When Little Bands Were Big


“Now I’ll give you clowns five minutes to get out of here,” he snapped. “I thought the way my daughter talked that you guys had a dance band. Hell, I never heard anything so bad in my life! G’wan, pack up and get outa here. AND DON’T COME BACK !”

An unusually subdued band of musicians silently rode the elevator back down to street level and headed for our cars. We consoled ourselves that anyone could have been baffled by this new technology. And anyone could tell that station manager was no real judge of music. You could see that to look at him—foppish little mustache, slicked-down hair, and that dumb flower in his lapel. Why worry about radio? There was always another dance job waiting.

Dixieland jazz as played by small combos still was popular, but it was the mellow, danceable music of the big bands that dominated the popularmusic scene. Paul Whiteman was hailed as the King of Jazz, swinging his baton over a huge orchestra that included such sidemen as the Dorsey brothers, Henry Busse, Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, and Bing Crosby. Every college campus had its homegrown bands, many of them destined to become famous. Waring’s Pennsylvanians were still not long out of Penn State in that year when CaI Coolidge was finishing his second term in the White House, with Herbert Hoover being groomed to succeed him. Students at the University of North Carolina were blessed with a choice of three bands, led by Kay Kyser, Hal Kemp, and Tal Henry. Les Brown soon would be organizing his band at Duke.

Jazz had swept the campuses—not just the colleges but also the high schools. There was a big audience out there eager to dance cheek to cheek and an insatiable demand for bands to supply the music. But few dance sponsors could afford the name bands whose glossy tones filled the airwaves.

“Have $250 in treasury for spring dance,” a college prom committee wired Ted Weems at a time when he led one of the bands most sought after by collegians. “How many men can you send for that?”

“Three sheets of music and a piccolo player,” Weems wired back.

But there was another outlet for a school group on a tight budget. That was to hire one of the bands, like ours, that could be obtained for a few dollars per man.

There were thousands of us in cities, towns, and hamlets all over the nation. In my one high school there were three or four such bands, depending on when you took a census. For like our better known big-time colleagues, the little big bands raided each other’s ranks with relentless determination. The official high-school marching band was our recruiting ground, with first-chair musicians in top demand. Bands came and went as musicians swept back and forth like the tides.

We were a bulwark of the fast-growing music industry. Conn, Wurlitzer, Buescher, Selmer, and Gibson owed more of their dividends to us than to the pros, for the simple reason that there were so many more of us. We tallied up the value of our band’s instruments one night and found it came to more than fifteen hundred dollars, not counting the piano—a tidy sum in 1929 dollars for a group of teen-agers. Beyond that, we were a steady market for reeds, mouthpieces, sheet music, and other paraphernalia, as well as the inevitable replacement of old instruments by newer and costlier ones.

Anyone who could play an instrument and read music could join a band, or start one, even though few of us entertained any thoughts of rising through the ranks to become a Ben Pollack or a Ray Noble. Of all the musicians in our high school I recall only one who made it big. He was hired byPaul Whiteman and came back for a visit driving a Cadillac. His star descended as rapidly as it had risen, and we heard that booze had conquered him. Which seemed strange, for Prohibition was in the land then.

While it was fun to make music with your peers, there were other benefits, like learning the merits of discipline and teamwork. Our band took shape while most of us were still smooth-chinned sophomores. We practiced hard and regularly, two or three nights a week, working from stock arrangements divided into parts for each instrument in the band. We went over and over these numbers until they sounded good enough to us to perform in public. We enjoyed the challenge of combining our individual efforts into the unified sound of a big band, but we also looked forward to the time when someone might even consider paying for the privilege of hearing us.

Our first professional engagement, to use the term loosely, came with the opening of a big new neighborhood grocery. As so often happened, the job came through the girl friend of one of the bandsmen, for her father was the manager. In addition to giveaways, free coffee and cookies, and the chance to view this startling new merchandising development (“supermarket” also had not yet entered the lexicon in those days), the management announced that opening night would feature Live Music. That was us.