Virtuoso’s music thrivesThe crowd was mainly gray, not graying, but gray and more than a few of them pushing into the big auditorium showed signs of infirmity — at least until the music began.
By: Dan Thomasson, The Dickinson Press
The crowd was mainly gray, not graying, but gray and more than a few of them pushing into the big auditorium showed signs of infirmity — at least until the music began. Then the toll of years began to give way to the memories of youth. Heads bobbed, shoulders shook, legs moved and for a moment it seemed that miraculously the aisles might suddenly be filled with jitterbugging couples the way it used to happen 70 years ago.
That was when a brilliant, appealing young trumpet virtuoso named Harry James left the pioneering legend of swing, Benny Goodman, to form and front his own orchestra that ultimately would rise to a jazz plane reserved for only a relative handful of others, producing a sound that was distinctly its own and recognizable the world over. Behind its founder’s instantly familiar soaring notes, a rock solid group of musicians made it among the most popular big bands in the world. Among the stars it launched was a skinny Italian kid from Hoboken, N.J., named Frank Sinatra.
And amazingly on the anniversary of its seventh decade, as it recently took the crowd on a nostalgic journey, it clearly had lost none of the charm and infectious verve that made it along with the Glenn Miller group the band of choice during World War II. From the opening notes of the old James theme “Ciribiribin” to the haunting “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” the 500 people in the audience never stopped moving in their seats, some with tears in their eyes.
Now directed by its former lead trumpet, the enormously talented and irrepressible Fred Radke, the James band is still packing them into concert halls around the globe nearly 90 months a year, sustaining the music that made James and others of the era household names and heroes to every young American, the rock stars of a generation that sorely needed the lift beset as it was by depression and war.
Why has the James band survived when the others have faded?
The obvious factor has been the Harry James Foundation, which owns the charts and is dedicated to preserving the legacy. The foundation’s directors named Radke as the band’s leader a number of years ago and it was that decision as much as anything that has kept it in front of the revivalist movement.
A player of great range and tone, with tremendous stage presence and vast experience including a stint with the old Miller organization led by Tex Benecke, Seattle-based Radke is a highly-respected music educator with a solid reputation among his jazz peers. Like James before him, he lights up whatever setting with good humor and versatility, singing now and then. Among his and the band’s assets has been his wife, Gina Funes, a noted jazz singer, who still travels much of the time, earning laudatory reviews from every performance.
That Radke still is only in his mid-60s despite years of acknowledged performance testifies to the youth of those sidemen and soloists whose music was among America’s strongest exports. Many were just in, or a year or two out, of their teens. But they learned from talented showmen who had persevered against huge odds to push jazz into the popular stratosphere.
One might find this a strange topic for someone who spends much of his time immersed in the Byzantine world of public affairs. But I began wondering where all the wartime music had gone. Since the bands at Yorktown played the “World Turned Upside Down,” each conflict except the two current ones has produced its own music. The Civil War often has been referred to as the “singing war” and the ballads of two world conflicts are still consoling us.
Perhaps the rock of today, unlike the stinging folk version of the Vietnam era, doesn’t lend itself to the urban warfare of Iraq and the rawness of Afghanistan. Maybe it is because those Americans fighting it are doing so out of choice and not conscription. If that is the case, it is sad because they and their loved ones are no less in need of the lift. Millions of GIs carried the strains of James’ golden trumpet in their hearts and a pinup picture of his movie star wife, Betty Grable, in their knapsacks as they marched into battle.
It is comforting to know that the music not only survives but also is also vibrantly alive and well.
— Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.