Early jazz musicians were a varied lot but were often drawn from the ranks of the less fortunate side of society. Many grew up in urban areas filled will poor blacks or immigrants and others came from the depressed rural areas that were home to many hard-scrabble folks. But there were exceptions to the rule of humble beginnings, and during the swing era the best known of those was probably Charlie Barnet, the bandleader who was born a millionaire.
Charlie was born to a wealthy New York family and had the proverbial silver spoon firmly in place, but as he grew up he exchanged it for the mouthpiece of a saxophone. By the time he was in his late teens he was leading a band and performing professionally. It was the beginning of a life that revolved around music and a lifestyle that was the envy of many.
In the 1930’s the jazz scene was exploding with new sounds and new stars. Charlie loved it and he took to it like a duck to water. As he grew to adulthood he lived a life of touring and playing anywhere he could, while continuing his other favorite pastime — enjoying the company of beautiful ladies. However, he was always serious about his music, and eventually became adept on several woodwinds while waiting for his band to attract some attention.
Charlie always loved the hot music of the black jazz bands, and his group emulated the sound of Duke Ellington and Count Basie so well that they became known as the the “blackest of the white bands”, a high compliment from jazz lovers. He even began to employ some black musicians, and along with Benny Goodman, helped integrate the industry.
Having a rich bandleader meant that the band could be a little more independent than most about the kind of music they played, but Charlie still wanted to hit it big, and success eluded him at first. However, his fortunes reversed in 1939 when he and the band released their biggest hit, “Cherokee”, and they continued to be a hot band and churn out hits all through the war years. Another big seller, one of my favorites, was “Skyliner”.
He continued to find success for a while in the post-war years but eventually began to evolve into a different type of musical existence. He gave up the fast-paced life of touring and recording with a band, which might have been wise because the big bands were fading during this period, and began to perform off and on will smaller groups. He explored newer sounds, including bebop, and still found time to pursue the ladies — and often ending up marrying them. By some accounts, he was married 11 times.
For the balance of his life, Charlie was sometimes musically active in one way or another, but was mostly a part-timer, and in his later years he suffered from Alzheimer’s. He died in 1991, at the age of 77.