Jazz Jottings April 2024

Charlie Barnet Tells All

Charlie Barnet plays his saxophone for another primate.

Growing up in the heydays of the Big Bands, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the leaders of the better-known bands. One of my hobbies as a teenager was collecting autographed photos of the popular bandleaders of the 1940s. The scrapbook of some 70 photos I accumulated somehow survived the 80 years of my moving about the country and has since been donated to the American Big Band Preservation Society.

Ken Peplowski put me on to Charlie Barnet’s autobiography, Those Swinging Years, published in 1984 in collaboration with jazz historian Stanley Dance. It’s a real eye-opener (myself included) for those who knew little about the popular bandleader other than remembering him for his biggest hits: “Cherokee,” “Pompton Turnpike,” and “Skyliner.”

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Born into a wealthy family (his grandfather was a prominent lawyer and a vice president of the New York Central Railroad), Charlie Barnet (1913-1991) rejected their urging that he become a corporate lawyer and instead turned to music. He had his first professional gig as a truant high school student, sneaking away after roll call to play three sessions a day with the dance band of a midtown Manhattan Chinese restaurant. After getting his union card, he played tenor saxophone for several years as a sideman with second-rate bands across the country. But soon he was leading his own band at the best clubs and ballrooms in the Unted States.

40 Years as a Bandleader

As a bandleader whose colorful career spanned over 40 years, Barnet had a fine ear for musical talent and a blind eye for racial prejudice. He was the first to break the color barrier in a popular dance band. His black musicians included Clark Terry, Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, and singer Lena Horne; his white musicians included Red Norvo, Maynard Ferguson, Billy May, and Doc Severinsen.

He was especially influenced by the style of the Duke Ellington orchestra. (We’ll save Barnet’s candid comments about fellow bandleaders and other bands for another column.) Barnet and his various ensembles appeared in such motion pictures as Syncopation (1942), The Fabulous Dorseys (1947), and Make Believe Ballroom (1949.

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Living the High Life

Barnet not only played jazz, he lived the jazz life. In Those Swinging Years, he writes frankly of his quart-a-day whiskey habit (Dewars Scotch was his favorite), of buying marijuana by the pillowcase, of visits to the whorehouses and back streets of the towns he played, and of his half-dozen brief marriages—some sources say he had at least 11 marriages, the majority of which were of the quickie Mexican variety which were shortly annulled. For all his exploits, it’s amazing that he lived to the age of 77.

In his later years, Barnet variously tried such careers as music publishing and the restaurant business but still continued to play occasionally. His final marriage to Betty Thompson lasted for 33 years.

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The Nash Jazz Club opened as a performing arts venue in April 2012 in the Roosevelt Arts Section of downtown Phoenix, Arizona with a Jazz for Young People concert performed by Wynton Masalis – who drove from New York City and appeared pro bono in recognition of the new venue’s bold promise, not to mention his respect for its namesake: world-class drummer Lewis Nash, a Phoenix native.

The Nash has become not only an extraordinarily successful Phoenix music space, but a unique model for building jazz communities in Amerca. The intention from the start was to attract students, educators, musicians and audiences to share and care for jazz in a dedicated, non-profit, non-commercial environment. It has been an unprecedented success for over a decade, have been named by Downbeat Magazine to its list of “160 Great Jazz Venues in the World” on four occasions.

$2.5 Million Expansion Planned

With initial gifts and grants totaling $1.2 million, the Nash Jazz Club and Jazz in Arizona recently announced a $2.5 million expansion of the Club’s facilities and the creation of a 3,200-square-foot John Dawson Center for Jazz Education at The Nash, with construction scheduled to begin in May.

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The Dawson Education Center will create a comprehensive complex for jazz education and musician training, including 1,800-square feet of rehearsal space for big band ensembles as well as combos and ensembles. The Center will expand the organization’s educational programming by 50%.

Renovations to the Nash Jazz Club will include a new stage and “Green Room,” more relaxed seating, a full bar and enhanced food offerings and restroom facilities.

Education Key to Mission

Music education is a key part of The Nash’s mission statement. According to a Nash spokesperson, only between 40 and 43 percent of schools in Arizona have a full-time music program for students. “There are many students who are moving through high school who want to pursue music in higher education. Any high-level performing artist today has to have a certain level of technical mastery in order to get their music out. By fusing the worlds of music and technology, our aspiring young musicians will have greater opportunities to hone their skills and build successful careers.”

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Sandi Joyce has resigned her position as president of the San Diego Jazz Party. Vice President Russell King will take over the leadership role as well as continuing to oversee contracts, instrument rentals, insurance and the SDJP scholarship program. Sandi will still be involved, handling reservations as she has in the past.

Rossano Sportiello was in for a huge surprise when 45 family members and friends showed up on the final day of the Party to see him receive the 2024 Jazz Legend Award. The announcement was made that next year’s recipient will be tenor saxophonist Harry Allen.

Rossano, who divides his time performing in the United States and Europe, was asked if he had a favorite venue. “Not really,” he answered. “There are three things about which I am more concerned: 1) The musicians with whom I am playing; 2) the audience and how they respond to my music; and 3) the condition of the piano, because I’ve had to play on some real clunkers.”

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In late February, Dan Levinson fractured his right leg in four places while roller skating with his seven-year-old daughter. Dan needed emergency surgery to have a titanium rod inserted in his leg and was instructed to keep weight off the leg for a month while it was in a splint. He will then wear a boot, not exactly conducive to navigating New York City subway steps (with his instruments) or traveling to out-of-town engagements.

In establishing a GoFundMe campaign, wife Molly Ryan wrote, “As is the case with many professional musicians, we live hand-to-mouth, and much of what we make goes towards the basic necessities involved in supporting our family of three. Up to this point – with a little help from our friends—we’ve managed to keep our heads above water, but Dan’s inability to work has tipped the scales, and we now need to reach beyond our inner circle.”

Our best wishes go to Dan for a speedy recovery. We’re happy to report that the GoFundMe campaign exceeded its $30,000 goal in just 24 hours, a heartfelt tribute to Dan and the regard in which he is held by the jazz community.

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Ten years ago when Dan Gabel was attending New England Conservatory, he discovered the library of bandleader Vaughn Monroe, which had been languishing in the bowels of the NEC basement. After some prodding, he gained access to the Monroe library and presented his Master’s Recital on this lost music. When Dan organized his 16-piece orchestra in 2010, The Vaughn Monroe Show became part of The Abletones’ repertoire.

“Vaughn Monroe had one of the most musical bands of the Big Band era,” Gabel said, “While I love all of the Big Bands, Monroe sparked a personal connection for me. Sadly, he is not well remembered in the history books, and there is very little biographical information or band history available today.” (Monroe died in 1973 at the age of 61.)

“When I was asked to preserve Monroe’s entire personal collection, (including his instruments, personal letters, thousands of photographs and even his RCA jacket), I knew I had an obligation to preserve not just the artifacts, but his story as well. After thousands of hours of research and interviews with family, fan clubs and musicians, I have finally begun to write the first-ever Monroe biography.”

Lew Shaw started writing about music as the publicist for the famous Berkshire Music Barn in the 1960s. He joined the West Coast Rag in 1989 and has been a guiding light to this paper through the two name changes since then as we grew to become The Syncopated Times.  47 of his profiles of today's top musicians are collected in Jazz Beat: Notes on Classic Jazz. Volume two, Jazz Beat Encore: More Notes on Classic Jazz contains 43 more! Lew taps his extensive network of connections and friends throughout the traditional jazz world to bring us his Jazz Jottings column every month.

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