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From Duke Ellington to Artie Shaw: Songwriting Bandleaders of the 30s

They were jazz heavyweights—Duke Ellington, Isham Jones and Artie Shaw led the pack. In the heady days of the Swing Era, these bandleaders took their orchestras into name ballrooms coast to coast and composed many of the most memorable songs of the day, creating a soundtrack that inspired generations to fall in love.

 

Duke Ellington Orchestra, 1935. Photo from Music is My Mistress by Duke Ellington

Swing was a way of life for millions of Americans. Good times centered around ballrooms and dance palaces in big cities and small towns across the country. Musicians had bankable star power in cities like New York and Chicago, and their celebrity was reflected in money spent on floor shows and stage scenery. Band members wore snappy outfits. Bandstands might be shaped like yachts—or hung with velvet drapes or exotic tropical backdrops.

 

The Palomar, Los Angeles. Photo courtesy tuxjunction.net

There was the Palomar in Los Angeles where Benny Goodman made his historic breakthrough. The huge Meadowbrook Ballroom in New Jersey. The Glen Island Casino, overlooking Long Island Sound, a romantic rendezvous for dining and dancing. And the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago, the place where bandleader Earl Hines presided over a glittering floor show from his white grand piano center stage.

Every small town had its own Coliseum or Joyland Park. Its Alcazar or Ali Baba. The names of these ballrooms evoked romance, though at times the décor was lacking. Some were barn-like caverns with splintery dance floors. Once the music started, it didn’t matter. Everyone was dancing—packed in shoulder to shoulder.

 

Rebecca Kilgore. Courtesy of the artist.

This week on Riverwalk Jazz vocalist and Arbors recording artist Rebecca Kilgore joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band to celebrate Songwriting Bandleaders of the Swing Era with music by Ray Noble, Isham Jones, Artie Shaw and Duke Ellington.

British bandleader Ray Noble’s reputation was made in the States at a long engagement at New York’s Rainbow Room in the mid-1930s. Among the many popular songs Ray Noble composed in the Swing Era, several are jazz band favorites today. Rebecca Kilgore joins John Sheridan on piano with Noble's "The Very Thought of You."  A small ensemble of The Jim Cullum Jazz Band with Ron Hockett on clarinet swings its way through Noble's hit "Cherokee." It’s the same tune that made Charlie Barnet’s Band famous in 1939, and is often associated with Charlie Parker.

 

Ray Noble Orchestra, Rainbow Room, 1925. Photo courtesy Nobello Productions

Jazz clarinet virtuoso Artie Shaw was a fine composer. Much to his chagrin his matinee idol good looks also made him a celebrity, hounded by autograph-seeking bobby-soxers. His famous perfectionism and refusal to ‘just play his hits’ earned him a reputation as a 'musicians’ musician.' Shaw was as discerning about the vocalists he selected to work with his band as he was about everything else. Billie Holiday and Helen Forrest both sang and recorded with Artie Shaw's Orchestra. Shaw wrote a number of elegant compositions, including "Moonray" and "Any Old Time" performed on our show by Becky Kilgore and the Band.

 

Artie Shaw Orchestra with Helen Forrest, 1939. Photo courtesy bigbandlibrary.com

Innovative, far-reaching, elegant, urbane — all describe Duke Ellington.  Ellington is widely recognized as the most important composer of early 20th century jazz. His long list of compositions include jazz standards like "Mood Indigo," "It Don’t Mean a Thing" and "Sophisticated Lady."  He wrote serious pieces, suites and concertos including "Black, Brown, and Beige."  And he was the first black composer commissioned to write the sound track for a major motion picture — Anatomy of a Murder in 1959.  Becky Kilgore performs a trio of Ellington's lesser known pieces, including his 1946 composition "I Didn't Know About You."

 

The name Isham Jones isn’t as widely known as other Swing Era bandleaders, and yet Jones was one of the first popular big band leaders in the country. He always had top jazz musicians in his band, and was a favorite of the young Bix Beiderbecke and other 1920s' Chicago jazz men. Among his most popular and enduring pieces, Jones wrote "I’ll See You in My Dreams," "Spain" and the number Rebecca Kilgore sings with the Band, "Swingin' Down the Lane."

 

Isham Jones Orchestra. Photo courtesy The British Dance Band Encyclopedia

Writing in JazzTimes, Christopher Loudon praises Rebecca Kilgore's work and places her in the same league as the most renowned jazz singers of our day. He writes, "Among discerning interpreters of jazz standards, Rebecca Kilgore is in the same exalted league as Dianne Reeves and Diana Krall."

 

Photo credit for home page teaser image: Duke Ellington Orchestra Concert Poster.  Image courtesy movieposter.com

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