The Black Big Bands: Four Swinging Big Bands from a Bygone Era

Jim Santella By

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The Black Big Bands
Cab Calloway, Lucky Millinder, Andy Kirk, Billy Eckstine

With these historical black & white shorts, we can feel the Swing Era in full bloom. Key artists are featured, doing much more than merely sitting in their chairs while performing. Swing fever had caught on. Everybody was up dancin' the night away.

Cab Calloway appears as the consummate entertainer. He looks the wild and crazy orchestra conductor in his white tuxedo, with long hair flying, feet spinning, and arms twirling. Filmed on May 22, 1935, Paramount Pictures' Jitterbug Party features the animated leader singing and dancing as we've always known him. His jive singing has made lasting impressions. Members of the orchestra are featured, as they move about and celebrate this "new" music that was taking the nation by storm. The music moves from one soloist to the next, as each carries the torch of Swing music to the audience.

Filmed in 1948, All American Pictures' Boarding House Blues features Lucky Millinder, leading his orchestra with a happy face and swinging hips to add a visual cue to his music. The band swings with heartfelt lyricism. Their arrangements are sweet. Balanced harmony and superb musicianship take top billing. Like a symphony orchestra conductor, Millinder gives his audience a visual piece of the pie, interpreting the mood. As he dances with Annastine Allen on the slow boogie-woogie "Let it Roll," you can see that he really enjoys entertaining in the spotlight. The vocal feature by Bullmoose Jackson on "I Love You, Yes I Do" makes a nice complement to the band's sweet sound. His delicate tenor voice carries deep emotions. They close with a hot number, "Do The Hucklebuck," and give the audience a good taste of the Rock & Roll sensation that was just then beginning to take over from Swing music. Whether slow and sweet, or slow and hot, Millinder's orchestra put a lot of passion into each performance.

Also filmed in 1948, All American Pictures' Killer Diller features Andy Kirk with his Swing orchestra. His leadership style in the spotlight was intended to urge his men on with a gentleman's poise and with the firmness of a teacher. Snapping his fingers and keeping the tempo rolling, he motivated without interfering. The band had a big sound. "Basie Boogie" and "Apollo Groove" proved that these men were apostles of rhythm. Kirk features many of the band members as soloists. His pianist, guitarist, and bassist make distinct impressions in the tradition of hot Kansas City Jazz. Their music swings with the kind of enthusiasm that could go all night long.

Billy Eckstine appears as the matinee idol in Rhythm In A Riff , which was filmed in 1946. His rich baritone voice and good looks made him the ideal leader for this Swing orchestra. Gene Ammons takes the first solo and complements the leader's lively scat singing and percussive interpretation of the title song's lyrics with tenor saxophone soul. A ballad follows, and the film jumps a few times with skips and stutters that show its age. Eckstine is at his best, though, with the vocal ballad. Frank Wess and King Kolax stand up on the bandstand for several thrilling solos during the next few numbers. Eckstine solos on valve trombone, making full use of the instrument's upper register. A tap dancer joins the band for "Taps Miller," and then the leader delivers his trademark "Prisoner of Love." Tadd Dameron's "Our Delight" takes the band on a Swing affair, as does the vocal feature for Ann Baker.

Four different big bands from the Swing Era are presented in their prime. Each leader shows a different manner in his starring role, and each exhibits a different form of musicianship. Calloway and Eckstine performed as vocalists; Eckstine doubled admirably on valve trombone. Millinder sashayed his way around the stage in front of his band to engender a particular mood, while Kirk led with a firm, no-nonsense discipline that brought good results. Each had his own way of making great music for the ages.

Approximate Running Time: 61 minutes.

Track Listing: Cab Calloway and His Orchestra: Minnie the Moocher; How to do the Razz Ma Tazz; Long About Midnight; Call of the Jitterbug. Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra: Sweet Slumber; Let It Roll; I Love You, Yes I Do; Do the Hucklebuck. Andy Kirk and His Orchestra: Gator Serenade; Basie Boogie, Apollo Groove. Billy Eckstine and His Orchestra: Rhythm in a Riff; You Call It Madness; Lonesome Lover Blues; Taps Miller; Prisoner of Love; I Want to Talk About You; Our Delight; I Cried For You.


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