A musician’s first record date as a leader says a lot about his or her musical ambitions and attitude. The songs, style, and personnel are chosen (usually) by the leader to fulfill a musical “goal.” There must also be sufficient interest, and value in giving a previously untested artist the opportunity. Glenn Miller’s was afforded such an occasion in April of 1935.
Active in Jazz for over a decade by this point, Miller had played in Ben Pollack’s Orchestra, and had worked extensively with Red Nichols, recording director Ben Selvin, and with the Dorsey Brothers. He had honed his trombone abilities, and become a rather adept arranger as well. By the spring of 1935 he was fairly well known, and in April had the chance for a record date with Columbia.
For his April 25th session, four songs were selected, as was standard practice, “A Blues Serenade,” “Moonlight On The Ganges,” “In A Little Spanish Town,” and “Solo Hop,” (an original by Miller). A pick-up band was gathered, with several members coming from Ray Noble’s American Orchestra, with which Miller was playing at the time. Those included: Charlie Spivak, Bunny Berigan, trumpets; Jack Jenny, trombone; Johnny Mince, Eddie Miller, reeds; a rhythm section of Claude Thornhill, piano, Larry Hall, guitar, Delmar Kaplan, bass, and Ray Bauduc, drums; and there were strings: Harry Bluestone, Waldimir Selinsky, violins; Harry Waller, viola; and Bill Schumann, cello. The inclusion of a string section is the most astounding aspect of the band.
Still relatively uncommon in Jazz at this point, as it is usually difficult to get them to swing, Glenn Miller was audacious enough to feature them! His arranging prowess handled them remarkably well though.
On the whole, the date is eclectic, a mix of popular numbers, exoticism, and out-and-out Jazz. “A Blues Serenade,” featuring Smith Ballew on vocals, kicked off the session. The most commercial tune, the arrangement integrates strings from the get-go, giving them plenty of melody, and not merely playing background figures behind soloists. Beginning and ending sans rhythm, there are a few short solos, and vocals in between. First issued on Columbia 3051-D, it’s a well-done treatment of this early ballad.
The flip side, “Moonlight On The Ganges,” is an exercise in exoticism with its shifting, chromatic passages. Strings, again, play a fairly prominent role, with plenty of interplay between brass, and reeds. The middle section features another vocal by Smith Ballew, (adequate, but rather stiff). Following that, Bunny Berigan bursts out of a short interlude, giving us a hot half chorus, before it comes to a close. It’s an imaginative arrangement of a commercial tune.
Released on Columbia 3058-D, the two final tunes of the session feature much more Jazz. “In A Little Spanish Town,” is a swinging arrangement of the 1926 classic, with the strings taking more of a background role, and much more action from the brass section, and soloists. Thornhill, Mince, and Eddie Miller all improvise beautifully, but the standouts are clearly Berigan, and Ray Bauduc. Berigan’s trumpet technique is simply stunning, while Bauduc’s drumming is electrifying, giving the whole performance lift, and swing.
“Solo Hop,” the final recording, is a Miller original. Sans strings, it is out-and-out Jazz. After a punchy intro, there’s a string of solos, Berigan, Eddie Miller (tenor), and Mince (clarinet). An ensemble passage concludes the arrangement. It’s a really fetching series of solos, spurred on by Bauduc’s exceptional percussion work, and the building background figures played by the brass. It is rare to hear an arranger pay that much attention to dynamics! “Solo Hop” provides a hard-swinging conclusion to Miller’s first record date as leader.
This diverse group of recordings illustrates the variety of music on his horizon, as well as his talents in dealing with such an array of material. Glenn Miller had an ear for Jazz, and knew how to approach it, going from a sprinkle to a downpour.
As pleasing as the records are, they were not commercially successful however. Buyers likely found Columbia 3051, “… Serenade,” and “Moonlight …,” slightly esoteric, attempting to cover a number of stylistic bases at once; while Columbia 3058, “…Town,” and “…Hop,” was a tough sell against the already established, and steadily-gaining popularity, Henderson-Goodman model of Jazz. The economics of the time – it was still The Great Depression – didn’t help either.
Whatever the case may be, the session offers an intriguing glimpse into Glenn Miller, who would within a few short years be the most popular bandleader in the nation. It essentially codifies his musical world up to 1935, offering an aural snapshot of both his talents, as well as those of his fellow Jazzmen.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]