"Big bands led by elderly men in the names of dead men are big business," Leonard Feather wrote in 1988, "while new bands playing fresh, exciting music (such as the Toshiko Akiyoshi Orchestra, which has won countless polls) have trouble getting three month's work in a year."
The leader of a big band may die, but his melodies often linger on, with a so-called "ghost" band -- that is, an ensemble that, following his death, bears his name and plays his music (and, sometimes, newer music in his style), but is fronted by someone else.
The one exception to the rule was, for a long time, The Artie Shaw Orchestra; Shaw was hardly a ghost, living well beyond the 1983 formation of a new band using his name.
"And I don't intend to comply," he once quipped.
However, the grim reaper eventually reached him, and he passed away in 2004 at age 94.
Before their deaths, certain leaders, including Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, and Wayne King, specifically forbade any orchestras carrying on under their name.
Goodman remarked, "I absolutely don't want it . . . Anything under my name should be me. I'm the product."
In past years, the surrogate leader chosen was, ideally, someone who had a previous association with the band, such as a former sideman. Other times, someone who played the same instrument as the leader was picked, but, as time wore on, that was not always the case.
By 2005, only a couple of the bands, such as The Glenn Miller Orchestra, operated anywhere near full-time. Others, like The Gene Krupa Orchestra or the so-called Lionel Hampton New York Big Band, do it only when enough consecutive bookings are scheduled to make it economically viable.
"It's not too viable," Phil Leshin, Hampton's last manager, told me recently. "The musicians are there and they love to get back together again and play. They still have the library, they know the arrangements. The leader is the guy who was Lionel's straw boss at the time, Cleve Guyton . . . Cleve played alto and flute, and he knew all the tempos, and he'd call out the tunes and he'd conduct the band."
Since Guyton doesn't play vibes, who has taken on the job of assuming Hampton's role?
"Nobody," Leshin replied. "They had been with Lionel so long, they always knew exactly what to do, when and how Lionel would have loved it."
What I was getting at was... who would, or could, be capable of playing Hampton's solo vibe parts with the orchestra? It turns out, for this Hampton "ghost band," that his solos have been reassigned to other instruments.
"Well that was traded off with the various soloists, although there were several guys who wanted to play," Leshin confirmed. "In fact, once . . . in Paris, Peter Appleyard came in and played with the band. He's a vibe player, and he knew all the arrangements and he knew all of Lionel's solos. So he fulfilled that role. And once, when Lionel got sick, Milt Jackson played the entire night. You know, we had to fulfill contracts."
How about with today's band?
"Terry Gibbs called me," Leshin revealed. "He wanted to take over, but everybody decided, 'No, that's not what Lionel would have wanted.' And so we often, even when the band played, we'd have a set of vibes up on the stand, and nobody would play 'em."
Has the Hampton crew worked much since his passing?
"No, because they want Lionel," Leshin acknowledged. "Lionel was the attraction, always."
"I think 'ghost band' is a most unfortunate term," trumpeter Art Depew, leader of The Harry James Orchestra, has countered. "The band is like a brand name, a guarantee of quality. It's an ongoing sound that we're proud to keep alive."
Most bands had experienced a gradual decline of popularity, even with their actual leaders, starting after World War II.
"Well, yeah, later, as the years went on, the big band era was fading," arranger Van Alexander recalled to me. "And partly because of television, I guess. The people didn't want to go out to dance, or they stayed home and watched tv. Of course, my experience with Chick Webb and, later, with my own band, was that the big prize when you were playing these ballrooms was that, many times, you were on the air. That is, broadcasting coast-to-coast, so that the people could hear you . . . and would buy your records, and then when you did one-nighters, where you made some money, they would come to see you. They wanted to see what you looked like in-person. But then, as I say, starting in the middle '40s, the big bands started to lose out in favor and then, of course, with rock and roll coming in... that didn't help the big band situation."
Was it ever possible that the bands could return to their glory?
"A few of the bandleaders made an effort," he pointed out. "Les Brown, a dear friend of mine, who is not with us any longer... he was one of the few bands -- and maybe Ray Anthony, and, before he died, Tex Beneke -- but it wasn't like the old days. There were no [ long engagements ]. They were lucky to get four or five dates a month. And then, later on, it was
How does Alexander feel about ghost bands?
"It's a way of trying to keep alive the music that we all loved," he said.
So should there now be a Chick Webb ghost band?
"I don't think so. I don't think so," Alexander answered. "And the ghost bands are struggling. I don't know any of the bands that are really making money or keeping the personnel together, which is very tough. They've got to work wherever they can."
There reportedly was talk in the 1990s of having a Jan Savitt ghost band, even though Savitt had passed away in 1948 and there had been no group bearing his name since then.
According to Savitt's former star trombonist, Al Leopold, "There's a fellow by the name of Mac McDonald out in California, who was in touch and wanted some information and [ to ] see if I had any material. He was looking for some old Savitt arrangements. They were re-forming. I was in touch with him for a year or two, and he sent me a whole bibliography of Savitt's arrangements and stuff like that. And Barbara Savitt, Jan's wife, was the organizer, and they were trying to get it set up."
But the plans evidently came to an end with her death in 1995, in a home swimming pool accident.
When I spoke with Maxine McCoy, the widow of trumpeter Clyde McCoy, in 2005, I asked her if she'd like there to be a band carrying on her husband's music.
"No, I don't think so. I really don't," she replied. "I don't think he would either."
Trumpeter Lee Castle did the yeoman's job of ghost band leaders, directing The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra following Jimmy's death in 1957 until his own passing in 1990; that means he led it longer than Dorsey did.
When trumpeter - arranger - composer Thad Jones, a person of integrity, was offered leadership of The Count Basie Orchestra in 1985, he had to decide if he could fulfill the task that had been asked of him.
"Just the idea that I would be in charge of a band that had been led by the man I consider to be my mentor--I felt then and I feel now that those were impossible shoes to fill," Jones said. "Most of all, I didn't want to do anything that would dishonor the memory of Count Basie or discredit the men who had committed themselves to the continuation of his music. So there were a lot of things for me to ponder, and it took me a while to do that. To take over a band from a man like Mr. Basie is not an easy thing to do, and anybody who would just say yes without thinking about it would have to be slightly crazy."
While Jones tried to move the Basie Orchestra forward, other bands have preferred to stay,
more-or-less, frozen in time.
Mercer Ellington, at one point, went so far as to insist that the musicians in The Duke Ellington Orchestra, which he led following his father's death, had to play solos as heard on the original records.
"When we play Pop's tunes," he explained, "we do them verbatim. I want the sound of everything that was there, including the solos, because I don't think that anyone today can concoct a solo that fits this music better than what Tricky Sam Nanton or Lawrence Brown or Cootie Williams played on it. I want to hear those same notes."
One of the bands most recently revitalized is The Les Elgart Orchestra, now directed by drummer Russ Dorsey, who played with Elgart in the 1960s.
"I am continuing the sound and style just as it was in it's heyday," he told me. "We are performing at colleges and high schools, bringing the great music to the youth."
Along with expected favorites like Bandstand Boogie, which was adopted by Dick Clark as the theme song for his "American Bandstand" TV show, many lesser-known gems in the Elgart music library, such as Bidin' My Time, Music to Watch Girls By, and Out of Nowhere, have been restored.
"I am dedicated to keep the unique Elgart sound alive," Dorsey vows. "It will survive the times. That is my goal."
Clearly, the most commercially-successful of the ghost bands has been and is The Glenn Miller Orchestra, which in 2006 observed its 50th consecutive year of operation.
"Who leads the band seems almost inconsequential, since it is the Miller sound and style that audiences come to hear," Feather had commented in 1988.
The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, led by Buddy Morrow, earned Tommy's widow, Jane, more than $800,000 in tour royalties between 1977 and 1986, but returns for other groups have not been anywhere near as lucrative.
According to Woody Herman's daughter, Ingrid Herman Reese, "There's no real money in
it . . . but then there wasn't even when Daddy was doing it; it was just pocket money for him."
Sadly, at one point, The Count Basie Orchestra had to go through a bankruptcy proceeding.
"A lot of the bands that are touring, they're not paying big salaries and what-not," Michael Berkowitz, present leader of The Gene Krupa Orchestra, commented to me. "They go out and they can do a job for a $4,000 night, or a $5,000 night. Well, I can't go out from New York and just do a $5,000 night, 'cause I've lost $2,000 by the time I've... so, that's the issue . . . you've got to make enough money to make it worthwhile . . . People will call and say, 'Can you do this thing for $5500 or whatever?' And I'll say, 'What's the anchor date?' If you book a few other dates around it... But that's been the hardest thing, to get people to book a string of dates. If you give me a week, yeah, but if you only give me one in Brownsville, Texas, I can't get there, and I can't get musicians there, and no money, either . . . As the buyers are younger, as the audience changes, and continues to change... well, Gene couldn't keep a band together after '51, anyhow, himself. What the hell am I trying to do? It's only 'cause it's good music . . . I just think the music should live on. I hope that the audience will grow. I hope that the public will have an opportunity to hear this music and get the same love and enjoyment out of it that you and I have.
That's what I'm hoping that we can continue, despite the diminishing numbers of people who were around at 'the era' that this was popular."
"Very few bands that I know are actually making a living out of this," trombonist Vincent Lopez, Jr., leader of "The Famous Vincent Lopez Orchestra," told me recently. "I know the Tommy Dorsey band does, maybe, 200 dates a year. The Glenn Miller band, they do a slew of dates, they do maybe 350, 320 a year. Once you mention those two names, it goes kind of downhill from there. We do maybe, I don't know, 20, 25 dates a year. Can you make a living out of it? Nah, not anymore . . . I think there's always going to be a niche for this type of music, somewhere. As far as bands criss-crossing the country, I think those days are gone. I remember years ago talking with Jimmy Henderson, who led the Glenn Miller band years ago, and he was telling me basically the same thing. The question came up, 'Are the big bands back? or 'Are they coming back?' And the answer was, at that time... and I think it's pretty prevalent now, 'All of the big ballrooms, for the most part, are gone. All the big hotels that had the big rooms that could accomodate a big band are just about gone.' I think there's gonna be some work around. I think eventually that the people that are listening to the music now... you know, the Glenn Miller fans and the Dorsey fans and the Vincent Lopez fans . . . those people that are really the fans, they're in their 70s and 80s now. There's gonna come a time when, basically, the fans of this type of music are no longer going to be with us. Of course, I could be all wrong . . . I think there's always going to be big band shows on the radio and, every once in a while, you see some of these things on PBS. I'm waiting for a call from PBS, I'm hoping someday that they'll put together -- much like they did with these rock and roll bands like the '50s groups, the doo-wop groups -- that they do the bands, the current bands. I think that would be a fantastic niche, because whenever they do these big band specials on PBS now, they always say, 'Oh, this is one of our best shows, our best moneymakers.'"
Alexander, Van. Interview with author, Nov. 8, 2004.
Berkowitz, Michael. Interview with author, Aug. 1, 2005.
Dorsey, Russ. E-mail to author, Feb. 23, 2005.
Feather, Leonard. "Leaders May Die but Big Bands Never Fade Away," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 21, 1988.
Kart, Larry. "'Ghost Bands': Blasts From the Past Keep Sound Tradition Alive," Chicago Tribune,
Jul. 14, 1985.
Leopold, Al. Interview with author, Aug. 24, 2007.
Leshin, Phil. Interview with author, Jan. 26, 2005.
Lopez, Vincent Jr. Interview with author, Dec. 2, 2004.
McCoy, Maxine. Interview with author, Nov. 1, 2005.
Smith, John C. E-mail to author, Feb. 16, 2005.
Tomkins, Les. "The Sy Oliver Story, Part 2," jazzprofessional.com.
Weems, Ted Jr. Interview with author, Jan. 24, 2005.
Zaslow, Jeffrey. "'Ghost' Swing Bands Follow the Leader Without the Leader," Wall Street Journal,
May 27, 1986.
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