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Noon Edition

A Big Band Fourth of July

James Reese Europe and 369th

James Reese Europe and his 369th Harlem Hellfighters band returning to the U.S. after the end of World War I.

The rise of big bands in the 1930s and 40s played a key role in the popularization of jazz, and provided a soundtrack for Americans navigating a challenging era of economic depression and global warfare.  For the next hour we’ll be celebrating America’s Independence Day with a legacy of swing, featuring recordings from Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Machito, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and other iconic American artists and ensembles.  It’s “A Big Band Fourth of July”… coming up on this edition of Night Lights.

Duke Ellington’s big band performing a perennial 4th of July classic, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” featuring Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet, Harry Carney on baritone sax, Cootie Williams on trumpet, Paul Gonsalves on tenor sax, and Johnny Hodges on alto sax, from the 1963 album Will the Big Bands Ever Come Back?

Jazz is often celebrated as an American art form, especially for its spirit of freedom and improvisation within the collective setting of an ensemble. Big band music was an early and popular form of jazz that helped solidify jazz’s central place in the history of American culture, and so it seems fitting to pay tribute to this particular genre in the context of the country’s 4th of July holiday.  This episode of Night Lights also draws on a rich and diverse array of artists and recordings that reflect the social evolution of the big band era and beyond.  Where better to start than with James Reese Europe, a Black bandleader and musical entrepreneur who led a military orchestra as part of the first Black regiment to see action in World War I—the 369th U.S. Infantry “Hellfighters” as they came to be known, owing to their bravery in battle. Europe died in 1919, just as his band, now returned stateside, was beginning to record and gain a domestic following; musician and Europe collaborator Eubie Blake later called him “the Martin Luther King of jazz.”  We’ll also hear from pianist and composer/arranger Mary Lou Williams, who was born before women in America had even won the right to vote, and who proved from the start that a woman could master this art form just as well as any man.  First, here’s lieutenant James Reese Europe’s 369 U.S. Infantry Hellfighters Band performing “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm,” on Night Lights:  


Andy Kirk’s big band in 1938 performing pianist Mary Lou Williams’ composition and arrangement “Mary’s Idea.”  James Reese Europe’s 369th U.S. Infantry Hellfighters band before that doing the popular World War I era song “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down On The Farm", recorded in 1919, shortly before Europe’s death at the age of 39.

Two great soloists of the swing era are highlighted in this next set as we celebrate the legacy of American big band jazz.  We’ll hear tenor saxophonist Lester Young, whose floating sense of rhythm and seemingly infinite melodic creativity influenced a whole generation of musicians who came after him, with Count Basie’s big band in 1938 doing a song that became a swing-era standard, “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.”  First, trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong, a founding father of jazz if ever there was one, with a song from 1936 written in part to help promote his then-new autobiography of the same name, which also directly pays tribute to the sudden rise of big-band dance orchestras.  As jazz scholars have noted, Armstrong’s four-chorus solo here, ending in a run of 41 high-C notes, is a prime example of the high-register trumpet playing that he introduced to jazz.  Louis Armstrong and “Swing That Music,” on Night Lights.


Count Basie’s big band in 1938 doing “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” featuring Earle Warren on alto sax, Buck Clayton on trumpet, Lester Young on tenor sax, and Herschel Evans on clarinet. Trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong before that in 1936 doing his song “Swing That Music.”

Two singer icons of the swing era and beyond take the spotlight in this next set.  Though Frank Sinatra is remembered best today for his classic 1950s Capitol albums and ring-a-ding-ding Rat Pack era persona, he came to fame as a singer with big bands, starting with Harry James at the end of the 1930s and taking a big leap with Tommy Dorsey’s popular big band of the early 1940s.  We’ll hear him with Dorsey and a vocal band chorus doing Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.”  First, the only recording that Billie Holiday ever made during her stint as a singer with Artie Shaw’s big band in 1938.  The recording was withdrawn shortly after it was released, and while some speculated that the reason was racial—Holiday was a Black singer in a white band, a situation that created great professional difficulties for her in segregated 1930s America—the primary issue stemmed from her being signed to a different record label than Shaw.  Here’s Billie Holiday with Artie Shaw, doing “Any Old Time,” on Night Lights.


Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey’s big band in 1941 performing Sy Oliver’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.”  Billie Holiday with Artie Shaw’s big band before that in 1938 doing Shaw’s “Any Old Time.”  Coming up in the second half of the show, an all-women big band of the 1940s, the Duke Ellington band theme song that was supplanted by “Take the A Train,” and much more.  I’m David Brent Johnson, and you’re listening to “A Big Band Fourth Of July” on Night Lights.

I’m featuring American big band jazz for the 4th of July on this edition of Night Lights. The 1940s saw the birth of Latin jazz in America with bands made up of Latino immigrants such as Machito’s Afro-Cuban Orchestra… we’ll hear that orchestra in the company of jazz legend Charlie Parker in this next set.  The war years also led to the rise of all-women big bands, as so many male musicians were drafted into the military.  The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an orchestra made up of young women from a Mississippi school who were of varying ethnicities, were one of the most notable all-women ensembles to gain attention in this era.  Here they are doing a showcase for saxophonist Vi Burnside—“Vi Vigor,” on Night Lights:


Machito and his Afro-Cuban Orchestra in 1949 performing “Mango Mangue,” featuring Charlie Parker on alto sax.  The all-women International Sweethearts of Rhythm before that in 1946 doing “Vi Vigor,” featuring tenor saxophonist Vi Burnside.

Music now from Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force band, a super-sized ensemble that Miller put together after quitting his popular commercial big band in 1942 and joining the U.S. military to participate in World War II.  Miller’s Army Air Force band, made up of some of the country’s best musicians who were also serving, eventually went overseas to perform for troops in England and on the European continent; we’ll hear their rousing rendition of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”  First, Duke Ellington, whose early-1940s big band featured two extraordinary soloists in bassist Jimmy Blanton and saxophonist Ben Webster.  In his early career Ellington used his composition “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” as his band’s theme song, and from 1941 on it was Billy Strayhorn’s famous “Take the A Train.”  But for a brief period in 1940 Ellington had another theme song, a marvelous composition of his called “Sepia Panorama,” its title an invocation of the Black diaspora in America.  Here’s a live performance of it in 1940 featuring both Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster, on Night Lights:



Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force band performing W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” in 1943, and Duke Ellington’s orchestra in Fargo, North Dakota in 1940 doing his short-lived radio theme song “Sepia Panorama,” that soon gave way to Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train,” featuring Jimmy Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on tenor sax.

Two big-band recordings now that showcase the sound of post-World War II era ensembles… we’ll hear from Gerald Wilson, who led a renowned modernistic big band of the mid-1940s and went on to direct an orchestra of West Coast-based musicians in the 1960s for a string of superlative albums.  First, trumpeter Miles Davis, who isn’t often thought of in a big-band context, but who made several albums with arranger Gil Evans in the late 1950s that display an expansion of the almost-ethereal big band sound that Evans helped bandleader Claude Thornhill craft in the 1940s.  Evans uses a rich orchestral palette to provide a haunting backdrop for Davis’ muted-trumpet work, heard here on their recording of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime”:

Gerald Wilson and his big band in 1962 performing “Teri,” written in honor of Wilson’s daughter and featuring Joe Pass on acoustic guitar.  Miles Davis and Gil Evans before that in 1958 with “Summertime,” from the album Porgy And Bess.

I’ll close with music from a big band leader who first rose to prominence in the Swing Era and managed to sustain his orchestra into the 1970s and 80s—a feat matched by only a handful of others such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie.  Woody Herman’s so-called Thundering Herds began in the swing and bebop era, but in the 1970s he expanded his repertoire to reflect the changing tastes of the musical landscape… and we’ll end with a prime example, with the Herman big band digging into pianist Alan Broadbent’s arrangement of a song written by maestro-of-all-genres Frank Zappa.  Here’s the Woody Herman big band doing Zappa’s “America Drinks and Goes Home,” on Night Lights:





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