Comprehensive Biography Celebrates the Centennial of Tommy Dorseys Birth
There was a time when Big Bands ruled the land: brass bands string bands swing bands dance bands sweet bands and eventually even jazz bands. For a while live band music was a national pastime local entertainment and the backbone of radio and television. Tommy Dorsey: Livin" in a Great Big Way by Peter J. Levinson is a definitive new biography focusing on a definitive Big Band leader. Tommy Dorsey (born 1905 died 1956) was one of the era's greatest trombone players and one of the most prolific and powerful leaders. Not bad for a kid with small-town coal-mining roots.
Levinson is nothing if not a meticulous researcher. In his introduction he thanks 173 people for interviews. Fortunately for all of us his work paid off. Sticking close to the chronological facts of Dorsey's life Levinson surfaces many memorable anecdotes. Dorsey's life was an interesting enough story arc but aside from that the book lacks any real literary pizzazz. Of course it's up to you whether that's good or bad. Maybe you're a purist who prefers the facts straight up. Who can forget the heat Ken Burns took for his narrative storytelling approach to jazz history? No matter how you look at it Livin" in a Great Big Way with it's detailed text and 35 rare photographs is by far the most comprehensive record of Tommy Dorsey ever compiled and likely will remain. Combined with the concurrent CD box set The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing you could call yourself a Tommy Dorsey expert.
Plenty of space is devoted to Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's volatile relationship. The Dorsey brothers took sibling rivalry to historic proportions. Their hard-driving father was the most important factor in their early musical pursuits. This is one aspect of the story bad Levinson could have fleshed out more. On the topic of fathers he was refreshingly frank about Dorsey's failures as a family man. Dorsey like so many "empire builders" of his generation spent all his time and energy on career pursuits. Though the music world remembers Tommy Dorsey fondly his children and wives mostly do not.
But what he accomplished for swing music is nothing short of remarkable. He played with Bing Crosby and Glenn Miller; he employed Gene Krupa and launched the career of Frank Sinatra. The love/hate relationship between those two is presented here in splendid detail. Speaking of fights a great one occurred between Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman during the making of the 1947 Goldwyn movie A Song Is Born and was broken up by none other than Louie Armstrong himself. Can you imagine?
Though their split led to two famous swing bands Tommy and Jimmy eventually reunited as the Fabulous Dorseys ready to take on the world. Tommy's friendship with Jackie Gleason enabled them to host the popular CBS TV series Stage Show from 1954-1956. It was while laughing at this program that Charlie Parker suffered his fatal heart attack. On another historic night the Dorseys introduced the world to a young singer named Elvis Presley.
Tommy Dorsey: Livin" in a Great Big Way contains some great descriptions of Plunkett's the New York City white jazz headquarters. A less honest author might have glossed over the difficult issue of race relations but Levinson tells it like it was. Just like Benny Goodman with his rousing Fletcher Henderson arrangements Dorsey knew what the dancers wanted. He did what was necessary to integrate his band literally and musically. Though Dorsey was compelled more by financial gain than moral responsibility he was nonetheless ahead of his time for employing African Americans Sy Oliver as arranger and Charlie Shavers whom Dorsey considered "the greatest trumpeter of them all." Whenever possible Dorsey sent his musicians to see Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie "to see how things are done." The lessons they learned launched America's very first youth movement. Levinson provides in-depth analysis of the whole Swing phenomenon.
Though he could be notoriously fastidious moody addictive and vindictive Dorsey possessed a side that was equally warm and generous. Prominent big band musician Louis Bellson recounted playing somewhere in the South when five large men with baseball bats came for Charlie Shavers. Tommy met them at the end of the bandstand and said "If you guys don't get out of here I'm going to wrap this trombone right around all your necks."
Music historians insist Tommy Dorsey played very little jazz a fact he openly admitted. Even so he was a mighty king of the jazz era. Levinson's writing is equally nostalgic and honest. He acknowledges that things have changed; the life and times of Tommy Dorsey could never happen again. Flea Campbell who is still second trumpet and road manager for the Tommy Dorsey band describes the current scene "It's mostly senior citizensùpeople who think they remember Tommy Dorsey but they probably don't. Let's face it; they're going to be gone soon. At one time I was optimistic but I'm not really anymore. There's no recording no television appearances no new bands. The only place to hear this music is when we do our concerts. Every time we play a concert there's a standing ovation at the end. There's nothing to take its place so when it's gone and when the audience is gone what's left?"
Tommy Dorsey: Livin" in a Great Big Way is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of swing jazz and it's major exponents.
-David Seymour is a freelance jazz journalist in Saint Louis Missouri USA.