Kings of Swing

John Robert Brown

Big bands became popular in America during the mid-thirties. Playing the pop music of the time, they provided a touring show for dances or concerts, presented star soloists and featured a vocalist or two. Swing was the name of this style of jazz. Every top Swing band was led by a virtuoso instrumentalist, and the clarinet ruled. Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were the twin patriarchs, Shaw was styled King of the Clarinet, Goodman the King of Swing. Their enormous influence permeates this CD.

Inevitably, by way of records and radio (television had not yet arrived) Swing quickly became popular in Britain. With the exception of Carl Barriteau (1914-1998), who came from the West Indies, and Danny Polo (1901-1949), who was raised in Clinton Indiana and, to use Dorothy Parker's expression, was 'as American as a sawed-off shotgun', all of the clarinettists here are British.

In these thumbnail masterpieces the experienced enthusiast will spot influences and make comparisons. Stylistically, though not chronologically, the earliest piece in this collection is by Monty Sunshine (b. 1928), who was a member of the Chris Barber band. Sunshine shot to fame in 1959, when his simple recording of Sidney Bechet's Petite Fleur became a million seller. The Barber band was a revivalist outfit, dedicated to early jazz. Turning his back on Swing and Bebop, Sunshine admired New Orleans clarinettist George Lewis (1900-1968). The result is Sunshine's undemanding, effective and anachronistic 1956 version of Hushabye. Like Petite Fleur, Hushabye offers no improvisation, yet exudes an early jazz ethos, with Lonnie Donegan's banjo prominent. Sunshine plays with a shrill tone and a moderately fast, deep, vibrato.

One of the earlier and lesser-known players in this collection, Leslie Ormondroyd came from Cleckheaton in Yorkshire. Fred, Ormondroyd's brother, eventually played cello with the London Philharmonic, while Leslie wound up playing with Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra. Les is heard here first on bass clarinet, delicately and fluently playing Zez Confrey's Buffoon, (the violin soloist is uncredited). Then, together with one of the band's arrangers Burton Gillis on soprano clarinet, he is heard playing Eccentric, composed in 1912 by the ODJB's J. Russel Robinson.

Bangor-born Harry Parry (1912-1956), was a Benny Goodman devotee. Here, heard with a combo instrumentation reminiscent of the Goodman sextet, Parry shows Shaw influences, but with a vibrato more diffident and self-conscious than either Goodman or Shaw.

Harry Lewis (1916-1998), husband of Dame Vera Lynn, and a one-time member of the Squadronaires, is supported by a strutting rhythm section on Don't Be That Way, a tune made popular by the Benny Goodman band. The drummer is Joe Daniels (1909-1993), an amiable character, tough as a hard-boiled egg, in whose band I played saxophone and clarinet for two long seaside summers during the mid-sixties. Daniels' strong Gene Krupa influence can be heard during his eight bar solo in the out chorus.

Henderson Stomp, written for the Benny Goodman band by Fletcher Henderson, was issued on a V disc during the war years by the Goodman band in a roaring version, surprisingly in the key of D. Frank Weir's cut-down version is played by the Astor Club Seven. Weir (1911-1981), a larger-than-life character who also held a pilot's licence, was later known as a soprano saxophone stylist. His considerable jazz clarinet ability will surprise many.

Nat Temple, born in Stepney, East London, in 1913, played with Harry Roy, Geraldo, Ambrose, Joe Daniels and Lew Stone, but became a household name at the time for his comedic portrayal of a musician in various BBC radio programmes associated with the Canadian Bernard Braden. Temple began with Breakfast with Braden in 1950, and appeared in Bedtime with Braden, Between Time, Bathtime, and Bedlam with Braden. On television he appeared in Nuts in May with Frankie Howerd, The Time of Your Life with Noel Edmonds, and The Russell Harty Show. Temple's name is now absent from many jazz encyclopaedias and histories of jazz. But we have the recordings where, with a driving band beneath him, Temple offers a driving, fluent, Goodman-inspired clarinet. In particular, he mastered that exciting little vibrato shake immediately after the attack of the note, one of Benny's trademarks. In 1995, Temple was nominated for an Emmy for the music he composed for two television programmes, Igor, Child of Chernobyl and Igor, the Boy Who Dared to Dream (both produced and directed by Mandy Temple).

The magnificent centrepiece of this collection, Artie Shaw's Concerto for Clarinet, is played brilliantly by Carl Barriteau (1914-1998). Merely a series of twelve-bar-blues choruses, with much use of boogie-woogie, the concerto aspect of the piece lies in the contrast between soloist and ensemble. Unusually long, it lasts for around six-and-a-half minutes. In the days of the 78 rpm record, which normally contained little more than three minutes music per side, the Concerto was accommodated by using both sides of the 78 for one title. Barriteau has a centred, full, tone, a charming way of using rubato, and the ability to play effortlessly with great confidence right to the very top of the instrument. Hear that secure final top C. Though difficult to believe that it ever happened, I recall seeing a televised Barriteau performance of the Concerto during the late fifties or early sixties, in a pop music programme. Barriteau's clarinetting was squeezed inappropriately between various fervent but unformed rock bands, now all forgotten.

American Danny Polo (1901-1949) came to Europe in 1929. That year he made his recording debut with Ambrose, remaining with the band for nine years. Upon returning to the USA he worked with Jack Teagarden and Claude Thornhill. While still in the Thornhill band he died of a heart attack, at the age of 48.

In later years, Sid Phillips (1907-1973) was well known for a multitude of BBC radio broadcasts featuring his Dixieland band, playing his own carefully crafted arrangements. Phillips, a cricket lover, played the piano and saxophone as well as the clarinet. To hear him in a trio context is unusual, for he was very much a lover of the organised large ensemble. For example, hear his work with the orchestra of Bert Ambrose (1897-1971), from 1933 onwards. Incidentally, from 1929 the Ambrose orchestra also included Danny Polo in its ranks. Eccentrically, Phillips' version of I Got Rhythm begins with a twelve-bar-blues chorus having no connection with the Gershwin original.

A glorious sea change occurs with the tracks by Henry McKenzie (b.1923), heard here with the band of Ted Heath (1902-1969), a setting which shows him off to great advantage. The only true modernist in this selection, McKenzie learned well the cool bebop lessons of Buddy De Franco, Tony Scott and Stan Hasselgard, the generation of clarinet stylists who followed Shaw and Goodman. The Heath band, noted for its precision and modernity, is heard at its best, playing with good dynamic control and balance, exemplary tuning and matched vibratos. The drummer here (Ronnie Verrall?) knew exactly how to drive a big band along. Note the effective brush playing on Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

Made in 1955, this Ted Heath recording arrived at the time when Bill Haley and Elvis Presley emerged into the pop world. Now the electric guitar quickly became the instrument of popular music. By the early sixties the Beatles were here, the Swing bands had gone, dancing styles changed, and folk asked whether the big bands would ever come back. They wouldn't. To imagine that Monty Sunshine had toured America to acclaim, or that Ted Heath had played to a packed Carnegie Hall, was difficult.

But they did these things, and the sparkling evidence of the skill of the best of a generation of magnificent Kings of Swing is in your hands.

Clarinet Classics, record number: CC0051

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