The early 1930s was not a great time for undertaking any major musical ambitions. In fact, regarding Jazz in particular, it was quite possibly the worst time to be attempting any sort of untested musical venture. None-the-less, the ambitious young producer John Hammond, along with Benny Goodman, and Benny Carter, hatched a plan to create a most astounding, racially mixed Jazz orchestra, for a tour of England; the All-Star band that never was.
In the fall of 1934 Benny Goodman was at a juncture, with his stint at Billy Rose’s Music Hall ending, he had to figure out what to do next. Goodman, along with Benny Carter, as Charlie Barnet recalled, “were rather disgusted with the reception of Jazz…of big band Jazz particularly,” and seriously thought of going to Europe. Coleman Hawkins had done it several months earlier, and Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington had toured Europe to great acclaim.
Enter John Hammond. A seemingly unlikely Jazz champion, Hammond came from the Vanderbilt family, and attended all the best schools, but wanted to do something worthwhile for the music as well as racial equality. With economic means, and plenty of determination, Hammond pounced on Goodman and Carter’s idea, and began to flesh it out. As reported by Melody Maker, beginning in July 1934, (for which Hammond wrote) an All-Star ensemble of black and white musicians would be formed for a tour of England: Doc Cheatham, Charlie Teagarden, and Bill Coleman, trumpets, Jack Teagarden, J.C. Higginbotham, and Will Bradley, trombones, Benny Carter, Edgar Sampson, and Chu Berry, on saxes, and a rhythm section of Hank Wayland, bass, Teddy Wilson, piano, Lawrence Lucie Guitar, Gene Krupa on drums, and Benny Goodman as leader! Additional attractions would include Bessie Smith, and Red Norvo.
It was a very ambitious undertaking from the start, as leaves of absences would have to be found, and replacements arranged, especially with such prominent talent. Labor permits, and bookings would also have to be carefully orchestrated. Although it was such a monumental undertaking, throughout the summer of ’34 Hammond continued to ballyhoo the idea in Melody Maker to British Jazz fans, with headlines like “Benny Goodman black and white band offered contract,” and “Goodman fantasy band nearer England.” Tickets were selling, and it seemed “the greatest and most convincing exposition of modern dance music,” was actually going to be seen and heard!
October 15 was supposed to mark the bands opening, but as it grew closer and closer, publicity dried up. In late September an article stated, “the fate of the band is to be decided this week.” This was the first and ultimately only indication that there were problems, and indeed there were. What would have been a groundbreaking and amazing aggregation of Jazz talent in one band was cancelled. Any information pertaining to it suddenly vanished, and only a brief explanation was offered in Down Beat’s October issue: Labor permits could not be obtained, so the tour was cancelled.
There’s more to it than that though, as was reported the following spring. The English Selmer Co. and bandleader Jack Hylton were to sponsor the tour, and arrange the bookings. After meeting with Hammond in September, having secured Goodman, and the other musicians, Hylton was to return home, make the proper arrangements, and inform Hammond of the details. No response came from Hylton however.
The other side of the story came from Melody Maker and Hylton. After meeting with Hammond, Hylton saw that not only had the band never actually met, or had a rehearsal, but that Hammond was still just talking about it. Having seen this, Hylton didn’t bother to book anything on his end, for “the band existed only in the ambitions of a free-lance American.”
Hammond was very well intentioned, but lacked the experience for execution. Ultimately, he would go on to a number of substantial accomplishments. The idea itself was ahead of its time. The thought of an All-Star ensemble of black and white musicians, existing in LIVE performance, not in the studio, in the pre-Swing Era, is a fascinating one. Had the fates been kinder, it might have. Never the less, it is oh-so tempting to close ones eyes, and imagine the glorious sound of an orchestra with Jack Teagarden, Chu Berry, Doc Cheatham, and Benny Goodman…
Back in the day – as people enjoy saying currently – there was one major outcropping that documented this band’s existence. It seems to indicate that the orchestra’s genuine existence was a bit more firm than stated dismissively by Jack Hylton. This account is by none other than Benny Goodman, himself, in his only autobiography – finished when he was only 29! – “Kingdom of Swing”.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]