Jazzing the Classics: Race, Modernism, and the Career of Arranger Chappie Willet

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The American popular music tradition of “jazzing the classics” has long stood at the intersection of discourses on high and low culture, commercialism, and jazz authenticity. Dance band arrangers during the 1930s and 1940s frequently evoked, parodied, or straddled these cultural debates through their manipulations of European classical repertoire. This article examines Swing Era arranging strategies in the context of prevailing racial essentialisms, conceptions of modernism, and notions of technical virtuosity. The legacy of African American freelance arranger Chappie Willet, and his arrangement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, op. 13 (“Pathétique”) for the black dance band of Jimmie Lunceford, suggests that an account of the biography and artistic voice of the arranger is critical to understanding the motivations behind these hybrid musical works.

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Jascha Heifetz (1901–87) promoted a modern brand of musical eclecticism, recording, performing, and editing adaptations of folk and popular songs while remaining dedicated to the standard violin repertoire and the compositions of his contemporaries. This essay examines the complex influences of his displacement from Eastern Europe and assimilation to the culture of the United States on both the hybridity of his repertoire and the critical reception he received in his new home. It takes as its case study Heifetz's composition of the virtuosic showpiece “Hora Staccato,” based on a Romany violin performance he heard in Bucharest, and his later adaptation of the music into an American swing hit he titled “Hora Swing-cato.” Finally, the essay turns to the field of popular song to consider how two of the works Heifetz performed most frequently were adapted for New York Yiddish radio as Tin Pan Alley–style songs whose lyrics narrate the early twentieth-century immigrant experience. The performance and arrangement history of many of Heifetz's miniatures reveals the multivalent ways in which works in his repertoire, and for some listeners Heifetz himself, were reinterpreted, adapted, and assimilated into American culture. Joshua S. Walden is Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Johns Hopkins University. He has held a Junior Research Fellowship at Merton College, Oxford University, and an Edison Fellowship at the British Library Sound Archive. He is the editor of Representation in Western Music (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2013). His articles are published or forthcoming in Journal of the American Musicological Society, Musical Quarterly, Journal of Musicological Research, and elsewhere.
New York City witnessed a burst of creativity in the 1920s. This artistic renaissance is examined from the perspective of composers of classical and modern music who, along with writers, painters, and jazz musicians, were at the heart of early modernism in America. The book also illustrates how the aesthetic attitudes and institutional structures from the 1920s left a deep imprint on the arts over the 20th century. Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Virgil Thomson, William Grant Still, Edgard Varèse, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, Marion Bauer, and Dane Rudhyar were the leaders of a talented new generation of American composers whose efforts made New York City the center of new music in the country. They founded composer societies-such as the International Composers' Guild, the League of Composers, the Pan American Association, and the Copland-Sessions Concerts-to promote the performance of their music, and nimbly negotiated cultural boundaries, aiming for recognition in Western Europe as much as at home. This book provides a new perspective on the period and a compelling collective portrait of the figures, puncturing many longstanding myths. American composers active in New York during the 1920s are explored in relation to the "Machine Age" and American Dada; the impact of spirituality on American dissonance; the crucial, behind-the-scenes role of women as patrons and promoters of modernist music; cross-currents between jazz and concert music; the critical reception of modernist music (especially in the writings of Carl Van Vechten and Paul Rosenfeld); and the international impulse behind neoclassicism. The book also examines the persistent biases of the time, particularly anti-Semitism, gender stereotyping, and longstanding racial attitudes.
In the 1930s swing music was everywhere-on radio, recordings, and in the great ballrooms, hotels, theatres, and clubs. Perhaps at no other time were drummers more central to the sound and spirit of jazz. Benny Goodman showcased Gene Krupa. Jimmy Dorsey featured Ray McKinley. Artie Shaw helped make Buddy Rich a star while Count Basie riffed with the innovative Jo Jones. Drummers were at the core of this music; as Jo Jones said, "The drummer is the key-the heartbeat of jazz". An oral history told by the drummers, other musicians, and industry figures, this book is also Burt Korall's memoir of more than fifty years in jazz. Personal and moving, the book is a celebration of the music of the time and the men who made it. Meet Chick Webb, small, fragile-looking, a hunchback from childhood, whose explosive drumming style thrilled and amazed; Gene Krupa, the great showman and pacemaker; Ray McKinley, whose rhythmic charm, light touch, and musical approach provided a great example for countless others, and the many more that populate this story. Based on interviews with a collection of the most important jazzmen, this book offers an inside view of the swing years that cannot be found anywhere else.
This book investigates and analyzes the music of Billy Strayhorn. Over seventy musical examples, drawn from his original autograph scores, provide insight in the development of his style, in his advanced harmonic language and in his orchestral technique. The book traces the origins of Strayhorn's music, rooted in European and American idioms, and uncovers hitherto unknown works which cast a new light on his development as a jazz composer and orchestrator. It addresses the mythical, thirty-year partnership of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. Through research on their autograph scores, it redefines their musical collaboration. The book argues that as opposed to general accepted views, Ellington and Strayhorn were not musical alter-egos, but two distinctively individual composers who worked from different musical perspectives. This book also details how those distinctions stem from the respective musical backgrounds of the two composers, and how that affected their collaboration. The differences between Ellington's and Strayhorn's music are clearly audible, yet have eluded most listeners since Ellington - as the main interpreter of his collaborator's music - played a crucial role in our perception of Strayhorn's work. The book untangles Strayhorn from Ellington's shadow, identifies all of his contributions to the Ellington repertory, and points listeners to the most salient features that distinguish Strayhorn's musical style from Ellington's.
If Benny Goodman was the "King of Swing", then Fletcher Henderson might be considered the power behind the throne. Not only did Henderson arrange the music that fueled Goodman's success, he also helped to launch the careers of several other key figures in jazz history, including Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, and their work, in turn, shaped Henderson's. Drawing on a wide range of primary sources, including sound recordings, stock arrangements, and score manuscripts available only since Goodman's death, this book traces Henderson's life and work from his youth in the deep South, to his early work as a New York bandleader, to his pivotal role in building the Kingdom of Swing. Henderson, standing at the forefront of the New York jazz scene in the 1920s and 1930s, assembled many of the era's best musicians, forging a distinctive jazz style within the stylistic framework of popular song and dance music. Henderson's style grew out of collaboration with many key players. It also grew out of a deft combination of written and improvised music, of commercial and artistic impulses, and of racial cooperation and competition, and thus stands as an exemplar of musical activity in the Harlem Renaissance. As Henderson's career stalled in the midst of the Depression, record producer John Hammond brought together Henderson and Goodman in a fortuitous collaboration that shaped the history of American music.
The American tours of five visiting virtuoso pianists - Leopold de Meyer (1845-7), Henri Herz (1846-50), Sigismund Thalberg (1856-8), Anton Rubinstein (1872-3), and Hans von Bülow (1875-6) - are examined in this book in regard to their management, itinerary, repertoire, performance style, and reception. The transformation of audiences from boisterous to reverent, the gradual acceptance of the piano recital, the establishment of a canon of masterworks for the piano, and the evolution of concert-giving into a highly organized commercial enterprise are documented. Appendices include the itineraries of these five pianists, totaling almost one thousand concerts in more than one hundred cities, and the repertoire of Rubinstein and Bülow.
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...
Bill Finegan's arrangements of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue for the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1942 and of Concerto in F for the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra in 1952 provide a basis for interpreting Gershwin's compositions. Finegan's treatments suggest that techniques central to popular forms were foundational to Gershwin's style in these pieces. Furthermore, Gershwin's and Finegan's works shed light on the concept of hybridity in the United States, especially as it concerns the label of “symphonic jazz” or “concert jazz” and ideas about race. Hybrid terms such as “symphonic jazz” manage to challenge musical and social categories while simultaneously reinforcing them.
The Casino Ballroom of Avalon, Catalina Island, is located about twenty miles off the coast of the metropolitan Los Angeles area. Completed in 1929 under the direction of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., the ballroom became a significant venue for dance bands of the 1930s and early 1940s. The Casino did not, however, feature any of the most familiar names of the era. Instead, it was designed as a state-of-the-art dance hall for the presentation of exclusively white dance bands playing “sweet” jazz, a style that avoided the most obvious musical signifiers of “hot” popular music. Through a comparison of three commercial recordings of “Avalon,” I detail how the music of Jan Garber's sweet jazz orchestra—a group immensely popular at the Casino—differed from the music of hotter jazz dance bands, such as the Jimmie Lunceford and Casa Loma Orchestras. Garber's sweet “Avalon” established a sonic place characterized by specific musical relationships and values that were easily fused to the ideology of the island's promoters. For the owners and managers of the Casino Ballroom, jazz was to be the sound of modernity suffused with nostalgia for a threatened, racialized social order.
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Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra 1939-1940
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Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra: Make Believe Ballroom 1935-1939. Giants of Jazz CD 53274
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Prelude in C-sharp Minor” [stock arrangement
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Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra 1942
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review of Lying Up a Nation
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Fleischmann's Yeast Show & Louis’ Home-Recorded Tapes
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Essential Ellington: The Best of Duke
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Chappie Willet: A Jazz Arranger in Swing Era New York
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Gene Krupa and His Orchestra 1935-1938
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