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Tommy Dorsey: Livin' in a Great Big Way

Florence Wetzel By

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Peter J. Levinson

Tommy Dorsey: Livin' in a Great Big Way

Da Capo Press

352 pages

ISBN: 0306811111

Tommy Dorsey is certainly one of jazz' most picturesque characters, and this new biography does a marvelous job of bringing the trombonist to life.

Dorsey (1905-1956) was in many ways an admirable man. Born to a poor family in a Pennsylvania mining community, he and his brother Jimmy were working musicians at a young age, encouraged—pushed, even—by their parents. Dorsey went on to create one of the swing era's most important bands and, in a career that spanned Bix Beiderbecke to Elvis Presley (who debuted on the Dorsey brothers' Stage Show), Dorsey became a nationally recognized talent who amassed an astounding 286 Top 40 Billboard Pop Chart hits.

But Dorsey was also a perfectionist with an explosive temper, and the book is full of his over-the-top antics, like stomping on his brother's saxophones after several of their legendary fights. Yet he was also known for his charm as well as a playful side that included initiating bandstand water pistol fights.

Levinson deftly handles the many layers of Dorsey's career and psyche, and he also creates a fascinating journey through the big band era, including cameos by artists such as Frank Sinatra (who famously said, "The two most important people in my life have been my mother and Tommy Dorsey"), Bing Crosby, Buddy Rich, and Glenn Miller, as well as Beiderbecke, Presley, Jackie Gleason, and many others. Levinson's impeccable research and smooth narrative style do justice to a great musician and perplexing personality.

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