After writing about baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne on Tuesday, I started thinking about Danny Bank, who played baritone in quite a few bands in the 1940s and beyond.
So I gave Danny a call yesterday afternoon. We talked a little about Payne—“He had such a great sound. Dizzy’s band had hard music to play. Cecil was terrific, and so nice whenever we'd run into each other on the road.”
Then the conversation turned to the big bands of the 1940s. I asked Danny to rate the bands he played in between 1944 and 1950. There were plenty to choose from during that six-year period—Charlie Barnet, Freddie Slack, Benny Goodman, Mel Powell, Jimmy Dorsey, Claude Thornhill, Ray McKinley, Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw.
Here’s Danny’s list of top six bands, in order, and what made each band leader a hero or heel:
Charlie Barnet: "I was with Charlie off and on for many years starting in '44. He was the son of millionaires. His grandfather was a big executive in the New York Central Railroad. Whenever we came into New York, the Park Central Hotel on 7th Ave. near Carnegie Hall gave him the roof job, which was a big deal. They’d also empty out the two floors below the roof for us to stay in. We’d go into that hotel for a month at a time.
I was never really a jazz player—someone who stands up and solos. I was more comfortable as a session guy who read charts and delivered a big sound. I had polio as a kid and wore a full brace on my left leg, which made standing to solo very difficult, especially with a baritone and other large instruments.
My leg would become a problem only when Charlie's entire reed section had to stand up and play together— especially when we'd play his theme, Cherokee. Standing in unison was an effect audiences loved. In most cases, standing wasn't too much of a problem for me. But it became much more hazardous when we'd ride a stage up out of the orchestra pit. We'd do this in large theaters that had these elevated stages.
The reeds would stand down below in the orchestra pit and then start playing full force as the stage rose up and the band emerged. Audiences would go nuts. I'd have to support myself on one leg, with the stage shaking from the hydraulic machinery jacking us up. Meanwhile, we had Chubby Jackson on bass for a period, and he'd be swinging away, shaking that rising stage like Jell-O.
I started to realize that standing was going to be too risky for me and would either be embarrassing if I fell or catastrophic if I landed on my head. Soon enough I didn’t ask permission to sit. I just stayed down. Charlie was a great guy and didn’t mind."
Benny Goodman: "I was with Benny several times over the years, starting in 1945. Benny always ran his band. There were no first trumpets or first saxophones to take over the band when he wasn’t there. Benny was the conductor, and everyone took orders from him. Sometimes on theater dates he’d have me play the clarinet on his closing theme—Goodbye—so he could race to the train station or airport. Benny's band was always on the money.
The first year I was there, Benny went through 45 saxophonists. That's no exaggeration. I made a list. The turnover actually helped my business because so many guys who left the band knew me. But every time Benny would try a new one I’d have to rehearse the section.
The first time I gave Benny two weeks' notice was in 1946. He came over to me and said, 'You have to change your way of playing.' I said, 'I like the way I’m playing. I play the same for everyone. The only difference is if I play for Barnet I play louder.’
But the more I thought about what Benny said, the more I decided it was time to leave the band. Shortly after he said what he did, we were rehearsing on the Carnegie Hall stage at 7 am. Benny used to rent the stage there at the crack of dawn because he liked how it sounded.
After rehearsal, I held up two fingers—two weeks' notice. Benny's wife, Alice, called me later and tried to talk me out of it. She was very sweet but I told her I needed to move on. Her maiden name was Hammond, and her brother was John Hammond, the record producer and talent scout who discovered Benny. I wasn’t going to change my style of playing—which was big and full. Benny liked things softer. She understood, and I think Benny grew to like my style over the years because I was back with his band quite a few times."
Artie Shaw: "Artie had a great band in late 1949 to early 1950. To give you an idea, just the reed section had Herbie Steward and Frank Sokolow on alto saxes, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims on tenors, and me on baritone.
I remember we were playing up near London, Ontario, in Canada. I was sitting at the end of the reed section and Al Cohn was sitting next to me. The band had great charts and could really blow, which often mesmerized girls, guys and couples who'd stand in front of the stage watching rather than dancing. Since the reeds were down front, we'd be just a few feet away.
During a break between sets up in Canada, Artie came over and said to me and Al, ‘You two guys are fired,’ right out of the blue. Then he walked away. I said to Al, ‘What do you think?’ Al says, 'Ah forget about it. If he fires us, he owes us two weeks' pay and our fare home.’
So another set goes by, and Artie comes over and says, ‘Listen fellas, forget the firing.’ When I heard that, I just lost it. ‘What the hell’s the matter with you? First we’re fired and now we’re hired?’ Artie said he saw that Al and me were flirting with the women at front of the stage.
‘You don’t pick up women in front of the bandstand while we're working, do you understand me?’ Artie said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because I pick them up,’ he said. Artie was like that, especially with women, but he ran one heck of a band—especially that one."
Claude Thornhill: "Claude came up with great orchestrations, and he prepared the band thoroughly for jobs— big or small. He also was a terrific piano player.
I replaced Gerry Mulligan in Claude's band in 1948. I was in the band for a short period, after leaving Jimmy Dorsey and before re-joining Barnet.
Actually, I first met Gerry in early 1945. I had two weeks off from Benny Goodman's band and was working in Philadelphia with Teddy Powell's band. Benny called me and said we were going to start rehearsing early and that I needed to come back to New York as soon as possible.
I told Powell about Benny’s call, and he said that if I could get him a bari player, I could take off. So I looked around Philadelphia at the clubs where guys were blowing to see if a bari player was available. I hit one place, and Joe Wilder was the trumpet player there. He said he knew a young guy who played bari but that his horn was in the pawn shop.
Joe said that if I could get the kid’s bari out, I probably could get him to play the job. So I tracked down the guy, put up the $20 to get his horn out, and the kid—Gerry Mulligan—finished the date with Powell.
Three or four months later I ran into Gerry in New York. He had moved up from Philadelphia and had gotten an apartment in the 60s on the West Side. The rest is history.
In Claude's band we'd play concerts outdoors at parks. Even if it rained, you had to go out and blow. On one date in New York, after a heavy rain and just before we started playing, Claude was looking at the piano's keyboard and hitting individual notes hard. Each time he hit a note, water splashed up.
I asked Claude how he was going to play. Claude said he had no choice. I asked if he found any good notes. He said, ‘Just six,’ I asked him what he was going to do. Claude said those were the notes he was going to play. And he did. That's how good Claude was."
Jimmy Dorsey: "Jimmy was a real nice guy. I was with him from late 1946 to late 1947. Jimmy Giuffre and Al Haig were in that band.
Jimmy Dorsey eventually fired me because I played his theme, Contrasts, right behind him on the radio. I guess I must have had a few drinks. So when he started to play, I figured I’d play an octave lower on the bari. I didn’t realize we were on the air.
When we finished the broadcast, he came over to me and said I was fired. We were in California, so according to union rules, he owed me two weeks' pay and my fare home to New York. A little while later he came back to me and told me I was re-hired. He said, ‘I know you want to get home to New York. You stay with the band until we get two weeks out of New York. Then I’ll give you two weeks’ notice.'
When I left Jimmy’s band, I checked into a hotel in New York a block from the Paramount Theater. Within days I was playing with Ray McKinley at the Paramount. That's how it was back then. There was always plenty of work."
Tommy Dorsey: "I played with Tommy's band in 1950. He never spoke to his sidemen. To him, sidemen were like wallpaper. He’d walk along the band and listen to each player separately. 'Push in, pull out, you’re flat, you’re sharp,’ he'd tell different guys.
Charlie Shavers was in the band. Dorsey loved him. Charlie was fantastic. But he had narcolepsy and would often nod off without control. I think Tommy thought he was using, but it was an uncontrollable disorder no one really knew about then.
Once when we worked the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, I decided to hit Tommy up for a raise. I figured he wouldn't give it to me, which would allow me to get out of his band without feeling guilty. And I was right. At the time, I was living with my mom, and she was getting on in her years. When I told Tommy about my family and that I needed a bump, he ‘No, sorry, not at all.’ So I gave him two weeks' notice.
Tommy never got used to being rich. The anger of being poor never left him."
JazzWax tracks: Danny Bank with Charlie Barnet in 1944 can be heard here on Charlie Barnet: Those Swinging Years. Bank's recordings with Barnet in the late 1950s can be heard on Charlie Barnet: The Everest Years here—or at iTunes.
Six tracks featuring Bank with Benny Goodman in 1945 can be found here on Teenage Stan, Vol. 1: 1943-1946.
Bank with Artie Shaw appears here on The Artistry of Artie Shaw and His Bop Band 1949.
Bank with Tommy Dorsey in 1950 can be found here on Tommy Dorsey: The Complete Standard Transcriptions.