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Keeping the Big Band Sound Alive

Originally Published: Feb 3, 2010 by Nat Hentoff

At one point during my 1953 interview with Frank Sinatra for Down Beat magazine, he began lamenting the passing of the big bands. "When I was with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey," he told me, referring to his work in the 1930s, "I learned about tempos—which ones for which tunes—and how to mix them up and pace a show. I'd surely like to see the bands come back."

And I still do. I've missed the big bands that became an integral part of our popular music from the '30s to the '50s. From the time I was 11 in 1936, I listened on the radio at night to Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington broadcast from across the country. Later I actually listened to them live, either in the exciting presence of other band leaders in theaters between movies, or in ballrooms. There are still some big bands, but they're no longer part of the common American listening and living experience.

Suddenly, however, with the recent release of "Common Thread" by singer Amanda Carr and the Kenny Hadley Big Band (OMS), the swinging, welcoming momentum of the 35 years (1920-55) of the big-band era has come alive again. This is not a collection of archival facsimiles. From George Gershwin's "They All Laughed" to Dizzy Gillespie's "I Waited for You," this band—its sections, soloists, arrangers and the joyfully romantic Ms. Carr—is invigorating the legacy of that fabled era with its own interpretations, stories to share among its members and us.

For 24 years, Mr. Hadley led his own big band in New England, and he has renewed it for this CD, including alumni of the Herb Pomeroy Big Band of the 1950s and '60s that became its own legend in Boston.

I first introduced Ms. Carr to Journal readers on Sept. 5, 2007 in "She's on the Road to Renown." On her latest recording at the time, "Soon," she was not only "a true jazz singer in a time of wannabes," but also revealed what she had learned about tempos, and about pacing a show, from having previously worked with "ghost" big bands—replacement leaders directing the arrangements of the Harry James, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller bands.

She comes from a big-band family. Her mother, Nancy Carr, often sang with bands at a premier New England ballroom, the Totem Pole in Newton, Mass. Amanda's father, trumpet player Nick Capezuto, played with Larry Clinton, Louis Prima, Miller, Pomeroy, and the Tex Beneke band.

Still actively performing as a vocalist, Ms. Carr is also intensely engaged in a family labor of love—the ongoing creation of the American Big Band Preservation Society. (Information is available at or by phoning 1-888-340-6874, or 617-791-0555 from outside the U.S.) The society is composed largely of musicians and music educators, and among its goals of "preserving and perpetuating big-band music" is "seeking out unpublished big-band arrangements and providing them with a safe archive that stores, categorizes and makes this music available."

Tune In

Listen to clips from "Common Thread" by Amanda Carr and the Kenny Hadley Big Band:

  • They All Laughed

  • I Understand

  • I Waited For You

She says "receiving 501c3 IRS tax-exempt status at the beginning of January is considered by us a huge success" and, she adds, "a big boost in the efforts of ABBPS to promote its mission and the more attractive for individual donors and corporate partnerships." As for continuing success, "in these early months of operation, 25 arrangements have been donated to the ABBPS that are currently in the process of being cataloged and added to an arrangement library list on its continually expanded Web site."

But "our primary focus," says Ms. Carr, "is to preserve this music through educating our young people in the public school music programs where most of our youth is provided their primary and most comprehensive music education." It's an effort to fill the hole in arts education in schools today. Some schools even have big-band ensembles, but they are few and far between. And, says Ms. Carr, "they don't sufficiently address the heritage of big-band music to ensure its passage to future generations in any substantial or lasting way."

Characteristically, Ms. Carr has researched, pondered and created a specific agenda for the ABBPS. It will not only provide educational clinics and master classes to students from elementary school through college, but also assist young music teachers, many of whom have not had any experience with this music but are expected to teach public-school jazz bands or music ensembles. "We plan to focus on schools that don't have enough funding for a curriculum that would support, in whole or part, big-band education or performances," she says.

But to bring vivid pleasure to all this orientation, the ABBPS will, Ms. Carr continues, "perform live concerts in schools, playing selected arrangements from our library and getting young people excited about this music. Kids needs to hear this music played live."

While working to stimulate enough donations to get this project into a swinging groove, Ms. Carr and her ensemble of enthusiasts have already brought the spirit and sounds of this American roots music into a Boston-area high school. Working with the existing student band during the days and well into the evenings, they conducted a master class and big-band clinic.

"The students performed and we performed," Ms. Carr happily recalls, "so they could hear themselves beginning to sound like a professional big band playing these arrangements."

She remembers her own big-band evolution. "As a teenager in the '80s, I liked rock and pop, and still do. I played rock and pop in nightclubs even before I finished high school. I couldn't even imagine singing my parents' music, because that was like driving their station wagon.

"But later, when my mother asked me to fill in for her on her big-band gigs, I realized how enjoyable this material was to sing, and how the lyrics really said something. If I looked deeper there was always something more to be found in them—and in me as these big-band arrangements became part of me."

Giving an urgent impetus to finding and acquiring big-band arrangements from the glory years of this music is Ms. Carr's realization that with each passing day a career arranger from that era passes away. "If their families or estates don't stick them in an attic or a closet or just give them to a local music school, the students may never learn how to play them, and the arrangements eventually die along with the arranger," she says. The ABBPS is already contacting families to find out what they have.

"When we lose these arrangements, we lose the language," she exclaims. "And if young people don't hear good big-band language played live, they won't understand the interpretation or develop a passion for the music. Recordings alone just don't just cut it!"

By 1963, Duke Ellington was finding it hard financially to keep his big band together. On the road in Calcutta, India, that year, he was asked during a press conference: "How have you managed to keep a big band so long when so many others have broken up? Hasn't the rise of rock 'n' roll taken away your audience?"

Unruffled, Ellington said: "There's still a Dixieland audience, a Swing audience, a Bop audience. All the audiences are still there."

Many among those big-band audiences are still here, and there will be new audiences for this swinging music thanks to the American Big Band Preservation Society.

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