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Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Ray McKinley/Will Bradley

Co-led bands have been rarer than hen's teeth in big-band history. You can name the major ones on one hand: Coon-Sanders (out of Chicago) in the '20s, Husdon-DeLange in the '30s, Sauter-Finegan in the '50s, and for an all-too-brief period in 1939-42, the wonderful organization that trombonist Will Bradley and drummer Ray McKinley shared. Given the divergent personalities of the two leaders, both musically and personally, it's a wonder that it lasted as long as it did.

There are many outstanding tracks herein - we'll use three as a guide to this band's unique hybrid personality. The first, "Celery Stalks At Midnight" is on the surface a simple riff-based ditty. Close listening, however, reveals a unity of conception between the soloists and ensemble and rhythm section that only the best bands had. Think for a moment of most drummer led bands that you've heard - how many played this tastefully and unobtrusively? And that is one of the major delights to be found here - the creative, never-overbearing and always creative playing of Ray McKinley. Critic and long-time McKinley friend George T. Simon created a marvelous portrait of McKinley: "He was always an amazing drummer. He propelled a swinging beat, very often with a two-beat dixieland basis, that inspired musicians to play better. He spent more time on getting the right sound out of his drums than any other drummer I can recall. He had a wild, zany sense of humor, which he often expressed through his instrument. Extremely bright, articulate and sensitive, he sometimes hid his true nature behind a veneer of sarcasm. Incompetence and fakery bugged him, and he'd show it. True talent and candor pleased him, and he'd show that too. Few musicians have acted as blunt, as independent and as honest as this sometime hard-nosed, more often softhearted Texan."

If McKinley was the dyed-in-the-wool jazzman, Will Bradley represented a breed of musicians who could sight read anything, play in whatever style was required (including classical music),and equally important, get along in any situation. So it's not hard to understand why promoter Willard Alexander thought these two would complement each other like ham and eggs. While McKinley was barnstorming on the road with bands (first the Dorsey Brothers, then with Jimmy after he and Tommy split up in 1935), Bradley was ensconced in the radio and recording studios. Though not a distinctive stylist, he amassed quite a reputation for his instrumental mastery, and counted Glenn Miller among his most ardent admirers.

As Will Friedwald has noted in his definitive essay on the band, tunes like "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" were just a hop, skip and a jump from what became rhythm & blues and ultimately early rock 'n roll. Of course, the main difference is the musical erudition clearly audible in the playing of McKinley and pianist Freddie Slack. There had been precedents - most notably Mary Lou Williams' "Roll 'Em", which was a sizable hit for Benny Goodman back in 1937. The problem lied with the repetitive nature of the boogie-woogie style. Originally a piano style associated with the mid-West and pianists such as Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, a little boogie could go a long way, except in the most exceptional hands. "Roll 'Em" achieved variety through instrumentation (brass against saxophones, horns against piano, etc.). "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" captures our attention from the beginning, with Slack's solo piano slightly in the distance, setting the stage for McKinley's vocal about "in a little honky-tonky village in Texas there's a guys who plays the best piano by far". As the piano continues after the vocal, the band begins to fill in, gradually taking over, and leading to the relaxed trumpet solo (the slight pause is where side one of this two sided opus ended). One can hear echoes of Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey in Bradley's legato solo, which, in turns, ushers in the climactic band choruses. Listen carefully for McKinley's driving drums. He's been building steadily since the beginning of the record, and his accents and fills are all his own (I'm particularly partial to his cymbals - hear how they underline what the band is doing rather than covering it.)

To many swing fans, ballads were a necessary evil to be endured on the way to the next killer-diller (slang for up-tempo tunes). But the truth remains that the two complement each other, and the greatest bands had a superior way with both. To begin with, with ballads, the tune was even more the thing - because it took longer to get through a musical measure, a piece's strengths (or weaknesses) were exposed more slowly. "(I Don't Stand) A Ghost Of A Chance" was an exceptional piece to begin with, and this arrangement lets it shine like the gem it is. Woodwinds with brass punctuations and a modulation precede Bradley's lyric trombone solo. Though he plays only 16 bars (more than likely a result of trying to keep the original tempo on a 3 minute 78, as opposed to not making any cuts but speeding it up), there is no sense of incompleteness, just a beautifully relaxed reading of a superior melody. Vocalist Carlotta Dale takes her cue from the leader, and lets the tune do the work, so to speak. Bradley finally gets to the bridge, and takes this lovely recording out underpinned by an appropriately evocative celeste.

It was inevitable that two strong personalities such as Bradley and McKinley would eventually part ways. One of the straws that broke this camel's back occurred at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago. As Bradley told Simon: "Ray couldn't stand to play several ballads in a row, and one night it must have gotten to him, because right in the middle of a pretty trombone solo he went into one of those heavy press rolls on the snares. I jumped him for it afterwards, right in front of the whole band, and yelled, 'Don't you dare ever do that to me again.' " He never got the chance to, because shortly thereafter McKinley got his own band together. They lasted about a year, until the draft caught up with first the sidemen, and eventually the leader himself. McKinley wound up in Europe with Glenn Miller's legendary Army Air Force Band, and after the war reformed own band featuring the challenging writing of Eddie Sauter. In the '50s and '60s he fronted the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and eventually retired to Florida, where he passed away in 1995.

Bradley tried to keep the band together on his own, but faced with the draft and his general lack of the all consuming drive necessary to keep a band on the top, went back to his true métier as an in-demand sideman in the studios, with a sideline in classical composition. What a musical world it must have been back during the '30s and '40s when a great band like this could be ranked in the middle (don't forget that Basie, Ellington, Goodman and Shaw were all at their peaks) - think of what a band with this potential, backing and pure talent would sound like today!

 

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