Charlie Barnet is one of the more colorful figures in jazz history. He was also a champion of racial equality, hiring many black singers and musicians at a time when other bands were segregated. His use of African-American performers kept his orchestra out of several hotels and ballrooms and was also probably the reason why he was never picked for any big commercial radio series. His music and arrangements were admittedly influenced by Duke Ellington.
Barnet was born into New York high society in 1913. He rebelled against his parent's wishes that he study law and became a jazz musician instead, playing in his first outfit at age 16. He formed his first important band in 1933 and cut several sides in 1934 with an all-star group led by Red Norvo. In 1936, while playing with his own orchestra at the Glen Island Casino, he introduced vocal group the Modernaires, who later went on to fame with Glenn Miller.
Barnet's orchestra achieved public recognition in 1939 with their classic recording of ''Cherokee,'' and soon his was one of the most popular bands in the country. In 1941 he featured Lena Horne as a vocalist, cutting four sides with her. Also featured in Barnet's group over the years were Oscar Pettiford, Neil Hefti, Barney Kessel, Buddy DeFranco and Dodo Marmarosa. It should be noted that Barnet judged musicians by their abilities, and not by the color of their skin. It was not unusual to find black men playing in the band. Some critics have noted that Barnet may have missed opportunities that other bands found because of his strong principles. Still, he was in very good company.
By 1947 Barnet was turning reluctantly towards bop. His later orchestra featured such well-known artists as Doc Severinsen, Clark Terry and Maynard Ferguson. Barnet, however, lost interest in his big band and dissolved it in 1949.
He settled on the West Coast, occasionally leading a sextet or septet. Financially set, he never worried about making a living, dabbling in music publishing and the hotel and restaurant business in his retirement. In the mid-1960s he headed a big band organized specially for a two-week stint in New York's Basin Street East. He made his last recording in 1966.
Charlie Barnet died in 1991.