The cover of a collection of post cards compiled in a mailer that Cedric Guion sent to his family in Trumbull in 1934.
The cover of a collection of post cards compiled in a mailer that Cedric Guion sent to his family in Trumbull in 1934.
The Big Band Era
“You ain’t got a thing, if you ain’t got that Swing!”
Swing was a verb that musicians used long before press agents turned it into a noun or adjective to describe both an attitude toward music and a special way of performing it. “Swing” suggests rhythm and a regular propulsive oscillation, a form of jazz that is still influencing music today. There are many instruments reinforcing the others, then other times, playing against each other and a solo instrument playing against a background. The jazz form traveled north out of New Orleans in the 1890’s and slammed into the Chicago scene in the 1920’s.
The beginnings can be traced back to Fletcher Henderson in New York and Bernie Moten in Kansas City. Fletcher and his brother Horace created the pattern for swing arrangements and was the first to train a big band to play jazz. “Sweet” bands, like Guy Lombardo, Vincent Lopez and Wayne King had ample audiences. (Lombardo’s band was still playing under the direction of his son-in-law out on Long Island and I was priviledged to see twice. My grandmother had dated Lopez years ago. Smitty, my father, took me to the Hotel Taft in Manhattan and had me tell the conductor that I was her grandchild. Lopez sat me on stage while the band played a song for me.)
In Denver 1935, things didn’t go so well. Even Goodman’s band was not well received, despite featuring trumpeter Bunny
Beregan, drummer Gene Krupa and pianist Jess Stacy. When the tour hit Los Angeles, the Palomar Ballroom did not respond until Goodman let the musicians go wild with the Henderson arrangements – the crowd exploded. Jazz turned into swing and the press described it as a new form of music and Benny as the King of Swing. Bands sprung up everywhere. Bob Crosby’s “Bob-Cats” as well as Artie Shaw and Woody Herman wowed the crowds by 1939, including Igor Stravinsky.
In the late 1930’s, people tried to ease their depression by dancing and ballrooms became the rage, so for a large room – one needs a large band. Ellington’s and Basie’s were two of the largest and Ella Fitzgerald’s voice resounded over the crowds with her upbeat skat singing.
A “big band” usually had 10 musicians or more. Jazz, which was mostly for listening, developed slowly into the swing music for dancing. Louis Armstrong started in the ’20s to help this transition along. Count Basie’s band stressed improvisation and his “One O’Clock Jump” sold over a million copies; for the era – this was unheard of.
The best thing at the time for a teenager was to see a Big Band in person. In New York, it was a status symbol to be present at the Paramount [opened in 1926] seeing the Benny Goodman band strike out with “Let’s Dance.” Lines formed to get in and school rooms would be half empty for the priviledge. N.Y. and Chicago weren’t the only places to go. Lakeside Park in Dayton, Ohio saw Herbie Kaye, featuring Dorothy Lamour and Phil Harris had his singer, Leah Ray. Jimmy Dorsey brought Helen O’Connell and Alvino Rey had his electric guitar; the first amplified instrument for many.
Playing in a dance band was one way a student in college during the ’30s could help finance their education; some continued afterwards. The Blue Devils of Duke U. had Les Brown, an undergraduate to lead them. (Better known to many as Dean Martin’s house band on TV.) The Univ. of North Carolina produced Hal Kemp and later on, Kay Keyer’s student band. The music of Alton Glen Miller, out of Clarinda, Iowa, is still considered today as the anthem of this musical age, had put himself through two years at Columbia Univ. by playing in a student band. Though he never took a musical course, he later studied with Prof. Joseph Schillinger and “Moonlight Serenade” was born out of an arrangement exercise. When Ben Pollack hired him in 1925, the shy star and the ‘Miller Sound’ were born.
Whether listening to the radio broadcast from the Grand Terrace Cafe in Chicago, the “society” bands at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto or Mark Hopkins in San Fransico, the swing fad became more popular than rock is today. Saturday nights supplied listeners with “Your Hit Parade” reviewing the top ten smashes of the week, such as: “String of Pearls,” “Begin the Bequin,” and “Green Eyes.” Spike Jones had the kids moving to the beat and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” shook the rafters. The music and the bands entered the movie business and the jukebox became the best sound system when concerts weren’t available.
The Big Band Era basically ran from 1935 to 1946 (according to historians) and is a major part of cultural history in many countries. But, Shep Fields and his ‘Rippling Rhythm’ played the famous Roseland Ballroom in 1931 and Grosssinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel in ’33. By 1941, he removed the brass section, making it an all-reed group as ‘Fields and His New Music’, featuring Ken Curtis. Curtis was better known as one of the ‘Sons of the Pioneers,’ replacing Sinatra in the Dorsey band and for playing Festus Hagen on TV’s “Gunsmoke.”
Coming out of the ’30’s, the name Harry Haag James can not be avoided. Even as Warner Bros. made the movie “Young Man With a Horn,” based on the life of Bex Beiderbecke, James played the trumpet solos while Kirk Douglas mimed on the screen. The hot trumpeter became the most imaginative and sought after musician in
modern history, but Lawrence Welk thought he was too loud for his band when James tried-out. By writing a novelty number called “Peckin'” he started a new dance craze. With WWII, his sentimental phase started and “You Made Me Love You” became his first hit record. The ever-famous closing song for so many bands, “Goodnight Sweetheart” was written by the British bandleader Ray Noble, and ironically, so was the tune “Cherokee” recorded by Count Basie and Charlie Barnett.
The female vocalists with the bands were called “canaries”, but unknown to many, there quite a few all-girl bands during this era as well. A prime example was ‘The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.’ They emerged out of the south with such popularity that they toured Europe after completing the U.S. route. Bandleader Peggy Gilbert continued playing into 1995 at the age of 90. Prairie View College in Texas started all-girl bands to make up for the shortage of men during the war years. The military, with the USO, featured female swing band tours to entertain the troops. The ‘Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band’ went to the Philippines, Korea and Japan.
In 1941, Stan Kenton came along, but so did WWII and a strike called in 1942 by the American Federation of Musicians. Les Brown suddenly became more popular with his creamy but lively style. Ballads emerged with lyrics and solo singers; music as a whole was moving on. In 1946, within just a few weeks, eight of the greatest swing bands broke up; Goodman and Dorsey included. A progressive hard-edged version of jazz took over with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the lead.
No one truly ever recorded the greatest arrangements of the age because the old microphones could not transmit sound with the complete amplitude and fidelity. Modern engineers have been able to rediscover some of the sounds that went into the mikes and transmitted on the master discs, but not onto the vinyl records for distribution.
Who were your favorites or your family’s record collection hidden back in the closet?
Resources: “An Introduction to the Swing Era” and “The Swing Era” by Time-Life Records; All that Jazz.history; “When Swing Was King” by John R. Tumpak; “Swing Shift” by Sherrie Tucker; Wikipedia.
In a letter from Lad to Grandpa, dated June 14, 1943, he writes: “Last night, Art, Marian and a girl friend of Art’s and myself went to Hollywood and spent all evening dancing to Woody Herman at the Palladium. Woody is one of the Swing Band leaders that I don’t like particularly, but he does have a good orchestra and plays some sweet music now and then. Marian is not a jitterbugger and neither am I, but she is a very good dancer and we get along very well dancing to almost any type of music, so we had a perfect time.”
For the rest of this week, I’ll be posting letters surrounding Christmas, 1943. Lad was sent to Texarkana on December 21st, so he and Marian had an early Christmas ans she’s not feeling the Christmas spirit very much. They have been married for a little over a month and had only found a place to live 12 days earlier, after bunking in the car or at friend’s homes. Not much to be thrilled about, although she tries to keep her spirits up.
Now Grandpa knows that Lad arrived safely back in California. In his typical analytical style, he tells the whole story.
September 22, 1943
South Pasadena, California
I arrived in LA at 4:10 AM and, so help me, Marion was there to meet me. In fact, I’m writing this at her house and this is her pen and ink. Here is the story. Bridgeport to New York – O.K. – left Grand Central at 6:30 PM and after a pretty good rest arrived in Chicago at noon. I had till 6:30 for the train to LA so I went to the Santa Fe-Harvey office. Got a job in a few minutes on a train leaving on Tuesday at 7 AM. So I went back to the Y and slept all afternoon and evening.
About 10 PM I got up, wrote a letter to Marian, had something to eat and returned to bed. Got up at 5 AM and went to the station. I was 4th cook and did nothing but dishes from 10:30 Tuesday morning until 11 PM Thursday. Boy, I don’t think I ever worked so hard. It was terrific – but, at least I wasn’t bored by the trip and I had very good meals and an upper. Slept from about 12 or one o’clock till 5:30 each night. We were five hours late arriving in LA, but she was there, with a smile, as usual, and my spirits rose perceptively. She had made arrangements for me to stay at the USO dorm, so I had something to eat and went to bed. I slept from about 6 AM till after 4 PM.
I had a key, which Marian had given me for her house, so I went there for a shower and then reported back to camp, got my pass, and took up where I had left off 16 days
earlier. As I look back, those five days at home were some of the most enjoyable days I’ve ever spent, but they went far too fast. I went to the rationing board here and they gave me the ration points, but said that in the future to go to the local board at home. So take a mental note of that. It is a new O.P.A. regulation.
For two days now we have had typical Southern California September weather, hotter than hell. The air so hot, that desks and chairs or anything else is almost uncomfortably hot to touch. It was 116° today, and this is supposed to last until the middle of October. However, I really don’t mind it at all. Marian doesn’t like it too well. It has cooled off a little now, and we’re going to an open-air theater tonight to see “The More the Merrier”.
Give my love to Aunt Betty and anyone else and I’m expecting to take your suggestion and write to Grandma.
Tomorrow, we’ll read a long letter from Grandpa to hos four sons in their various locations, filled with news about each of them. Friday will be another letter from Lad . On Saturday A Tribute to Arla and on Sunday, another installment of Mary E. Wilson’s Autobiography, giving us the perspective of a child growing up on England during World War I.
Grandpa finally gets a letter from Lad telling of his furlough plans and his daily schedule. Grandpa is happy to get the news.
Camp Santa Anita
Aug. 11, 1943
Today I got word to report to the personnel section to verify my request for a furlough, and it is to start on Friday, September 3, and is good for 14 days, which means that I will have to be back at camp here on September 17. It looks as though I will have to travel by train, which means that it will take about four days or a little more to get home, and the same returning. However to make things different, I believe that I can work on one of the dining cars on one of the Santa Fe crack trains, and in that way will not only get to Chicago as fast as possible, but will be paid for going there. Then the trip from there to New York is much easier since there are many trains leaving per day, and the fair is only about $20. So, if things go as planned at present, I shall be home Monday night or sometime Tuesday, either September 5 or 6. I have checked no schedules as yet, but everything points in this direction. If there will be any changes, I shall notify you as soon as possible.
Things here have been going along fairly smoothly, but somebody, probably Washington, decided that we were having life a little too easy, and last week we started getting up at 5 AM. Incidentally, that means that at the same time as you are thinking of getting up, so am I. Along with that change, came a stiffening of regulations here. We fall out for reveille at 0515 and then have until 0630 to eat breakfast, clean house and get everything ready for the daily inspection of the barracks. At 0630 we fall out and March to the drilling area where we spent half an hour doing calisthenics and then an hour alternately drilling one day and listening to lectures on the next, which pertain to some phase of military life. At 0800 we return and again fallout to march down to the section where we start teaching at 0815. At 1000 we have a 10 min. break and then continue until 1145. Chow (lunch) is at 1145 and from then until 1250 we are free to do as we please. At 1250 we again fallout and march to the section and begin classes at 1300. Again at 1515 we have a 10 min. break and then school is over at 1730. Altogether that makes 12 1/2 hours that we are on the go for Uncle Sam. Then of course, we start on our own time and spend until 2200 or 2300 gallivanting around for ourselves then to bed until 0500. What a life, but it isn’t so bad if you don’t weaken.
A few weeks ago you asked me for a picture of Marian, and all that she can find is one taken some time ago, when she was looking for a job and
needed a picture to put on employment blanks. The picture is fairly good except that her eyes in the picture are too far apart and it looks as though she can’t keep her eyelids completely open. We are keeping pretty steady company. She is a fine girl, and I like her a great deal.
Tonight I am asst. Bn. C.Q. and apparently that is a better deal than C.Q. in that I get off at 1030 while the C.Q. is on until 1200 (2400). I have been on since 1730, and so far have run four errands and done a lot of talking with various of the other boys who have walked in or some of the guards. There goes the phone, and from the conversation, I guess that I’ll have another errand to run. Yep – just a minute. Well, that’s done.
The bag arrived O.K. and it will suit the purpose perfectly. Thanks Dad, and as usual, things that you do are usually done completely and well. However, I have a suggestion that may or may not be worthwhile. The condition of the bag, due to rough handling by the shipping companies, is in pretty poor shape as far as looks are concerned. I don’t think that the bag is actually hurt very much. But to at least help against being crushed, why not fill the bag quite tightly with crumpled newspaper. I think that the procedure will prevent a great deal of the crushing that occurred.
That diesel course that I was supposed to start teaching never did materialize, and at present I am instructing in a new course called “Engine Tune-up”. It is all right, but not as interesting as the diesel course would have been. Art Lind tells me that the diesel course has not yet been thrown out of the window, but I’m beginning to think that it has gotten just about as far as the frame, it is waiting for some wind to either blow it back in again or on out. I hope the wind blows from the outside. I’m really not too interested in this present course that I am connected with.
Well, I seem to be running out of thoughts, and since I do not have any of your letters with me here, I cannot look them over for further suggestions, and therefore I shall call it quits, and with love to all, I’ll sign this as
In tomorrow’s post, we’ll move back to 1939 and continue for several days in a row. Do you know of anyone who would like to take a trip down memory lane and relive what a family was going through during the late 1930’s and 1940’s? Why don’t you pass along this link so they can enjoy the stories also?
Dan has been home from Venezuela for about a year. He and Ced have been talking with two other friends, Rusty Heurlin and Arnold Gibson (Gibby), about going up to Alaska to live. I’ll start with a few random lines from various letters to my father (Lad) in Venezuela.
April 28, 1940
I just talked to Ced and he informs me that both he and Dan are definitely planning to leave for Alaska about June 1. Dan thinks he will have earned enough money to take care of the trip expense by that time and Ced is trying to sell both of the Plymouth and the Packard to give him some spare cash.
Dan wanted to go to the World’s Fair before he left for Alaska and therefore we all decided to go last Sunday. We needed two cars to get everyone down there. The group consisted of Ced, Jean, Dick, Dave, Dan, Barbara and myself.
We didn’t get home until 11:30 at night but everyone had a splendid time.
Dan has been using your Packard to get back and forth to his job on the Merritt Parkway. I suppose both Ced and Dan will continue to work another week in order to accumulate as much money as possible for their trip. Dan is very much tanned, far darker than when he came back from Venezuela.
Late yesterday afternoon we all went down to the Chandler picnic at Traphagen’s, where they roasted hamburgers, sat around and talked, some playing games like pitching horseshoes, badminton, etc. An enjoyable time was had by all.
I think I wrote and told you that we were planning some sort of a send-off party for the boys. Because the Chandler Chorus picnic occurred last Saturday our plans for that day fell through. Then Carl had the bright idea that his new boat, which they had been painting and fixing up, might be launched last week and we could all have a sailing party, but the boat was not finally put into the water until yesterday and had to soak a few days to swell up so that it would not leak, so that idea was out.
Anyway, they did get going on a party here last night which involved a scavenger hunt . The girls provided the eats, I made the punch and the boys contributed towards some parting gifts, consisting of a heavy pair of wool lined mitts for each plus a red plaid woodsman shirt and miscellaneous toilet articles. Carl got Jimmy Smith to act as the judge and we did have a lot of fun passing on the merits of the various articles collected. Just to give you an idea, some of the items collected were a worm, seashells, a bird’s nest, a 1935 license plate, a babies shoe, a stocking with a run in it and a lace nightcap. The winning team consisted of Arnold Gibson, Alta Pratt, Dan Guion, Barbara Plumb and Zeke Zabel.
The Alaskan Adventure Begins
Dear Lewis and Clarke:
Yesterday was a sizzling hot mid-August day here and if it was as hot on the road you must have thought you were traveling south instead of west. Today however has been an ideal June day – – so much so, in fact, that Dick decided to play hooky from the office and stayed home to carry on Dan’s landscaping work around the home grounds.
I can hardly get used to the modest gathering around the supper table. Dave remarked tonight as he was setting the table that he kept finding himself getting out five plates, napkins etc. when only three are needed.
Last night I sat down with the map and pencil and paper and tried to figure where you would be and when. I sent you a postal this morning when I stopped at the store for mail, addressing it to new Richmond in the hope that it would reach you there, telling you to stop at the places shown on the slip of paper for any mail I might send. I reasoned that if you got to Cleveland at all Thursday night it would probably be late, and still later before you turned in after chatting with the Draz’s, so that you would not get a very early start Friday.
Traveling through big cities like Cleveland and Chicago would slow up your rate with the probable result that if you made the 360 miles to Chicago by nightfall you would be doing well. If you got an early start Saturday and it all went well, you might make the 420 miles to New Richmond. What with talking to the relatives, etc., I doubted that you would get away very early Sunday for the 450 mile trip to Bismarck, even counting on each of you “spelling” the other fellow in driving and possibly doing some night traveling.
An average of 400 miles as a steady diet for a week is pretty tiresome as a daily schedule, so if you make Bismarck by Sunday night you will be doing right well. From here on, according to my geography, you’ll be getting into the mountainous country. From Billings to Butte you will have climbed to the top of the Continental Divide and then too, you may decide to make a side trip to Yellowstone. If not and you can keep up your 400 mile a day average, you will be in Butte Tuesday night, Spokane Wednesday and in Seattle Thursday PM. I will be interested to see from your return postals how near you will be to keeping to this schedule. For your own sake I hope you don’t.
Dear “Old Faithful”:
That appellation is not given in the sense that you frequently blew off steam, or you erupt every so often or that you are a natural wonder that people will go long distances to see (although I would like to qualify under that last heading myself), but rather that even after so long a time away from home you have not allowed all the new scenes and experiences and faces and friends to weaken your resolve to write home regularly. According to my records, the letter I wrote you a year ago, dated June 18, means that, if my arithmetic is correct, I have sent you 53 letters and you approximately the same number home. I hope the second export shipment of Guion that has just left for points north will adhere to the same standard.
The two boys finally got off Thursday at 6:10 AM. They were ready to go Wednesday night but finally decided to wait over to make an early start by daylight. Their plan was to make the 500 miles to Cleveland the first day shopping overnight at Draz’s, then on to Minneapolis, or New Richmond and visit the Peabody relatives. I have not yet heard from them as to how they progressed, as up to the last mail yesterday afternoon at the store no news had reached me. They finally decided to take the Willys which Arnold overhauled. Ced installed a radio also so that they will not be out of touch from the stirring world news as it is broadcast.
What they will do after they reach Seattle has not yet been determined, the final decision resting on a number of factors, such as what they learn from the Stoll boys, on whom they will call in Seattle, how far North they can travel by road and still find a port were a steamer for Alaska that they can ship the Willis, and which in turn, will land them at a port in Alaska for which roads will permit them to reach their destination near Anchorage. Try as we might we were unable, before they left, to obtain any definite information on this point so that it will be necessary to hold their Seattle to Alaska plans in abeyance, pending the opportunity to secure the local dope in Seattle.
I learned from the local post office that there is no airmail postal service to Alaska. Letters sent by airmail go to Seattle by plane and then by boat to Alaska, the boat trip taking about a week, so that it will actually take me much longer to get letters from Alaska than from Pariaguan.
Things seem awfully quiet here the last few days and I will have to adjust my food schedule now that two hearty eaters have deserted the family board.
I will enclose with this a letter to the boys and from now on will address my weekly news reports to both North and South of the equator, sending carbons to both. Maybe this will develop into a regular syndication.
From your faiuthful
Was my grandpa actually looking into the future and “seeing” this thing called a Blog and a granddaughter who would be sharing these letters with the world???
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