old kids. They took it down that low. And the adults went for that stuff, because I think it’s natural that an adult feels a kid is more perceptive and hip. And so they started looking at those things and started reading things into them. But there really wasn’t anything there. It’s just children’s music. You compare the Beatles’ lyrics with those of some great writers like Johnny Burke, Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Van Heusen or Sammy Cahn — are we kiddin’ each other?
Stan Kenton, 1971
“If the Beatles can be credited with one thing,” he almost drawled, “it is that they came along and they made fans out of six- and seven-year-old kids. They took it down that low.”
“Fifty percent of Americans are beneath twenty-five years old today. Does that mean the rest of us have to live like kindergarteners? But radio is programmed today to appeal to the young kids. TV is now geared to the eight- and -ten-year-old mentality. Where the hell do people go that are hungry for something more sophisticated? Do they have to eat all that s -t all the time? To me, you look at pop art and that’s what you see on kindergarten walls. That’s not mature. There’s nothing there.”
Kenton, as forceful, as hopeful, as conscientious as ever, would like to help fill that vacuum. “I’m in a position right now in my life to help a whole lot of people express themselves; help them find their identity; help clear up a whole lot of confusion in music education; help clear up some of the confusion today that’s in the recording industry that is rank; help people discover what is the doughnut and not the hole. The important thing is to keep interested in people. What else counts? Birds and the sky and trees and all that crap? That doesn’t really mean anything. The people are the most important thing.”
Obviously, Stan Kenton has been doing a great deal of soul-searching. Obviously, he has grown beyond the man who for years seemed to be obsessed with only his music. “Now I deal in human beings all the time, just like ministers deal in human beings and football coaches deal in human beings, and whether you make wheelbarrows, whether you play music, whether you’re in religion, your whole human obligation is how do you bring people out of themselves and make people out of human beings. You bring a young musician along – you nurse him – and all of a sudden he tells you to f-k yourself and he flies away. It’s beautiful!”
Guy Lombardo, 1971
Has Guy discovered anything new in music these days that has excited him? Hardly. “I just don’t think the way they do. Those guitars don’t thrill me a goddamn bit. I’ve had too much musicianship in my background. But rock and roll certainly hasn’t hurt us any,” continued Guy, returning again to his commercial approach. “Our business is as good as, if not better than it’s ever been.”
“You know whose music I really used to love? Hal Kemp’s. And today, I think the Tijuana Brass is just great.” And again the shift to commercialism, “People who buy their records buy our records.”
And then, finally, Guy offered what could be either his overall philosophy or his prescription for success in music – or both. “Anything that’s popular,” he said very simply, “I like.”
Now that his music has become a part of the past only, how does Artie feel about the music of the present, like that of the Beatles or Blood, Sweat and Tears?
“I don’t know. I’m really not terribly interested in singers. I never was. I mean, a singer to me is Billie Holiday. But I don’t care very much about people getting up and telling me, “Hold my hand and I’ll understand.’ I don’t care who it is. If that sounds terrible, I’m sorry. I mean, I have nothing against the Beatles. They created a way of living. They were also the product of a mass medium.”
Artie Shaw, 1971
The dimensions of the success of some of today’s groups astound Shaw — and distress him as well. “They can’t seem to have any kind of humility about them, these kids. Don’t they know how lucky they are? Do they think they really deserve all that adulation?
And what about what the Beatles have contributed musically? “Not very much. Basie has done more. Ellington has done more. I did more. Goodman did more. We did something musically. These people haven’t done very much musically. Sure, they wrote some fairly nice songs, but then so did Cole Porter, and so did Larry Hart and so did Rodgers. So did Hammerstein. As I said, the Beatles have written some fairly good things, but you’re not going to ask me to take ‘We All Live in a Yellow Submarine’ very seriously, are you? I mean, hardly as a musical statement.”
“…Now, I don’t want to leave this subject on the basis that it sounds like some guy looking at the present and saying, ‘Well, we were better in the old days.’ I don’t believe that. I think that the best of today ranks very favorably with the best of any day. But the best is rare. There is very little of that nowadays.
“And I don’t think that because the Beatles were the biggest that they were necessarily the best musicians around. I read that little piece by Paul McCartney where he was talking about the Beatles corporation busting up, and they sounded like something out of Gulf and Western and a merger between that and McGraw-Hill.”
The dimensions of the success of some of today’s groups astound Shaw — and distress him as well. “They can’t seem to have any kind of humility about them, these kids. Don’t they know how lucky they are? Do they think they really deserve all that adulation? It’s kind of dumb. Beethoven never got it at his peak. Mozart never got it, Bach never got it. It’s kind of strange to say, ‘I’m a Beatle. I’m getting all this money, and, man, I’m important!’ They’re an important piece of mass phenomenon – that’s all – who caught on with a bunch of liberated kids who had enough money to buy records and dictate tastes, and could scream and yell. But the very fact that they screamed so loud that you couldn’t hear the music told me a great deal about how much the music actually had to do with it.
“You know what? They weren’t buying music. They were doing just what they did in my day – screaming too loud to hear what they were screaming for. And stopping anyone else who wanted to hear it.”
Book excerpts from The Big Bands, by George T. Simon