Tag Archives: Los Angeles

Talent, Opportunity And Choice: Larry Binyon’s Legacy

From The Big Band Almanac by Leo WalkerThe All Music Guide states that Larry Binyon “needed someone to hold the door open for him when he arrived at a recording studio or radio broadcast date.” It’s an unsubstantiated anecdote but an accurate image. By the early thirties Binyon was, in violinist Harry Hoffman’s words, one of New York’s “first-call” studio musicians who could “play anything.” With his move to fulltime radio work in 1936, Binyon would have been playing his tenor sax, flute and oboe, probably clarinet (and possibly the “few fiddle credits” mentioned by AMG writer Eugene Chadbourne) in any number of musical settings.

While trombonist Larry Alpeter adds, “most of these [first-call] guys had fine jazz skills,” Binyon’s appearances on jazz records and already sparse solo spots dried up by the mid forties. He is one of two tenors on Billie Holiday’s 1944 Decca sessions with Toots Camarata’s orchestra, but it’s unclear whether Binyon or Paul Ricci handle the few brief solos on these recordings. Binyon is strictly an ensemble player on his final jazz session, with Jess Stacy’s big band in June 1945.

After close to twenty years of having his hands literally and figuratively full in New York City, Binyon moved to Los Angeles in 1946. Red Nichols expert Stephen Hester notes Binyon working with Nichols in California, this time in Bobby Dolan’s orchestra on The Ford Show (starring Dinah Shore) from September 18, 1946 through June 11, 1947. Yet Binyon had also relocated to work as a recording contractor for the American Federation of Musicians.

If Binyon was looking to segue into a “behind-the-scenes” role, the paucity of documents from this period indicates that he got his wish. Drummer Johnny Blowers does recall a February 8, 1950 session with Phil Harris organized by Binyon, but otherwise Binyon’s activities as an organizer are largely unrecorded. A new home, warmer climate and slower pace on the West Coast were probably a welcome change for him. It also would have allowed him more time with his son Claude (born in 1940 and named after Larry’s father).  Blowers actually secured the Harris date when he ran into Binyon in New York, who was on a vacation of all things.

Blowers also notes that Binyon was still playing with West Coast bands, though it must have been less hectic than the New York scene. Binyon frequently worked with Phil Harris in Los Angeles, previously co-writing “Bump On The Head Brown” for the entertainer along with Chauncey Morehouse and Frank Signorelli (now that would have been a trio!).

Binyon worked the 1952 and 1953 seasons of the Phil Harris and Alice Faye radio show alongside Nichols in Walter Scharf and Skippy Martin’s bands, recorded five numbers with Harris on December 27, 1953 for RCA Victor, packed his gig bag(s) for a tour of Asia in the early fifties and booked sessions for fellow players: it all must have been a breeze for this seasoned musician.

He seems to have stopped playing completely by 1955. Based on Binyon’s track record, that must have been by choice rather than necessity. His story fades even further after that decision: marriage to a second wife in Nevada in 1962 and then a third wife in California in 1966, followed by a divorce two years later. Larry Binyon passed away on February 10, 1974 (followed by his brother Hugh in 1978 and then son Claude in 1999, both of whom died childless).

Other than personnel listings and occasional mention by his contemporaries, most of whom are now also gone, Larry Binyon has faded into the background behind more famous names. It’s easy to make a comparison between his legacy and his work, but that would dismiss the talent that earned Binyon such fast company in the first place. How else does one get to play with everyone from Tommy Dorsey to Benny Goodman to Billie Holiday and Fats Waller?

for Phil Harris care of discogsdotcomBinyon’s versatility and sheer ubiquity may have actually helped force him into the background. Had he stuck to one or even two instruments, it might have been easier for bandleaders and listeners to remember him. Yet jumping between dozens of dance bands, jazz groups, studio ensembles and radio orchestras, covering a multiplicity of parts as the schedule demanded, always on hand to make every arranger’s’ whim seem like an easy task, it was easy to see Binyon was capable of anything but probably harder to associate him with one thing.

There are enough accolades to show that he wasn’t just any sideman, yet not enough solos to determine what kind of a jazz musician he was (in a world where “jazz” is synonymous with “soloist,” anyway). Depending on how one hears his music, Binyon either lacked the ability or opportunity to inspire followers (though musician and writer Digby Fairweather detects Binyon’s influence in Georgie Auld’s earliest performances). In the end, it’s hard to depict him as a “jazz artist” and inaccurate to dismiss him as some studio drone.

Depending on how one reads his story, Larry Binyon is either a neglected musician, or a person who made a life’s work doing something he was very good at and presumably enjoyed very much. Whatever the interpretation, his ability as well as his impact on jazz and/or/a.k.a. American popular music is undeniable. He was right there next to some of music’s greatest names, as much by his choice as theirs. Maybe Larry Binyon was simply exactly where he wanted to be.

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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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