The Great Depression years quickly tanked the music industry. Record sales had flat-lined, ballroom jobs had become scarce: the audience for jazz didn’t have any disposable income.
Without a consumer base, there was little need for the proliferation of bands as there had been during the 1920s. While on the surface this is true, there was still the need for bands to provide music to those who could still afford it. It was during this most trying period that one of the most innovative and significant Jazz bands of the 1930s emerged, The Casa Loma Orchestra.
Providing music for the young, primarily white, college-age crowd, the Casa Lomans provided the key link between the Jazz Age and Swing Era Big Bands. From roughly 1930 to 1935 The Casa Loma Orchestra provided much needed Big Band Jazz, and more, to an eager audience. While they had an uncompromising Jazz policy, they had a keen ear on popular music, as well, and in their performances, and recordings, covered a number of stylistic bases: Jazz, ballads, popular songs, “mood” pieces, and Broadway tunes. Found in all of these was their overarching requirement of precision and eminent dance-ability.
A cooperative band, they originated life as a Jean Goldkette sponsored orchestra in 1927, and by 1929 had become known as The Casa Loma Orch., taking the name from a Toronto Hotel they had previously performed at. They cut the wax in 1929, and within three years their repertoire and style had been fairly set. Gene Gifford, who played banjo, and guitar in the band, was the man chiefly responsible for developing the “Casa Loma sound.” His arrangements are clearly in the pioneering first Henderson-Redman models, with clearly delineated brass and reed choirs, rhythm section, and plenty of solos.
Their earliest recordings vacillated between doctored-stock arrangements of pop tunes, “Dust” or “Overnight,” and out-and-out Jazz charts such as “Royal Garden Blues,” “San Sue Strut,” and “Casa Loma Stomp,” (all 1930). The one thing both avenues had in common at even this early stage is their precision. The Casa Lomans were famous for rehearsing, with hours spent, trying to nail down every aspect of a particular arrangement. These recording sessions also unveiled their propensity for “flag wavers,” best exemplified by their own theme song “Casa Loma Stomp.” This was just the type of tune college age audiences were hungry for.
In terms of solos, the Casa Lomans knew of the importance of them, and inserted solos appropriately into their arrangements. They were never a soloists band in the way Ellington’s was. Nor were they a soloists led band. They were keenly aware of the lift and thrill a well played solo could provide an arrangement: Pat Davis provided spirited and powerful tenor work, Clarence Hutchenrider shined on clarinet, and exceptionally lyrical trombone styling was provided by Billy Rauch.
By 1931 the band had solidified its style, and approach to music making: Hot Jazz instrumentals, expertly arranged, “White Jazz,” “Maniacs Ball,” “Wild Goose Chase;” Ballads, “Smoke Rings,” “Moonglow;” Popular numbers, “Do The New York,” “Black-Eyed Susan Brown;” Mood pieces, “Blue Prelude,” “Nocturne;” and Broadway tunes, “Heat Wave,” “You’re A Builder-Upper.”
It was this broad spectrum of material played with uncompromising Jazz flavor, which enabled the Casa Loma Orchestra to hook and retain a strong following. Not only that, but their own perseverance, crisscrossing the country in the early 30s, playing countless one-nighters; through snowstorms, and on poorly paved roads, with dedication to the music they believed in.
While all but forgotten today, they filled a crucial gap in the early 1930s, providing Big band Jazz to hungry audiences, lifting their spirits and making exceptional music in the process.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]