Van Alexander is best known for arranging Ella Fitzgerald's career-launching hit A-Tisket A-Tasket, which she recorded on this date—May 2, 1938—with Chick Webb's band. Van arranged the children's song at Fitzgerald's suggestion and wrote the words along with her interchange with the band. Ella then tweaked the lyrics to make them hep. Van is the last surviving member of the Chick Webb organization and a direct link to the big band era before World War II. Today also happens to be Van's birthday—he's 97. Happy birthday, Van!
Back in the early '40s, after leaving Webb's band, Van was Johnny Mandel's [pictured] first orchestration teacher. Johnny was still attending the New York Military Academy in Tarrytown, N.Y., and Johnny told me he would travel down to the city by train, with his mother's permission, to take arranging lessons with Van. Johnny had found his name in a Down Beat ad.
In Part 1 of my two-part conversation with Van, the pianist, arranger and bandleader talks about growing up in New York and bluffing Chick Webb at the Savoy Ballroom in 1936...
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Van Alexander: I was born in New York, on 129th St. and Convent Ave., at the St. Agnes Apartments. These were six-story buildings that took up an entire block [they still stand today]. I was born in 1915, at home. I don’t remember too much about my early childhood except that I had loving parents and a loving brother, David Van Vliet, whom we lost a few months ago at age 100. David designed the present-day flag of the United Nations when he went to work there as a graphic designer after World War II.
JW: Van Vliet?
VA: [Laughs] I was born Alexander Van Vliet Feldman and was known until 1939 as Al Feldman. Van Vliet was my mother’s name and Feldman was my father’s name. I was named for my grandfather on my mother’s side—Alexander Van Vliet. My mother’s side was Dutch.
JW: How did you become Van Alexander?
VA: In 1939, after Chick [Webb] died, Eli Oberstein [pictured], the head of RCA Victor Records and my mentor, wanted me to lead a band. He asked me to change my name so it would be more dramatic. Mr. Oberstein asked me my middle name. I told him. He said I should use it as my first name and Alexander as my last. So I did.
JW: What did your parents do?
VA: My father was a pharmacist. He owned a Rexall drug store on 131st St. and Amsterdam Ave. in Manhattan, just down Convent Ave. from what was then Knickerbocker Hospital. Apartments stand there now. My father did well. Soon after I was born my parents bought land in the West Bronx and built a home.
JW: Sounds pretty nice.
VA: Almost. What started out sounding idyllic became very difficult for my father. The subway trip to his drug store was too hectic. So he sold the house and moved us to an apartment on 150th St. and Broadway. The building was across the East River from Yankee Stadium. Years later, in 1939, I was at the Stadium the day an ailing Lou Gehrig gave his “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech before retiring. I was sitting in the bleachers with Butch Stone, a reed player who joined Les Brown’s band in 1941.
JW: Were you always interested in music?
VA: Yes. My mother was a classical pianist, and when I turned 6 years old, she gave me piano lessons. I wasn’t keen on playing scales and arpeggios and practicing. But eventually, I saw the value in it. When I attended George Washington High School, on Audubon Avenue and 192nd St., I played in the marching band. But since I couldn’t walk around with a piano, I played drums and cymbals. Soon I was promoted to drum major. I also met my future wife, Beth, at George Washington. I met her at The Point, an ice-cream parlor just down from the high school where all the kids hung out. We were married for 72 years. She recently passed.
JW: How did you become interested in jazz?
VA: I used to listen to records in the early ‘30s and remotes of bands playing live. I was always fascinated by the mechanics of the music, how it was made. In high school I started to experiment by writing arrangements for six or seven pieces. My band was known as Al Feldman and His Orchestra. I also took music classes at Columbia University and studied music orchestration and theory with Otto Cesana, who later became a mood music orchestrator. It was mostly classical instruction, and I studied with him for a year and a half. But I was more interested in swing. All of us were as teenagers. We loved to dance. We were early jitterbugs, dancing the shag and the lindy.
JW: Where did you go to dance?
VA: The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem on 141st St. and Lenox Ave. That’s where all the great bands played in the 1930s. I was fascinated by the arrangements that the great black bands of that era were playing. I always wanted to look at the sheet music they were playing. After going to the Savoy as much as we did, I struck up a nodding acquaintance with bandleader and drummer Chick Webb. He was there more than anyone else. He’d always say to me, “Oh, you’re here again?”
JW: How did you eventually speak with him at length?
VA: One night in February 1936, I got up the nerve and said to him, “I have a couple of arrangements that might fit your orchestra.” He said, “Sure, bring them next Friday.”
JW: You had arrangements for the band?
VA: No, of course not. I was bluffing [laughs]. But because I had committed myself, I had to write them. I went home with fear and trepidation. Over the next four or five days I knocked out two charts: Keeping Out of Mischief Now and a Dixieland classic That’s a-Plenty.
JW: What happened?
VA: Friday came, and I went up to the Savoy at 8:30 p.m. with my arrangements. But it turned out that the band’s rehearsals were held when the band finished the job. At 1 a.m., the musicians took a muscatel wine break. At about 2 a.m., the band finally got down to its rehearsal.
JW: How did your arrangements sound?
VA: I had to wait longer. Before me came two other arrangers—Edgar Sampson, who had arranged Stompin’ at the Savoy and Don’t Be That Way [both in 1934]. And guitarist Charlie Dixon, who also had arranged a few songs. By the time the band got around to my charts, it was 4:30 a.m. By then, my mother had called the police.
VA: She had no idea what had happened to me.
JW: What did Webb think of your arrangements?
VA: Chick liked what I did with the songs. He paid me $10 for each one, and I went home on Cloud 90. I had sold my first arrangement, and I was 19 years old.
JW: Did Webb hire you?
VA: Pretty much. I began writing steadily for Chick, and Moe Gale, his manager and co-owner of the Savoy, put me on a salary of $75 a week for three arrangements, including copying all the parts. From then on, I wrote steadily for Chick. Ella Fitzgerald had joined the band in 1935, and one of the first songs I arranged for her was Cryin’ My Heart Out for You in 1936.
Tomorrow, the story behind A-Tisket A-Tasket—and more.
Coming this fall from Mosaic Records, The Complete Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald Decca Recordings 1929-1941. The box will include all of the Decca recordings that Webb made as a bandleader, both with and without Fitzgerald, before his death in 1939, and all of the recordings that Fitzgerald made with Decca after she took over leadership of the Webb band, including small-group dates done with Webb sidemen through the end of 1941.
JazzWax clip: Here's Van Alexander's Cryin' My Heart Out for You—his first arrangement for Ella Fitzgerald in 1936 with Chick Webb's band...