Bob Crosby centennial

August 23, 2013 at 10:53 pm (jazz, Jim D, music, New Orleans)

What’s this? Two music posts in succession!

Well, thanks to ‘Perfessor M. Figg’ at The Pop Of Yestercentury I’ve just realised that one of my favourite 1930s/40s bandleaders, Bob Crosby, was born 100 years ago today. The ‘Perfessor’ pays a fine tribute, analysing the Crosby Orchestra’s 1938 rendition of ‘Diga Diga Doo’ with evident knowledge and appreciation.

I’ll take this opportunity to share their 1942 record of ‘Vultee Special’ featuring Yank Lawson on trumpet, Floyd O’Brien on trombone and Jess Stacy on piano:

Bob was Bing’s younger brother and was only the titular head of the Orchestra: in reality it was a co-operative, run by its members and devoted to playing jazz rather than simply aiming at the hit parade. The late Richard Sudhalter wrote a fine appreciation of the Bob Crosby Orchestra in his 1999 book Lost Chords:

“Above all,” Bob Haggart recalled, “we were like a family. We worked together, socialised together. Thought musically together. Most other bands — well, to tell the truth, we didn’t pay much attention to what everybody else was doing. To us most of the time, they just sounded as if they were trying to steal from one another.”

Meet that wonder of the musical 1930s, the Bob Crosby Orchestra. In the whole colorful decade there wasn’t another band like it, and in certain ways there may not have been another nearly so good.

For chronicler George T. Simon, they were an ensemble “with tremendous spirit, one filled with men who believed thoroughly in the kind of music they were playing and, what’s more, who respected and admired one another as musicians and as people.”

Few bands, however brilliant, approached that degree of unanimity with any consistency. It extends beyond mere skill, beyond originality — even beyond a leader or arranger’s inspired vision. Neither Goodman’s virtuosity nor the faultless precision of his orchestras ever quite transformed their efforts into the expression of a single collective will. Artie Shaw came closer, his various bands driven by the strength and singularity of his vision: but Shaw’s musicians remained his employees. Much the same could be said even for Red Norvo’s extraordinary 1937 band, breathing, whispering, exulting as extensions of both its leader’s xylophone sound and Eddie Sauter’s ensemble concept.

The Crosby orchestra had an extra dimension. It lives in such words as “ensemble,” when describing tightly knit group acting, or “team,” in the finest athletic sense; the idea of a collective entity, each component interacting constantly and creatively with the others to shape, to determine the whole. Gesalt, a single consciousness compounded of many.

In that rarified context only the Duke Ellington Orchestra comes to mind as in any way comparable. But an Ellington orchestra, any Ellington Orchestra, assumed its finished shape through the leader’s (and often Billy Strayhorn’s) codification of an ongoing fusion and fission among its individual members. The Crosby orchestra, by contrast, began with unanimous, shared dedication to a single stylistic ideal. its name, most often popularly (and imperfectly) identified, was “Dixieland.” But the word fails to describe either a stylistic predisposition or a rhythmic foundation, not to mention a wide palette of orchestral color and texture.

Better by far, and more accurate, to remember that the band led by Bing Crosby’s younger brother was built around a core of New Orleans musicians, whose shared background and affinity determined its musical direction.

Historically, New Orleans jazzmen away from home shared a bond, a camaraderie, that seemed to transcend class, education, politics, even race. Meeting in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, they were often simply homeboys together, carrying their environment with them in a way that seemed to render differences among them irrelevant, or at least secondary. It may be that way with musicians from St. Louis, Boston, or San Antonio, but not to that degree: and on the evidence it’s anything but that with New Yorkers.

Crescent City jazzmen seemed to recognise one another, even gravitate toward one another’s company both on and off the stand. When clarinettist Joe Darensbourg, a Creole, says of guitarist Hilton “Nappy” Lamare, a white, “if everybody was like Nappy Lamare this would be an awfully nice world,” he’s talking New Orleans. The sight of Eddie Miller and Kid Ory crawfishing together in a stream on the outskirts of Los Angeles says less about race relations or social ecumenism in jazz than about their shared home town and its ways.

In this connection the Bob Crosby band has a strong cognate, perhaps even a forebear, in the great Luis Russell Orchestra of 1929-30. Henry “Red” Allen on trumpet, bassist George “Pops” Foster, drummer Paul Barbarin, and clarinettist Albert Nicholas had known each other back home, and they were at the heart, musically and socially, of an extraordinary band. Others, such as Russell himself (born in Panama but raised in New Orleans), Georgia-born trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, and Bostonian saxophonist Charlie Holmes, quickly got (as the title of one of their best records put it) “Feelin’ The Spirit.”


Like the Russell band, the Crosby unit had New Orleans musicians — Lamare, drummer Ray Bauduc, tenor saxophonist Eddie Miller, and, slightly later, clarinetist Irving Fazola — at its core, alongside a cadre of avid fellow-travellers, among them Long Islander Haggart, Kentucky-born clarinetist Julian “Matty” Matlock, and Missourian John “Yank” Lawson on trumpet.

As with the Russell band, Crosby’s men were never in any doubt or disagreement about what they wanted to play and how they would do it. Even with a slightly larger instrumentation than Russell’s, they were doing what they’d known “down home.” In this connection, all the Miller-Lamare banter about “po’ boy” sandwiches and other local delights that opens the Crosby record of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” tells its own affectionate story. As the guitarist put it in a 1940 interview, “white musicians as well as the colored seem to have the right ideas down there.”

Whatever it was, and by whatever name its music was known, the band had sparkle, spontaneity, and lift and left a legacy of distinctive records, which have easily withstood the shifting winds of musical fashion.

1 Comment

  1. Jim Denham said,

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