The Tiffany Club continued to offer customers a diet of first class Dixieland jazz when Landis booked Sharkey Bonano and His Dixieland Band following Muggsy Spanier. The Bonano group opened on June 21, 1951 and continued to offer patrons the best in two beat jazz through July 8th. Bonano’s band had appeared earlier in 1951 at Chicago’s upscale Palmer House. George Hoefer profiled that engagement in the February 23, 1951 issue of Down Beat.
Sharkey Brings Dixie To Austere Palmer House
By GEORGE HOEFER Down Beat – February 23, 1951
Chicago—Sharkey Bonano and His Kings of Dixieland play “When the Saints Go Marching In” as they parade single file onto the dance floor of the austere Empire room in Chicago’s Palmer House. You realize a Dixieland revival is in full sway as the New Orleans boys beat out their unschooled, happy music on the spot where Hildegarde used to sit at her piano waving her handkerchief for silence.
Joe (Sharkey) Bonano leads his Crescent city six with a driving trumpet, lively vocals, and terse announcements. The band is billed as a floor show attraction and consequently is the only band in Chicago working seven nights a week.
Joe got his nickname when just a baby from his brother-in-law, a great fan of Tom Sharkey, the ex-boxer.
Sharkey at first had a yen to play clarinet, but the brother-in-law said the instrument was too expensive and bought an old cornet from the late Buddy Petit for $2.50. Lessons were unthought of and the young cornetist fell into the music with the help of Chink Martin, who plays bass in Sharkey’s band today. Chink was a good guitar player and showed Sharkey a lot about chords.
The brother-in-law owned a dancery near Lake Ponchartrain, and Frank Christian, a cornet player, had the band there until he was called to New York to replace Nick LaRocca in the Original Dixieland Jazz band. Martin was also in the group, and he and the brother-in-law decided to give Sharkey a chance. Sharkey says: “It was for economical reasons, as I worked for a lot less than other trumpet players they could get.” This happened shortly after the first world war, and three months following Sharkey’s acquisition of the cornet, complete with instruction book.
Sharkey played around New Orleans until 1924, when he went to New York to replace Bix with the Wolverines. He didn’t work out so well and finally joined Jimmy Durante’s band. His trip impressed upon him the necessity of learning more about music. After a year of hearing good musicians around Manhattan, he returned south and took formal lessons. Soon he had his own band, organized with Leon Prima, Louis’ brother. They played the riverboat Island Queen in 1925, and later had a five-year run at a place called the Hollywood, located on Elysian Fields street and operated as an open air dance hall.
He returned to New York during the mid-’30s and led a band at the original Nick’s tavern in the village. It was during this time that he recorded the famed Sharks of Rhythm sides on the Vocalion label. After leaving New York and returning to New Orleans, his career remained comparatively obscure until his World War II stint in the coast guard was over.
The Sharkey Dixieland band was organized around 1948 with almost the same personnel it has today. There’s Jeff Riddick on piano; Chink Martin, bass; Monk Hazel, drums and mellophone; Lester Bouchon, clarinet, and Charlie Miller, trombone. Sharkey says he is happier with his present band than he has ever been before.
Helped New Orleans Resurgence
A good deal of the intensity of the Dixieland revival in New Orleans has been due to the playing of the Sharkey band. The New Orleans Jazz club, from whose publication The Second Line, some of the above facts were culled, has had the band at many of their sessions during the last few years.
Sharkey says, “All real musicians are composers,” and so you’ll hear Bonano originals if you go to hear the band. His first composition was “Peculiar,” and it was waxed on his first recording date made with Brownlee’s orchestra of New Orleans in 1924. The Nick’s tavern period in 1936 found Sharkey again on records doing his own tune, “I’m Satisfied with My Gal.” Other Sharkey numbers include “Pizza Pie Boogie” (on his first Capitol release with his present band), “Shell Pile Blues,” “With My Yesterday and You,” and his latest, “Candy Baby,” dedicated to his wife.
For the last year or so Sharkey and his group have been riding the big time playing the top spots with singer Connie Haines. They had to cancel out a Paramount theater engagement in New York because of contract with the Hadacol tour through the south, but they hope to have better luck in a projected Waldorf-Astoria run coming up.
The next release on Capitol will be Sharkey’s version of “I’m Goin’ Home,” written by the late Paul Mares, trumpeter with the original New Orleans Rhythm Kings.
Nat “King” Cole and His Trio opened at Tiffany on Monday, July 9, 1951. Cole was profiled by Ralph Gleason in the July 13, 1951 issue of Down Beat. The nomenclature of Cole’s combo, the Nat “King” Cole Trio and Nat “King” Cole and His Trio, is similarly confusing to Dave Brubeck’s combos that were booked in Landis’ Tiffany and Surf Clubs around the same period. The Dave Brubeck Trio appeared at Tiffany earlier in March with Brubeck on piano, Cal Tjader on vibes, bongos, and drums with Ron Crotty on bass. When Dave Brubeck and His Trio opened at Landis’ Surf Club in August the combo included Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on alto sax, Fred Dutton on bass and bassoon, and Herb Barman on bongos and drums. When Brubeck returned to Surf Club in March of 1952 the ads billed the combo as Dave Brubeck Quartet. Nat “King” Cole and His Trio during this engagement included Cole on piano & vocals, Irving Ashby on guitar, Joe Comfort on bass, and Jack Costanzo on bongos.
Nat “Always Comes Through Bigger Than Ever”
By RALPH J. GLEASON
Down Beat July 13, 1951
San Francisco—How many times a year does a record company sign up a new group, cut a couple of sides, and hope they’ve got something? And how many times do they have something? The difference between Nat Cole’s trio and all the other groups that made their first discs for a major company in 1944 was simply that when Nat got his chance, he made it.
As they say on the racetrack and at Toots Shor’s, “Class will tell.” Class has been the keynote of Nat Cole’s musical performances ever since the days in the late ’30s when his group was scaring everybody in Southern California but was unknown elsewhere.
What caused the Nat “King” Cole trio to shoot up like a rocket through the record business in the mid-’40s? Well, for one thing, it was a fine musicianly group, secondly it swung like mad in a non-strident way, and thirdly it had the services of Nat Cole as leader and chief salesman. With all due respect to Oscar Moore and Johnny Miller, Nat could have made it, once he had the proper chance, with any good guitarist and bass man.
Ever since Nat Cole was a kid in Chicago’s southside, standing in front of the radio and pretending to lead the bands on the air, he has known where he was going. It took him a while to get there, and he ended up with a quartet instead of a band, but he got to the top in the music business in a fashion which should prove an example to other musicians — and to anyone who puts him down.
When Capitol signed Nat’s group and cut those first sides in 1944, the boys didn’t shoot their whole wad on the first date. Although Nat gives Capitol full credit for exploiting the records, and for pushing them all over the country, he points out that the group was able to follow up the first sides with other numbers, gleaned from the years they’d worked in clubs.
Then, when they went out across the country, riding the crest of their new popularity, they made it in person, too. Sure, they had top flight promotion and publicity help, but that isn’t enough. What did it was Nat. “Working in those clubs for years, I’d learned that you have to reach the audiences,” Nat says. “You have to get across the footlights to the crowd. If you don’t—you’re sunk.”
That’s the secret of Nat’s success. He gets across those footlights. Maybe the trio and now the quartet doesn’t make every chorus a masterpiece of deathless jazz; maybe Nat sings a lot of songs that won’t float down through history on the all-time hit parade; but he reaches his audiences in person and on records with warmth and a friendly, happy air that puts it over.
Last year in San Francisco Nat proved that he could play to two diversified audiences within a short time and sell to both. He played the Fairmont’s Venetian room on Nob Hill and Ciro’s night club in the theater district within a couple of months. The audiences these two spots draw are as different as day and night.
The Venetian room is cold and stiff; “names” have died there like flies in recent years and still do. Yet Nat looked out on that audience, flashed his teeth, and charmed them. He did the same thing in Ciro’s with an audience of just people laced with hipsters and rounders. And he’s done the same thing from the stages of innumerable theaters and the stands of countless ballrooms all over the country.
Nat has brought his group out of the class of mere musical attraction to a high level of showmanship. He’s a born showman. And one reason he’s so good at it is that he realizes its importance in selling any kind of music.
“Jazz musicians could learn one thing,” he says, “and that’s presentation. Always be conscious of one thing: how am I going to present it? Am I going to be lighted right? Make it look good and it will sound twice as good to the average guy because everything to the public is visual.
“Things like bum mikes and out-of-tune pianos are challenges. They make you go out to see if you can make the people forget about those little obstacles. You can’t play on their sympathy and say I can’t give it to you tonight because the guy didn’t turn my spotlight on right, so I’m not going to smile. Or I’m not set up right.’ They don’t think of those things.
“Maybe we see a lot of things they don’t even pay any attention to. They don’t stop to figure out whether you had any rest or not. They’re not interested in how tired you are. They want to be entertained and that’s where the showmanship comes in.”
Cole studied showmanship in the school of the night club circuit for quite a while before he had a chance to score. He was born Nathaniel Coles in Montgomery, AL, on St. Patrick’s Day, 1917.
His father was a minister, and when Nat was 4 they moved to Chicago. By the time Nat was 12, he was playing the organ in his father’s church and singing in the choir.
He took piano lessons for a while, “mostly to read, you know. I could play more piano than the teacher.” Then he and his older brother Eddie had a band—the Rogues of Rhythm. The Decca records this group cut in 1936 were Nat’s first discs. During those days Nat listened a lot to Earl Hines, the Jimmy Noone band, and the other jazz greats around Chicago.
Noone’s theme song, “Sweet Lorraine,” was always one of Nat’s favorites — “Man, that was the first song I ever sang”—and he revived it with his Capitol platter years later.
Nat’s next move was to join the Shuffle Along show and travel with it to California. The show folded and Nat took the band into the Ubangi club in Maywood—his last band job. After that job collapsed, a matter of a couple of weeks, Nat went out as a single. This was in 1937 and while working at the Century club as a solo he met Bob Lewis who put him on at the Swanee Inn.
Lewis was actually responsible for the trio—he told Nat to get one and come to work. Up to that time, he had thought only of getting a band again. But he hired bassist Wesley Prince, who then recommended Oscar Moore, and a trio was born. They put a crown on his head on this job and that’s how he got to be “King” Cole. They had to drop the “s” to make it fit.
Kicked Selves Later
The group stayed at the Swanee six months and then did the night club circuit in town. For a long time they played at the Radio room on Vine street, and how many agents and bookers who saw and heard them there must have kicked themselves later for not recognizing a gold mine when they saw one! Nat recalls those days without bitterness, too, but wryly says, “They told us we had an awkward combination.
In 1941 they made a swing back east to Chicago, Washington, and New York. That’s when they cut those eight sides for Decca that were released on the race list and didn’t move. “We were maybe playing even better then than we did later on,” Nat has said.
New York was a panic. They did Nick’s and Kelly’s Stables at scale and couldn’t even raise a $33 advance from the agent for a payment on Nat’s car.
Back in Hollywood, they went into the 331 club for the better part of 1943 and ’44, and then Carlos Gastel took over. Carlos’ guiding hand was responsible for the Capitol contract. Other firms had shown interest, they’d cut some sides for smaller companies but Carlos aced them into Capitol and then supervised the smart promotion that made their position solid. Carlos and the Capitol people saw it was Nat’s voice that mattered. (“He’s one of the two guys who took a style and made a voice of it—the other is Louis,” Billy Eckstine said once.)
Carlos helped Nat become one of the most valuable properties in the music business and to become an individual star with the trio merely incidental. Remember the fuss when Oscar left? And Johnny? But who can say that the trio with Irving Ashby and Joe Comfort isn’t as good or maybe better.
And remember the talk when Jack Costanza was added? Well now that Nat’s caused all the tongues to wag again by recording with big, lush bands and full string sections, remember those things and how Nat came through them bigger than ever.
Actually Nat’s success has been to forget the full measure of it. But just look at these hits: “Straighten Up and Fly Right;” “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You?;” “Shy Guy” “If You Can’t Smile and Say Yes;” “Frim Fram Sauce;” “Route 66;” “Easy Listenin’ Blues;” “Nature Boy;” “Lush Life;” “The Christmas Song,” and “Mona Lisa,” to say nothing of the oldies he brought back like “Paper Moon” and “Sweet Lorraine.”
How are you going to pass off a guy like that, musically or any other way? From the time the trio cut “Central Avenue Breakdown” and “Jack the Bellboy” in 1940 and Lionel Hampton wanted them in the band, right down to where ever he’s playing tonight, Nat has been able to hold his own.
He gets across the footlights where ever he works and should he desire to sit in with anyone, warm or cool, they’d better look out— this guy has class, and he can swing with anybody.
The Dorothy Donegan Trio opened on July 26th following the departure of Nat “King” Cole and His Trio.
Dorothy Donegan is a virtuoso pianist, an electric performer, and a transcendent clown, and she has been doing what she does for fifty years. She is almost the last of the vaudeville-ringed pianists who came up in the late thirties and early forties, and included Maurice Rocco, Loumel Morgan, Harry the Hipster Gibson, Rose Murphy, and Nellie Lutcher. (There were funny bands then, too, among them the Spirits of Rhythm, Slim and Slam, and Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five.) Rocco and Morgan stood and danced while they played; Gibson wore white gloves and sang mocking songs about marijuana; Murphy churriped and clicked in a Betty Boop voice; and Lutcher sang and hummed in falsetto, her arms moving like snakes.
Dorothy Donegan is a better musician and actor than any of them. A panoply of emotions, ranging from evil to benign, crosses her face, and she moves like a Balinese dancer. She has thickened in the beam over the years, but she still has an hourglass figure, and she doesn’t have any bones; she sways as seamlessly as wheat in the wind. Sometimes she lifts her arms from the keyboard and shapes her hands into little cages so that arms and hands become cherry pickers. She often wears high heels on the stand, and when she gets going she pounds them on the floor like jack-hammers. The rest of her clothes tend to be equally flamboyant. During a two-week engagement at the Fortune Garden Pavilion, she wore a black scoop-necked camisole decorated with sequins; a long black sequinned jacket rimmed with black and white checks; black-and white checked sequinned pants; a black silk turban; a long red-and-black scarf; a heavy gold choker; and a black silk garter, fastened low on her left leg. Sometimes she will get up from the keyboard near the end of a number and dance into the audience on her high heels, her knees bent, her head ducking up and down, her fingers snapping then return to the piano and, still standing, finish with booming chords.
She has a strong, pleased, amused face. Her nose is shapeless, and she has a restless upper lip and wide-spaced eyes. While she plays, she will shut her eyes and screw her mouth into a fearful whorl. Or she will open her mouth slightly and look into the middle distance, her eyes half shut, while playing a fast walking bass in her left hand. She will pop her eyes and push out her lower lip, as if she were going to smack someone, or she will wrinkle her nose prettily and lower her head, as if she were accepting compliments. She will make an O-mouth, squinch her eyes, and play drenching tremolos. She will start humming loudly and look Satanic— her eyes hard and staring, her eyebrows lifted. But when there are heavy people in the audience she will drop most of this gallimaufry and, demure and girlish, just play, her head tipped forward and her eyes following her racing hands.
“I live in a big old house in West Los Angeles,” she said. “I’ve got a reverend who stays with me and pays rent. I practice about four hours a day when I’m home, which isn’t as often since my name’s been getting before the public. I’m now a Steinway artist, and I’d like a nine-foot Steinway grand, but they cost sixty big ones. I was born and grew up in Chicago, and what I like the most about California is the weather. The weather in Chicago and here can be meaner than a Mississippi sheriff. I was born in Cook County Hospital on April 6, 1922, and so I’m an Aries woman, which means I’m hardheaded and stubborn. If somebody tells me “You ain’t goin’,” I’m gone.
Donegan’s three week engagement ended on August 16th. The Billy Williams Quartette opened the next day. Williams’ vocal group had gained wide popularity on TV’s Show of Shows. They were profiled in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 18, 1951.
It’s a long step from theology to supper clubs, but Billy Williams, whose Quartet sings such haunting and sophisticated harmonies on “Your Show of Shows” over NBC Television, was well on his way to becoming a minister before he decided on a career in music. It happened this way. . . . Born in Waco, Texas, Dec. 28, 1916, the son of a Methodist minister, Williams grew up in Texas and Ohio, where the family subsequently settled. Church and music were always closely associated in young Billy’s life, for he sang in all the church choirs where his father had a pulpit. His mother usually conducted these groups and made her own choral arrangements. Helping her with the hymnals at home gave him an inside knowledge of the music. It wasn’t long before he became not only her soloist but also her arranging collaborator, training which, he says today, helped him more than anything else in his career.
Billy was a quiet and studious boy, and it was generally accepted that he would follow in his father’s professional footsteps. At Wilberforce College, outside of Cleveland, however, he earned part of his tuition by joining three other students in a quartet, the Charioteers, which performed locally. Off campus the group was given a sustaining program on Cincinnati’s famed talent proving-ground radio station WLW.
Radio and nightclub dates In New York led to an appearance in the mad Olsen & Johnson Broadway revue, Hellzapoppin, in 1938. For the next six years the Charioteers sang on the Bing Crosby radio program, in Hollywood — an experience which Billy describes as “one of the greatest in my professional life.” Two years ago he decided to break away from the Charioteers, recruited Gene Dixon, Johnny Bell and Claude Riddick, and formed his own quartet. Williams then concentrated on adapting musical talent to the visual needs of television, in which he has succeeded admirably. In addition to appearing regularly on Your Show of Shows, the Billy Williams Quartet has been featured on several other leading NBC television revues like Milton Berle’s Texico Star Theatre. The new Quartet’s quick success has made them a vastly popular recording group too.
Chuck Landis brought Nat “King” Cole back into Tiffany on August 27th following the two-week run of the Williams combo. Ads in the Los Angeles Times stressed that this was a limited engagement. Cole was a popular act and he normally played venues larger than the Tiffany’s 175 person capacity. The Benny Carter Sextette opened on Wednesday, September 12, 1951. Carter’s group was getting excellent reviews as the best he had assembled in recent years. The group had played the Blackhawk in San Francisco earlier in February on a double bill with the Dave Brubeck Trio. Carter was playing alto sax and trumpet with Ernie Freeman on piano, Wardell Gray on tenor, Herbie Harper on trombone, George Jenkins on drums, and Harry Babasin on bass and cello. Benny Carter was featured in Down Beat in a profile by the west coast editor, Charles Emge.
Jazz’ Most Underrated Musician? Benny Carter
By CHARLES EMGE
Down Beat, May 18, 1951
Hollywood—If a poll ever is conducted to pick the musician who has received the least amount of recognition in proportion to his talent and ability, the man most likely to win that not-so-happy distinction, the sure winner among his fellow-musicians, would be Benny Carter.
Of course, everyone knows Benny Carter. Mention his name anytime in a gathering of professionals and the talk will go something like this:
“A wonderful alto man—and clarinet, too. Plays fine trumpet, piano, and even trombone. Good enough on any of them to record with the best in the business. An excellent arranger; a conductor— the kind who can get more out of an orchestra with one eye than these phonies who wave sticks, arms and shirttails. Has written a lot of songs, too; some pretty good things, come to think of it,—that “Malibu,” for example, and a flock of things for which he got very little public credit, or none at all.
“Understand he’s still a kind of idol to those European jazz fans, even though he hasn’t been there since 1938. And that’s odd, because they’re not supposed to like anything over there except Dixie. And Benny never played Dixie; he goes back pretty far—but not that far!”
A Long Way Up
Yes, Benny Carter goes back pretty far, and he’s come a long way. He was born in a portion of New York close to Hell’s Kitchen around 1910. The exact year is something of a question mark. Benny says he jacked his age up by several years when he first started to work as a musician in order to get by the child labor laws, and probably the truant officer.
“We lived in a kind of section,” he says, adding, with no apparent emotion, “the kind of section that in a smaller city would have been called nigger town. It was so tough that a kid didn’t dare try to make those few blocks to school by himself. He had to wait on the corner until a few of the other kids had assembled for mutual protection.”
Benny Carter never had a press agent, but some of the stories about him sound like it. There’s that one, for instance, that he attended Wilberforce University and studied for the ministry. The real story, from which it stemmed, is far more interesting.
Benny Carter, a man who is better educated than 99 percent of persons encountered in everyday life, never even finished grammar school.
“I had some trouble,” he says, very simply. “A fellow kicked me.”
So Benny left school in the seventh grade, and it’s a good bet this fellow didn’t kick anyone else for a while.
About the Wilberforce episode, he says:
“My mother wanted me to study for the ministry and I was willing to try it. She did arrange for my entrance at Wilberforce. I was going to “play my way” in a band made up of Wilberforce students and headed by Horace Henderson. But about the time I joined the band, Horace, who had graduated, got a job in New York. All the boys gave up the idea of college when they got that job. So did I. I lived on the campus for about three months—but I never saw the inside of a classroom.”
At this point we’ll go back and trace the course of Benny Carter’s early musical life. His mother played piano; from her he received the only formal training he ever had cm. that instrument. But his first serious adventure with a musical instrument was on an old cornet he bought at a neighborhood hockshop with his own hard-earned money when he was about 13 years old. He says:
Carried Bubber’s Horn
“Bubber Miley was the first important musical influence in my life. I used to walk beside him and carry his horn. That was considered a great honor and privilege by the kids in those days. We’d fight for it, if necessary.”
But Benny was too impatient to start making music to spend the time required on the cornet. And about that time he heard Frankie Trumbauer on I’ll Never Miss the Sunshine. He traded in the cornet for a saxophone at the same hock-shop and, like anyone else, found the reed instrument much easier to get started on. Later he studied saxophone and clarinet with a good teacher, Arthur Reeves of New York. Some years later he got back to trumpet (and trombone). He got back so well that today he could specialize, and earn a good living, on any of the other instruments he plays.
While still so young that he was allowed to stay out late nights only over his mother’s objections, Benny embarked on his professional career, playing around New York with a number of bands in the night clubs and/or speakeasies and/or dives of the prohibition period.
Small’s and Savoy
The first band of any special interest he recalls working with was one headed by Charlie Johnson at Small’s Paradise with some names that have become a part of the jazz legend: Jimmie Harrison, trombone; Jabbo Smith, trumpet, and George Stafford, drums. He was back with Horace Henderson at the Savoy about the time things were really beginning to happen. Among his bandmates with Horace at that time were Rex Stewart,Freddie Jenkins, and the drummer Bill Beeson, a relatively obscure but important figure in the music scene.
Meantime, Benny Carter had started to establish himself as an arranger. He learned by studying the work of other arrangers, experimentation, and by following his own instincts.
By 1930 he was with the first of the really great dance bands, Fletcher Henderson’s, in the day when its stars included Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Buster Bailey, Hawkins, Kaiser Marshall and others.
Arranged for Fletcher
And here’s the important point to note: Most of the arrangements for that band were by Benny Carter, NOT by Fletcher Henderson. A contrary assumption has been made because Henderson later was hailed, and with reason, as one of the alltime greats at writing “big band jazz” arrangements.
Bands? Names? Places? Benny, like many musicians, doesn’t clearly recall all of the statistics. He believes that, after his run with Fletcher, his next important period was his work with the Chick Webb band.
While with Webb he heard a young singer one night at an amateur show. He took her to John Hammond, who was beginning to talk about backing a band to be built around Benny Goodman. Hammond wasn’t impressed, so Carter got her a job with Webb. Her name was Ella Fitzgerald.
Then there was his work with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, in which he replaced Don Eedman. For the McKinney band he also organized, arranged for, and directed a lot of record sessions released under the McKinney name. From time to time, as all record collectors know, he recorded with units under his own name.
Benny also fronted his own bands on several engagements, but was never able to make enough money with a band to support the kind he wanted. Between times, he was getting acquainted and working with such musicians as Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge, Chu Berry, Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, and Ben Webster, to name a few. This was all in the very early ’30s, the period B.G. (Before Goodman).
Fletcher Henderson, reliable authorities say, had yet to turn out a single manuscript. Benny Carter was rated by New York musicians who had worked with him as the most important arranger of “big band jazz,” in fact, as the man who evolved the form. Benny is modest on the point. “There were others,” he says, “like Eddie Powell and Herb Spencer. We all learned things from each other’s work. Powell and Spencer both wrote for Fletcher as early as 1930, to my recollection.”
And in Europe, particularly in France, where U. S. jazz music was already beginning to receive serious attention, Benny Carter’s name was second in importance only to that of Louis Armstrong, thanks to the flowery, but accurately aimed, literary tributes of Hugues Panassie and other European and English critics.
In his book, Le Jazz Hot, the first authoritative work of its kind and first published in 1934, Panassie devotes most of his discussion of jazz idiom arrangers to Duke Ellington and Benny Carter. There is no mention of Fletcher Henderson as an arranger, except in a footnote added for the U. S. edition published in 1936.
So we’re back in late ’34, and in New York Benny Goodman was preparing to launch, at Billy Rose’s, the band that would revolutionize the dance band business. The first man he called in to write his arrangements was Benny Carter — not Fletcher Henderson. Fletcher did not come into the picture until Carter sailed for Europe in early 1935, after recommending Teddy Wilson as the arranger to take his place.
Wilson’s work as an arranger, possibly because it is not well known, has not received much attention. His important part in the story is that Benny Goodman liked him so much as a pianist that he became the first Negro musician to crack the color line and work class-A spots with a white band.
The question as to whether Benny Carter or Fletcher Henderson deserves most of the credit for the development of the modern school of dance band arranging is a controversial one, possibly one that should not be brought up now, with Henderson seriously ill. Carter, himself, would never have brought it up.
But it is impossible to discuss Benny Carter adequately without pointing out that there are many musicians who feel that Henderson, due to the powerful influence of the frequently biased John Hammond, has been given all the credit for the development of the “big band jazz” style of arranging that made Goodman’s band famous. They feel much of the credit should have gone to Benny Carter, who was writing in that style years before Henderson wrote a single line.
The Carter supporters also point to the fact that while Henderson, unquestionably one of the greatest in his day, became dated by the late ’30s, Carter in 1942 was writing skillfully and creatively for the larger combinations (up to six reeds and eight brass) that came in with the “progressive jazz” era.
Sailed in ’35
Carter, as noted in the foregoing, sailed for Europe early in 1935, months before the Goodman band came into its own with that smashing success at the Palomar in Los Angeles. Already widely known in Europe, Carter accepted an offer from Willie Lewis to arrange and play in his band at the Rue Blanche in Paris. Of the band, Benny says: “Just a cafe orchestra—very good for its days.” His most important musical work was in the form of concerts, which he presented with specially selected jazz ensembles in the principal cities of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, and Sweden.
But one of his most important contributions was that he brought to European audiences an entirely new concept of the American jazz musician. Jazz journalist Nesuhi Ertegun, who was there, says:
“European jazz authorities had pictured the American jazz musician as a completely unschooled, rough and rowdy individual who couldn’t read music, didn’t want to read music, or read anything for that matter.
“When Benny Carter, whose appearance on the European music scene was a well publicized and important event, was found to be a polished, well-educated gentleman, by anyone’s standards, it was a sensation. European jazz lovers thought of the music as almost of necessity associated with something primitive found only in the American Negro. After meeting and knowing Carter, they revised their entire concept of the music and the musicians who played it. It’s unfortunate that Benny Carter has never become as widely known and recognized in the same walks of life in the U. S. that he was in Europe.”
After establishing himself as one of the leading musical figures in Paris, Carter went to England to become assistant music director and arranger with Henry Hall, music director and conductor for the British Broadcasting Company. When England’s entry into World War II curtailed musical activity, Carter decided it was time to come home.
“I thought things were beginning to jump back here,” he says.
Not Without Honor . . .
Well, they were jumping then (1938), after a fashion, but for Benny Carter they never have jumped in the U. S. as they did in Europe. He’s never had to search for a job, but neither has he succeeded in establishing himself in the position to which his unquestioned talent, ability, training and personal qualifications entitle him.
On his return to this country Benny kept busy in New York for the next few years mainly as an arranger. He even did a stretch as such on radio’s Hit Parade show in the days (1942) when the orders issued to the arrangers directly from the tobacco merchant sponsor made the show a musician’s nightmare. Carter, always first and foremost a professional who can do any job that comes along, just turned out his scores and took the money with no complaints.
“I really rather enjoyed it,” he says of his Hit Parade stint. “For me that sort of thing was just a nice easy job.”
For Listeners Only
Carter came to Hollywood that year, at the instigation of agent Carlos Gastel, and made his first major appearance here with a big, progressively – styled band at Billy Berg’s Swing Club, then a small spot off Hollywood Blvd.
It was the first time anyone had attempted to present “progressive jazz” for listeners only (there was no dance floor) in a small club. It was notably successful on this occasion. In fact that band, considering the number of changes in personnel in all bands during the war years, remained relatively intact and active. Benny appeared with it in a number of other Los Angeles spots, made tours, and also appeared with it in theaters until 1946.
Since then, except for occasional appearances with small groups, Carter has concentrated largely on arranging, organizing and conducting recording sessions, some songwriting work, and the scoring of special sequences in motion pictures.
He did his first motion picture assignment in 1943 when he did the instrumental backgrounds for Lena Home and the other nightclub sequences in Stormy Weather. The fact that the movie men aren’t completely lacking in musical sense is shown by the fact that Benny has become something of a specialist in that field.
Pictures released during the last year to which he contributed special musical sequences, as arranger, instrumentalist, and sometimes as conductor, included No Way Out, Edge of Doom, My Blue Heaven, I’ll Get By, Sound of Fury and, most notably, Panic in the Streets, in which he adapted Duke Ellington melodies for the numerous incidental sequences featuring Eddie Miller’s tenor sax.
Benny doesn’t brag about his work as a songwriter. The things he’s knocked out, such as “Hurry, Hurry, Hurry” (Savannah Churchill on Capitol), “King Sized Papa” (Julia Lee on Capitol), “Rock Me to Sleep” (Peggy Lee on Capitol), and others aimed at what the trade calls the “race” market, he considers just minor efforts aimed at turning a few honest dollars. On many of his songs he is listed as “Johnny Gomez.” Only recently has it become known that he was with Gene DePaul and Don Raye on the writing of the Ella Mae Morse—Freddie Slack hit record that did so much to put the Capitol record company in business— “Cow Cow Boogie.” Benny’s name didn’t appear on the early copies because of contractual commitments. But he got his royalty checks.
His more interesting credits as a composer include his “Malibu,” which he recorded with his own band on Capitol; “Rainbow Rhapsody,” recorded by Glenn Miller; “Blue Interlude,” recorded by Benny Goodman, and “Lonely Woman,” recorded by June Christy with Stan Kenton. A good many persons should recall his “Blues in My Heart,” written originally as an instrumental, but which, with lyrics supplied later by Mitchell Parrish, became a major hit song.
Today, Benny Carter is making a good living. He has an upper-bracket type of home built on a hillside back of Hollywood, where he lives with one of his sisters and a police dog. Like other successful Negro musicians here and elsewhere, he’s been involved in a couple of controversies over his right to live where he chooses. He seemed amused rather than bitter over the fact that some years ago the chief objector among his neighbors, when he moved into his present home, was said to be a fellow-musician of some repute.
It’s generally believed that if Benny Carter were white he would be holding down a top job as a conductor-composer-arranger in a motion picture studio here, or with one of the networks. But some believe that Benny Carter’s “handicap,” if it could be called such, is his absolute unwillingness to flourish the matter of his color as do some notably successful Negro professionals. Benny Carter, himself, is so completely devoid of race-consciousness that the most race-conscious persons feel completely at ease with him.
It’s pretty clear that he feels the music of which he is a part has progressed to a point where its racial origin is no longer the all-important factor.
Benny Carter’s month long engagement ended on October 11th when Jay Johnson opened the next day with Betty Bennett sharing the billing. Johnson was striking out on his own after a stint as vocalist with the Stan Kenton orchestra.Johnson and Bennett were accompanied by the Jerry Wiggins trio featuring Irving Ashby on guitar.
Billboard magazine noted that Jay Johnson was negotiating a five year contract with General Artists Corporation in their October 13th edition. His initial booking was at Chuck Landis’ Tiffany Club where he was set to open on Friday, October 12, 1951.
Hollywood – October 6 – General Artists Corporation is negotiating a five-year contract with Jay Johnson, ex-Stan Kenton vocalist. Singers initial booking is Chuck Landis’ Tiffany Club, Friday, October 12. This is Johnson’s second round of p.m.’s. His first try was several years back before joining Kenton. He will also try his hand at motion picture work. His club act was put together by Nick Castle.
Johnson broke into the band business with Boyd Raeburn and followed with hitches in the Bobby Sherwood and Tex Benecke orchestras. He’ll be backed by the Irving Ashby Trio and supported by others Acts. Ashby is the former guitarist with the King Cole Trio.
Bob Allison, manager for Kenton, June Christy and the Four Freshmen, is handling Johnson. Gene Howard Associates will promote the warbler.
The Wardell Gray Quartet was booked for a two-week engagement that commenced on November 16, 1951. The AFM contract, courtesy of James Accardi’s Wardell Gray website, specified that the quartet would perform from 9:45 P.M. to 1:45 A.M. seven nights a week. Quartet members included Hampton Hawes, Harry Babasin, and Lawrence Marable.
The Johnson/Bennett engagement was replaced by Helen Humes and Ned Tracy sometime in November. Landis did not place any newspaper ads to announcement the opening of Humes/Tracy or the ending of the Johnson/Bennett engagement. The singular ad for Humes and Tracy noted that they were accompanied by the Wardell Gray quartet. Gray’s quartet usually included Hampton Hawes on piano and Harry Babasin on bass. Ned Tracy was a male vocalist hopeful that had recently appeared at the Oasis Club with Dinah Washington. He was being groomed by MCA as the newest hot arrival on the west coast scene.
Helen Humes had been actively recording on the West Coast. Her big hit was for the Philo label, “E-Baba-Leba.” Her recording activity for Albert Marx’s Discovery label included a 1950 sessions with Dexter Gordon’s orchestra and Roy Milton’s band. She also cut some sessions for the Bihari brother’s Modern label with a Maxwell Davis group.
Landis’ ads for Nat “King” Cole’s opening at Tiffany on December 27th did not specify the Nat “King” Cole Trio or Nat “King” Cole and His Trio, just NAT KING COLE. A regular series of ads covering Cole’s three week engagement featured his photo along with catchy text: REWARD – You’ll Get It Listening To NAT KING COLE, LOST? – Not If You Hear NAT KING COLE, CAPTURED – America’s No. 1 Entertainer NAT KING COLE, FOUND – Best Act in Town NAT KING COLE and LOOSE – Just 3 More Days NAT KING COLE. Cole’s engagement ended on January 13, 1952. The Oscar Peterson Trio opened at Tiffany on January 18, 1952.
June 21 – July 7
NAT “KING” COLE & HIS TRIO
July 9 – July 25
DOROTHY DONEGAN TRIO
July 26 – August 16
BILLY WILLIAMS QUARTET
August 17 – August 26
NAT “KING” COLE & HIS TRIO
August 27 – September 7
BENNY CARTER SEXTETTE
September 12 – October 11
JAY JOHNSON – BETTY BENNETT
October 12 – October 25
HELEN HUMES – NED TRACY – WARDELL GRAY QUARTET
November 1 – December 21
NAT “KING” COLE
December 27 – January 13
To be continued.
Leave a Reply