Tag Archives: The Swing Era

A Heavy Gig Bag And A Thick Phone Book: Larry Binyon In The Thirties

This post is another installment of my continuing series on the music and life of Larry Binyon. Feel free to read previous posts about why I’m covering Binyon, how he started out, his first records with Ben Pollack or the greater solo space he received away from Pollack, or just read on…

U.S. Census records state that in April 1930, Larry Binyon was renting a room in his hometown of Urbana, Illinois. Jazz discography shows that by this time, said “saxophonist” working in the industry of “orchestra” (a federal category, or Binyon’s own prestigious description?) was firmly settled in New York City.

Red Nichols Photo care of Stephen Hester

Red Nichols (care of Stephen Hester)

Binyon had stopped recording with popular bandleader Ben Pollack by mid January 1930, but his big sound is clearly audible in the sax section of Sam Lanin’s band on several dates from March through May of that year. A careless census taker may have counted Binyon while he was in town for his mother’s wedding to her second husband. It’s also possible that the twenty-two year old sideman simply neglected to change his address. He was certainly busy enough: his post-Pollack resume reads like a directory of the most popular names in jazz and popular music of the time. He was also working alongside the cream of New York’s musical crop. With Lanin alone, Binyon got to record with Tommy Dorsey, Miff Mole, Manny Klein, Leo McConville and Al Duffy.

He was also part of the veritable all-star band that Red Nichols assembled for the Broadway musical “Girl Crazy.” Binyon had already worked with the trumpeter and booker on a few sessions, including large, symphonic jazz sessions where he doubled flute, oboe and clarinet. Composer George Gershwin wanted a jazz band for “Girl Crazy.” Nichols assembled Pollack alumni Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Charlie and Jack Teagarden as well as drummer Gene Krupa among others. Binyon isn’t usually mentioned as being part of the group, but neither are several other players needed to fill out the band. Binyon’s familiarity with the other players as well as his ability to read and double would have made him a welcome addition to this (or any other) pit.

“Girl Crazy” opened on October 14, 1930. Nine days later Nichols recorded two tunes from the show with several members of the band, including Binyon. Binyon doesn’t get to solo on “I Got Rhythm,” and “Embraceable You” doesn’t leave much room to distinguish any of the musicians. It’s unclear whether Binyon would have preferred more solo opportunities, but he must have been more than used to an ensemble role by this point.

Binyon continued recording with Nichols and Lanin as well as Benny Goodman on some of the clarinetist and future swing powerhouse’s earliest sessions leading a big band in 1931. Goodman assigns Binyon straight, almost dutiful melodic statements on both “I Don’t Know Why” and “Slow But Sure.” He also gets a flowery flute lead on “What Am I Gonna’ Do For Lovin’?” switching to tenor sax as well as a darker tone and more swinging approach for a duet with Goodman on the last chorus:

Given Goodman’s disagreements with Pollack while in his band, it may seem ironic that both bandleaders took a similar approach to Binyon’s role. Yet by the time Goodman began leading bands, that role may not have necessarily reflected Binyon’s abilities as a soloist. Solo space on jazz and dance records grew increasingly limited during the early thirties. Depression-era listeners preferred more sedate pop arrangements to driving hot jazz numbers. Even with the most exciting soloists on hand (Goodman’s 1931 bands included the likes of Bunny Berigan and Eddie Lang), many studio dates from this period stay fairly tame. Binyon may have had a varied toolkit, but his bosses may have needed one specific device.

The joy in listening to a sideman like Binyon is not just listening for when he pops up but what he gets to do. When a band did get to cut loose, for example Roger Wolfe Kahn’s orchestra performing “Shine On Your Shoes,” Binyon could throw down a hot solo on tenor sax:

or use his brawny sound to heat up even straight melodies like “Sweet And Hot” with Nichols:

Binyon’s flute could add the requisite touch of sweetness and refinement as needed. It could also bring an unusual color to up-tempo numbers like “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” with the Charleston Chasers:

The combination of the Binyon’ flute with ensemble syncopations and Krupa’s drums points to more than just a sweet context. Musicologist and historian Gunther Schuller mentions Binyon’s flute as well as Glenn Miller’s arrangement as examples of a sound “well beyond the normal dividing lines between commercial dance music and late twenties jazz.”

Along with Albert Socarras (who had soloed on flute as early as 1929 on “Have You Ever Felt That Way?” with Clarence Williams) and Wayman Carver, Binyon was one of the first to bring the flute into a jazz context. His smoky introduction to the Boswell Sisters’ “Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia” must have made musicians and bandleaders reconsider the possibilities of this instrument in a jazz setting:

In addition to the Boswells, Binyon accompanied vocalists Grace Johnston, Phil Danenberg, Dick Robertson, Chick Bullock, Mildred Bailey and Ethel Waters during the early thirties. He was usually backing these singers alongside member of the same circle of top-notch New York musician that he would have known very well by this point. He impressed Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey enough to land work with their band.  At this point the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra was a smaller studio band, allowing Binyon room to solo on instrumentals such as “Mood Hollywood”:

and “Old Man Harlem”:

It’s unclear exactly what type of work Binyon landed outside of the studios during the early thirties. Arranger Don Walker recalls Binyon playing in the band for Hit Parade of 1933 as well as “first (legitimate) flute” in the 1935 musical Maywine. Walker and his copyist Romo Falk excitedly noted Binyon’s presence (expressing similar accolades for Binyon’s section mate, Artie Shaw).

Binyon played with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra for one month in 1936 before moving onto radio work, including jobs under Red Nichols’ direction, as well as other work outside of an expressly jazz context. It was around this time that Binyon also married his first wife, Polly. Seven years younger than Larry, she was born in Puerto Rico and living in Syracuse by 1935, before marrying Larry some time before 1940. The steadier work and more regular hours of radio may have eased his transition to married life, or vice-versa. Binyon even had time for a trip to Bermuda (though it is unclear whether it was for work, honeymoon or one last bachelor outing).

Binyon also did sax section work on jazz dates with Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Bob Zurke and Dick McDonough during the mid to late thirties. McDonough was an experienced, well-connected guitarist who had his pick of sidemen for the few sessions he ever directed during 1936 and 1937. Binyon was on hand for two of McDonough’s dates, getting in some paraphrases as well as a quick-fingered, slightly more modern solo on “He Ain’t Got Rhythm”:

At this stage Binyon had the reputation as well as the chops to work in a variety of settings alongside some of the best players in New York. He even found the time to change his address: by 1940, one Larry Binyon, now a “musician” in the “orchestra” industry, was officially living in New York City.

1940 US Census per AncestryDotCom

I have hyperlinked to all sources but also wanted to personally thank the Red Nichols historian, Mr. Stephen Hester. His generosity of knowledge and time filled in many blanks when it came to Binyon’s work with Nichols. The next Larry Binyon post will focus on Binyon’s move to a behind-the-scenes role in music as well as his final years and legacy.

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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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