Tag Archives: Bob Crosby

Celebrating Bob Crosby’s Birthday and His Big Band with a Lesser Known Number

In honor of Bob Crosby‘s birthday, here’s a side that’s probably not as familiar as “South Rampart Street Parade,” “Big Noise from Winnetka” or other tunes usually associated with his band:

At a time when most big bands were taking their cues from Harlem, Bob Crosby and His Orchestra found inspiration by looking a little further back to Chicago and New Orleans. The band was fairly popular during the swing era despite (or maybe because of) their allegiances to earlier repertoire and styles, yet this side is an intriguing hybrid. The tune was written by Jimmy McHugh for a New York revue and primarily associated with Duke Ellington. The arrangement includes riff choruses, which were more prevalent in charts by Crosby’s more “modern” contemporaries, as well as a lowdown, killer-diller feel vaguely reminiscent of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Goodman’s famous recording had been released a little over a year earlier. The Crosby band might have been trying to cash in on the continued success of similar numbers.

Whatever influences were at work, Crosby’s ensemble keeps its identity with deliciously reedy textures, a powerful but warm trumpet section and the outstanding rhythm team of bassist/arranger Bob Haggart and drummer Ray Bauduc laying down a beat that’s nothing like Goodman, Basie or any of their contemporaries. Solos from Warren Smith’s blistering trombone and Bob Zurke’s labyrinthine piano, as well as a typically liquid reflection from clarinetist Irving Fazola and criminally underrated tenor saxophonist Eddie Miller wailing away also make this an utterly Crosbyesque performance. Perhaps most importantly, it swings like crazy!

There’s too much here for me to capture in any cogent fashion.  Enjoy the music.

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Remembering Bob Zurke

Bob Zurke at the Paramount Theater, New York City, 1939

Bob Zurke collapsed while playing his regular gig at the Hangover Club in Los Angeles sixty-seven years ago today.  Alcoholism and the worst excesses of life on the road had taken their toll on the pianist, culminating with pneumonia and his death the following day.  While most photographs show a much older man with a worn down face, Zurke had just turned thirty-two.

What photographs don’t highlight are the hands behind the wild pianism Zurke left behind on records.  Born to Polish immigrants on January 17, 1912 in Michigan, by sixteen Boguslaw Albert Zukowski was professional pianist “Bob Zurke,” whose small hands and short fingers didn’t lend themselves to the wide intervals of stride piano.  Blessed with talent, imagination and a genetic dispensation to go his own way, Zurke would spin wildly intricate independent lines on the keyboard, as though separating both hemispheres of his brain and then instigating a fight between the two of them.

Gunther Schuller describes a “dynamic hurricane-like force…light years removed from the polite babbling of most 1930s band pianists.”  To be fair, when compared to the swinging polyphony on “Diga Diga Doo” with the Bob Crosby orchestra, any pianist would sound reserved:

The bulk of Zurke’s all-too-brief career was spent with like-minded musical individualists in the Crosby band, which brought the warmth and stomp of New Orleans into the Swing Era.   Zurke’s best work with the Crosby group combines brassy exclamations reminiscent of Earl Hines, the rich counterpoint of the Baroque and the sheer “wow” factor of virtuosos and athletes alike.  On the usually twee “Tea for Two,” Zurke adds a childlike sense of mirth, like a kid superimposing dirty limericks onto a nursery tune:

Features with the Crosby band such as “Little Rock Getaway” and “Yancey Special” show him to be a uniquely room-rumbling boogie woogie stylist.  Yet ironically Zurke’s most impressive, and personal, boogie on record (and coincidentally his last recording) is the accompaniment for the 1944 cartoon “Jungle Jive” (enjoy the music and avert the eyes from the dated, offensive visuals):

Zurke’s solos would occasionally start to ramble, and his intricate lines weren’t always well served by the recording techniques of his time.  Musically that was about all all he had in common with most of his colleagues.  Unfortunately Zurke did share many musicians’ taste for living hard and fast.  After leaving Crosby and briefly leading his own big band, Zurke gigged around Chicago and Detroit before settling, and falling, in Los Angeles.

Bob Zurke, Detroit, 1937

Crosby bandmate Bob Haggart recalled “You could hear only a bar or two, and you’d know it was Bob Zurke.”  The late George Shearing admitted “He always amazed me,” and Dick Sudhalter said Shearing was capable of an “uncanny” imitation of Zurke’s piano.  Yet an early death, modest discography and idiosyncratic style don’t always allow much of a legacy or influence beyond collectors and specialists.  Unlike some other alcoholic martyrs of jazz, Zurke’s story just seems sad, not romantic: a one-of-a-kind voice, destroyed by his vices and largely forgotten.

And then there’s the music.  Is there anything those hands couldn’t do?

For more about Bob Zurke, check out Bill Edwards’ well-researched, loving biography of Zurke here.

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