One of the most fascinating stories of the big band era would have to be that of bandleader Jan Savitt. A Russian immigrant with a few holes in the story of his origin, as a child he was a prodigy on the violin but ended up leading his own very popular swing band — and was still a young man when he died while touring with that band.
Born sometime between 1907 and 1913 in either Shumsk or Petrograd, young Jacob Savetnick lived in a country that was going through some tumultuous times. His father was a musician in the Tsar’s Imperial Regiment Band, and the approaching Russian revolution might have had something to do with the family emigrating to the United States around 1914.
Not surprisingly for the son of a musician, young Jacob received a classical music education. By the time he’d reached his teens he was showing so much talent on the violin that he was accepted into the Philadelphia Orchestra.
As he grew into adulthood, he continued in a musical career but his focus gradually changed. His first national exposure was as part of a string quartet that appeared regularly on the radio, but by the late 1930s he’d decided to form his own orchestra and veer into the world of pop music.
Calling his band the Top Hatters, Savitt began to build a following among the era’s music fans. Employing his considerable skills as composer and arranger, he soon was the leader of a polished ensemble that was distinguished by something called ‘shuffle rhythm’, which included double-time piano play. Pieces like the band’s theme song, “Quaker City Jazz,” “It’s a Wonderful World,” and its biggest hit, “720 In The Books,” — all written by Savitt — sold a lot of records for the group.
The band continued to flourish through the war years, with its instrumental excellence matched by some solid vocalists. Even Savitt did a little singing, but regular stars included Carlotta Dale., Gloria DeHaven, and George “Bon Bon” Tunnell, one of the first black singers to join a white group.
In the post-war years the group continued to do well, but things came to an abrupt end in 1948 when Savitt unexpectedly died while the band was on tour. The cause of death was given as cerebral hemorrhage, and his age at the time was a little uncertain, but in any case it was too soon to lose such a talent.