© -Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.
For some time now, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has envisioned brief features on some of the big bands of The Swing Era that have fallen out of view, so to speak. Of course, in the broadest sense, all of the big bands of The Swing Era are relatively obscure today as both the bands themselves and the generation that favored and nurtured this style of Jazz have moved on into history.
During the heyday of the Big Bands, two of the less recognized but highly respected outfits were the Andy Kirk and the Jimmie Lunceford bands.
Andy Kirk (1898-1992) took over Terrence Holder's Dark Clouds of Joy in 1929 and turned the band into a successful touring and recording unit, very largely dependent on the magnificent writing and arranging of Mary Lou Williams.
Though he was often out front for photo opportunities, Andy Kirk ran the Clouds of Joy strictly from the back row. The limelight was usually left to singer June Richmond or vocalist/conductor Pha Terrell; the best of the arrangements were done by Mary Lou Williams, who left the band in 1942; as a bass saxophonist, Kirk wasn't called on to take a solo. All the same, he turned the Clouds of Joy into one of the most inventive swing bands. His disposition was sunny and practical and he was a competent organizer (who in later life ran a Harlem hotel, the legendary Theresa, and organized a Musicians' Union local in New York City).
As Gunther Schuller points out in the following excerpts from his definitive opus The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945:
“It is fascinating to contemplate the role that geography and chance encounters have played in the history of jazz. Although often giving the impression that "it all happens in New York"—even Basie and his Kansas City cohorts had to go there to really "make it"—it is useful to remind ourselves that 1) there was a Kansas City, under a wide-open Prendergast political regime, spawning crucial developments in jazz, including the contributions of one Charlie Parker; 2) that further north in Bismarck, North Dakota, another young man, Charlie Christian, was revolutionizing the guitar, with shock waves of after-effects that, for better or worse, can be felt unto this day in all popular music, even rock; 3) that practically every town in America had a German music teacher and that these provided musical training to the likes of Scott Joplin, Benny Goodman, and Earl Hines, and countless others; 4) that Tatum, Claude Hopkins, Oscar Peterson first studied the classical literature with classical piano teachers; 5) that John Lewis as a teenager in Albuquerque, New Mexico, already heard and knew one of his major influences, Lester Young—not in New York; 6) that it was on the road with the Earl Hines band that Gillespie and Parker first began listening to each other in earnest.
The criss-crossing of bands over the length and breadth of this nation over the decades, with the chance encounters between musicians, has been a factor of virtually incalculable importance in the development of jazz. The long hard tours, the endless one-nighters, though at times painful in actuality, have also played a crucial fertilizing role in the growth of this music. A study of whose paths crossed—and when—would in itself make a very instructive survey of jazz history.
Consider, for example, the fact that Jimmie Lunceford and Andy Kirk both, somewhat by chance, went to Denver, Colorado, to study with Wilberforce Whiteman, Paul's father, and under that remarkable teacher's tutelage both became skillful performers on a host of instruments (brass and woodwinds); further that both played and acquired a certain disciplined professionalism with George Morrison's orchestra in Denver; that the one, Kirk, ended up in 1926 in Terrence Holder's Texas-based band, the other, Lunceford, in Mary Lou Burleigh's band in Memphis, and that she, old enough to appreciate as a teenager in her native Pittsburgh the work of a certain pianist named Earl Hines, soon joined her husband John Williams in Terrence Holder's band, thus becoming with her husband one of the charter members of what in a few years was to be known as Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy. Thus the lives and talents of the elder Whiteman, three major orchestra leaders, two most remarkable jazz pianists, and one very special woman arranger-composer all intertwine in a scheme of geography and chance.
The parallel between Kirk and Lunceford goes farther in that both gradually gave up their playing roles, turning to leading their orchestras; and both had in their service at least one major creative personality, Mary Lou Williams and Sy Oliver, respectively, who early on set the basic style of their band. Kirk, a modest man, had in 1929 reluctantly taken over the leadership of Holder's Black Clouds of Joy band, while continuing to play tuba and bass saxophone. (Holder was one of the popular early trumpet stars of the Southwest but, apparently because of domestic troubles, abandoned his orchestra in 1928.) Our skein of coincidences continues when, after Kirk had taken over the leadership of the Clouds, George Lee, another important Kansas City bandleader, happened to hear Kirk in Tulsa and recommended him for a long-term engagement at the Pla-Mor Ballroom in Kansas City, affording the band some welcome financial stability. In turn, the young Jack Kapp, recording director for the Brunswick label, happened to hear Kirk and asked him to hold a rehearsal in preparation for a recording date. Here again fate interceded in that the regular Kirk pianist, Marion Jackson, failed to show up at the rehearsal. Mary Lou Williams was asked at the last minute to substitute for Jackson. And so Mary Lou Williams became a permanent fixture of the Kirk organization—indeed one of its two stars; the other, in the late thirties, being the remarkable tenor saxophonist Dick Wilson.
The Kirk orchestra's recording history began in late 1929 with two sides cut in Kansas City on the Vocalian label (under the name of John Williams and His Memphis Stompers). …
Mary Lou Williams left Andy Kirk in 1942 and was replaced by a pianist of formidable talents named Kenneth Kersey. In mid-1942 he provided Kirk with a substantial hit, Boogie Woogie Cocktail, which I recall hearing consistently on jukeboxes as late as 1944. Kersey was quite a find. Whereas Mary Lou Williams had taken boogie-woogie, with its murky and somber primitive visions, and given it a more cheerful lacy legato touch, Kersey took the same idiom, tightened its variation structure, energized its rhythms, stylized it and turned it into both a pianistic tour de force and an excellent dance number. It was boogie-woogie cleaned up a bit, efficient, and quite perfect—a miniature boogie-woogie concerto.
As with other orchestras, so too with Kirk, the young up-and-coming modernists were beginning to infiltrate his big band in the early-middle forties. One of these was the first-rate trumpeter Howard McGhee, whose McGhee Special, featuring him in a long extended trumpet solo, was also a successful best seller. McGhee is another one of those fine players who has been forgotten in recent years. Admittedly, he didn't have the staying power of a Gillespie or a Hawkins or a Hines, and his frequent enforced absences through the years certainly signify an erratic career. But in his early days McGhee was a leading transition figure in the incoming bop movement.
When McGhee joined Kirk he was just twenty-four and had played with only one other major orchestra, Lionel Hampton's, for a brief spell. It is to Kirk's credit that he recognized McGhee's talent and allowed him to be featured not merely in a brief solo, but in a major recording debut as soloist-composer-arranger. …”
And George T. Simon, who covered the Big Bands for Metronome Magazine during their Swing Era's heyday, wrote this caring tribute to Andy Kirk in the 4th edition of his seminal The Big Bands:
“HE WAS a gentle man, a kind man, a happy man, an intelligent man and a talented man. He was Andy Kirk, who led one of the better swing bands, one that at times threatened to achieve greatness but which never quite reached the pinnacle it seemed to be constantly approaching.
Called "Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy," it was a band composed of good musicians, a band that for several years played outstanding arrangements, but a band that could be wonderful one minute, mediocre the next, wonderful again, only fair for a while and then suddenly wonderful once more.
Perhaps Andy was too lenient. Perhaps had he driven his men harder, they might have played better more often. But such an approach might also have destroyed the warm and relaxed rhythmic feeling that pervaded so much of the band's music.
The first time I heard the band in person, early in 1937 in Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, I was greatly impressed by its simple swinging riffs both in ensemble passages and as backgrounds for soloists, of whom the most impressive was a girl, Mary Lou Williams. One of the most brilliant jazz pianists of all time, serious-looking, with long hair, a shy smile and surprisingly attractive buck teeth, she played in an Earl Hines manner, her solos mirroring phrases that the full band played in its arrangements — arrangements which she herself had written. There was also a good tenor saxist, Dick Wilson, a fine trombonist, Ted Donnelly, whom I always considered to be one of the most underrated of all musicians, and a steady, heady drummer, Ben Thigpen, whose son, Ed, years later, was to drum in the Oscar Peterson Trio.
The band had arrived in New York about the same time that Count Basic's had, but with much less ballyhoo. Organized in 1929 in Oklahoma, it had, like the Count's, established itself in Kansas City. It began to blossom there after 1933, when Mary Lou became a regular member. Married to Johnny Williams, a saxist with Kirk, she had occasionally sat in with the band and seemed so eager to play at all times that Andy nicknamed her "The Pest." Then, one day in 1933, the regular pianist showed up for a recording date reportedly in no condition to play. In desperation, Andy called for Mary Lou, and from then on "The Pest" remained seated on Kirk's piano bench until the middle of 1942, when she finally decided to seek a career as a solo performer.
Some of the band's greatest recordings featured Mary Lou, sides like "Froggy Bottom," "Walkin' and Swingin'," "Cloudy," which it recorded three different times, and "The Lady Who Swings the Band," which was a much more accurate identification tag for Mary Lou than "The Pest." She also wrote one of the most popular instrumentals of the period, "Roll 'Em," a boogie-woogie type of opus, which Benny Goodman's band parlayed into a hit.
Kirk also featured a singer named Pha (pronounced "Fay") Terrell, who sang the vocal on the band's most commercial record, "Until the Real Thing Comes Along." Pha was a rather unctuous singer (some of us used to call him Pha "Terrible"), but he knew how to sell a song. Less commercial but much more musical was another Kirk vocalist, Lunceford alumnus Henry Wells, who also played trombone and arranged, and who, for me, was one of the truly outstanding band singers of all time. (His "I'll Get By" and "Why Can't We Do It Again?" were especially outstanding.) His was a very smooth, musical style, and what he may have lacked in showmanship, he more than made up for in his phrasing. Barry Ulanov, with whom I didn't always hear ear-to-ear on singers, described Wells in the November, 1941, Metronome as "a remarkable, indeed a unique singer, quite unlike any other in popular music. He sings softly, gets a crooning tone, but Henry doesn't croon. He sings with all his voice, he's always got the control for the subtle dynamics of truly rich singing. . . . He is an expressive singer with a lovely voice, a smart musical head . . . who's absolutely untouched in the business." I agreed completely.
Kirk varied his fare between ballads and jazz. The latter department was strengthened considerably both musically and commercially in 1939 by the addition of guitarist Floyd Smith, whose sensuous, insinuating version of "Floyd's Guitar Blues" became one of the band's most attractive assets. Andy also brought June Richmond into the band at about the same time, and the vivacious, carefree, ever-rhythmic singer added much aural and visual color.
The band was especially impressive in theaters. Here it would run through its well-prepared routines in truly professional fashion, with Kirk, who paced his programs exceedingly well, presiding over the festivities like a father immensely proud of his brood—happy, somewhat reserved, but definitely in charge at all times.
Musicians enjoyed playing for Kirk, and it was no wonder that some of the younger, better stars worked for him even though the pay could never have been very high. When Mary Lou left in 1942, Kenny Kersey took her place. Don Byas and later Al Sears came in to fill Dick Wilson's tenor chair, while several future trumpet stars, Hal (Shorty) Baker, Howard McGhee and Fats Navarro, all played in the Kirk brass section.
Andy was generous in the way he featured his men. Perhaps he was a bit too generous, a bit too lenient, believing, as he must have, that the best music comes from relaxed musicians. The potential for one of the great bands remained with the group throughout the years, and yet Kirk never quite realized that potential, perhaps because he could never quite create the musical militancy that in one form or another drove the most successful bands to the top.
When big bands started to fade from the scene, Andy went with them. But, unlike many other leaders, he found various other things to do. One of the most respected men in his community, he managed Harlem's Hotel Theresa for many years, settled into real estate for a while, then became a pillar of New York's musicians local. Throughout it all, he remained the same gentle and kind man whom we all admired so much.
Who said "Nice guys finish last"?”
The following video offers a sampling of the Andy Kirk Big Band’s “beat” as June Richmond swings out with Cuban Boogie Woogie. Mary Lou Williams is also featured on piano.