Alone among the famous bandleaders of the Swing Era, Charlie
Barnet kept his band working night after night for no other
reason than his own personal pleasure. The scion of a wealthy
family, the wildly impulsive Barnet started and broke up bands
at a whim - and it was eloquent testimony to the regard in
which he was held by his sidemen that they kept coming back,
even with the strains his fancy placed on their ability to
earn a steady paycheck. Perhaps it was that blatant flouting
of music business convention that attracted them; more than
likely, though, it was the music.
Though it's not talked about much these days, back during
the Swing Era there were definite divisions between the way
most black bands played and the way most white bands played.
I say most, because as you approach the best bands, there
was an unabashed cross-influence that made questions of race
largely moot. But by and large, the average black band was
looser than, and played with more swing than the average white
band. Hence, George T. Simon could title his August 1939 Metronome
review "Barnet's - Blackest White Band of All!"
and raise no hackles. Barnet was undoubtedly pleased with
this type of press - as he told Simon: "Jazz is the product
of the black man. Why not pattern your music on the most inventive
and contemporary and try to go on from there?" The band
that served as Barnet's model was that of his good friend
Duke Ellington. There were only a few instances of an Ellington
original being recreated verbatim by Barnet. For the most
part, his arrangers (most notably Andy Gibson, having himself
been briefly on Ellington's writing staff in 1937) used the
Ellington record as a jumping off point. In this case, the
old saw that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery would
Gibson wrote his best work for Barnet after the band switched
to the Decca label in 1942 - before that, Billy May was the
one to give the band its own sound. Known for his slightly-commercial
dance band of the '50s, and sterling work as an arranger for
Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra, May was an excellent Rex Stewart-
(an Ellington mainstay) inspired trumpeter, and a creative
writer in his Barnet days. Born in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1916
, he cut his musical teeth with a variety of bands, including
the improbably named George Olsen's Polish-American Orchestra.
May's playing and writing always evinced a healthy sense of
humor, and this may have been what first attracted Barnet.
Though his tour of duty with the band was not to last much
more than a year, May's contributions (most notably the extended
composition "Wings Over Manhattan") helped Barnet
gain a place among the top bands. Influenced by Jimmie Lunceford's
expansive, two-beat conception, May glimpsed the essentials
of swing early on, and stayed away from any and all ideas
that would inhibit the groove.
In any swing band, an essential role is played by the drummer,
and until the arrival of the 26 year-old Cliff Leeman in November
1939, Barnet had trouble getting his band to swing the way
he wanted it to. The concept of playing drums with a big band
was still relatively new - Chick Webb, Walter Johnson and
Jo Jones had laid down many of the precepts, but there was
still room for new discoveries by anyone with some imagination,
and that certainly would include the musically volatile Leeman.
After his years on the road with bands were over, Leeman became
a mainstay in the New York recording studios, where his individuality
was usually muffled. He kept active in jazz circles, though,
and his recordings with Eddie Condon's dixieland bands reveal
that he had lost none of his verve and fire.
There were usually just two main soloists in Barnet's bands,
a trumpeter (plunger man Bobby Burnet for the most part).
The piano, trombone and guitar occasionally grew in prominence,
but remained secondary voices. Barnet was a booting tenor
saxophonist, who occasionally played beyond his technical
means, but coming from him, this was just another manifestation
of his non-conformity. Some of Barnets's most controlled and
coherent playing was on his only big hit recording, "Cherokee".
He also played soprano nicely (no intonation problems on an
instrument that is notoriously hard to pitch) and alto well.
In the unfortunately unjust polls that were found in the major
music magazines of the era (Lester Young, Benny Carter, Chick
Webb and Louis Armstrong are just a few who never came in
first in their respective categories) Barnet always placed
well. There are recordings of him mixing it up with Art Tatum
and Lester Young, and a good adjective for his work in those
rarefied contexts might very well be "fearless".
Though Benny Goodman deservedly gets the lion share of the
credit for making significant steps towards integration in
the American music business (Benny Carter was leading a fully
mixed band in Europe as early as 1937), Barnet was also doing
his share in this regard. He hired the best black players
available for either recording (John Kirby and Frankie Newton)
or to actually tour with the band (Lena Horne, Peanuts Holland,
Howard McGhee, Trummy Young, Clark Terry and Oscar Pettiford)
and did the best he could to iron out the inevitable situations
that arose, both on the road and even at major engagements
in New York City. So as you can see, Charlie Barnet translated
his love for jazz and the musicians who made it into something
Duke Ellington told this anecdote in the '50s, and it sums
up Barnet's philosophy perfectly: "Charlie Barnet has
always been a wonderful friend to me. If he heard we had a
layoff in his territory, during those times when his band
was not organized and working, he would call my agent and
say, 'I want Duke's band to play a party for me.' Actually,
it would be a party for us, for there was no set order of
playing-just play when we felt like it. And then, between
'sets', we would join the party and ball it up like guests
of honor. One night, at one of these parties, he had signs
posted up in the lobby of the country club where we were supposed
to be working. They read: No Requests. No Melancholy Baby.
No anything but Duke Ellington. He had an electric board
fixed backstage, and he sat at it himself and blended the
lights to fit the mood of the music."
Barnet spent the last 30 years of his life enjoying himself
(something he was a past master at), and did his last gig
as a bandleader in New York in 1966. He must have taken great
pleasure in knowing that his legacy would be one of a rich
kid who really loved the music, led a good band, counted jazz
royalty among his friends, and left the business with his
health and reputation intact.