Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller at Carnegie Hall 1939 – The Battle of the Big Bands

The latest of the Jazz Repertory Company’s Cadogan Hall recreations of defining moments in jazz brings an historic big band battle back to life. Pete Long explained its significance to Peter Vacher:

The Jazz Repertory Company is almost certainly unique. If there are other concert promoters elsewhere who look to do what they do then none come to mind. UK audiences are thus the principal beneficiaries of JRC’s determination to re-animate significant music from the glorious past when jazz and swing were in the ascendant and to present it in the finest manner possible. In the course of some 30 or more themed concerts, JRC’s Richard Pite and Musical Director Pete Long aided by their brilliant musicians have regularly reminded us of the enduring value and continuing joys of this important music. Never moribund, always vitally alive.

Poster: Nils Solberg

The new concert presentation scheduled for Saturday 13 October at Cadogan Hall harks back to 1939 and to a week-long series of concerts put on at Carnegie Hall, New York’s most prestigious concert location, by ASCAP [The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] to celebrate their 25th Anniversary. The focus will be on the night when the big bands of the then King of Swing, Benny Goodman and ‘new kid on the block’, Glenn Miller, were locked in battle, their musical encounter recreated by the all-star Pete Long Orchestra (renamed the Goodmen on this occasion).

Add to this a vignette evoking the participation of Louis Armstrong at a separate event when he appeared at an evening for African American patrons with star trumpeter Enrico Tomasso performing Armstrong’s specialties. There will also be a separate tribute to the seminal From Spirituals to Swing concert organized by impresario John Hammond which took place too at Carnegie Hall in 1939. This will highlight the music of the Benny Goodman Sextet and the Kansas City Six, with special guest Anthony Kerr on vibes. While Europe was preparing for war, New Yorkers, it seems, were enjoying a feast of amazing music.

When I caught up with concert MD Pete Long, it was to ask him why he thought this set of events was worth this attention. “For me, 1939 marks the beginning of the second phase of the swing era,“ he explained. “With the coming of war, the bright optimistic sunny morning of the early era, perfectly represented by Benny Goodman’s reading of Fletcher Henderson’s repertoire, turned into the darker, more sophisticated wartime phase, perfectly underscored by Miller’s team of highly advanced arrangers. New sounds for a new time. It’s as if the baton was passed at this concert.”

Even so it could still be argued that this music is old hat so why preserve it? “Funnily enough, that’s a question rarely asked of our classical colleagues. Their repertoire goes way back further than ours! We play it because it’s great music, the same as they do. However, with orchestrated jazz there is a valid reason to play it live, as recordings generally, and often recordings of the era, miss many of the music’s subtle tonal nuances.”

Given its often challenging nature and Long’s concern to master the detail, how does he source the original material and what has to happen, I wondered? “Loads of it is available commercially these days. We live in quite enlightened times. The bits left over are transcribed by me and my colleagues in the orchestra.” When I ask Long what will be the concert highlights, he answers with characteristic modesty, “All the bits which feature me, of course. Seriously my favourite moment occurs when the music switches from Goodman to Miller. It’s the same musicians on the stage, but the entire harmonic concept of the sound changes from ’30s to ’40s.”

Peter Long (Publicity picture)

Long is the concert’s clarinet soloist too, “In the Benny half, I play Benny’s part directing the band and playing the clarinet solos. In the Glenn section, I conduct the band only. I also do all the chat,” he adds and smiles. For all Long’s deep involvement in this kind of historical exhumation, his musicians must face some solid challenges too? “We can’t really have anything more detailed than a quick read through on the afternoon. Therefore each member of the band has to be an Olympic standard reader, and be able to play a convincing jazz solo in the style of the period. And”, he adds, “get a good job done on the budget!”

Trumpeter Tomasso is a noted Armstrong disciple and indeed cites his early contact with the great maestro as crucial to his whole approach to performance. “Rico Tomasso brings the arrangements to the rehearsal, directs the band and does his Armstrong magic. What Is This Thing Called Swing is particularly taxing for the band,” Long tells me.

My final question reverts back to the JRC’s stated desire to present classic jazz and swing in a concert setting. How does reviving these contrasting events from 1939 fit in to the JRC approach to programming, I wondered? “The Jazz Repertory Company’s approach is to provide recreations of significant events in jazz history as well as is possible in the most entertaining manner we can devise,” Long answers. “I’d say that this concert, teetering as it does between the two early phases of the swing era, fulfills that brief to a T. In The Mood and Sing, Sing, Sing on one programme? The defence rests,“ he affirms.

Quite so. ©Peter Vacher (pp)

The Pete Long Orchestra: Pete Long, clarinet and MD. George Hogg, Jim Davison, Nathan Bray, trumpets; Andy Flaxman, Chris Dean, Callum Au, trombones; Nigel Hailwood, Simon Marsh, Bob McKay, Michael McQuaid, saxophones; Colin Good, piano; Martin Wheatley, guitar; Joe Pettit, bass; Richard Pite, drums.

Special guests: Enrico Tomasso, trumpet; Anthony Kerr, vibraphone.

LINK: Concert details and Cadogan Hall booking

Jazz Repertory Company website

Leave a Reply