The concept of a group of All-Stars making a record is a most fascinating one. That the birth of the “Supergroup” came when big name Jazz players went into the studio was possible only because culture from the 1930s into the 50s, Jazz was America’s popular music.
The period is known as The Swing Era. to make recordings as a group. Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, et al…were all names very familiar to the public, and as such could be gathered together, to produce recordings, which the masses would know and understand as “All-Stars.” In fact, it was the fans or sometimes the critics determining exactly who the Stars were, and which would perform on selected dates. These studio sessions when organized by the publications Metronome and Esquire were considered annuals and, though many years went without a superstar recording date, they basically happened every year. There were many other types of All-Star dates by the record companies; and they usually presented enough well-known musicians on each to justify the label.
By 1937 The Swing Era was well underway, and Jazz was known and enjoyed by a majority of the public. With those parameters in place, Victor Records, on March 31, 1937, produced the earliest of these “All-Star” recording sessions and even though it was a single – a 10” 78 RPM standard groove release with a song on each side – the session warranted an album-like title: “A Jam Session at Victor”. The Victor people put together three of their Big Name artists under contract - Bunny Berigan, Tommy Dorsey, and Fats Waller – and flesh out the rhythm with guitarist Dick McDonough and drummer George Wettling. Coupled on Victor 25559 were “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Blues.” As it’s only a quintet, it gives all the participants equal room to display his talent, showing off in particular the true All-Stars’ abilities. Dorsey really goes to town in this freewheeling Jam. On “Blues,” the highlight is Berigan’s masterful solo. “Honeysuckle Rose” was quite a popular tune and at that time was Fats Waller’s most famous composition, superseding “Ain’t Misbehaving”.
Four weeks later, the first ever Jazz record company, a French corporation named Swing, recorded its debut with an All-Star band that paired American and European talent. Coleman Hawkins was the leader, Benny Carter was the musical director, and the first non-American Jazz player to enter the pantheon, Django Reinhardt played guitar. The April 28, 1937 date even included another version of “Honeysuckle Rose” but the triumph of the performance – also exhibited on the flip side of Swing 1, “Crazy Rhythm” – was the producers’ vision of a cut-down Big Band of just reeds and rhythm. Those producers were the pioneering and French Jazz scholars, Charles Delaunay and Hughes Panaissie.
1939 saw the most formal and long-lasting beginning series of these All-Star dates, pioneered by Metronome Magazine. A much larger ensemble than previous dates - this was a Big Band composed of the top Jazzmen who were leading their own Big Bands including Bunny Berigan, Charlie Spivak, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, and Benny Goodman.. With the personnel selected from the winners of Metronome’s fan polls, and produced by Victor, they’re fully arranged outings with plenty of ensemble work, and a fair number of solo opportunities. James, and Berigan, are quite outstanding on “Blue Lou,” while Goodman really digs in, on “Blues.” To schedule the session, the recording was done late at night as January 11 became the 12th in 1939. The coupling came out on Victor 26144.
Leonard Feather, with Decca, also produced an All-Star session that year, featuring Bobby Hackett, Benny Carter, Billy Kyle, Joe Marsala, and Cozy Cole. A smaller group than Victor’s, it’s more of a Jam session atmosphere, with plenty of fine work from Carter, Hackett, and Marsala. This would be the first of several Feather produced “All-Star” dates.
The 1940 to 1942 Metronome “All-Star” sessions continue the method began with the 1939 session: band selected from the winners of the readers’ poll, and produced by a major company, Victor or Columbia. The 1940 session featured some newcomers, notably Charlie Barnet, Jess Stacy, Charlie Christian, and Gene Krupa, as well as the now returned from Europe Benny Carter. This time the two tunes were featured “King Porter Stomp,” (a full Big Band under the direction of Benny Goodman) and “All-Star Strut,” (as the All-Star Nine), and the label was Columbia Records – Columbia catalog 35389.
1941 produced two sessions, one for Victor, and one for Columbia (on December 31st no less!). [Translation: Victor 26144 in January 1939 represented 1938; Columbia 35389 on February 7, 1940 represented 1939; the 1941 Metronome All-Stars session for Victor, done on January 16, 1941, represented 1940; and the New Year’s Eve session for Columbia represented 1941, itself, though you will soon see that it’s a little bit more complicated. Indeed, it would be simpler to start counting with 1939 and continue into 1942.]
With Carter, Goodman, Dorsey, James, and Christian still on top, and new winners, including Cootie Williams, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Tex Beneke, Count Basie, and Buddy Rich. The Victor date produced “Bugle Call Rag,” and “One O’Clock Jump,” issued on Victor 27314; while the Columbia date generated “Royal Flush,” and “Dear Old Southland” – but only “Royal Flush” was issued as part of a 78 release on Columbia 36499. Standout moments include Christian and Williams’ solos on “One O’Clock Jump,” Hawkins on “Bugle Call Rag”; while the New Year’s Eve “Royal Flush” is a wonderfully swinging example of the Count Basie’s abilities.
The other half of Columbia 36499 was done in mid January 1942 and could be claimed, therefore, to account for 1942 in the sequence. The session was made by a smaller group, a nonet, composed of the Metronome reader’s poll leader winners. The band featured newcomers John Kirby, and Alvino Rey, with the rest, Goodman, Williams, Carter, Basie, etc.…present on earlier sessions. This team recorded only one title: “I Got Rhythm”.
Although the next All-Star session was done in 1943, it was truthfully two years later: January 16, 1942 as opposed to December 4, 1943. Logic might lead the reader to account for the gap as a minor byproduct of World War Two which the United States had entered in late 1941, but the real reason was a stunning dispute – given that it was a life or death war effort and the record business was not an essential industry. Nevertheless, the American Federation of Musicians struck over recording for the labels (Victor, Columbia, Decca, and the just launched Capitol Records) and Metronome Magazine was frustrated in continuing a young but already beloved annual All-Star “game”. When the smoke cleared – not the war’s end but the beginning of that strike’s conclusion – it would be a different magazine and even a somewhat different music that would dominate the All-Star, “Supergroup”, gatherings.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]