Chapter OneTerritorial Dance Bands America's Unsung Music Makers
They were the bands you danced to and the musicians you talked to as you glided by the bandstand on the soft hardwood floor. You usually knew some of the players. Maybe the leader. He may have sold you an insurance policy or perhaps he came out to unplug your drains. That's what it was like in a territorial band anywhere in America from the early 1900s to today. Musicians worked day jobs to exist and spent weekends, holidays and vacations enjoying their first love; playing gigs in big bands helping people enjoy their evenings. They were paid from $10 to $100 an evening generally; sometimes less, sometimes more.
America was changing too. The Louisville Slugger baseball bat was introduced, the Coca Cola company was formed and Buddy Boldin's Original Jazz Orchestra was playing the streets and amusement parks in New Orleans. George Eastman had developed the famous box camera which recorded some of the early scenes of the country and its jazz roots.
But it would take 27 years before what music historians claimed was the first dance orchestra would be recognized. Wilbur C. Sweatman, a self-taught musician who was able to play three instruments at once, put together an orchestra which played Chicago's PekinTheater in 1912.
Sweatman was a story of musical success at a time when blacks found little or no opportunities in any part of the country. He toured with circus bands in the 1890s before he organized his own group in Minneapolis, MN in 1902. He made his first recording a year later for a local music store which included what is considered the first recorded version of Scott Joplin's famous "Maple Leaf Rag."
He moved to Chicago in 1908 and became bandleader at the Grand Theatre where he attracted attention as the "Sensational Swet." A relationship with Joplin continued and later in life was so close, the famous black songwriter named Sweatman the executor of his estate including many unpublished songs. An Indiana newspaper described Sweatman as diminutive in stature but with "a style and grace of manner in all of his executions that is at once convincing, and the soulfulness of expression that he blends into his tones is something wonderful. His first number was a medley of popular airs and 'rags' and had everybody shuffling their pedal extremities before it was half over.'"
San Francisco was still rebuilding from the devastating 1906 earthquake when Art Hickman and his band, who played in the St. Francis Hotel in the city, came up with special arrangements and introduced the touring big band. A baseball fan, Art followed the San Francisco Seals baseball club and when manager Del Howard took the team to Sonoma County for spring training the bandleader approached club ownership with a novel idea; why not sponsor a series of dances to relieve the boredom at the camp? Howard liked the idea and Hickman found new gigs playing for baseball players and their wives and girl friends. Like so many connections, the celebrated Florenz Ziegfeld of Follies' fame happened to catch the Hickman band at the spring camp—he also was a baseball fan—and invited the group to NYC to play the Biltmore and the Ziegfeld Roof.
Territorial bands got their start in the Jazz Age playing for friends, neighbors and family and rehearsing continually. Variety Magazine, the bible for musicians, singers and booking agents in the 1920s and later, reported in 1924 that there were 900 dance orchestras representing 7,200 musicians. They also reported that some leaders recognized their name value at the same time. Paul Whiteman, who was called the "King of Jazz," had 68 orchestras in his name, 11 of them in New York. Jack Jenny of Mason City, IA, knew he wanted such a life. He started on the trumpet at 8 but switched to the trombone when he entered Cedar Rapids High School. At 18, he was good enough to get an audition with the popular Austin Wylie band when it came through Iowa and he was selected to join the band where he got to know a young Artie Shaw in the sax section.
Within six years he had jumped to Mal Hallett's band and spent a couple of years with legendary Isham Jones playing with another player of later fame, Woody Herman, and he was a section mate with the great trombonist Jack Teagarden. The Depression, meantime, took its toll among musicians as it did many other fields of employment. In 1933, half of the bands working in 1924 were out of business and some of the musicians were stranded in cities and towns throughout the country and surviving on soup kitchens. In the midwest, Serl Frank Hutton organized the National Orchestra Service (NOS) to book territory bands throughout the Great Plains and other regions. NOS was based at Omaha National Bank Building, Downtown Omaha, and represented Glenn Miller styled bands that featured 12 to 15 pieces. It continued through the Depression but folded in early 1960.
In 1938, Jack launched his own band which soon failed and he married Kay Thompson who had her own group at the time. The marriage failed too. He appeared in two movies, Syncopation and Stage Door Canteen during the war years. He took over the Bobby Byrne band when the leader enlisted in the military service. Jack also served in the military for a year before being discharged for poor health. An Iowa Public Television's Jazz feature says that Jack's time with Artie Shaw was perhaps his " nest hour publicly in a 1941 recording of 'Stardust.' The version is still heard today led by the strong trumpet of Billy Butter field, but Jack Jenny's half chorus fits in nicely after Shaw's solo." His touring took him to Hollywood where he did the Dick Haymes radio show, Something for the Boys, as the war was ending. He suffered an appendectomy in Hollywood and died at the early age of 35. His story was too common among young musicians, primarily from the east and Midwest, who sacrificed health and welfare to gain recognition in the sun and fun of the west coast.
Jack got his beginning in territory work but was determined to reach higher. You had to have excellent tools to earn the money touring musicians got. College degrees weren't necessary but because ambitious bandleaders marketed their bands for movies and radio as well of one nighters, you had to be a reader, preferably a "sight reader" someone who could "read" a chart and play it right away. Amazingly, a number of musicians at the territorial as well as the touring levels were non-readers. Well known tenor saxophonist Vito Musso who worked with the Woody Herman and Stan Kenton bands and soloed with both, was among the talented but limited musicians of the day. Like many, they played by "ear" listening to numbers played by others or on the piano and then let their mind store the music. Pianist Errol Garner and celebrated drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich were among the legions who played without the benefit of understanding notes on paper. Their recall was extraordinary. It was a gift, musical friends said, and many agree.
Of course, you needed talent. One of the saddest things I remember as a musician was listen to a person playing an instrument but not "feeling" the music. No vibrado, no tonal quality and frequently only a knowledge of what was on the sheet of music. Careers were lost because of such a lack of emotion in playing the music. It helped, obviously, if you were versatile enough to play other instruments and do what was called "doubling."
You didn't find touring bandleaders advertising for personnel ... they relied for decades on passing the word out and connecting with respected musicians in their own bands or others.
Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, two of the country's top touring bands, not only demanded auditions to join their groups, they insisted on quality as it applied to the sections of their bands. A player who lacked tonal quality (either no vibrato or too much) could lose the spot whether in rehearsal or on the job.
Benny was known to use his so-called "ray" (an icy stare) to get a person to leave the stage and sometimes the band. Playing demanded excellence nightly to a number of leaders. According to Benny, there was good reason for perfection every performance. He told Christopher Popa (www.bigbandlibrary.com) bandleading resembled "a slippery cake of ice. Standing still for a moment results in a case of cold feet. Sit down even for a moment and the competition may freeze you out. Bask for an aimless hour in the sunshine of your glory and that ice paradise melts right out from under you."
Glenn also had high standards during his life with both the civilian and military Miller bands and saxophonist Dick Gerhart, who spent 20 years with the orchestra and five years as its leader, felt the same pressure. At his death in 2006, Dick had spent 7,000 nights on the road working 50 weeks a year continuing the Miller sound and insisting on the integrity of the music that made it the most popular dance band ever.
Although the big band craze continued to excite dancers and musicians, times were still tough in early 1940 and continued during the war years. Unions restricted the fees of agents and managers in an attempt to protect local or territorial musicians from touring groups which frequently paid two to five times more and forced the name bands to cut their need for sidemen. The explosion of commercial free radio and recordings added more pressure on employing live bands. In a growing number of smaller communities where a family had eked out a living running a ballroom, many closed during the week and later permanently.
Making matters far worse, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) led by a man many musicians and business people felt was a martinet, James Petrillo, called for a strike in 1942-43 and later in 1948. Coupled with technical advancements in amplification which introduced the electric guitar and overnight interest in singers and a popular radio show on Saturday nights called Your Hit Parade, big band popularity faded. Ironically, the singers on Your Hit Parade radio show were exempt from the ban. Finding work, therefore, was nearly impossible unless you had solid connections with people in the band or the leader.
Think about a saxophone player who auditioned for Guy Lombardo and had to learn the use of very strong vibrato. On the other hand, imagine what a saxophone player had to do to join composer/arranger/ bandleader Billy May back in the 1950s when he discovered he had to conquer the technique of "slurping" in unison with four other players. Creating a sliding scale sound with four to five saxophone players took continued practice to play in unison and, although they played on the road nightly, it still required constant work to reach the standard Billy wanted. Add the rigors of the road, getting your clothes laundered in new towns and cities and grabbing a bite to eat when you could and touring became the challenge that got older as you aged. Bassist Rollie Bundock who traveled with Glenn Miller and Les Brown among others once told me: "When we went on the road everything became a blur. Night after night on and off the bus. I remember once I got back home and I had 12 pieces of laundry that followed me. I tried to see my folks at least three or four times a year but I would get home for just a few hours and then it would be off to Boston or New York or wherever we were playing and the bus was leaving."
Said my friend Lou DiSario, a Philadelphian who toured for several years with the Harmonicats as a singer, dancer and emcee: "Most people who came to see us never realized the sacrifices and demands touring musicians faced. We were clean shaven, mustaches trimmed and we had fresh or nearly fresh clothes every performance. We had to perform at our best every time out regardless of how we felt. I watched guy and girl singers get off buses groggy from lack of sleep for days as they tried to meet a booker's impossible schedule that put them in Chicago one night, Cincinnati or Cleveland the next, followed by Atlanta the third night and then return to Ohio to play a college prom and leave the gig right away to get to New York City and we're talking two-lane highways and 50 mile an hour speed laws. Cold food, a little too much alcohol to numb aches and pains and total lack of sleep took its toll on everyone."
Lou became a territorial player when he realized the loss of income traveling as well as the loss of sleep were sacrifices that hurt physically and financially. He liked the fact he could sleep in his own bed, he smiled. And he said he was willing to get off the road when he found a way to continue what he loved; performing near home. "This wasn't a business to me ... it was a hobby that takes devotion and love with little thought of what you'd get besides applause ... you know it was not going to pay your bills."
You weren't always sure the mood of the touring band leader when you showed up to work as an emcee, Lou recalled. "I worked years at Hamid's Pier Ballroom and the house band was Ed Morgan which was easy. The touring bandleaders were a different matter. I played recorded music during short breaks. At the Steel Pier, the breaks were 15 to 20 minutes for major bands although some came in and set their own rules, infuriating the ballroom owners. They would take half hour interludes and we'd play recorded music and the ticket prices were $4 or more which was big money in the late 1930s and early '40s. Harry James was great to work with ... Glenn Miller wasn't. I had to introduce his numbers and he simply didn't tell me. It was embarrassing at times," Lou said.
Most musicians, whether they're leaders or sidemen, say the money was hardly the inducement to stay in the music business whether playing in a territorial or touring band. It's too demanding and the pay is too uneven to make it your only income and survive. "If you don't truly love it, such work can take a lot out of you," says Gary Greenfelder, a trumpet player and leader of a popular Detroit big band called OneBeatBack. "For me, all this is very exciting and there are plenty of opportunities to have a lot of fun doing what we love to do!" One of the more dif cult tasks is understanding the crowd in front of you, he told me. Misread that and you probably won't be invited back. Worse, word of mouth can cause others not to book you either. "You don't show up to play a concert with only dance numbers and you better not show up at a dance with lengthy concert numbers."
OneBeatBack has played governor's galas, the Detroit Yacht Club, church vespers, dinner parties and wedding receptions and several years ago when Chrysler was a major auto company it played the company's Top Ten Road Rally. Yet, the band is just as comfortable playing the Hamburg Family Fun Fest in Hamburg Township, MI. Simply put, he said, "you love to play and you love to play for people."
It took physical endurance and energy every day, many sidemen said of their ordeals on the road, and it had its hilarious moments as well as its low spots.
In the 1920s and '30s, Eddie Condon in his Scrapbook described how he got a gig on a cruise ship. "I thought I could cut it and it would be a gas! The cruise ship was going to Argentina and I signed on to play piano. I'm a good sailor but a bad piano player. I could only play in one key so the entire band had to play four times a day in the key of F for 14,000 miles." It must have been a grueling cruise on the band although I doubt the guests figured it out unless they played piano.
Chuz Alfred, who toured with big bands and small combos for a number of years, later wrote about his feelings as he made the decision to leave the road.
"The guys were coming 'an'goin' ... I didn't hang out that much or get to know them that well. It was a totally different groove than the one I had been used to earlier. I didn't like to sit down while playing and I could not get used to having to strain to see the charts under lights that could be candle power or bright. Then you'd pack it up and move on after just about every gig. It left me numb just sort of floating around."