Saturday, 24 July 2010

Boyd Raeburn: the great Arrangers and Big Bands

Boyd Raeburn first came to my attention thanks to a vintage 1950s Savoy album called Boyd Meets Stravinsky. It attracted me right away because it featured arrangements by Johnny Mandel, because it invoked the name of the Immortal Igor and, let's face it, because it was on red vinyl. Boyd Raeburn's outfit was one of the notable big bands of the 1940s which was saddled with the description 'progressive' or 'modernist'. The other culprits included Stan Kenton, Claude Thornhill and, perhaps surprisingly, Woody Herman. In a way, Raeburn was the missing link between Kenton and Woody Herman. At the same time he shared a penchant for unusual musical ideas with Claude Thornhill, the sort of ideas which would ultimately result in, among other things, Miles Davis' The Birth of the Cool. Of the names here, Raeburn's is the most obscure, which is a situation I'd like to repair, prompted by the arrival of a terrific album called Boyd Raeburn and His Orchestra 1944-46. This odd item, which I got from good old Dusty Groove in Chicago, seems to be some kind of a high end bootleg. The label, if you can call it that, is Big Band Landmarks of which this is volume 9 (I'd love to know what the other 8 are). The cover says Not For Sale and Not Licensed for Commercial Use, which begs the question just what the hell record is intended for. Actually, I guess it's intended for someone like me. The cover also specifies that it's in beautiful mono and the sound quality is indeed great. Boyd Raeburn is a major figure in jazz, although little known. The book Big Band Jazz by Albert McCarthy runs to 350 pages of dense text and devotes all of five words to him: "The advanced Boyd Raeburn Band," it says. This is absurd. The collective of outstanding arrangers who worked for Raeburn is probably second only to that of Stan Kenton. Boyd Raeburn began by leading a series of uninspired bands for about ten years. Manny Albam, later to become an exceptional composer and arranger in his own right, briefly played baritone sax for Raeburn and he reports that the early outfit "was so bad it made Freddie Martin's band sound good." A withering comment — if anyone could remember who poor Freddie Martin was. But by 1944 Raeburn was hitting his stride, helped considerably by having a magnificent arranger called Johnny Mandel playing in his trombone section. Other important musicians who played with Raeburn included pioneering bebop trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Bennie Harris, reed men Hal McCusick and Jimmy Giuffre, Buddy De Franco on clarinet, high note trumpet specialist Maynard Ferguson, drummer Shelly Manne and Serge Chaloff, who succeeded Albam on baritone sax. Chaloff would migrate to the Woody Herman band in 1947, taking with him the contagious memes of both bebop and heroin addiction. Raeburn's singers included David Allyn (aka David Allen) and Ginny Powell. Allen/Allyn is one of the few big band vocalists who is still with us. He's a singer to be reckoned with and would later record some milestone jazz vocal albums under the direction of Johnny Mandel and Bill Holman. At the time of his residency with Raeburn, David Allyn was already showing serious talent. Perhaps Picnic in the Wintertime and It Can't Be Wrong tend to that sort of throbbing emotive Billy Eckstine-Johnny Hartman style which to my ears is all too easily parodied (the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band nailed it hilariously). But Black Night and Fog and Please Let Me Forget are splendid home runs. His band mate Ginny Powell was also dynamite, fresh and exhilarating. Not just another big band canary, she was praised by Ella Fitzgerald and Ginny's version of Memphis In June is a peach. Also be sure to hear her Rip Van Winkle. But even more significant than Raeburn's singers or players were his arrangers. Despite the band's lack of commercial success, their distinctive and groundbreaking writing was recognised. David Allyn recalls that top arrangers-to-be like Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle and Peter Rugolo came to hear gigs and "brought their notebooks along." In addition to Johnny Mandel, Boyd's arrangers initially included Raeburn himself, Ed Finckle and George Handy. Finckle provided classics like Boyd Meets Stravinsky but it was George Handy who became the band's first star arranger with his writing on Yerxa ('the elegy movement from the Jitterbug Suite" — a vehicle for McCusick), the nicely titled Tonsillectomy and Dalvatore Sally, and the aforementioned Rip Van Winkle and Memphis in June, where he provided beautiful swinging vocal features for Ginny Powell. Handy came to demand star billing of the kind that fellow arranger Eddie Sauter was getting with Ray McKinley. This and other factors (I notice he is frequently referred to in articles as 'eccentric') led to George Handy leaving Raeburn. But it's hard to do too much mourning over this because his replacement was the mighty Johnny Richards, one of my heroes and a man who would go on to greatness with his writing for Stan Kenton (check out Cuban Fire and West Side Story). Highlights of Richards spell with Raeburn include Sheherazade/Concerto for Clarinet for Buddy De Franco. Raeburn's knack for hiring superb arrangers didn't stop there, though. It's basically a roll of honour. He would go on to enlist Ralph Burns, whose talents are widely recognised, and neglected heroes like Paul Villepigue and Thomas Talbert. Talbert is another household god of mine — watch this space for an in-depth piece about him. Villepigue I've only just learned about (thank you, Ian) but Gunther Schuller writes of his "first rate modern arrangements" and that's good enough for me. If you'd like to acquaint yourself with the Boyd Raeburn bands, perhaps the best single compilation is the oddly spelled Jewells from Savoy. Originally a sumptuous two LP set, then a CD. Both are now out of print but you can download from iTunes here. However, I found that the best representation of Raeburn on vinyl was from the small British independent label Hep. The same seems to be true on CD and Hep have an excellent selection of reasonably priced issues here. And what of Boyd Raeburn himself? He gave up music in 1957, bowing out on an album called Fraternity Rush for Columbia, which featured a nice cartoon cover by Arnold Roth. Raeburn married Ginny Powell and retired to the Bahamas. Not a bad way of riding off into the sunset.


  1. Great post, thank you. one arranger you have not mentioned who worked for Boyd Raeburn was Paul Villepigue. There is a fascinating entree into the almost lost world of the big bands' post-war renaissance - and Boyd Raeburn in particular - via the website dedicated to Paul Villepigue's memory and run by his daughter. the page specificaaly about the arranger's time with Raeburn may be accessed at this address:

    Please check it out.

    Best wishes

    Ian B

  2. I'm short before starting my private project I've told you about, Andrew. -- Let's hope the pitches are not varying too wildly.

  3. How about the great David Allyn?

  4. Hi Andrew --

    Just to let you know: My little (or not so little?) private project with digitalizing *all* the LP's I have by Boyd Raeburn is almost finished.

    The pitches *were* varying wildly, as prophesied. And I fell in love with Ginnie Powell, respectively her beautiful voice. David Allyn? I heard he's still around, and in case he would read that here:

    Dear Mr. Allyn: Thanks for the beautiful vocals, especially for "Forgetful", and for the outstanding, and nearly forgotten "Black Night And Fog". -- Wonderful!

    And I have a new blog which I shamelessly would like to announce here.



  5. David is still with us and in his 90s. I got him going again in nyc in the early 1990's. He had a 17 piece big band midtown at the now gone Red Blazer.

  6. I am sad to announce that David Allyn passed away November 21, 2012 losing a battle to cancer. He was 93, however his music will be with us forever.