The Andrews Sisters

February 6th, 2013 by tom

Patty Andrews, the last surviving Andrews Sister, passed last Wednesday, January 30th.  The Andrews Sisters were part of the cultural fabric of wartime America.  Their image and sound are instantly recognizable to anyone from the “greatest” generation; they’re true icons of The Swing Era.  From Wikipedia: “Until the advent of The Supremes, the sisters were the most imitated of all female singing groups and influenced many artists…  When the sisters burst upon the music scene in the late 1930s, they shook a very solid musical foundation, producing a slick harmonic blend by singing at the top of their lungs while trying – successfully – to emulate the blare of three harmonizing trumpets, with a full big band racing behind them.”

Growing up, the sisters’ strongest influence was the Boswell Sisters, who also inspired a teenaged Ella Fitzgerald.  Like other “sisters” vocal groups, their phrasing was uncannily tight, and their harmonies flowed organically without written parts.  Patty was melody singer and baby of the group, as well as the “personality” whose mugging and clowning gave the group visual interest.

Their first hit, 1937’s “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” along with their Greek-Norwegian parentage, helped stamp them as ethnic yet hep, a perfect persona for that egalitarian age.  Their best-known recording, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” exploited two waves of pop culture – the boogie woogie craze (boogie woogie is the grandfather of rock & roll) and enthusiasm for the fun of army life (a useful if questionable message).  The most enduring image of the Andrews Sisters is of them uniformed as WACs, singing “Bugle Boy” while dancing oh-so-stiffly in the 1941 movie “Buck Privates.”

World War II was the Andrews Sisters’ zenith, but they kept on performing and recording until 1951, when Patty quit to launch a solo career.  Maxene apparently attempted suicide in 1954.  The trio reunited in 1956, often re-casting their wartime hits with 50s musical backdrops.  The end came when LaVerne passed in 1967.

In memory of the Andrews Sisters and Patty Andrews, our own YazooZazz Vocal Trio (Robin, Betsy, and Jeanette) will perform a sampler of their swingin’est hits at Glen Echo later this month, as part of TCO’s 4th Saturday Swing Dance Series.  I’m pleased to announce that in cooperation with the Glen Echo Park Partnership for Arts and Culture, Inc., the National Park Service and Montgomery County, MD, we will present on Saturday evening, February 23rd, in Glen Echo Park’s historic Spanish Ballroom “The Swingin’ Andrews Sisters.”  TCO, along with singers Robin Cunningham, Betsy Kipperman, Jeanette DuBois, and Andre Enceneat, will present a night of swingin’ and evocative music highlighting The Andrews Sisters, so be there or be square.

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What Makes Duke Ellington So Great?

January 29th, 2013 by tom

Our “book” is stuffed with hundreds of charts, the cream of the crop of the Big Band repertoire, the best of the best of the Swing Era, plus a little before and beyond.  We love them all dearly, but there’s always an extra thrill when I call for an Ellington piece.

Ellington’s awesome reputation as Jazz’s greatest composer and bandleader can overshadow how much his music swung.  Contemporaries like Count Basie and Glenn Miller knew, and didn’t want to take him on in “battle.”   The music of Duke and his alter-ego Billy Strayhorn may be the single best reason to hear a live big band performance; it has a quality that’s only hinted at in his recordings, but which magically fills the room with warmth when experienced in the flesh.  Even though Duke hasn’t been with us since 1974, nobody has yet arrived at his level of orchestration.  Gil Evans, the leading jazz orchestrator after Ellington, said “That’s all I did – that’s all I ever did – try to do what Billy Strayhorn did.”

What Duke and Billy (and Gil) did was to write in a way that let overtones blossom.  An overtone is a ghost note that magically appears when two other notes are sounded.  I used to puzzle over their scores; while every other big band in the world would use all their saxes for backgrounds behind a soloist, Duke/Billy might only use four or even three of the five available, yet their projection was richer, fuller, than any other band’s five-sax chord.  They were optimizing the overtones that other arrangers were just ignoring!  In the words of Hollywood composer/arranger Andre Previn, “You know, Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger can nod his head and say ‘Oh yes, that’s done like this.’  But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and I don’t know what it is!”

Jazz is the great musical expression of freedom.  When free men of their own will come together for a common cause, there’s an awesome presence.  Ellington’s ensemble has that.  As you listen to his records, you would never say that his band was sloppy, yet you can hear all 15 individual voices coming together as if by choice.  By contrast, the Glenn Miller group’s (for example) projection was of a well-oiled machine where the individual musicians were sublimated into the ensemble, losing their identity.

And what individual voices Duke and Billy had to paint with!  Every name evokes a specific, soulful sound:  Ivie Anderson, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Harry Carney, Barney Bigard, Sonny Greer, Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Ray Nance, Cat Anderson, Jimmy Blanton, Tricky Sam Nanton, Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol, and of course the Duke!

Finally, the list of Ellington or Strayhorn compositions that have become standards is too long to even attempt listing here.  So come on out on April 22nd and see if we play your favorite!  I’m pleased to announce that on Saturday, April 22nd, in cooperation with the Glen Echo Park Partnership for Arts and Culture, Inc., the National Park Service and Montgomery County, MD, we will present on stage at Glen Echo Park’s historic Spanish Ballroom “Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra: Fargo, 1940,”  the re-creation of a one-night stand at the peak of both Duke’s band and the Swing Era. The TCO, along with singer Robin Cunningham as Ivie Anderson, plans to tap into that legacy to present an evening of not just exceptional dance music, but a de facto concert of some of our country’s high musical legacy!  It should be a unique evening of singin’ & swingin’, and a great 118th birthday present to DC’s own Sir Duke.


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Jazz and Freedom

August 8th, 2012 by robin

Frankie Manning was a treasure in so many ways!  Chief among them, he taught the Swing Dance World that Swing dancing, taken to a higher level beyond fundamentals, is a spontaneously improvised interplay with the musicians – inspired, touched with a spark of the divine.  This is when dancers get free, and it’s a life-changing experience.  This is Jazz.

Oh those Nazis – they compiled manuals for their guards, outlining how best to control POWs from the various Allied nations.  An interesting instruction about the care of Americans:  Guards were to go into our barracks every morning and make us brush our teeth!  Apparently, the loss of Freedom was harder on our boys than on others, who were already used to functioning in societies without our freedoms.  We, though,  collapsed and became listless; we had to be forced even to maintain our own hygiene.  Taking Freedom away from young men who have been free (thanks to the faith, courage, and sacrifice of their fathers) seems to just about kill them.

A paradox about Freedom in the days of Jim Crow:  Black people, whose physical freedom was limited by law, became the primary vessels for unveiling the new art form whose essence was Freedom.  This art form has been described as the most astounding musical event since the Renaissance, and as America’s contribution to World culture – Jazz.

The arrival of music which filled the breast of Man with a great passion for Freedom coincided with a catastrophic loss of Freedom.  Two World Wars and the spread of totalitarianism left Freedom barely clinging to existence, but still strongest here in the USA, where it’s been under heavy assault for decades.  As you can imagine, an art form that fills breasts with a passion for Freedom is bound to be a prime target of such assaults.  Everyone with eyes can see the suppression and hear the mislabeling of our beautiful music. Here are some other points shedding a little light on how this assault on Jazz has been carried out.

  • Let’s start with everybody’s favorite villain, Corporate America.  The voracious appetite of our consumer economy needs for you to regularly toss out yesterday’s stuff and replace it with “new and improved” stuff.  Back when I still read Down Beat, they tried to tell me, with so many words, that there was a continuing line of top trumpeters, from Louis Armstrong to Roy Eldridge to Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis to Clifford Brown, to Freddie Hubbard (this was the ‘70s).  I don’t doubt that the Hubbard Hype helped Atlantic Records to move his albums, but it also helped to warp my fragile little mind.  I was baited-and-switched away from the truly great.
  • This flawed model of Jazz History carries a lot of weight, though, because we live in The Age of Science, where everybody knows beyond a doubt that newer is better.  Why wouldn’t Freddie Hubbard surpass his predecessors?  After all, he had the advantage of being able to absorb all that came before him, then add his own two cents worth.  This point of view also breeds ideas like “Louis Armstrong is corny.”    Art just doesn’t fit into a Scientific mold.  Does anyone believe that Pops will be as soon forgotten as Freddie Hubbard or Wynton Marsalis?  I sure don’t.
  • Jazz Education promotes erroneous concepts too.  Having no idea about art or about how to help gifted young musicians, Academia has nevertheless appointed itself The Repository Of Jazz Knowledge.  Let me ask you this:  All things considered, which do you feel educators would be more likely to go for – the idea that there have been certain special people anointed to bring new music into the world, maybe even by indefinable processes… or the view that Jazz is a skill that multitudes can master through systematic study and hard work?  It’s no surprise that the prize-winning product of Jazz Education’s approach is a legion of schooled technicians, who can’t tell the difference between art and what they’re playing.
  • A fourth culprit in the perpetuation of bad History is the main body of Jazz musicians themselves.  The unmatched virtuosity of the 1940s be-boppers has had an unplanned but profound effect:  Even though Jazz was founded on an enlightened worldview that prizes each artist for his own unique and priceless individual voice, Bebop’s daunting performance standards have pushed Jazz into an older pagan philosophy known as Platonic Idealism, in which whoever most closely approaches an unattainable ideal is considered the best.  Such a drastic change at its very foundation has effectively destroyed the Freedom that once was the heart of Jazz.  No longer free to be just who they are, musicians are now bound to endlessly pursue an unattainable performance standard.

So Corporate America, The Spirit of our Age, Jazz Education, and Jazz musicians all agree.  Their consensus revises Jazz History, gutting it of its greatness and removing Jazz’s very heart – its original, liberating expression of Freedom.  We’ve all paid a heavy price for this wrong thinking, because Jazz, when unleashed, is a potent art, and historically, changes in the arts have presaged drastic societal changes.  Were we Americans properly aware of it, Jazz…

  1. Would have crushed racism.  How could racial prejudice stand in the face of the knowledge that the so-called “inferior” race has surpassed the “superior” race in the area of one of Man’s highest sensibilities – the arts?
  2. Would have helped us to learn, and take pride in, who we are as Americans.  Jazz is our cultural legacy, the highest expression of our national soul.  This shared artistic heritage should have been the much-needed glue that bound our diverse culture into one people.
  3. Would have fueled Freedom’s causes everywhere.  It was precisely the taste of Freedom that endeared Jazz to Freedom-hungry people all over the world.  Once that part of Jazz was removed, so was Jazz’s following  – and its influence.
  4. Would have set the Jazz musicians free.  To acknowledge that Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker together possessed more musical genius than is seen in most centuries is to get free from their long shadow;  they ushered in the most astounding musical event ever heard.  They can’t be superseded.

Jazz, our native art form, has been suppressed, misdirected, corrupted, mislabeled – bottled up for over a half-century for fear of what changes it might bring.  The TCO’s job, with God’s assistance, is to help uncork that bottle.

-Tom Cunningham




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Our Big Band Battles

March 27th, 2012 by robin

Our upcoming “Big Band Battle” with George Gee on May 27th sends me on a trip down Memory Lane; I recall many great moments from past battles.

Our first confrontation with another Big Band was no confrontation at all.  It was billed as “Baltimore vs. Washington,” and was taped at Maryland Public Television’s studio on February 7-8, 1989.  The B’more-based band, Zim Zemarel’s, taped on the 7th, then we taped on the 8th, so we never saw each other until the show first aired in March.  The show had a long life; it was played for a while at every MPT fundraiser – so you know it got some airplay!  I remember a lot of folks watched it one New Year’s Eve, while we were out of town in York, PA, being swindled  (that’s another story).  The show’s emcee, Ken Jackson, sponsored a live re-match downtown at the Lord Baltimore Hotel later that Spring.  That’s when I met Chris Vadala, fresh off the road with Chuck Mangione.  Chris now heads Jazz Studies at UMd.

Our second battle experience was memorable for several reasons.  Tom Koerner produced and promoted this battle vs. NYC’s George Gee at Glen Echo on March 28, 1999.  Tom has produced all the battles with out-of-towners, and has created many other special swing events here in DC since the 1990s.  Anyway, Tom bragged to the Park authorities that the event was going to bring in 1500 dancers, so they naturally responded by invoking the ballroom’s fire code limits for the first time.  We took a combo outdoors and serenaded some very agitated dancers who’d been surprised by the lockout.  The combo changed their mood; they were dancing in line all the way down to the parking lot!  Indoors the back & forth was terrific.  Both bands had been honing their skills for swing dancers – George at his own club, Swing 46, in Manhattan, and us at America Restaurant in Tysons Corner Mall, an unusual venue sometimes called the “epicenter of the neo-swing movement.”  When the dust settled the New York and DC musicians had a newfound respect, bond and camaraderie.  George has been back here many times since.  I’ve even subbed on his band as a trumpet sideman!

In July of 1999 we did two consecutive battles at America.  First, the whole dang Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra with Cassie Miller and the Lucky Stars flew in from LA.  We set up on opposite ends of the club and went back and forth until it literally got so hot that Bill’s guys called a short halt to set up velvet ropes around their bandstand – just so they could get some air!  At the end of the night our soloists wandered down to their end for an amazing jam session.  Bill’s band was full of Hollywood studio cats; I remember one of my trumpeters, Steve Eisen, telling me “If I’d known I was trading licks with Don Clarke I wouldn’t have been able to play a note.”  I also remember telling Roger Neumann how I’d spent 50 hours transcribing his chart for Ray Charles’ “Beautiful Morning.”  Roger said “Man, you should have asked me; I’d have given it to you!”  Speaking of giving me charts, Bill opened up his whole book to me.  Some of his charts have been cornerstones of our repertoire ever since.  What a generous gentleman!  Again, mutual respect and camaraderie were the order of the day.

Not so the very next week when we battled a 6-piece combo with a national rep called Indigo Swing.  It was a mismatch, and the Indigo Swingers no doubt resented it; they didn’t mingle with us at all.  I can’t imagine what they were thinking when they signed on to battle a 16-piece big band!  Oh well, at least we got to play for lots of their fans.

In 2000, The Washington Post sponsored a three-way battle at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, but I never got to meet those other bands, because we had to go first, then race out to Tyson’s Corner to do our regular gig at America.

Four years later, the Post sponsored us in another battle at Carter Barron, vs. Eric Felten.  The musicians all got along fine, but it was a weird battle:  We came prepared with our best stuff, but Eric chose to use his very talented crew mainly as backup for his own vocals.  So it was two bands in the ring, but only one swinging.  Strange night, but it sure was a kick to see the dancers in the aisles getting down.

In 2012 the DC Lindy Exchange hired us to battle Glenn Crytzer from Seattle, who had won the previous year’s DCLX-sponsored battle vs. an LA-based band led by Jonathan Stout. Glenn pulled out all the stops, distributing pennants with his name on them, interjecting our shared number, Cotton Tail, with a surprise rendition of the Flintstone’s Theme, and generally turning the contest into blood sport. I’ve never been prouder of our band than that night, when Crytzer’s musicians gave us a standing ovation!

As bandleader, I have serious tunnel vision from the “podium.”  It would be great to learn about other facets of what these high-energy events were like to experience.  If you’ve attended any of our battles, I’d love to hear your personal observations, impressions, memories.

You won’t want to miss the Memorial Weekend battle. I can hardly wait for the re-match with George! He’s sure to load up with New York’s finest players, and put his band’s swingin’ foot forward. You can count on us to be loaded for bear. Bring both bands together and we’ll all be tootin’ through the roof! Be there or be square!

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Basie’s Birthday Bash!

August 19th, 2011 by robin

A few thoughts about why we’re so high on Count Basie that we’re devoting an evening to his music on August 27th. First, in the words of the Count himself, we expect it to be a “hot sock dance.” That’s what happens to your socks when you wear through both your soles, and Basie’s music will do that if anything can. Second, we enjoy the history, contrasting the sounds of the band that arrived on the national scene fresh out of “the Styx” with the polished ensemble that backed Sinatra at the Sands in Vegas.

Born August 21, 1904, in Red Bank, New Jersey, Bill Basie picked up his nickname “Count” in Kansas City in the days when KC was a Depression-proof cow-town with wall-to-wall music. Discovered via a tiny radio station’s live remote broadcasts, he brought the band to New York in 1936. After that, he “never had a bad night” until the end of the Swing Era in 1949, when he briefly led an octet. Re-forming (the “New Testament” band) in 1951, Basie was pretty much on the road until his 1984 passing.

Why do musicians hold Basie in such high regard? In a word – Swingin’est! His poll-winning rhythm section of the late 1930s was known as the “All-American Rhythm Section” – Drummer Jo Jones moved the foundational sound from drums to the cymbals, creating a smoother feel. Bassist Walter Page pioneered the Walking Bass, a kind of 4/4 bass line that always feels like it’s leading you somewhere. Guitarist Freddie Green is to this day the model for rhythm guitarists worldwide. And Basie pared down his piano-playing so he could time his notes to uncannily tickle your insides. Collectively, these four could move dancers’ feet and musicians’ spirits like no others.

But there’s more. The pressure cooker that was Kansas City produced Swingin’ ensembles and inspired soloists; Basie was tops in both. His roster is a Jazz Who’s Who: Singers Jimmy Rushing, Billie Holiday, Helen Humes and Joe Williams, trombonists Eddie Durham, Dickie Wells, Vic Dickenson, and Al Grey, trumpeters Hot Lips Page, Buck Clayton, Sweets Edison, Clark Terry, and Thad Jones, reed men Earle Warren, Jack Washington, Buddy DeFranco, Marshall Royal – and all those great tenors – Herschel Evans, Buddy Tate, Don Byas, Illinois Jacquet, Paul Gonsalves, Wardell Gray, Frank Wess, Frank Foster, Lockjaw Davis, Jimmy Forrest, and the tenor sax voice that turned the rudder of jazz history – Lester Young, Prez. This combination of Swingin’ ensemble and hot soloists defined Basie’s Old Testament band.

The New Testament group was known for a more polished product, but with that same compelling Swing feel at its core. Arrangers became the stars as the ensemble settled into its patented groove. Writers like Quincy Jones, Frank Foster, Neal Hefti, and Sammy Nestico set the table for the Basie feast of sound. At Glen Echo we’ll particularly focus on the arrangements of Foster, who passed away last month.

So you won’t want to miss it, and you will want to tell your friends: Basie’s Birthday Bash, Spanish Ballroom, 8-12, Saturday, August 27th, adult admission $15 (cheap). This event is presented in cooperation with Glen Echo Partnership for Arts and Culture Inc., the National Park Service, and Montgomery County. Be there or be square.

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In the beginning…

May 25th, 2011 by tom

Remembering back 35 years to the Spring of 1976 when I started the TCO… what a time it was!  I was 23 years old and in the middle of a massive born-again supernatural encounter with God (or call it a massive psychotic episode, if you prefer).  I was auditing classes at American University and hanging out in the music building.  Sometimes I’d just sit in a practice room listening to Jim Moulder upstairs doing his piano exercises.  Jim’s still a major presence on the DC jazz scene, headlining regularly at the Ice House Café.  Anyway, I’d accumulated a “book” from having led the VMI Commanders dance band for three years, from leading a rehearsal big band during my year at Berklee, and from co-leading the summertime “New Alexandria Jazz Band,” which rehearsed at Trinity Methodist, then later at my alma mater, TC Williams.  But when Doc Boggs told me I could help myself to anything in “those” file cabinets – the old stuff – I took full advantage.  I remember him blanching as I made multiple trips in front of his eyes from his office to the back of Dad’s station wagon.  Now I really had a book, and I knew tons of musicians, mostly from TC and AU.  I wish I could name every guy who was at that very first TCO rehearsal in the AU band room, but I do recall Jim on piano, TC’s Dave Jernigan on guitar (before he became one of DC’s top bass players), Dave Kasler (Air Force Band) or Matt Grossman on bass (they took turns), drummer nonpareil Jim West who was soon to take my room in a Rosslyn group house, housemate Gladwin Priel my Air Force connection, and Ron Oshima on altos, Steve the AU security cop on lead trumpet, Wayne Toyne (AF), Larry Eden (AU), and Jim Robeson (AU) trumpets, plus Royal Burkhardt on lead trombone.  There was a high school kid from Bethesda, Jon Elmer, who played a soulful plunger/blues trombone, and Tom Steele, be-bop bone from Vienna.  An Air Force tenor man who was outa sight and the others just escape me.  That first version of the TCO rehearsed weekly into the summer, moving over to Mrs. Jernigan’s basement after school let out, but it never gigged; I consider it a divine “earnest” on things to come…

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Swing We Must!

February 17th, 2011 by tom

I preach to my musicians that the proper relationship between themselves, the music, and dancers should be “triangular,” that is to say they should love the music, love the dancers, and want the dancers to love the music.

Believe me when I tell you, big band musicians are highly motivated by their love for the music. In this band, they give up a night a week to drive to the rehearsal hall and practice the stuff, and hardly a month goes by that they don’t perform at least once at considerably less than an appropriate fee, because of their desire to play great music for people.

Why are we so high on this music? Here are some feelings pretty much shared among our guys:

  • There was an explosion of genius in the first half of the 20th Century called Jazz. As composer and critic Virgil Thompson put it, “the most astonishing musical event to take place anywhere since the Reformation.”
  • Jazz is our native art form and will stand the test of time to be our cultural identity, just as “classical” music is Europe’s cultural identity.
  • The big band is America’s equivalent to the European symphony orchestra, preserving Swing, the most structured and accessible music of our native art form.
  • The Swing Era was the absolute pinnacle of American pop culture. When big bands were popular, popular tastes were their most elevated. It was the intersection of popular music and musical art.
  • Big band Swing was written to be interactive – to be danced to.
  • To create Swing feeling is Jazz’s highest musical virtue. Our standing as musicians is primarily related to how compellingly we get dancers to want to move to our music.

Swing we must.

Tom Cunningham

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