There's a scene early in Martin Scorsese's New York, New York (1977) when Robert De Niro walks into a large dance club in Times Square on V-E Day prowling for a date. In the background, a big band is playing Opus One. As the camera pans the massive room on a boom, closing in on the musicians and trombone-playing bandleader, you realize the orchestra is meant to be Tommy Dorsey's.
I obviously wasn't around back in 1945. But I get the chills every time I see that scene and hear Ralph Burns' arrangement for the movie. I have to assume that the club scene is about as close as you're going to get to experience what it must have been like to hear the Dorsey band live hammering its way through that swinger.
Opus One has that power. The song was written and arranged by Sy Oliver, who joined Tommy Dorsey's band in the summer of 1939. Melvin Oliver was nicknamed Sy because he had studied psychology. But since 1933 Oliver had played trumpet in Jimmie Lunceford's band. He also had been the band's hit-making arranger. But by 1939, shortly after Fletcher Henderson joined Benny Goodman's band as his lead arranger, Oliver decided it was time for a change.
As the late Peter Levinson wrote in Tommy Dorsey: Livin' in a Great Big Way:
Dorsey desperately needed Oliver to put some pep into the band's book. Critics had dubbed Dorsey's most recent records lackluster, and the band was being challenged by several upstarts, including Artie Shaw's orchestra. Oliver's secret was how he kept an arrangement hopping by engaging the band's different sections. Levinson writes:
But when the two-year American Federation of Musicians' recording ban ended in 1944, Oliver re-arranged the song for the band's return to RCA's studios. Most notably, he created more snap to the rhythm and opened two wide holes in the chart for clarinetist Buddy De Franco to solo.
When I spoke with Buddy on Monday, he reflected on the historic session:
"My solos on the record didn’t sit well with me, but they wound up hung around my neck. When I heard myself, I thought I could have done better—and I did on the other takes. But Tommy was the boss, so he got to choose the one he liked best. I would have picked another.
"In those days, you couldn’t cut up the recording to make a master from the many different takes. Tape hadn’t been invented yet for studio use. When you recorded, it went straight onto a master disc. So whatever you captured on a particular take was there, both the good and the bad, no matter how subtle.
"I remember we had to rehearse Opus One quite a bit before that session. Sy [Oliver] used to write in very difficult keys. The two clarinet solos I had to play were tough. If I recall, one was in G-flat concert and the other in D-concert. Sy liked to move the keys around a lot in a song, to keep it moving and to keep listeners hooked.
"The band liked Sy's chart for Opus One, but it didn’t move us as much as some of the other things he wrote. I think part of the problem was the band didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse it. Tommy was very strict about being exact, and a recording had to be clean. But we rehearsed for that session on edge—meaning one tune after the next, without much time in between. We had to move through the material quickly. There was a lot of pressure on those sessions, to be perfect early on."
Eventually, Buddy grew weary of the playing the same note-for-note solo on Opus One. During one performance in 1946, Buddy played a bop solo on the song, and Dorsey fired him. But Dorsey had to give him eight weeks' notice instead of he customary two weeks due to the shortage of musicians.
Dorsey, like many bandleaders, disliked bop. In addition to the music's complexity and lack of dance-appeal, bop shifted power to the individual soloist and away from the bandleader.
As for Buddy, he had already fallen in love with bop and after leaving Dorsey found work with Boyd Raeburn. Raeburn's band not only was one of the most experimental and iconoclastic orchestras of the mid-1940s but also would turn out to be an early hothouse for bop arrangers and players.
JazzWax tracks: Once Opus One became a hit, the song was recorded by many different bands of the period. It's particularly interesting to compare Tommy Dorsey's 1943 version from Broadway Rhythm with the November 1944 hit. You'll find the one from Broadway Rhythm on Hollywood's Best: The '40s at iTunes or Amazon. The version from November 1944 can be found on Tommy Dorsey: Greatest Hits.
To my ear, it's very difficult to hear what Buddy's issue was with his solo. Barring the slightly hurried pace and moments where he probably would have wanted to linger a fraction of a second longer, his clarinet work sounds spirited and sharp to me. If alternate takes still exist, I'd love to hear them.
Also, if you type Opus Number One into the search engine at iTunes, you'll find the Ralph Burns' arrangement for New York, New York as well as a hyperactive Harry James' performance of the song that was broadcast on D-Day.
JazzWax clip: The only Dorsey version I could find on YouTube was an abbreviated version from the early 1950s. Instead, here's a slower, slinky version arranged for Gene Krupa and Anita O'Day by Quincy Jones in 1956...