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Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Glen Gray

As with any discipline, the deep study of the big bands and their roughly decade-long period of ascendance necessitates the dropping of any number of givens. The first to go is that the Swing Era began in 1935 with what has been mytholigized into Benny Goodman's apocalyptic stand at the Palomar Ballroom. By the time of the Stock Market crash 6 years earlier, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Jean Goldkette and Luis Russell had great big bands that could, and did, as the saying went, "swing you into bad health". The second is the quantum leap between the slow and painful dissolution of the Henderson band in the early '30s, and Goodman's hiring of the mild-mannered Henderson as an arranger in 1935. There was an epoch, albeit a brief one, that belonged almost exclusively to the Casa Loma Band (its original name - Glen Gray's was added as a prefix in 1937, as Will Friedwald mentions in his excellent notes.)

There was a rapid shift in public mores as the bleak and seemingly interminable outline of the coming depression became clear in early 1930. The carefree, devil-may-care attitude readily associated with flappers, speakeasies and, without a doubt, jazz, were seen by and large as causes, rather than the offshoots they were of the "Roaring '20s" (surprisingly, a term unheard of until Warner Brothers released a 1939 movie with that name). Lost in the shuffle was a generation of students just entering college as the bottom fell out of the economy. Music assumed an even greater importance than usual in the scheme of things, and for a period of roughly five years, it was the Casa Loma band that filled what must have appeared to have been a gaping musical void (Louis Armstrong's eventually world-wide domination in the field was still limited largely to the true connoisseurs). This was, after all, when Guy Lombardo and any number of "sweet bands" built their reputations; their popularity was undeniable, as was their lack of musical integrity. The Casa Loma band could play both hot and cool, with tempos that ranged from fiendishly fast to romantically relaxed. The ensembles were strong and well-executed, the rhythm firm, and the solos always respectable, and on occasion (the work of clarinetist Clarence Hutchenrider, for example), soulful.

This collection of their early '30s recordings reveals a band whose identity was thankfully low on musical treacle - even the more elaborate ballads have a refreshingly unsentimental attitude. And there is more than one intimation of things to come. And as Will Friedwald notes trombonist Billy Rauch's effortless gambits into his instrument's upper register are nothing if not precursors to Tommy Dorsey's trademark sound. On the aptly titled "Black Jazz", arranger Gene Gifford took one of Armstrong's soon-to-be codified phrases (of the Mahogany Hall Stomp-St. Louis Blues variety) and built an ingenious pyramid-chord out of it, using tone colors in a way that would have made Arnold Schönberg proud. This was obviously a band that took great pride in the variety of sounds they could generate with brass, reeds and rhythm, and nowhere is this displayed better than on the charming "Tired Of It All". Faced with a repetitive melody, the arranger (identify unknown) fashioned clever bookends built out of the song's melodic kernel, and then let it expand naturally into the chorus. The stop-time episodes that surround the vocal are similarly thematically tied, giving us an alluring reading of an undistinguished tune (the unusual chord change at the end of the bridge is probably the work of the unknown arranger) , dressed up in a superlative arrangement.

Years ago, the great drummer Mel Lewis strongly corrected a young associate who in passing had demeaned the musicians in Spike Jones' comedy band. "They came through my home town every year (Buffalo), and believe me , you wouldn't want to have been asked to sub in a show of theirs. Those guys were stone virtuosos - do you have any idea of the precision needed to make all those musical jokes come off ?" In a similar vein, if some of the more manic episodes in "Maniacs Ball" or "Casa Loma Stomp" seem a tad dated today, they were nonetheless very difficult to pull off. But for every overwritten interlude, there are many superb moments. Even the falsetto vocal phrases on "For You" are couched in such a lovely mood that they retain their meaning, as does Rauch's singing and evocatively distant trombone solo.

Drummer Tony Briglia was an early favorite of Buddy Rich's, and he's a delight to listen to. On "Dixie Lee" and "Here Come The British" he breathes with his hi-hat cymbal - not too many drummers were doing that in the early '30s. At no point, even on the more heated killer-dillers, does he lose his cool - and on the ballads he always finds something musical and constructive to add ("Under A Blanket of Blue"). Although he was born in Texas, Clarence Hutchenrider clearly absorbed the essence of New Orleans jazz, and could transport the whole band there, as he does after the vocal on "My Man". Indeed, the band as a whole never sounds synthetic, a quality that was to invade many of the so-called swing bands that proliferated after Goodman's aforementioned watershed Palomar engagement.

And even though they never regained the primacy of they enjoyed in the '30s, the Casa Loma band remained a superlative ensemble right up until the end. I was shocked to discover some band shorts they made in Hollywood during WW II. All the qualities that had helped them break through the first time were still there in abundance, but the public was fickle in their unending search for something new, and the "experts" who were establishing the fledgling art of jazz criticism refused to take the band seriously. Hence their absence from the compilations, histories (with a few notable exceptions, Gunther Schuller's jazz histories first and foremost.) and consequently, discussions about what happened and when in the evolution of the jazz orchestra. This album is a good corrective to their undeserved obscurity - let's hope that the other record companies with Casa Loma in the catalog (most notably GRP/Decca) take note.

 

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