Eddie Sauter was one of the most progressive, modernistic arrangers to emerge from the swing era, crafting harmonically fresh charts for Red Norvo, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Ray McKinley. In later years he would co-lead one of the most interesting post-swing era bands, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, and serve as the architect for the album that saxophonist Stan Getz considered to be his masterpiece. We’ll hear music from all of these periods of Sauter’s career on this "Jazz a la Sauter" edition of Night Lights.
Jazz scholar Loren Schoenberg, author of The NPR Curious Listener's Guide To Jazz, has written that Duke Ellington’s music is “the only other big band music that can be mentioned in the same orchestral and compositional breath as Eddie Sauter’s.” It’s a safe bet, though, that Sauter is far less-known today than Duke Ellington. Sauter was born in Brooklyn on December 2, 1914, and as a boy encountered discovered jazz through the era’s hottest new medium. “The radio was just coming out and I disobeyed all laws and stayed up until the wee hours in grammar school, listening. Ellington used to be on all the time,” he recalled decades later.
Sauter was also a fan of Hal Kemp’s sweet band, and drew inspiration from the musical interests of his older brother, who taught him how to write out music. He took up both trumpet and drums, as well as the work that would prove most significant—-arranging. An accrual of professional gigs in the early 1930s led to a job with Charlie Barnet’s big band, where he met vibraphonist Red Norvo and Norvo’s wife, singer Mildred Bailey, known in the jazz press as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing.” When Norvo and Bailey started up their own orchestra, they turned quite frequently to Sauter for arrangements. The exquisitely complex and dreamy, brooding charts that Sauter crafted for Norvo and Bailey were sometimes branded "chamber jazz" and made a strong impression upon a number of listeners and fellow jazz musicians.
Sauter's Signature Sound
By the end of the 1930s Sauter was married and no longer playing trumpet, focusing solely on working as a composer and arranger. Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey’s marital difficulties had destabilized the Norvo orchestra, and through jazz impresario John Hammond, Sauter ended up working for one of the most popular bandleaders in swing music, Benny Goodman, providing Goodman with some of the most sophisticated charts the clarinetist would ever record. Sauter’s son Greg described his father’s writing approach as having
several ideas going on at once, one of which or two of which can resolve at different times, but the tension must always be there. If one resolves, another one must be unresolved until the end of the piece.
Sauter scholar Alex Chilowicz says that another of Sauter’s stylistic signatures was “affording the soloist room to improvise as a built-in part of the larger global arrangement as opposed to simply “blowing” on chord changes with occasional backgrounds.”
This signature was present throughout Sauter’s entire career, from Goodman’s recordings of his arrangements to his late-period masterpiece Focus with saxophonist Stan Getz. With Goodman Sauter produced a number of virtuoso compositions and arrangements, such as “Moonlight On The Ganges,” a piece that exemplifies music scholar Gunther Schuller’s statements that
where someone like Sauter was most free to really ‘compose’ was in the introductions, interludes, modulations, and codas,” as well as Schuller ‘s observation that “there has never been a master of harmonic modulation in jazz to equal Sauter. His skill [in jazz composition]…is certainly equal to Richard Strauss’s [in classical
Sauter’s arrangement of “Moonlight On the Ganges” went unreleased for years, perhaps because it was one of his charts that Goodman thought too challenging for mainstream swing audiences.
Illness would also hamper Sauter’s creative presence in the Goodman orchestra in the 1940s, with tuberculosis taking him off the scene for several intervals. He resurfaced most notably in the late 1940s with drummer Ray McKinley’s orchestra, after brief stints with Woody Herman and Artie Shaw. Sauter’s arrangement of “Summertime” for Shaw became one of the clarinetist’s most memorable mid-1940s recordings. Jazz critic John McDonough writes that “in turning Gershwin’s song into a small-scale programmatic symphonic poem, Sauter essentially recreated “Summertime” as a fullblown composition.” “It was issued on a 12-inch 78 and you couldn’t dance to it,” Sauter later said. It was doomed… but the audience is an irrelevancy as far as I’m concerned.”
A Two-Man Band: The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra
By the end of the 1940s, with the big-band business in decline, Ray McKinley was on the verge of breaking up his orchestra. In the meantime, Eddie Sauter’s continuing health issues with tuberculosis landed him in a sanitarium again. While he was there, he received a letter from fellow arranger Bill Finegan, who had made a name for himself with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey’s orchestras, and who, like Sauter, longed to express his sophisticated approach in ways that transcended standard big-band music. Finegan proposed that the two arrangers team up and form their own ensemble. With additional encouragement from the Williard Alexander Agency, which had brought Sauter and Ray McKinley together several years before, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was born.
Determined to be more of a concert, New York- City based band rather than a touring dance orchestra, Sauter and Finegan garnered the support of jazz critic George Simon and scored an early hit with their composition “Doodletown Fifers.” Charming, whimsical, complex, playfully creative, rife with classical-music influences, and rendered with unusual instrumentation, the Sauter-Finegan recordings stood out in the staid and commercially-declining big-band scene of the early 1950s. Still, the two leaders had to make concessions in the way of road trips and attempts to keep the music danceable, and they had to sustain a large payroll as well, given that their writing required top-notch players. After battling financial woes for years, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra finally dissolved in 1957.
After the breakup of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, Eddie Sauter went to Germany, where he headed the SWF radio-station orchestra—-the only time in his career that he functioned as sole leader of a big band. Sauter had considerable artistic freedom with this orchestra, and used some older pieces he had written that had been considered too far out for American audiences. In 1957 several Sauter compositions were recorded by the SWF Orchestra, including "Tropic of Kommingen," which Sauter scholar Alex Alex Chilowicz calls "one of the most adventurous works” of Sauter’s career.
"Something You Really Believe In"
Sauter returned to America in 1958, after cultural politics troubled his running of the SWF Orchestra. The big-band scene continued to be commercially moribund for an arranger like Sauter, although he was able to land occasional writing assignments for jazz records such as Bob Brookmeyer’s Gloomy Sunday And Other Bright Moments. Throughout the 1960s he did a lot of orchestrating for Broadway musicals, and in the early 1970s he also wrote music for Rod Serling’s TV show Night Gallery.
Sauter's most significant musical accomplishment after his return to the States came through his collaboration with Stan Getz on the saxophonist’s landmark 1961 recording Focus, that provides one of the last jazz highlights in the Sauter discography. The two also worked together on the score for Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty’s offbeat 1965 film Mickey One. Focus grew out of Getz’s request for Sauter to write an extended work for him. “I had admired Eddie Sauter’s writing for so long,” Getz later recalled:
I played his arrangements when I was on Benny Goodman’s band in 1945.And he seemed so neglected. He was writing music for jingles and television programs. I thought, “Why should a man this great have to do something like that?” So I asked him to write something for me. He said, “What?” I said, “I don’t want any arrangements of jazz classics, or anything. I want it to be all your own original music—something that you really believe in.
The result was a classically-influenced suite with strings that left spaces for Getz to fill with his playing, which rose to the challenge of the adventurous and complex sound-world that Sauter had created for the saxophonist. We close with "Her" from Focus and "Mickey's Theme" from Mickey One.
- Red Norvo on Eddie Sauter: "I pushed him. Made him work at short notice. Gave him deadlines-so he wouldn't have time to mess with a score and fiddle with it and change it. Otherwise, if he took too much time, he'd overdo it, overwrite. But if he worked against the clock... he had to keep things simple."
- Read a thesis about Eddie Sauter
- The New York Times' obituary for Eddie Sauter
Listen to Eddie Sauter's arrangement of Irving Berlin's "Remember" for the Red Norvo orchestra:
Listen to Helen Forrest with Benny Goodman's big band singing Sauter's arrangement of "The Man I Love":