Time Warner woes. Due to a malfunction by Time Warner on Saturday afternoon, all Internet and cable service on New York's Upper West Side was knocked out until late Sunday. The blazing 95-degree heat may have had something to do with it. At any rate, the outage left me unable to post my weekly roundup. Apologies to those ardent readers who expected to find "Sunday Wax Bits." Hopefully all is now back to normal.
Bill Finegan (1917-2008). Bill Finegan, one of the last of the prominent big-band arrangers whose career began in 1938 and peaked in the 1950s with influential "easy listening" orchestral scores, died on Friday. He was 91.
Bill, along with Jerry Grey, wrote many of Glenn Miller's arrangements during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Bill remained with the band until Miller joined the Army in the fall of 1942. After a short stint with Tommy Dorsey, Bill served in World War II and re-joined Dorsey after being discharged.
In the spring of 1952, Bill teamed with Eddie Sauter, an arranger for Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, to start the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra [below]. The band specialized in playfully brooding arrangements of pop tunes that featured up to 77 instruments. While Bill and Eddie's musical vision wasn't exactly jazz, the duo's arrangements helped launch the "easy listening" genre. The band's unobtrusive and often bland instrumental sound was meant to appeal to mainstream audiences and was later adapted and leveraged by other arrangers as a backdrop for pop singers in the 12-inch LP era.
Personally, I never quite understood the appeal of the Doodletown Fifers and many of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra's recordings. Much of the material today sounds overextended and embarrassingly silly, lacking the urgency and energy level of big-band writing at the time for Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington and other major bands.
Nevertheless, the orchestra's intricate instrumentation and mild, nerdy style was an inspiration for Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Ralph Burns, Quincy Jones, Neal Hefti and many other arrangers called upon to score pop albums between 1955 and 1965. Sauter-Finegan took risks with instrumentation, and their experiments inspired other writers to do the same.
For me, Bill's best works remain his arrangements for Tommy Dorsey's post-War bands of 1949-50. To this day, his charts for The Continental, Drumology, Pussy Willow, I'm in the Mood for Love, I Get a Kick Out of You and Piccalilli Dilly continue to startle the ear. His clever section writing on these Dorsey tracks was powerful and at least five years ahead of its time.
Certainly Bill's opening for Dorsey's Comin' Through the Rye in 1950 influenced Nelson Riddle's call-and-response riff that would become Frank Sinatra's signature introduction on brassy Capitol recordings. You can sample the song's intro here.
I saw the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra that Bill put together for a concert at New York's Town Hall in 1987. Seeing the arrangements played on stage was quite fascinating, despite the lightness of the music itself. Songs that seemed sticky on record came to life as I watched dozens of instruments merge to create fascinating sounds and moods.
Here are my favorite Bill Finegan arrangements and the albums on which you'll find them:
- Glenn Miller
Little Brown Jug (1939)—Platinum Glenn Miller (Amazon)
Star Dust (1940)—Platinum Glenn Miller (Amazon)
April Played the Fiddle (1940)—Glenn Miller Story Vol. 7-8 (Amazon)
Rug Cutter's Swing (1940)—Glenn Miller Story Vol. 7-8 (Amazon)
The Nearness of You (1940)—Platinum Glenn Miller (Amazon)
It Happened in Sun Valley (1941)—Big Band Christmas (Amazon)
Jingle Bells (1941)—Big Band Christmas (Amazon)
- Tommy Dorsey
The Continental (1949)—Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra: The Post-War Era (CD at Amazon)
Drumology (1949)—See above
Pussy Willow (1949)—The Tommy Dorsey Centennial Collection (Amazon download)
I'm in the Mood for Love—Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra: The Post-War Era (CD at Amazon)
I Get a Kick Out of You (1950)—See above
Piccalilly Dilly (1950)—See above
Comin' Through the Rye (1950)—See above
- Sauter-Finegan Orchestra
Bill's Pussy Willow alone is one of the most extraordinary big-band arrangements. You can download it at iTunes. The chart is both retro (snappy touches of Sy Oliver) and modern without ever losing its swing. If you don't own Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra: The Post-War Era, buy it. Fascinating work.
Mary Ann McCall. I just listened to David Brent Johnson's "Night Lights" show on big-band vocalist Mary Ann McCall. It's a fascinating look at this troubled singer by David, who hosts WFIU-FM's "Night Lights." David's show on McCall's life and recordings can be found here.
Jazziz review. Be sure to catch my review of Bobby Sanabria's "Kenya Revisited" April 1st concert in the June issue of Jazziz magazine.
Orson Welles. Director Raymond De Felitta ('Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris) had a terrific post on Orson Welles last week at his blog. It includes a fabulous clip of Welles on filmmaking. While Welles isn't jazz, the director's use of language and his insights on art are a worthwhile detour.
"Art Tatum" at the Apollo. Sony BMG and Zenph Studios are taking "Art Tatum" on the
road. The Yamaha concert grand playing Tatum's cleaned-up 1949 Shrine Auditorium performance will appear at the Apollo Theater on June 19, 20 and 22. Tickets are $25, $40 and $50, and are available at Ticketmaster. Zenph Studios is donating 50% of the after-tax profits to The National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
Blog watch. Dig Russ Neff of My Favorite Things. His blog features a range of jazz insights and quite a few video clips.