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Bing Crosby: The Jazz Artist

Despite his long-standing identification with Christmas, Bing Crosby was a jazz performer at his core. Brought into a high school jazz-dance band because he was a drummer, his vocal stylings quickly emerged as the best in the group. When the group disbanded, Crosby continued singing. His earliest experience was singing in a duo in his hometown of Spokane, WA, and then later as part of a trio with The Rhythm Boys and with "The King Of Jazz," the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, which allowed Bing to sing the popular songs of the day - many of which were songs, if not jazz in origin, that were adapted for a jazz-dance tempo and popular in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Award-winning biographer, Gary Giddins tells at that " a younger boy named Al Rinker sealed Bing's fate, asking him to play drums in his five-piece dance band. When the other fellows in the group, the Musicaladers, heard him sing, they didn't much care how he played the drums. Even at that age, Bing had a mellifluous, solid baritone with good range, a steady sense of time, and a casual charm. With his uncanny memory, Bing could learn songs after hearing them once, though he never learned to read music." Mature jazz musicians today are all aware of Crosby’s sense of rhythm and "time," and his ability to be "on the one."

Crosby made some 100 recordings with the Whiteman jazz organization, many of these while touring cross-country with the band. As the orchestra traveled, band members roomed with jazz musicians, and Bing’s roommate was the talented and tormented Bix Beiderbecke from whom many of Bing’s earliest scats and improvisations sourced. When jazz musicians were on the road, they inevitably would check out the competition. Bing and the band heard Louis Armstrong in December 1926 in a Chicago after-hors jazz club, and Bing’s sound was changed forever. Armstrong and Crosby became life-long friends from this initial meeting. Crosby invited Armstrong numerous times on his radio program and in his films as well as duetting with him on a number of Decca Recordings.

Crosby also recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1930, something unheard of in those days when white jazz musicians and black jazz musicians kept their recordings separate, although they jammed together in after-hour clubs.

Crosby’s robust jazz phrasing on such early Whiteman recordings as "Muddy Water," "Ol’ Man River," So The Bluebirds And The Blackbirds Got Together," and "After You’ve Gone" caught the attention of club owners in Los Angeles. Crosby earned his independence from The Rhythm Boys and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and began a solo recording career at Brunswick Records and was featured with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and the Gus Arnheim Band. At this time, he duetted with the Boswell Sisters and the Mills Brothers. Among Bing’s most popular recordings of this period include: "Dinah" (with The Mills Brothers), "Some Of These Days," "St. Louis Blues" (with the Duke Ellington Orchestra), and "Sweet Georgia Brown." Bing often scatted or whistled on the recordings of this era, and his improvisational harmonies with other vocalists are second to none.

After having been on radio programs based on the West Coast with Whiteman and The Rhythm Boys, Bing was offered a featured solo program that was broadcast nationwide on September 1931. His popular songs were featured on the show as Bing was accompanied by his friend, former Whiteman band mate and jazz guitarist, Eddie Lang. Bing’s foray into radio proved to be fruitful and he was asked to host the "Kraft Music Hall" on NBC Radio. It’s during this time that Bing’s contract with Brunswick expired and he signed with a new label, Decca Records.

Bing’s repertoire moved from purely jazz-influenced to a much broader style of American music that embraced holiday, Irish, cowboy, ballads, gospel/inspirational, patriotic, Spanish, French, country, and the spoken-word. However, when given a chance, Bing jumped at the opportunity to sing the latest jazz tune from the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, and Johnny Burke/Jimmy Van Heusen and used the recording as part of a film soundtrack or a two-sided 78. Several of the recordings were duets with Louis Armstrong, the Andrew Sisters, Louis Jordan, Lee Wiley, his brother Bob Crosby, who led a successful jazz/Dixieland organization, and later Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, and his eldest son, Gary who usually took a turn-of-the-last century ditty into a swinging jazz novelty tune.

In the mid-1950s, big Hollywood studios were going through a major shift in how films were made and distributed so just as Bing’s contract with Paramount lapsed and his recording contract with Decca was retired, he continued on radio and moved from a weekly 30-minute big band centered variety show to a daily 15-minute radio program with a jazz combo, an announcer, and Bing as the only guest. He pioneered the use of audio tape, being the first radio star to record his programs for airplay rather than hosting them live, which he would have needed to do twice each time - one for the eastern portion of the nation and the second for the western portion.

Bing employed top-notch engineers and writers for his production team, and created the programs which are the source of the new Mosaic Records box set "The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings 1954-56. Freed from comedy routines created to please in-studio audiences as well as radio listeners with the use of pre-recorded shows seemed to channel Bing Crosby’s energies into the joyful renditions of over 180 different songs used in this two-year radio program. His accompaniment was by pianist Buddy Cole, formerly of the John Scott Trotter organization - the band that supported Bing on the radio for 20 years, and his Trio who were studio musicians that had a long history of recording sessions with the top jazz performers in their day.

Crosby continued on the radio until 1962. His last program had a two-year run at a 20-minute daily (pre-recorded) program with co-star and family friend Rosemary Clooney. Bing who married Kathryn Grant in 1957 after his first wife Dixie Lee died in 1952, looked forward to semi- retirement and slowed his film activities in the 1960s and ‘70s to a mere handful of films. Having already proven himself as a fine actor and receiving an Oscar for his lead role in Going My Way, Bing became a frequent guest and even host on television shows, but cherished his private time with his young wife and their three very young children. The senior gentleman Crosby often spent his time golfing, hunting or fishing with a number of friends including jazz bandleader Phil Harris, both of whom would sometimes show up on television on a sporting program, improvising lyrics to a jazz tune in a capella while frying up freshly caught fish.

Bing Crosby was a jazz musician. A jazz influence can be heard in his syncopated rhythms whether the song was written as a jazz piece or as a romantic ballad. Scatting, whistling, harmonizing, vamping lyrics, and with attention to the beat, Bing kept in touch with his earliest jazz influences and carried him to making some jazz albums in the 1950s and to his latest product by Mosaic Records.

*All information for the content of this article was provided by Bing Crosby Enterprises. A very big thank you to everyone on Bing‘s team.

Bing Crosby’s Awards:

23 Gold Records

1937 - Academy Award for the song "Sweet Leilani" from Waikiki Wedding

1942 - Academy Award for the song "White Christmas" from Holiday Inn

1944 - Academy Award for playing "Father Chunk O’Malley" in Going My Way

1944 - Academy Award for the song "Swinging On A Star" from Going My Way

1951 - Academy Award the song "In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening" from Here Comes The Groom

1959 - Cecil B. DeMille Award®

1962 - Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award

1970 - Peabody Award® for his contributions to television

1973 - Award of Merit from the American Music Awards

1998 - Bing Crosby is inducted into the Radio Hall Of Fame

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Bing Crosby
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