Artie Shaw in aisle four. My interview last week with baritone saxophonist Danny Bank covered his recording sessions in the 1940s with six top big bands. One of the six was Artie Shaw's bop band of 1949-1950.
After taking a second look at Danny's discography, I noticed something strange. Over a series of just five dates in December 1949 and January 1950, a whopping 52 tracks were recorded. But the sides didn't appear to be recorded for RCA Victor, Artie's record label at the time. Nor were they recorded live at a club or concert hall.
Instead, the marathon sessions were recorded for something called "Thesaurus Transcriptions."
Huh? I buzzed Danny back late last week. Here's what he said:
"Artie recorded those tracks for elevator music—some sort of subscription music service, like Muzak. He was going into the hospital for an operation to remove gallstones and wanted to record the entire bop book. The bop band was so well rehearsed that we were able to go in and record many tracks each day over five different dates from early December 1949 to mid-January 1950. The music was recorded on tape and used for play in hotel lobbies, restaurants, stores and places like that."
So I did a little digging. Thesaurus Transcriptions actually was a division of RCA that recorded bands separately from the Victor label.
The music would be recorded on magnetic tape—a brand new format in 1949 that allowed more music to be captured at once on a single master source. Then RCA piped the music over a radio frequency to businesses that subscribed to its subliminal-music service.
Thesaurus Transcriptions competed with Muzak at the time for market share in the background-music business. Interestingly, Thesaurus was headed by Ben Slavin, who earlier had been instrumental in helping Muzak get its start in the 1930s.
Given how the word "muzak" has over time become a label for dull, bland music, it's amusing to think that tracks recorded by Artie Shaw's hip bop band was canned and fed to supermarkets and other places of business—during daylight hours. Then again, those were the days!
Actually, now that I think about it, it shouldn't come as too much of a shock. I remember attending a Muzak recording session in New York back in the mid-1980s for a newspaper article I was writing. I was surprised by how many well-known jazz musicians I could see through the glass from the engineer's booth (Bobby Rosengarden and Milt Hinton, to name two).
That made perfect sense, since who else was Muzak going to call to read down arrangements perfectly the first time? It's called making a living in the 1980s during the third British pop invasion.
Monk: Live at the It Club. If you're working on your computer today (or during the week) and want to listen to great Monk for free, go here. Read Michael McCaw's super post on Monk: Live at the It Club and listen to tracks from the CD for free.
Just scroll down until you reach the MediaMaster widget in Michael's post, select a song and click the play arrow. As you'll hear, Monk and Charlie Rouse were indeed an amazing duo.