Big Bash Brings Back Big Bands

Bob Crosby remembers the first time he fronted a band. Following a stint vocalizing with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, Crosby was trying out with a new band on the stage of the Roseland Ballroom in New York City.

"I stood up there in front of the band," Crosby recalled in a recent interview, "and looked at the drummer, Ray Bauduc, and said, 'How do you lead a band?' "

Bauduc told Crosby to give two beats and assured him that the tempo would be set accordingly.

It worked, and Crosby, known to many as "Bing's kid brother," went on to lead the band, which became the Bob Crosby Orchestra in 1935.

'Dinosaur of the Big-Band Leaders'

Crosby, 74, who dubs himself "dinosaur of the big-band leaders," will be honored Sunday in Costa Mesa for a career spanning more than half a century both as vocalist and band leader. In the footsteps of Tex Beneke and Ray Anthony, Crosby will serve as grand marshal of the annual Musicians' Bash at the Red Lion Inn.

The bash will offer a musical menu to suit varied tastes: big-band swing and hot Dixieland as well as modern jazz and classical music. The musical marathon, featuring more than 300 musicians, will be held from noon until 10 p.m. in five rooms at the Red Lion, with groups being rotated each hour.

The jazz-room lineup includes Dewey Ernie, backed by a trio and vocalizing his renditions of Gershwin and Cole Porter; Burt Shur and Walter La Coda playing electronic jazz, and Bill Baker's 10-piece band playing original compositions by Baker.

Superstars and Ramblers

The Dixieland room will have groups such as George Carr's Superstars, Morey Levang's Dixie Rhythm Ramblers, Ray Lyons' Downey Dixie Ramblers and Frank Amoss' Mississippi Mudders.

The Ralph Gari Saxophone Quartet will offer classical music, while music to dance by will be provided by Al Latour's Big Band, Frank Amoss' Big Band, the Tracy Wells Big Swing Band and the Tex Beneke Orchestra, among others.

Beginning at 6 p.m., Crosby will pay tribute to his original group when he leads the 15-piece Amoss band in some Dixieland-style arrangements from his big-band heyday. "Everyone played so beautifully in my band," he recalls. "That's one of the reasons I want to go to the bash. I had four of my boys pass away in the last six months.

"It was a wonderful experience having a band and being together. . . . Everyone loved one another and it was easy. . . . The only thing that broke us up was the war, because (most) everybody went into the service.

"We took Dixieland out of the honky-tonks," Crosby added, "and took it into theaters, concert halls, college proms and radio programs."

Band members Bobby Haggart and Matty Matlock adapted Dixieland arrangements to a 15-piece band instead of the traditional eight- or nine-piece Dixieland band.

Played With Crosby

Amoss, chairman of the bash, played with Crosby in the '60s, before organizing his own band. He says the Crosby-band approach to Dixieland gave a more powerful sound to the music.

"The first words that come to mind," Amoss says, "are fun and happy. It's happy music. It's spirited."

Tex Beneke, another bash participant who intends to keep playing "as long as I can pick up the saxophone and find a good reed," will lead his band at 8 p.m.

(Beneke and friends are donating their time Sunday to help raise funds for the Welfare and Scholarship Fund of the Orange County Chapter of the American Federation of Musicians.)

Beneke, 74, in a recent conversation, recalled his first gig with Glenn Miller in Boston on April 16, 1938.

A "newcomer" named Artie Shaw was playing a few blocks away, and also playing nearby was drummer Chick Webb's band. "He had a fine swinging band," Beneke says, "and a little girl sitting on the bandstand--just singing up a storm and pleasing everybody--by the name of Ella Fitzgerald."

Miller was killed during World War II; in 1946, Beneke reorganized the Miller band and toured the country. He remembers one theater where a young usher begged to be given a chance as a vocalist. Beneke explained that he simply couldn't use another singer. "I've been kicking myself ever since," Beneke says with a laugh, "because the guy turned out to be Vic Damone."

Beneke says his orchestra still plays a Glenn Miller-style of music because people love it and "because his name today is bigger than it ever was and it seems to be growing all the time."

Brighter Future

Now, more than 50 years have passed and Beneke feels the future of big bands is looking up. "I think it's growing all the time because every place we play, we're getting more and more young people. And they're dancing together. They've discovered what they've been missing. . . . And a lot of them are discovering also that they don't need all of that volume that rockers use . . . and they've found out that a vocalist can be understood and it's not all just 'Oh yeah, baby. I love you, baby. Baby, I love you.' There's more to lyrics than just that."

Musicians' Bash: Sunday, noon-10 p.m., Red Lion Inn, 3050 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Admission is $10 and tickets are available at the door.

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