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Charlie Barnet

Alone among the famous bandleaders of the Swing Era, Charlie Barnet kept his band working night after night for no other reason than his own personal pleasure. The scion of a wealthy family, the wildly impulsive Barnet started and broke up bands at a whim - and it was eloquent testimony to the regard in which he was held by his sidemen that they kept coming back, even with the strains his fancy placed on their ability to earn a steady paycheck. Perhaps it was that blatant flouting of music business convention that attracted them; more than likely, though, it was the music.

Though it's not talked about much these days, back during the Swing Era there were definite divisions between the way most black bands played and the way most white bands played. I say most, because as you approach the best bands, there was an unabashed cross-influence that made questions of race largely moot. But by and large, the average black band was looser than, and played with more swing than the average white band. Hence, George T. Simon could title his August 1939 Metronome review "Barnet's - Blackest White Band of All!" and raise no hackles. Barnet was undoubtedly pleased with this type of press - as he told Simon: "Jazz is the product of the black man. Why not pattern your music on the most inventive and contemporary and try to go on from there?" The band that served as Barnet's model was that of his good friend Duke Ellington. There were only a few instances of an Ellington original being recreated verbatim by Barnet. For the most part, his arrangers (most notably Andy Gibson, having himself been briefly on Ellington's writing staff in 1937) used the Ellington record as a jumping off point. In this case, the old saw that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery would seem appropriate.

Gibson wrote his best work for Barnet after the band switched to the Decca label in 1942 - before that, Billy May was the one to give the band its own sound. Known for his slightly-commercial dance band of the '50s, and sterling work as an arranger for Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra, May was an excellent Rex Stewart- (an Ellington mainstay) inspired trumpeter, and a creative writer in his Barnet days. Born in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1916 , he cut his musical teeth with a variety of bands, including the improbably named George Olsen's Polish-American Orchestra. May's playing and writing always evinced a healthy sense of humor, and this may have been what first attracted Barnet. Though his tour of duty with the band was not to last much more than a year, May's contributions (most notably the extended composition "Wings Over Manhattan") helped Barnet gain a place among the top bands. Influenced by Jimmie Lunceford's expansive, two-beat conception, May glimpsed the essentials of swing early on, and stayed away from any and all ideas that would inhibit the groove.

In any swing band, an essential role is played by the drummer, and until the arrival of the 26 year-old Cliff Leeman in November 1939, Barnet had trouble getting his band to swing the way he wanted it to. The concept of playing drums with a big band was still relatively new - Chick Webb, Walter Johnson and Jo Jones had laid down many of the precepts, but there was still room for new discoveries by anyone with some imagination, and that certainly would include the musically volatile Leeman. After his years on the road with bands were over, Leeman became a mainstay in the New York recording studios, where his individuality was usually muffled. He kept active in jazz circles, though, and his recordings with Eddie Condon's dixieland bands reveal that he had lost none of his verve and fire.

There were usually just two main soloists in Barnet's bands, a trumpeter (plunger man Bobby Burnet for the most part). The piano, trombone and guitar occasionally grew in prominence, but remained secondary voices. Barnet was a booting tenor saxophonist, who occasionally played beyond his technical means, but coming from him, this was just another manifestation of his non-conformity. Some of Barnets's most controlled and coherent playing was on his only big hit recording, "Cherokee". He also played soprano nicely (no intonation problems on an instrument that is notoriously hard to pitch) and alto well. In the unfortunately unjust polls that were found in the major music magazines of the era (Lester Young, Benny Carter, Chick Webb and Louis Armstrong are just a few who never came in first in their respective categories) Barnet always placed well. There are recordings of him mixing it up with Art Tatum and Lester Young, and a good adjective for his work in those rarefied contexts might very well be "fearless".

Though Benny Goodman deservedly gets the lion share of the credit for making significant steps towards integration in the American music business (Benny Carter was leading a fully mixed band in Europe as early as 1937), Barnet was also doing his share in this regard. He hired the best black players available for either recording (John Kirby and Frankie Newton) or to actually tour with the band (Lena Horne, Peanuts Holland, Howard McGhee, Trummy Young, Clark Terry and Oscar Pettiford) and did the best he could to iron out the inevitable situations that arose, both on the road and even at major engagements in New York City. So as you can see, Charlie Barnet translated his love for jazz and the musicians who made it into something tangible.

Duke Ellington told this anecdote in the '50s, and it sums up Barnet's philosophy perfectly: "Charlie Barnet has always been a wonderful friend to me. If he heard we had a layoff in his territory, during those times when his band was not organized and working, he would call my agent and say, 'I want Duke's band to play a party for me.' Actually, it would be a party for us, for there was no set order of playing-just play when we felt like it. And then, between 'sets', we would join the party and ball it up like guests of honor. One night, at one of these parties, he had signs posted up in the lobby of the country club where we were supposed to be working. They read: No Requests. No Melancholy Baby. No anything but Duke Ellington. He had an electric board fixed backstage, and he sat at it himself and blended the lights to fit the mood of the music."

Barnet spent the last 30 years of his life enjoying himself (something he was a past master at), and did his last gig as a bandleader in New York in 1966. He must have taken great pleasure in knowing that his legacy would be one of a rich kid who really loved the music, led a good band, counted jazz royalty among his friends, and left the business with his health and reputation intact.

 

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