I figure that I owe my affection for Big Band music to Glen Gray — or maybe it would be more accurate say that I owe it in equal parts to him and my old buddy Louie. He was a high school friend of mine — Louie, not Glen — and we would sometimes go down to his basement and listen to music on his home-brew “hi-fi”, while chomping on the butter-drenched popcorn his mom would make for us.
Louie knew music — he could play three instruments and was in both the school marching band and the dance band — and he had cobbled together some mis-matched components and made a pretty good hi-fi system. I think he had taken a turntable out of an old console radio/record-player (remember those?) and replaced the cartridge and needle with a more modern version, then wired it up with an amp and a big old speaker he’d salvaged from somewhere. This was before stereo became the norm — at least in our limited arena — but his rig sounded both loud and good.
I’d heard some Big Band music on our old 78 rpm record player at home but had dismissed it as the stuff my parents grew up with, sort of like the Hit Parade tunes that bored me silly. Early rock and roll was not really to my taste and I hadn’t yet discovered modern jazz, so I was musically adrift. However, when Louie put on his new album of Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, it really opened my eyes (actually my ears) and I was an instant fan, not only of the band but of the whole genre.
Glen was just one of the sax players in the Casa Loma orchestra, which was formed around 1929 as a cooperative group, but as time passed and bandleaders began to become big stars he was elected to be the front man. It turned into the best gig of his life, although in the early years he still spent a lot of his time in his chair in the sax section. The band was successful for many years, with a solid and professional sound that yielded a number of hits, and Glen ended up as one of the big names in Swing.
Many years after the group had ceased to exist as a touring band he reconstructed the group as a studio band, using some of the same guys and adding a few new ones. They then brought out some of their most successful albums, a series of records on the Capitol label that paid tribute to many of the bands of the Swing era, recreating their biggest hits almost note for note. The first of those, Sounds of the Great Bands, was the album Louie played for me that night in his basement.
To give you a taste of Glen’s music, I’m going to start with a song from the re-issue of that original LP, which was renamed Swinging Sounds of the Great Bands. It’s a tune with an infectious beat, made famous by Bobby Sherwood’s band, “Elks’ Parade”. Then I’m going to fudge a little and pull a song from a different album (Glen Gray’s Greatest) because I wanted to include one of the Casa Loma orchestra’s own hits. It’s the band’s theme song, “Smoke Rings”.