Trombonist Jim Miller still remembers what it felt like in 1953 to be 18 years old and a new member of the Dorsey brothers band.
“I’d already been in Les Elgart’s band, and I thought I was the hottest thing since sliced bread,” the current director of the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra said by phone from his home in Daytona Beach, Fla. “Then I sat next to Tommy [Dorsey] in the trombone section, and I realized I knew nothing about the horn.”
In American popular music, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey achieved that too rare combination: musical sophistication and vast commercial appeal. Though the brothers went separate ways for most of their careers, they had great influence on the Swing Era, from the ‘20s through their deaths in the mid-'50s.
To Miller, who leads the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra on Sunday at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa as part of the band’s 60th anniversary tour, joining the Dorseys was the fulfillment of his dreams. “I had the honor of working for [Tommy], my idol on trombone, and Jimmy, who led the band I liked the most.”
Though the siblings split in 1935 and started their own bands, not to come together again until 1953, their impact on the music is linked hand-in-glove.
Tommy’s band included such notables as Bunny Berigan, Yank Lawson and Buddy Rich and such singers as Connie Haines, Jo Stafford and Frank Sinatra. Jimmy was regarded as one of the leading saxophonists of his time, whose influence was felt on such players as Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.
“Jimmy had a huge impact on anybody who held a saxophone in those days,” Miller said.
But, he added, the two brothers were like night and day. “Jimmy was the gentleman of gentlemen, the opposite of Tommy completely. Tommy was aggressive because he was a perfectionist, and of course he was hardest on himself. He always demanded that we give our best, plus 10% or 15%. Jimmy also demanded that, but he did it in a very laid-back style.”
In addition, Miller said, Jimmy was an immense practical joker. “Jimmy was doing a summer replacement show for Jackie Gleason, and the two of them got into a big argument. Words were exchanged, and Jimmy told Jackie what he thought of him.
“Jackie just shrugged it off and laughed,” he said. “Then Jackie went out to his place on the West Coast and got up one morning to find a jackass grazing in his yard. The message from Jimmy was loud and clear.”
The current 15-piece orchestra, with vocalist Nancy Knorr, pays tribute to both brothers with a variety of songs from their careers.
Knorr also does a tribute to Helen O’Connell, who, like Miller, joined the Dorsey band when she was a teenager. Between tunes, Miller talks about the history of the band; he promises to shed light on the famous public disagreement that led to the brothers’ 1935 musical split.
“We’ll do quite a few of their hits: ‘Maria Elena,’ ‘Amapola’ and Jimmy’s last great hit, ‘So Rare.’ They wouldn’t let us out of the place if we didn’t do ‘So Rare.’ ”
* The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra directed by Jim Miller plays Sunday at the Robert B. Moore Theatre, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. 4 p.m. $16-$18 (advance); $22 (at the door). (714) 432-5880.