March 10 is a special day for those of us who are fans of a certain kind of jazz. For those who aren't jazz aficionados, the name Bix Beiderbecke probably just sounds like a bunch of consonants and vowels pressed together, making some sort of gobbledegook that sounds fascinating to jazz people. And if you are a fan of more recent styles of jazz, and by that I mean, from the 1950s onward, you're probably a lot less familiar with Bix than those of us who are fans of the early jazz of the ‘20s and ‘30s — the first half of the 20th century — for those of us who are fans of that kind of music, it’s a bit of a monumental day.
Now, there are any number of books, podcasts, recordings, videos — whatever — that are out there who can tell you who Bix was and why he’s so special. That's not what I do on this podcast and that's not what I'm going to do here. There are people who are a lot more qualified than me to go on about that sort of thing. But, what I want to talk about is what Bix means to me.
I probably first came into contact with Bix’s music somewhere, I would say, in the ‘90s. When I was in high school and college, my jazz tastes were much more modern. Influenced by band directors and such who introduce you to players who are from the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s. It was only my interest in older music, which I started developing when I was in high school — that of the big band era. And I started out dipping into the 1930s a little bit. It was through some of those players, the early Benny Goodman stuff, the Jack Teagarden stuff, that I probably first started to become aware of this person called Bix Beiderbecke out there.
But I would say that my appreciation for his music — and I think appreciation of earlier types jazz for someone who is more versed in later stuff — it's a learning experience. You have to learn how to listen to it. To digest it a little bit. I would say that really didn’t develop, full scale, until the late ‘90s for me. Obviously, listening to Bix, I could tell he was a good player. He had a good feeling about him.
The thing with Bix is there is just so little for us to go on. And I think that is one of the endearing qualities about him. The mystery. His early stuff was recorded in an era where everybody aimed their horns at a tin horn, and they just captured the sound as best they could. The electrical recording era developed later in the 1920s, and by that time, much of what Bix was doing was tied in with the larger bands of that era. Which meant, it wasn’t all him. It was maybe six or eight bars of a hot lick that you get to hear. So, where a player like Louis Armstrong, obviously a legendary cornetist in his own right — which is an understatement. Right? — we have a lifetime of recordings to go through. Tons of Hot Fives and Sevens from the 1920s, then his big band, his stuff that he was recording in the 50s and 60s. I mean, the guy performed a song for a James Bond film. With Bix, you have a much smaller slice of life to go through.
And that leads to the second point, which is the tragedy of his life. He died at a very young age. One of those models for the tragic cornetist or trumpet player. Very similar, in many ways, to Buddy Bolden, who died before really anything was recorded (at least that survives). In Bix’s case, we have a little more to go on, but there’s the mystery and the tragedy of his life, and they kind of go hand-in-hand.
Adding to the mystery, beyond just the recordings that are out there and the limits to what we get to hear, is that his compatriots —the Hoagy Carmichaels and the Eddie Condons — said that recordings never captured his sound, which was supposed to have an amazing clarity. Is that true? I'd like to believe it, certainly, but I think, like we learned in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, there's a point where you go with the legend. And with Bix, certainly, that is part of the legend.
When you do get to hear him play on his own in smaller groups, the recordings he made — particularly with Frank Trumbauer and Eddie Lang — it's obvious that this was a man who was ahead of his time musically. And I think part of what we feel is that we were robbed of hearing what he would become. Perhaps he would have faded into the woodwork, unable to adapt like a lot of players. Like the trombonist Miff Mole, who was eclipsed and disappeared into the background in his later years, but I tend not to think that. While I don't think he was ever going to be a band leader, I think that he would have found something in the future and adapted. I think of his piano playing, because on top of being a cornetist, he was an amazing composer and piano player, and how inspired he was by folks like Debussy, Ravel, and the little-heard-of-today Eastwood Lane, and I hear and see things that I think he would have adapted. He would have flourished in other eras as music developed, I think of the solo on Barnacle Bill the Sailor, where he rips into a hot solo where you can hear the echoes of what would become swing, much of the same way I hear that in Jimmy Dorsey’s playing of the same era. These guys were working it out on the stand, just like Bop guys were years later, working it out within the confines of where they were playing at that time.
But, he is, as I say, a tragic figure, as well. He drank himself to death. Why? There are any number of facts or fictions that have been written. Fictions in the form of Young Man With a Horn, the book that inspired the great movie with Kirk Douglas — that he was trying to reach some mystical note that you can’t touch, or something. I think that’s silly, but, that’s the player in me. What do I think? I think it's hardly possible, if I were to armchair it, that he wanted to say something with his music, and as good a player as he was, his fingers couldn’t work it. His tone couldn’t work that sound out of his head and come out the same way that he envisioned it. I run into that with music all the time, and writing, as well, with the way you envision something, and what ends up — the end product — it can be horribly disappointing. And I think he medicated it the way that many people do medicate things that are hard with something that is easily accessible. In this case, liquor, and at the worst time. Prohibition, where no one was regulating what product was being made out there. The tragedy makes him legendary. The wanting for more makes him exceptional.
And so, I guess that I feel and see with Bix and his music, and. why I'll sit there and analyze things that he recorded and listen to the little nuances trying to discover that “something different” that I’ve never heard before. It's always there, it's always there.
So many of our trumpet and cornet greats were taken from us at young ages. At least, my favorites. I think of people like Clifford Brown and Bunny Berigan, it seems to go hand-in-hand with the horn. Which, if we look at the number of players from all different instruments who have died young, it has a lot more to do with how we treat ourselves than what instrument we choose, but, it's all part of the romance, isn’t it?
What I'm going to do is, I’m going to celebrate Bix by listening to Bix music. Things that he recorded all across the board, from his time with the Wolverines in the early ‘20s when he was making his interpretations and developments of what he heard in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and the Friars Inn crowd who became the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. I'm gonna listen straight through to his final recordings with his own band when he play was to a point where he was so embarrassed by it he was playing into a mute. And I’m going to be listening for that which I haven't heard before.
I’ll sum up by paraphrasing something that Louis Armstrong said, because I don’t have the exact text in front of me. He said a lot of people try to sound like Bix. And, ain't none of them, managed it yet. That sounds like high praise and what greater authority than Louis Armstrong?
I was traveling in the car Saturday night, which offered me an opportunity to do something I don't get to do often enough, and that was listened to Hot Jazz Saturday Night, hosted by Rob Bamberger on WAMU out of Washington DC.
That's a long-time, long-running show, but it was off the air for a couple of years. Thankfully they brought it back. Rob plays a selection of jazz, dating from some of the earliest jazz that's been recorded up until — typically — about the 1940s. And then, of course, modern players who also play in that vein.
When I turned it on. I heard a most-fascinating recording of a song I love called “Deep Night.” It was the first I'd heard that version of it. I think that there is one version that's definitive, which I will get to momentarily, but I thought this one really had a nice swing to it.
I couldn't place who the artist was. That wasn't surprising when he revealed it, as it was Sam Donahue. Sam Donahue was a prolific sideman with some of the great bands, including Krupa and Benny Goodman. Later, he had struck out on his own.
This was actually a V-Disc recording. During the Second World War, he had taken over the band that Artie Shaw had led for the Navy in the early portion of the war. So it was a great recording, not the least of which was because of the top-notch recording technology that was available to these bands who recorded the V-Discs. The arrangement — I'll have to look up, I'm not sure who did it. (Ed. note — it appears to be Dave Rose) — But it had a nice swing to it that was honestly almost 10 years ahead of time.
Donahue plays both saxophone and trumpet, by the way, which, as a trumpet player is somewhat amazing to me. I thought the three buttons on a trumpet were hard enough — there are far too many buttons on a Saxophone — which was is part of the reason I switched to trombone.
Getting back to the Donahue recording, it was one of the best versions that I've heard of “Deep Night.” “Deep Night” was originally recorded in the late 20s by Rudy Vallee, who actually wrote the lyric to it as well. But to me, the definitive recording of it was by Frank Sinatra, with the backing of the Harry James Orchestra. This was done in the early 1950s, I believe while he was still with Columbia.
Frank had obviously gotten his start with Harry James, a decade or so earlier, when James had first put a band together after leaving Benny Goodman. He had found the young vocalist from Hoboken, and was the first to put him in front of a big band. He didn't stay long. Tommy Dorsey came calling and Harry James didn't stand in his way when he had the opportunity to go to a bigger band at the time. Which is kind of ironic when you think about what a monster the Harry James orchestra became in just a few short years.
They did record a few really great songs, including the first version of “All or Nothing at All” that Frank Sinatra recorded. Which he recorded again, many years later, an almost exact arrangement of it. Dramatic recording. Then, of course, he recorded it again a few years later as a burning swinger, which is a lot of fun too.
But, in the early 50s. Harry James backed Frank Sinatra on four sides. And I always thought it was a shame that they never worked together again. For the most part, I find that the other three sides from the session are kind of throwaways — they are memorable to me. But one of them was “Deep Night.”
“Deep Night” is an amazing tune. It's got a lot of minor keys. And it just feels like you're walking the streets in the dark. And this was the period where Sinatra was just starting to develop that more mature voice that would carry him through the Capitol years of the 50s, when he would record some of those standards that are so memorable, that became Sinatra signatures. As he sings “Deep Night,” a lot of that is evident in his voice in 1951.
And on top of it, you've got the Harry James Orchestra. You've got Harry James playing a dirty trumpet sound — growling — it's just, it's an amazing arrangement.
He had just recently recorded with Doris Day on the soundtrack for “Young Man with a Horn,” where he played the trumpet parts for Kirk Douglas in a vaguely Bix-inspired movie from the book of the same name. And so, it was that beginning of the 1950s Harry James sound.
When I was a kid, and I first picked up a trumpet, my Aunt Edna made sure that I was hooked up with recordings of Harry James. Harry James was her guy. And so, from a very young age, I was listening to Harry James recordings from the 1940s when his band was perhaps the most popular around.
The 50s Harry James, I think is far superior, and you don't hear it as much today because the Basie band is the one that people think of, or Stan Kenton, or even the beginnings of the Maynard Ferguson bands. But Harry James was doing some great arrangements and playing some great jazz. And it's evident in his playing on “Deep Night.”
If you get a chance to listen to those recordings that he put out in the 50s, you're gonna hear some really, really good music and swinging charts. I highly recommend them. So, I encourage you to stop by my website, cd six.com/music, where a transcript of this podcast will soon appear, along with links to some of the songs that I'm referencing. I think that will make for some happy listening. Hope you enjoyed it. ‘Til next time, this is Chris Riffs.
It's kind of a strange thing for a first episode. It's sort of a somber one, but at the same time, it's a celebratory one.
Word came yesterday, through people I know on social media, about the passing of the great Sammy Nestico. Sammy was an arranger for the Basie band, and that's perhaps what he was most famous for, but even if you weren't technically a jazz fan,it was impossible not to come across Sammy Nestico if you were in bands growing up.
Sammy Nestico was 96 years old, and he was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — another good Pennsylvania person, even if he was from the wrong end of the state. In the 1930s, he joined his high school orchestra, according to Wikipedia and we know how trustworthy that is. He was a trombonist.
By the age of 17, he had joined the local radio station’s orchestra. His career — of course his time with Count Basie is one of his most memorable — he also arranged for the US Air Force and US Marine bands, and he played trombone with many of the greats, including Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, and Charlie Barnett. If you're into big band music you know that's an A-list of bands.
He moved into television and film, and worked with people like Bing and Sarah Vaughan, and, of course, Francis Albert Sinatra. And he worked in television, doing music for shows like Mannix, commercial jingles all sorts of things across the board.
But, if you played in a band of any kind in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, up to this day — for middle schools, high schools, even professional groups if you bought stock arrangements, then you must know the name Sammy Nestico, because his arrangements are everywhere.
There's a handful of arrangers names that you come across — Lennie Niehaus. Bill Holman, Dave Wolpe — but Sammy Nestico is the big one.
I probably came across Sammy Nestico for the first time in junior high school, if not before. You notice who arranged this chart, even if you're not really into that stuff. I was just in the early stages of getting into jazz and big band music. I was really kind of a neophyte. But, you know, you just recognize the names and it seems like every second or third chart that my band directors would pull out would be a Sammy Nestico chart.
And why not? They were good. Even the easy ones for middle schoolers were good. And band directors are going to gravitate to that stuff because they want something that's at least fun for them as well.
As I got older, my knowledge of jazz and Big Band jazz grew. Of course you come across the Count Basie stuff. And as you move into the 60s and 70s, that was the era of Sammy Nestico the Basie band and, of course, great arrangers all around. Quincy Jones, what do you what do you got to say on that?
Sammy had an amazing ability, and I'm going to plug something in here as well, the fact that he was a trombone player. I'm going to use a little my trombone bigotry here and just say it really seems that some of the great great arrangers happen to be trombone players. Of course, I'm the proof against that, but I'm not a great, great trombone player either, and I couldn't arrange my way out of a paper bag. But I do sometimes wonder if it's the building of the harmonies across the trombone section that really helps cement that idea of thinking about arrangement.
My sax playing friends will probably have a good laugh at that or throw something at me, but, you know, that's why they sit in front of me — so I can poke them with the slide.
What you really appreciate with Sammy Nestico is that he never lost sight of those Basie roots. The Basie band always had great arrangers, and that’s the reason it survived over time in ways that all the other big bands really didn't. It changed with the times, new ideas came in, but there was a root, there was always a Basie sound that still exists today, even though the Count has gone on to the great gig in the sky, that roots still exists in the Basie music.
And Sammy Nestico was, of course, hugely influenced by that — that's where he came from. Even as he modernized over the years, he had that at his root, which I think is really kind of a nice consistency. You can grow, but if you have that base to start from, then you know that it's always going to be an evolution of the conversation. I guess tht’s what I'm trying to get at.
And over the years, he managed to do that through his arranging. He was able to continue working because his mind was sharp. If you listen to him talk about his arrangements into the 90s — his 90s — he was still growing. He was still bringing new things to the table. And, he was lucky — he was able to continue creating that way. His arrangements — that was his voice, his instrument. Where a lot of players start losing their embrasure, losing their teeth, their ability to create with their instrument, for Sammy Nestico, his instrument was the band, and thus, he was able to continue creating for nearly a century. He was 96 when he passed, and that's a good amount of time to be creating art,.
And, through his involvement in education and creating charts for developing bands. He really was able to have an amazing influence with that. I know that today's arrangers owe a huge debt to Sammy Nestico, as we all do who play modern Big Band jazz. We all have an enormous debt of gratitude toward because he made it fun for us. We were very lucky.
It's a shame that great artists have to pass, and how short our lives are and the influence that we can have. But, like so many things, it’s what you leave behind. And for Sammy Nestico it's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of charts for all levels of musicians. That's a legacy. And we're all very lucky as musicians to be touched by that.
My hope is that the next generation who were influenced by him will do the same. It's not like the old days when they said, good music was popular and popular music was good. The days that the big bands dominate the charts are long gone, with the exception of the occasional Brian Setzer, Harry Connick Jr. or, Michael Bublé. But the music lives on through the creators. The people who write the arrangements, and those of us who interpret them and play them and have the joy of that experience.
I'm so thankful for that, because it's a big part of who I am. And I’m thankful for Sammy Nestico, a warm and generous and creative master.
A toast to Sammy Nestico.
Do you have favorite memories of Sammy Nestico? Favorite tunes or interviews? Comment or add links below!
I was inspired to start working on this when Diana Rigg died a few months back. I loved Diana Rigg, I loved her in “The Avengers.” I love James Bond (This was from ”On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”). And, of course, I love Louis Armstrong. Recorded near the end of his life, it does not feature his trumpet, only his amazing voice. This version features my voice... What started as a simple inspiration grew into something more. I hope you enjoy it.
I wanted another pass at this, particularly because I really loved the arrangement, and I had a chance to work it a bit.
The thing about anything creative is there are times when you are prolific and there are times when you aren't. Writer's block, for example, and obviously, it can happen with other creative forms, as well. In this case, it wasn't that I was not working on stuff, I just wasn't happy with what I was producing. As these guys said...
Ultimately, I have always wanted to do a version of "You and Me (We Wanted it All)" and this arrangement captured a lot of the Sinatra version from his "Trilogy" album. I love the reflective nature of the lyrics, for much the same reason I love "Send in the Clowns." Full of regret for things you screwed up. Anyway, hope you enjoy...
Chris has been involved with big band, jazz and dance bands for over 30 years in central and southeastern Pennsylvania, the Washington DC metro region and the four-state area of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. A multi-instrumentalist, Chris has also performed in symphonic bands, brass quintets, orchestras and pit orchestras. He has served as a featured vocalist with the Swing Fever Dance Band and Brooks Tegler Big Band. Chris served as president of the Swing Fever Dance Band in 2002 and was a founding member of the Sound Advice Big Band. Chris is open to all opportunities and genres of music, and is happy playing any book in a section.
Instruments: Trombone, trumpet, vocals, valve trombone, superbone, flugelhorn, mellophone and euphonium.
Interests/Experience: Big Band, Dance Band, Lab Band, Small Group Jazz, Swing, Trad/Hot Jazz, Western Swing, Great American Songbook, Barbershop, Harmony Groups, Rock, R&B, Soul, Funk, Country, Eclectic, Symphonic Bands, Orchestras, Pit Orchestra
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