I first learned the meaning of ‘segue’ while working as a young radio DJ in the early 1960s. The veteran broadcaster who was my boss would explain how the process of smoothly flowing from the end of one record into the beginning of the next would help avoid ‘dead air’, a forbidden sin for radio professionals. I understood the concept, even if I wasn’t always nimble enough to make it happen.
In the years since, I’ve noticed how the word is often used in a lot of different ways, but mostly to denote a smooth transition of some kind. In its phonetic spelling — segway — it has even been used as the name of a certain two-wheeled personal vehicle, presumably because it tranquilly flows from place to place?
In any case, while I was writing my last piece — the one about Eddie Peabody — I noticed that the banjo star had made a 1928 musical ‘soundie’ with bandleader Hal Kemp’s early group. (Video available HERE.) And so, in what I hope is a fairly smooth manner, let’s segue to the sweet sounds of the swing era.
In the heyday of the big bands, Kemp’s orchestra was one of the best of the ‘sweet’ bands. It was a style that was very different from the fast and furious sounds of ‘hot’ bands, but it was enormously popular with music fans at that time. Kemp became a master of the genre and would become a big star before his untimely death in 1940.
The Alabama-born Kemp was a talented saxophonist and clarinetist, and the early bands he led — beginning while he was still in college — were fast and adventurous. One group that was booked to play a cruise ship even attracted the attention of England’s Prince of Wales, who would later make headlines for his abdication. He enjoyed the jazz so much that he sat in on drums for a while, and the resultant publicity helped build the band’s fame.
For a number of years, Kemp and talented bandmates like Bunny Berigan and John Scott Trotter found some success with their brand of jazz, but by the 1930s the Depression began to affect the business. Eventually Kemp’s group evolved into a mostly sweet band, and sold a lot of records with songs like”Date With An Angel” and “The Night Is Filled With Music.” But he always had some of the best instrumenalists around and still enjoyed driving them with occasional harder-edged songs like “Swamp Fire.”
By the end of the decade, Kemp had one of the most successful bands around, and everything seemed to be breaking for him. He was even beginning to move his band back toward the kind of music he most enjoyed — hot jazz. Unfortunately, it all came to an end on a foggy night in 1940, when he collided with a truck as he drove to a booking in San Francisco.