Big Bands topic at recent Mathontes Club meeting


“The 1930’s – The Big Bands” was the topic of the program presented at the recent meeting of the Mathontes Club, held at the Pine Bluff Country Club.

The program was the first in the year’s study of “Rock Your Decade,” which will showcase music and the people who influenced it, beginning with the 1930s and continuing through the 1980s.

Phoebe Spharler and Mary Warriner Stowe McBee discussed the era of Big Bands, using not only historical information, but also personal remembrances, which included local residents well-known to many of the audience members.

In 1932, total record sales in the U.S. hit an all-time low of 6 million, contrasting with the high of 140 million in 1927, Spharler said. This was at a time when people were more than ever in need of something to help them escape, if only briefly, from the miseries they were suffering. Music, she said, was one of the best answers. Perhaps as a result of the Depression, or just the high quality of songwriting during the decade, the 1930s produced more standards and Jazz standards than any other decade of the 20th Century.

Jazz took a hard blow after its birth in 1927, and although there was still work to be had, especially for the best musicians in New York, those in other areas of the country struggled to eke out a meager existence. Among the most popular and successful were the bands of Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Artie Show, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie.

There were thousands of dance bands. Since there was no television, radio and ballrooms or dance “joints” provided most of the outlets for entertainment. Sometimes the band’s pay came from just passing the hat. Spharler said that one young musician even supplemented his pay by dancing the Charleston, while nickels and dimes rained all around him. He was only 14 years old, small of stature and played his horn sitting on a high stool. At that time he had more money in his pocket than his father did and kept the family from total despair. This young, red-haired trumpet played from Pine Bluff was Clark Curry, nicknamed “Pinky,” who was Spharler’s father.

Jazz was the offspring of The Blues, Spharler said. Armstrong was the first vital Jazz soloist to attain worldwide renown. As a trumpet entertainer and a show business personality, he was a strong force in spreading the influence of Jazz.

Spharler said that her father was an admirer of Armstrong and when he was 16, he hitchhiked to Memphis to hear his idol perform. After the performance, he worked his way backstage and with instrument case ever at the ready, he waited. When Armstrong came out out and spied him and his trumpet case, he stopped to chat and asked the young musician to play and then Armstrong began to play with him, a jam session that lasted more than two hours. Armstrong advised Curry to never change his style. Spharler said that her father heeded that advice and played with his soul for the rest of his life.

In 1935, several forces came together to cause Jazz in all its facets – blues, ballads, even marches – to evolve into the Big Band Sound or Swing as it was eventually called, McBee said.

Three jazz musical instruments had to change before the Big Band Sound developed.

The first change was the acceptance of the saxophone. A Belgian named Adolphe Sax took the reed assembly from a clarinet, fashioned a brass, rather than wood body, then shaped it with a bent up and flared bell. Fingering was so much like a clarinet that transferring from one horn to the other was simple.

Next the tubas and sousaphones were replaced by the string bass, because it took lots of air to blow a big bass horn. This limited the musician to playing on the first and third beats only. A bass fiddle could deliver the “solid-four” beats needed for this new sound.

At about the same time, the four-string banjo bit the dust, and the more mellow guitar stepped in. The tinny “chunk-chunk” was gone and though guitar solos were in the future, the chords could now be played as arpeggios if needed. McBee said that her father, the late Charles Warriner, played the banjo in a band when he was a student at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

Three men were intricately, perhaps, accidentally involved, McBee said. Armstrong was playing with the King Oliver Band in New Orleans. Liz Hardin, who became his second wife, nagged him until he finally accepted an offer to play with Fletcher Henderson in New York. Henderson came to be known as “The Father of Swing.” After his own band dissolved, he began doing musical arrangements for the third man, Benny Goodman.

Goodman said that what Fletcher could do so wonderfully was to take a tune and really improvise on it himself, with the exception of the various choruses, which would be marked “solo trumpet” or “solo clarinet.” Fletcher’s ideas were far ahead of anybody else’s at the time.

During the 1930s, many Big Bands of note came to prominence and names like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw became household names.

Hostesses for the meeting were June Nichol, DiAnn Jones, Jeanette McGrew, Corinne Shepherd and Ann White. Guests were seated at tables centered with crystal containers holding ivy, hot pink ribbon and oversized musical symbols, set atop runners printed with musical notes.

The speakers provided a display of horns, belonging to Curry and Orlando Zappe, vintage photographs of bands and handwritten music by the late Scrubby Watson, the well-known and long-time band director at Pine Bluff High School.

Lyle Lovelace, Spharler’s daughter, was a guest at the meeting.