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America’s Greatest Music: The Diamond Anniversary of two Artie Shaw Classics November 18, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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The legendary Artie Shaw and his band recorded two songs 75 years ago today that personified why he was one of the best of the best of that era or of any era.

Seventy-five years ago today, the great Artie Shaw recorded two of his greatest records.  No, not the greatest of them all, which of course is his venerable, timeless, “Begin the Beguine”, but these two are quite close to the top.

One of which is “Between A Kiss And A Sigh”,

While the other is “Deep In A Dream”.  Both feature the superb lyrics of a young Helen Forrest, who made her major league debut with Shaw’s band before moving on to Benny Goodman at the beginning of 1940.

Both recordings are wonderful in that they personify the difficult combination of music that exudes smoothness while at the same time maintaining a good, bouncy tempo.  These two tunes give the sensation of being in a high-brow Art Deco nightclub in the late 1930s, which is always the ideal of where one wants to be for a night on the town!

As far as the lyrics go, they are relatively simple compared to the unmatched eloquence of something penned by, say, Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin.  This particularly pertains to the former song, though the latter is not devoid of vivid lyrics.  One example:

“The smoke makes a stairway for you to descend:  You come to my arms; my this bliss never end!”

What this shows is that even songs that would by themselves not make the cut for the Great American Songbook are still timeless when given the right kind of arrangement and are paired with the right performer.  Obviously this is the case with both of these records.  But what is also shows is that even if their lyrics cannot match the poignance of Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” or the vivid metaphors of Porter’s “You’re the Top,” they nevertheless are well-written enough to remind us yet again that when it came to writing songs and making music in general, these tunes were from a time when there was an embarrassments of riches — of great lyrics!

And on top of that, they’re just great records.

But wait, there’s more!  In addition to the two aforementioned hits, he recorded a few others on Nov. 17 , 1938 as well, such as his version of “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise,” the lyrics of which were written by none other than Oscar Hammerstein II in 1928.  But in typical Artie Shaw fashion, he scrapped the lyrics this time and concentrated on the music itself.

Disclaimer:  Artie Shaw recorded on RCA Bluebird.  What they show in the video is a mid-1950s Mercury label.  Why, I don’t know.  Furthermore, all of these tunes would have been cut and pressed on 78 RPM records, not 45’s, which were not introduced until 1949.

But I digress.  The band also recorded one of their versions of “Copenhagen” during this same session.

If that’s not enough, Artie Shaw and his band also cut a nice ditty in “Thanks For Everything”, surely a sentiment we love to share with friends, loved ones, and significant others alike.  Naturally, Helen Forrest’s vocals add just the right tough to this track.

Diamond Anniversary of Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall January 16, 2013

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BG-album-carnegie-hall-jazz-concertToday, Jan. 16, marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most historic concerts in American history.  For it was on this day in 1938 that Big Band, the music that defined American culture for four decades within the 20th Century, officially went Big Time.  Benny Goodman and his band performed at world-famous Carnegie Hall on that date, to a sellout crowd, and into the history books.  True, Paul Whiteman, the purported “king of jazz” in his day did perform at that historic venue the previous decade, but Big Band, or Swing, was far more refined, more focused, and more definitive a subgenre than the broad category of “jazz,” and it was finally given its big break into the mainstream of American popular culture.

Needless to say, this was no typical Benny Goodman gig.  For one, the make-up of the band was different during some of the tunes that were played.  Granted, most of the overall performance was by the usual players in the band, and photographic evidence of the concert backs this up.  Moreover, some of his bigger names in the band were also present; Gene Krupa on drums and Louisville native Lionel Hampton on vibraphone were both there, as were Teddy Wilson and Jess Stacey alternating at piano.  Harry James, then Goodman’s first-chair trumpet, was also on hand to give some memorable solos, and Martha Tilton, arguably the best female vocalist under Goodman’s employ, was present to sing during certain numbers.

But the band makeup was different for some of the numbers in the program in that there were players used to [temporarily] fill in various side-man roles; a talented makeup of musicians from Duke Ellington’s and Count Basie’s bands.  The rationale for this unusual move was twofold:  for one, this was an historic occasion, and the folks that spearheaded this whole idea in the first place put on the concert under the theme of “celebrating twenty years of jazz.”  As such, they wanted to pay some homage to the Duke and do updated versions of jazz tunes from the 1920s and early ‘30s.  That explained bringing in the Duke’s boys.  Ellington himself was invited, but he politely demurred, which paid off as he would be given his own moment in the sun at Carnegie a couple of years later.  Some of Count Basie’s players were brought in at the behest of John Hammond, the A&R man for Columbia Records and a friend of Goodman.  Hammond recognized that Basie’s ensemble was up-and-coming throughout 1937, and by including some of his players (including the legendary saxophonist Lester Young), it would give the ensemble for the concert an All-Star band feel.

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Benny Goodman in the foreground, with Gene Krupa on drums at left, Allan Reuss on rhythm guitar behind the sax section. Babe Russin is to the immediate left and Art Rollini is to the immediate right of Benny. At the far right corner, one can see some of the last-minute concert patrons in the “jury box” on stage!

Another break from precedence was how the show began.  Goodman usually opened up his gigs with “Let’s Dance,” which he had used for that purpose since at least 1935 (though he never cut a studio record of it until October of 1939, and by that time he left RCA for Columbia).  But instead, for this special show, he opted to kick things off with “Don’t Be That Way” instead.  Edgar Sampson wrote the tune.  An earlier song of his was “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” with which Goodman had a big hit in early 1936.  Moreover, Chick Webb had hits with both tunes as well, in 1936 and 1934, respectively.  Goodman, ironically, did not record a studio version for RCA until a week after this historic gig.  But irony or no, it did get things started off on the right foot.

Commercially, from the start, the concert was already a success.  Tickets sold out very quickly upon announcement of the show, but demand for tickets remained so high right up to Jan. 16 that they had to add some “jury box” seating literally on the stage.  For almost two hours, history was made, with the band performing 23 different numbers, including a few by the quartet consisting of Goodman, Wilson, Hampton, and Krupa.

The musical performance line-up for the concert was as follows (note ALL TRACKS have been linked to Youtube clips for your listening pleasure!):

Don’t Be That Way

One O’Clock Jump (likewise recorded in studio a month after the concert)

Sensation Rag

I’m Coming Virginia

When My Baby Smiles At Me

Shine

Blue Reverie

Life Goes to A Party

Honeysuckle Rose

Body And Soul

Avalon

The Man I Love

I Got Rhythm

Blue Skies

Loch Lomond

Blue Room

Swingtime In The Rockies

Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen

China Boy

Stompin’ At The Savoy

Dizzy Spells

Sing, Sing, Sing, (With A Swing)  — see clip below!

Big John’s Special

Of course, Goodman and his band saved the best for almost-last with a live, 12-minute rendition of Louie Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.”  He had a hit with it in the summer of ’37, which took up both sides of a 78 RPM record at about seven and a half minutes.  This one was longer thanks to a tongue-twisting trumpet solo by Harry James, extra Goodman clarinet solos, and even a piano solo by Jess Stacey with minimal musical accompaniment.  Let us not forget Gene Krupa carrying the whole number with his drumming, either!  In fact, he used this as a springboard to start up his own band later that year.

Better yet, though, after such an incredible performance, instead of taking all night to bask in the glow of applause in adulation, he signaled for the band to “cool down” like a horse after a race and break into “Big John’s Special.”  Always the professional, Goodman was!

The next day after the concert, while everyone was reading the diversity of reviews in the papers, someone observed to Goodman, “it’s too damned bad somebody didn’t make a record of this whole thing.”  Benny smiled back and replied “[S]omebody did.”  Indeed, a single microphone hung aloft over the band during the concert, hard-wiring the electric signals (and the music they were carrying) straight to CBS’s recording studios.  Two record copies were made.  One headed straight to the Library of Congress, while the other was lost into obscurity, until one of Goodman’s daughter’s unearthed it at the family’s house twelve years later.  When she showed it to her father, he quickly and wisely transferred the records to tape before listening to — and thus re-living — the concert a dozen years after the fact.  The concert was quickly published as an album on Columbia, thus allowing generations of big band/jazz fans to relive it as well over the past 63 years.  But 75 years ago, one night showed that a music that helped define American culture had truly come in to its own, which is incidentally another reason we have to thank Benny Goodman and the players in his band for his/their cultural contribution.

Addendum 01-24-13

Here is a clip of a cinematically-recreated scene from Goodman’s concert at Carnegie Hall, from “The Benny Goodman Story” (1955).

The part of Goodman was played by Steve Allen, but Krupa and James actually played themselves and did their own solos in this re-enactment of their historic “Sing, Sing, Sing” rendition during the concert.