After Francisco Pizarro came to the New World, he devoted the rest of his life searching for El Dorado – a mythical city of gold. As a jazz historian, I too have dreams of finding my own version of El Dorado. Well, as lyricist Ned Washington wrote, “your dreams come true.”
Just after taking the helm as President and CEO of The American Big Band Preservation Society, I traversed to California on a Big Band “treasure hunt”; I had received an e-mail in January about a Big Band library stored away in a garage at a private home in Riverside, CA. I knew that my contact in Riverside had something special, but I was unsure as to the exact contents or magnitude of the aforementioned collection.
After a pleasant flight in mid-April and night’s sleep at my hotel in Anaheim, I drove the rental car to the home of Merri Lynn Casem. Greeted with a smile and the inquisitive barks of the new resident puppy, I walked inside with my briefcase and small tote bag. My host was quite gracious and, after a brief tour of the home, I was escorted to the much-anticipated garage area. There, along the entire length of the left-hand side, were dozens of boxes. Though neatly stacked and orderly, they had collected the dust of at least twenty years of garage life. I had a day’s worth of work ahead of me.
Yet in this type of work, hours felt like minutes. Upon opening the first box and seeing at least two types of brass mutes that haven’t been manufactured since the 1950s, I knew we had found something special. Further digging yielded an entire set of derby hats with their accompanying stands and mute racks, like the ones I had seen in pictures of Glenn Miller’s Orchestra…or Henry Busse’s! Yes, this indeed was the entire Henry Busse Orchestra collection, sitting before me in the original trunks and boxes used for Big Bands on the road.
As I sneezed my way on to the second, then third and fourth boxes, Merri Lynn offered me the story of this collection, along with a full box of tissues. When Henry Busse passed away suddenly of a heart-attack in April 1955, Will Lockridge (then billed as “Bill”) took over leadership of the band. Lockridge had been Busse’s lead trumpeter and road manager for at least four years, and was the logical successor to the orchestra’s baton. Also a talented horn and trombone player, Will Lockridge retired to Southern California and was featured occasionally in the Riverside Concert Band. This band was led by Merri Lynn’s late husband, Edward P. Casem. Lockridge left the Busse collection to Mr. Casem, hoping that the concert band and local schools would have use for it. Merri Lynn remembered that, “They tried, but the music is difficult and required a very high level of aptitude in order to be played in the right style.” The library was kept together, just as Lockridge had left it, and stored safely away in the Casem family garage. Sadly, Mr. Casem passed away in 2011. Fortunately, when Merri Lynn was cleaning out her garage months later, she found the Busse collection and knew what she had. She contacted the ABBPS “just at the right time” she says. I replied, mid-sneeze, how glad I was that she did!
Opening one of the four largest trunks, I found the band books labeled for the saxes and violins. I knew that the instrumentation of the Busse band of the 1940’s had been four saxes, a violin section, three trumpets, two trombones, and rhythm section of guitar, piano, bass, and drums. With even greater anticipation than before, I opened the other trunk, and sure enough: there sat the brass section. As you can imagine, the third trunk contained the rhythm section, with another box labeled only as “Henry.” Could this really be Henry Busse’s original book? I opened it, and the very first chart was “Hot Lips” with “Henry” scrawled at the upper left. Here was Busse’s theme tune, composed in his days playing trumpet with the famous Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Further down in the box was “At Sundown,” the tune from the 1920’s resurrected in the 1947 film The Fabulous Dorseys. In the movie, Henry Busse can be seen playing this tune in his inimitable Harmon-mute style over the shuffle-rhythm he pioneered, with Paul Whiteman directing a host of stars. I had in my hands the “Henry” part– a true piece of history.
While going through the boxes of Big Band gold, I shared some of my knowledge of Busse history and the importance of the arrangements, with my host. Continuing our talk over a delightful lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, we stopped at the UPS store on the way back to the garage. I realized along about the fourth box that everything was “of interest” to the ABBPS, and that my tote bag would prove woefully inadequate.
When we had finished going through the boxes, Merri Lynn discovered another stack of five long, steel cases. Prying open the rusty latch, I found stacks of scores, in the hand of such notable arrangers as Gray Raines. Another box contained the scripts and program order to radio shows dating from 1950-1953. More followed with promotional photographs, posters, and letters to venues looking to book the Busse band.
By the time everything was sorted and packed for shipping, it had started to rain in a very serious way there in “sunny” California. With the able help of Merri Lynn and her youngest son, everything was loaded into her mini-van and my little rental car. After a very long packaging and shipping process at the UPS store, the Henry Busse library was on its way to Massachusetts! Thanks to the incredibly generous donation of Mrs. Merri Lynn Casem, the goal of the late Will Lockridge to keep the music alive and bring it into the schools would be realized through the American Big Band Preservation Society!
It may not be the city “El Dorado,” but it was truly a garage of gold”– a treasure to the history of Jazz, and invaluable in helping to preserve Big Band music, our unique American musical heritage.
Want to find out more? Interested in helping?
We need your help!
The entire library and contents of the Henry Busse collection were shipped from California to Massachusetts at great cost to the ABBPS. As a growing 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, we have limited funds available. Your contribution in any amount is greatly appreciated, and will go directly to work helping to defray the cost of shipping, safely housing, and archiving this important music.
Want to learn more about the Busse legacy?
The below scan shows the payroll for one week in January, 1928 of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Note Henry Busse’s weekly salary of $350, one of the highest paid musicians (especially compared to young Bing Crosby’s starting wage at $150 per week!). Busse’s contract with Whiteman at that time guaranteed the trumpeter a solo (minimum eight measures) on every Victor record cut with the orchestra. Henry Busse had been one of the very first musicians to join Whiteman’s first band in California in 1918, and had achieved great respect from his boss and also considerable fame. He went on to lead a successful band pioneering what became known as the “shuffle rhythm,” perfect for dancing.
More information on Busse can be found online:
Popa, Christopher, Henry Busse: In Search of the Truth, Big Band Library online.
Red Hot Jazz Archive with recordings:http://www.redhotjazz.com/henrybusse.html