Both improvisation and composition (traditional notation, alternative forms of writing out music, or "head" arrangements) are integral to jazz, but they have frequently been seen as discrete modes of artistic expression that correspond to the division between jazz and classical music as separate realms of black and white artistic achievement.
The study of jazz has always been beset by problems concerning the division between improvisation and composition. While it is generally accepted that jazz by definition must have some improvisational elements, many scholars and aficionados have been much slower to accept the importance of written materials, especially in regard to jazz of the 1920s and 1930s.1 This perception often has racial divisions, with the idea being that black bands relied more on improvisation and collective arrangements, while white groups depended more on printed music. Often during those decades, the written materials in question were commercially produced "stock arrangements" printed by music publishers to tie in with the issue of new songs. But regardless of stereotypical perceptions, these arrangements were liberally used by both black and white bands to fulfill a dual purpose: allowing writers and publishers to disseminate new songs and dance bands to acquire and perform with relative ease new jazz material.
Numerous white arrangers produced jazz-inflected stocks during the pre–swing era (prior to 1935), but a few stand out both for quality and quantity. In Chicago Elmer Schoebel and Mel Stitzel wrote dozens (perhaps hundreds)2 of arrangements for the Melrose Brothers Publishing Company, including many tunes valued for their jazz and "hot" content. In New York, the field was dominated in the late 1920s and shortly thereafter by Jimmy Dale, Frank Skinner, Jack Mason and, for a short period, Archie Bleyer.
Among the latter group, it was Bleyer whose name was remembered most often in later years by both black and white musicians recalling the era's finest (and most demanding) stocks. The testimony of his contemporaries, the frequent appearance of his name in the print media during the early 1930s, and the regularity with which bands used his stocks (or elements thereof) on commercial recordings—all attest to Bleyer's emergence as a force in the music publishing world and in its relation to jazz.3
Born to an upper-middle-class white family on June 12, 1909, in Corona, Long Island, New York, Archie Bleyer showed musical talent at an early age and began piano studies at age seven.4 His father was a professional trumpeter who had extensive orchestral experience in Germany, playing under the batons of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Anton Rubinstein. 5 Immigrating to the United States around 1900, Max Bleyer was engaged to play with the Philadelphia Symphony and later joined the New York Philharmonic, as well as performing with numerous other New York groups. Despite this pedigree and a willingness to allow his son to learn piano, trumpet, and music theory, the father actively discouraged the son from pursuing a musical career. Nevertheless, young Archie became proficient enough on piano to find occasional work in dance bands while still in high school. Entering Columbia College in 1926 as an electrical engineering major, Bleyer soon began visiting Harlem and the uptown nightspots that featured the music of great black bands such as those led by Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and others. By his sophomore year, Bleyer had made the switch to a music major and even began copyrighting his own songs.6
Bleyer took part in school music ensembles, playing trumpet in the band and orchestra and piano in various student dance groups. By December of his sophomore year (1927), he was active enough to make extra money playing piano in local professional groups as well. Christmas break of that year found him playing in a dance band led by Harold Oxley, who later managed the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra.7 During this short tour, Bleyer roomed with trombonist Sunny Clapp, who was well known at the time as the composer of the hit song "Girl of My Dreams." It was Clapp who encouraged Bleyer to begin his career as an arranger, based on some informal work he had...