Tommy Dorsey: The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing: Centennial Collection

Tommy Dorsey
The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing: Centennial Collection

This production belongs musically to a middle of the road pre-rock, sometimes jazz sometimes semi-jazz genre. Booze had something to do with Tommy Dorsey’s relatively early death at 51. Maybe the gloomier 2006 centenary could inspire a more strictly jazz collection? Unlike Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman, TD was a hugely talented and skilled instrumentalist who could play jazz, rather than an out-and-out jazz musician with symphonic ambitions (though there’s no Mozart trombonce concerto!). Much the same might be true of his elder brother, Jimmy (1903-1957), significantly older than Goodman (both sons of a music teacher), of Pennsylvania Irish rather than Chicago Jewish origin, and probably with a legit technique which had to be adapted to jazz. Jimmy made his biggest contribution to jazz by demonstrating an at-the-time unparallelled mastery of alto saxophone which beginners in the 1920s imitated and emulated.

There’s something of the coffee table book in this set’s production; its content has curious historical interest from the presence of Max Farley’s flute on Paul Whiteman’s “It Won’t Be Long, Now”. Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys (including H.L. “Bing” Crosby) do sing a little, but this is one of the limited number of jazz recordings in Whiteman’s huge, often too heavy discography.. It belongs within debate about what was the first flute contribution to a jazz record.

The opening track’s from 1925, with the slightly muffled sound of pre-electric recording (a mechanical deviice vibrating to the band’s sound, rather than an electrical signal from a microphone, operated the machine that cut the initial master in warm wax). Golden Gate Orchestra was the name on the label, the romance of a far coast honoured in New York. “Dusting the Donkey” was composed by the banjoist whose name’s a form of address fit for politicians and vendors: Howdy Quicksell. The Fi is Hi-er on the 1928 title by Sam Lanin & his Famous Players & Singers — customers were probably expected to feel slightly apologetic when they realised they didn’t know these performers were famous. There’s no shortage here of Jazz Age appellations: as in Whiteman’s touted title of “King of Jazz” (earned by often elephantine performances in an early fusion sub-genre called Symphonic Jazz) this emphasises that the so-called Jazz Age (cf. Scott Fitzgerald) is more a literary and marketing reference than a musical one. The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra came into being then, more accurate than “All Star Orchestra”, yet another primitive sales concept. Wow! You’d just snap that up if you saw it on the label! No? But doesn’t the hype tell you the company has assembled, just for you . . .the hyperbolically described ensemble perform stock period dance band stuff with TD soling briefly on trombone. The trumpet soloist sounds like him, but since the identity of one of the star trumpeters is unknown, who knows who it might not be? Pardon my irony.

One day in 1928, the Big Aces recorded Don Redman’s tune “Cherry” (which Benny Golson’s added to his current repertoire) three times. The second attempt’s issued here for the first time ever! Really. It’s the Dorsey Bros. band with a difference: Redman plays on the date, and George “Foots” Thomas plays tenor and sings: a rare early “racially mixed” date! TD’s trumpet’s in evidence. It also has a whole feature track with rhythm dominated by Eddie Lang’s guitar. “It’s Right Here for You” was composed by Perry Bradford, a piano-playing non-white impresario whose own recordings didn’t really work as they might have on the vaudeville stage. .

The Dorsey Brothers band play “My Melancholy Baby” (1928) with TD opening on trombone, Jimmy soloing on clarinet, and some TD trumpet, including accompaniment to the sung verse of Seger Ellis. “With vocal refrain” was the common description; singers weren’t that far to the fore. Adrian Rollini’s bass saxophone was always good. I report with the authority of having heard the arrangement of “Mean to Me” by, well, Glenn Miller, that there’s flute here too. TD plays the melody statement in his later famous gentlemanly manner. Jimmy solos. Smith Ballew (a name almost to conjure with, and not obscure at the time) sings briefly.

Under the name of Eddie Lang, whose solo break reproduces a phrase of his one-time duet partner Lonnie Johnson, “Bugle Call Rag” has amazing busy string bass-playing by Joe Tarto, Jimmy’s clarinet is distinguished, TD solos on trombone and briefly on trumpet. It’s very good white New York jazz of the time. Likewise “Breakaway”, where the band was labelled “The Travellers”, with Jimmy on alto, Manny Klein on trumpet, and TD on trombone alternating with Jimmy. “Hallelujah”, taken at unusual halting tempo, is early big band from a group still called Red Nichols and his Five Pennies (which of the ten men were they?), TD’s trombone sounds modern, the trumpet might be Charlie Teagarden (Nichols was never so overrated as when much later the headline name of a pseudo- biopic with Danny Kaye!). “Dust” is by the Columbia Photo Players. Muted, TD’s solo would have sounded modern a decade later. Not so the male vocal group. This CD of TD the sideman includes a title by Ethel Waters, a good jazz singer the white band’s at home with.

Harold Lem and his Orchestra is sheer nom-de-disque. The dance-band director Fred Rich seems to have led the date. So many discs came out under his name, perhaps a bit of marketing variety promoted Lem (an engineer, a fiction?). The Charleston Chasers was a stable name for a New York recording band, and “Cinderella Brown” is fun, with good solos. “Bend Down Sister” is the widely-recorded, deeply-dated singer Chick Bullock’s advice to a lady to be less pretentious, nothing worse. Lively jazz solos, including either slide whistle or ocarina, feature in a stodgy period arrangement.

Jack Bland wasn’t a star guitarist, but it was nice he was awarded nominal leadership of the Rhythmmakers recording band with Pee Wee Russell and the trumpet of Henry “Red” Allen. Pops Foster and Zutty Singleton are a vast improvement on the white bass-drums duos hitherto. This is another “mixed race” date on which TD takes a leaf out of Allen’s regular colleague J.C. Higginbottom’s book, opening a good solo with a fast trill. “Goodbye Blues” opens with falsetto vocal from Art Jarrett, whose second tonsil exercise on the track benefits from Dick McDonough’s guitar. Larry Bonyon plays still more flute introducing the Boswell Sisters’ “Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia”. McDonough and Artie Bernstein on bass emphasise the greater rhythmic fluency white musicians were now attaining.

Connie Boswell wasn’t a negligible singer. On “Lullaby of the Leaves” TD plays the melody with the jazzless finesse for which he was later famous. The second manifestation of “Bugle Call Rag” is an unissued demo disc with imitation snoring and TD clowning (give the trombone an indigestion tablet!) even more than Jimmy and Manny Klein. Boswell parodies banjo, Bernstein’s bass bounces, vocal intrusions occur — it’s a far cry from the straight lyric baritone on the next title, serious young Bing Crosby singing “How Deep Is the Ocean?”. TD’s non-jazz interludes and obbligati are technically amazing. He opens “Shoutin’ In that Amen Corner” with the wonderful Mildred Bailey in a Dorsey Brothers Orchestra which had entered a a whole new rhythmic element by 1933.

By late 1935 that band no longer existed. Disc 2 is by TD the leader. He was a generous, friendly guy with a vile temper, which last you don’t hear in “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You”, his theme tune recorded that year with no more than a duly moody orchestral interlude between his two masterly delineations of the melody. He’s the only jazz soloist on the band within-a-band Clambake Seven title which follows; the singer was, it seems, his girlfriend. If he was at times a gentleman, and his band could be sentimental, by all accounts he wasn’t the latter. The early band is impeccably drilled. He was a perfectionist, but needed more individual colleagues.

“Marie” and “Song of India” are known to jazz enthusiasts, not for the former’s pretty trombone intro or the vocal over a choir, but the explosion of Bunny Berigan’s trumpet solo, after which TD muted and Bud Freeman on tenor wind things down. One short solo transformed the whole thing. The drummer Dave Tough was something else as well, and on “Song of India” the pianissimo muted trombone is sufficiently startling to light up the pleasant arrangement of a snatch of Rimsky-Korsakov before Berigan and Tough catch light. Then there’s the low flame sound you couldn’t imagine coming from a trombone. “After You” sounds more like a small group, a tendency of the earlier TD band once it had really gotten going, The pianist Howard Smith had heard the start of the Boogie Woogie craze by the time the Clambake Seven recorded their lovely weirdie “Twilight in Turkey”, with Pee Wee Erwin showing Berigan influence, and the excellent Johnny Mince new to the band on clarinet. The brainy guitarist Carmen Mastren had also made a difference, not just by arranging Rubinstein’s “Melody in F” congenially for the soloists.

“Stop, Look and Listen”, which Freeman recorded to great effect many years later, is a small group number played by the big band: another odd theme, but with a distinctive rhythm. The mid-1930s Dorsey band sounds best when playing small, not making a loud noise

“Blues” from a date billed Jam Session at Victor has just Berigan, Dorsey, and McDonough with Fats Waller on piano and George Wettling on drums. “Boogie Woogie” by the whole band is a rare very musical example of the later debased genre of big band transcription of Pine Top Smith, with its clarinet choir, and nothing loud. Dean Kincaide arranged that and also “Hawaiian War Chant”, at its best when quiet, with solos made interesting by the funny rhythm. “Vol Vistu Gaily Star” is the better for being a Clambake Seven performance (Babe Russin on tenor, Mince and Yank Lawson on trumpet solo well),. “Imagination” is an impeccable arrangement centred on young Sinatra, 1940, his phrasing making Art Jarrett’s in 1932 a joke.

“Yes Indeed” has an arrangement and vocal (shared with Jo Stafford) from Dorsey’s big signing Sy Oliver, drawn with an offer of an annual $5000 above what he had been paid to work the wonders he did for Jimmy Lunceford’s stunning band. “Opus No. 1” follows with the same command of brass and reed scoring from Oliver. Buddy de Franco was an asset on clarinet, and suggestions of Artie Shaw might also be due to TD having engaged Shaw’s string section, unemployed when Shaw disbanded for a time. On drums Buddy Rich wasn’t, I think, Tough’s superior, but had his different boy wonder merits. Sy Oliver’s “Sunny Side of the Street” is yet more evidence of his greatness as big band arranger.

I’d happily have foregone the strings and vocal group, but neither can be heard on “At the Fat Man’s” (1947), where Charlie Shavers doesn’t just arrange and sing, but plays trumpet. Sy Oliver would have been a huge asset as trumpet soloist, but Shavers was the ultimate swing trumpeter. “Tonight I Shall Sleep” is by the 1945 Ellington band with Dorsey as featured trombone solo, with Johnny Hodges on alto almost outdoing him. Ellington’s piano features with the Dorsey band is one of Oliver’s best arrangements, “The Minor Goes Muggin'”: amazing brass, Shavers soloing on top. Rich thrashes. Ellington’s piano was also featured with Dorsey’s band on radio: there’s an amazing “Take the A Train” on Disc 3. Ellington performs the introductory patter much better than TD.

Eight of the radio titles have Sinatra, which might not be the advantage the notes suggest since there’s also a Sinatra-with-TD set advertised.

For some, less comprehensive representation would have been preferable: I mean a set rather of the jazz which was one of several aspects of Dorsey’s performing repertoire. The broadcast recording of “Liebestraum” — TD did like themes from the light classics — substitutes for a studio recording the authoritative Albert McCarthy commended along with (omitted from the present set) a “Hallelujah” with Berigan, Oliver’s “Well, Git It”, and a very early “Tiger Rag” as well as the very late small group “Dirty Dozens” and “Trouble in Mind” with Billy Butterfield on trumpet in a Dixieland style from an otherwise mediocre album. The Bluebird CD Yes Indeed! was ,however, a good selection of the 1939-45 jazz.

McCarthy summed up TD’s last years as a musical decline, with inferior remakes of earlier hits — presumably to hang on to a former public in a period of terminal economic decline for big bands. I wonder what the now elderly sometime trendy young enthusiasts of TD, BG, and uncle Glenn Miller and all will think of the ilk of All Star Orchestra. To judge from the present set, before TD signed Sy Oliver there’s small evidence that he ever really needed a big band for musical purposes. The big bands have generally been associated with the need for a volume of sound necessary in big ballrooms and halls in the absence of later standards of electronic amplification. Which is why nobody complained about Basie and Ellington playing in symphony auditoria, on the grounds which have raised questions about whether, for instance, the Lincoln Center Orchestra could fill the same halls with sound. Bob Wilber’s initial effort to create a repertoire version of the 1938 Benny Goodman band — which didn’t sound too small for the auditorium — probably got flak because critics were expecting the brassier sound of after 1940.

To round up this set. with a little injustice to Pee Wee Erwin’s “Jimtown Blues” and maybe a couple more of the seven broadcast instrumentals I don’t mention: “Trombonology” (1947) is a jazz feature for TD with a melodically convoluted theme (and a title) obviously based on bebop phrasing. The harmonic foundation is, however, strictly pre-bop. TD loathed bebop. “Pussy Willow”, from 1949, is a lively modern chart of a distinguished sort with which Bill Finnegan’s writing somewhat sidelined the leader: I didn’t know this later band and am interested; Joe Mondragon makes a huge contribution on bass, and Jimmy Rowles is on piano.

The latest charts included are brassy 1950s Ernie Wilkins ones, “Flagler Drive”, a “Ja-Da” variant on 1950s Basie lines, TD standing back. “Dippermouth Blues” has Jimmy back (not exactly as in the Dorsey Brothers biopic. whose best bit is one of the few clips of Art Tatum playing). This brassy stuff — even with the Dixieland element — may seem the more faceless for its extent of echo. Shavers was in the band, and some of the colourful tales about him belong to his time touring the “ghost” band forty years back.

The best TD story, apart from calm urbane Bud Freeman telling TD that he was a (expletive excluded) baby, is the one of his having bawled out Shavers for excessively lubricated joviality. Shavers responded by sneaking on-stage before the performance. The trombone had been placed on its stand to await TD’s grand manner appearance, in the course of a band intro, to play “Getting Sentimental”. With a funnel the little trumpeter put water into the vertical trombone, just enough not to be noticeable. Fanfared as usual, TD walked onstage, and as he raised the trombone toward his lips a jet of cold water hit him in the teeth and dribbled down his front. Simultaneously a gap appeeared in the trumpet section at the back of the band. Shavers was already running, and TD uttering anything but sentimentalities charging enraged for the gap with blood in his eyes. The decline from prominence probably deepened his thirst, but the name stayed big enough to keep Shavers in work for some time fronting the ghost band. Under-recorded, the little trumpeter made one of his most amazing albums in France a year before he died. He’d been taken there as a guest on a tour by his friend Frank Sinatra, Jr. TD Legacy, like Frank, Sr.’s, appropriation of the trombonist’s phrasing in “Imagination”, and as the basis of later recordings which I don’t need to write about.

RATING 7 / 10