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Harlan Leonard: 1940


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Harlan Leonard
Kansas City big bands of the 1930s were distinct. A product of the city's dance and nightlife economy, the bands there embraced the blues with a jump feel that became known as swing. To complete, the bands were arranged in such a way that different sections of the orchestra riffed among themselves, as if caucusing in different corners of the room, joining together on a song's chorus.

Among the bands that exemplified the Kansas City sound were orchestras led by Benny Moten, Walter Page, Andy Kirk, Jay McShann and Count Basie. Harlan Leonard was another. Born in Kansas City, Mo., he spent much of his early career in the reed section of the Benny Moten Orchestra performing and recording. In 1931, Leonard co-founded the Kansas City Skyrockets, which never recorded. Then he formed Harlan Leonard and His Rockets in 1939 and toured nationally. Charlie Parker played in the band for a few weeks before being fired. Drummer Johnny Otis also was in the band for a period.

In January 1940, Leonard began recording steadily for RCA and turned out 23 sides that year. After America entered World War II in 1941, the band broke up. Leonard left the music business soon after to work in banking and then for the IRS. He died in 1983.

In addition to being a visionary bandleader, Leonard was a spirited clarinetist and alto and baritone saxophonist, particularly as a soloist. He also had an ear for arrangers. His penmen included Tadd Dameron, Jesse Stone, Richard J. Smith, Eddie Durham, Buster Smith and Rozelle Claxton.

While Leonard's band didn't have Basie's snap or intoxicating drive, it had tremendous lift and jump, setting the tone for R&B to come at the other end of the decade. Tadd Dameron's Rock and Ride, 400 Swing, Dameron Stomp and others recorded in mid-1940 were way ahead of their time.

For 11 months, from January to November 1940, Leonard's records set new standards for swing. With a bass-heavy rhythm section and syncopated brass built to get couples up and jitterbugging, Leonard pioneered catchy grooves, the basis of swing.

The Dameron arrangements in 1940 were Rock and Ride, 400 Swing, My Dream, A La Bridges, Dameron Stomp and Take 'Um.

JazzWax clips: Here's I'm in a Weary Mood, with Darwin Jones on vocal...

Here's Keep Rockin'...

And here's Tadd Dameron's 400 Swing...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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