Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Dorsey, Tommy (Thomas Francis Jr.)
Tommy Dorsey was one of the first jazz trombonists to convey meaning and intention with every note he played. Best known for his pure tone, impeccable vibrato, long phrasing and ease in the upper register, Dorsey was also one of the few trombonists - or jazz musicians, for that matter - of his generation to achieve both fame and financial success.
While Dorsey was known to dislike of improvisation and modern jazz, his flawless technique and dedication to his instrument earned him respect among peers, which has endured among subsequent generations of jazz trombonists. His lyrical ballad playing, exemplified by his signature song "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," set a standard for expressive interpretation on the instrument.
An astute businessman with a keen eye for talent, Dorsey's band launched the careers of many popular musicians, including trumpeters Bunny Berigan and Carl "Doc" Severinsen, singer Jo Stafford, drummers Louie Bellson and Buddy Rich, and, most famously, singer Frank Sinatra.
Thomas Francis Dorsey Jr. was born in Shanendoah, Pennsylvania on November 27, 1905. His father was a coal mine worker and local community bandleader who insisted that his two sons, Tommy and his older brother Jimmy, become musicians in order to escape the harsh economic realities of life in rural Pennsylvania. Extremely demanding and at times physically abusive, Dorsey Sr. insisted they practice many hours a day.
His mother, Theresa Dorsey, also supported his father's ambitions for their future. Tommy claimed these demands led him to develop a technique of playing the trombone slide with his bare foot, so he could turn the pages of his comic books while he practiced. Both brothers began on the trumpet, but fierce sibling rivalry led Jimmy to take up the alto saxophone and other woodwinds, and Tommy to the trombone.
Jimmy began performing with local musical acts as early as 1913, and by 1920 had established himself with the Scranton Sirens, a leading regional band. When trombonist Russ Morgan left the band a few years later, Jimmy arranged for Tommy, who had just married at age 17, to join the group as his replacement.
The Sirens were brought to New York City in the spring of 1923, where the brothers made their first recording. When Jimmy left New York to join Jean Goldkette's band in Detroit, Tommy soon followed. The brothers returned to New York in 1925 to play with the California Ramblers.
For the next few years, Tommy Dorsey bounced between New York and the Midwest, and he recorded frequently. One example of this early work is his 1925 recording "Davenport Blues" with cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. Dorsey doesn't play a very prominent role in the arrangement, but his strong presence and clean tone are already in evidence.
In 1927, Dorsey joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra for about a year, but left with his brother Jimmy to do more studio work and start the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, which began recording in 1928. The brothers recorded frequently on studio dates, such as Tommy's 1930 "Hit of the Week" recording of "Get Happy," and Bix Beiderbecke's almost inexplicable version of the novelty tune "Barnacle Bill the Sailor."
Both Dorseys were also active in the emerging radio broadcasting market and were especially successful backing vocalists, as is evident on the Boswell Sisters' "Shout Sister Shout" and "Shuffle Off to Buffalo." The pair can also be heard on Mildred Bailey's "Shoutin' in That Amen Corner" and Ethel Waters' "Stormy Weather."
By this time, Tommy's friend and fellow trombonist Glenn Miller had begun writing arrangements for the Dorsey Brothers Orcherstra, which after five years cutting records finally became a permanent touring group in 1934.
The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra's existence as a touring swing band was famously short-lived, due primarily to the increasingly acrimonious relationship between the brothers. In May of 1935, Tommy angrily stormed off the stage during a show at the Glen Island Casino, after which he left the band and took over Joe Haymes's Orchestra.
The Haymes musicians became the foundation of the first Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, which quickly became one of the most popular bands of the era. Dorsey's original plan for the group's repertoire was to contrast his lyrical ballad playing with Chicago-inspired hot dance numbers. But his manager cut the "hot jazz" after their first recording in 1935 and replaced it with the pop tunes and vocal numbers for which the band became best known. Dorsey did continue to utilize a subgroup of his big band, The Clambake Seven, as a Dixieland ensemble during his performances. Dorsey began to earn recognition as a master technician on his instrument, being voted into numerous All-Star polls.
His admiration for fellow trombonist Jack Teagarden came through in one session, where he can be heard turning to Teagarden during the solo section, imploring him, "Jack - you play the jazz!" Indeed, Dorsey did not improvise in any of his big band recordings; all of his solos were worked out ahead of time.
The best example of Dorsey's virtuosity can be heard on his signature song, "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," which he first recorded in 1935. This performance demonstrates the incredible smoothness with which he moves from the middle to upper register of the instrument, his ease playing as high as C#, his impeccable slide vibrato, and his pure, wide tone.
By 1936, Dorsey had upped the ante for his band by adding oustanding musicians such as drummer Dave Tough, saxophonist Joe Dixon and trumpeter Max Kaminsky, the band was churning out hits and earning rave reviews at its concerts all over the country. Their 1937 version of "Jammin'" is a good example of this band at its best.
The Tommy Dorsey Band's number-one hits during the Swing Era include "On Treasure Island," "The Music Goes 'Round and Around," "Alone," "You," "Marie," "Satan Takes a Holiday," "The Big Apple," "Once in a While," "The Dipsy Doodle," "Music, Maestro, Please," "Our Love," "All the Things You Are," "Indian Summer," "I'll Never Smile Again," "There Are Such Things," "In the Blue of Evening," and "Dolores."
Dorsey was also one of the first swing bandleaders to employ the use of classical melodies as centerpieces of his songs. One of his biggest hits, "Song of India," was based on a melody by Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov, and features Dorsey's typical smoothness and lyricism darkened by his use of a straight mute, typical of many of Dorsey's solos.
Dorsey's group continued to develop and experiment with new arrangers such as Bill Finegan, who penned "Lonesome Road" for the band in 1939.
In late 1939, Dorsey finally settled on Sy Oliver as his principal arranger. Oliver's experience with Jimmy Lunceford gave him a deep understanding of the emerging trends in swing, as evidenced by arrangements such as "Well Git It" and "Opus One." This set the band on a new, exciting trajectory as a number of other musicians joined the band, including drummer Buddy Rich and lead trumpeter Ziggy Elman. Rich's bombastic style and incredible technique drove the band from the drum set, and Elman came over from the Benny Goodman Orchestra to offer his powerful lead chops.
This set the stage for singer Frank Sinatra's arrival in the group in 1940, when he was still a relative unknown. Sinatra's style took a lot of cues from the established sound of Dorsey's trombone - Sinatra claimed, for example, to have learned breath control from Dorsey. Sinatra, backed by the Dorsey Orchestra and the vocal quartet The Pied Pipers, launched his career singing tunes such as "How Do You Do Without Me," recorded in 1941. Sinatra left Dorsey in 1942 to start his solo career, but took many of the musical lessons and much of the trombonist's aggressive perfectionism with him.
At this point, Dorsey added a 10-piece string section to the band and remained successful through the mid-1940s. In 1944, Dorsey hired Charlie Shavers to join his trumpet section, the first African-American to perform as a part of his orchestra.
At the peak of the band's fame, Dorsey became embroiled in a very public divorce with his first wife, Mildred Kraft, after an affair with singer Edythe Wright. He then wed actress Pat Dane in 1943, only to divorce her four years later. In 1946, he was forced to disband his orchestra for two years, during which the Dorsey brothers briefly reunited to film the Hollywood biopic The Fabulous Dorseys. Shortly thereafter, he met and married his third wife, Jane Carl New, in 1948.
With the help of his close friend comedian Jackie Gleason, who featured the orchestra on his television show for several seasons beginning in 1950, Dorsey managed to start the band up again. The music that the group performed during this final period referenced the earlier swing repertoire that had made the band famous, rarely employing newer musical developments ocurring in the jazz world at the time. Dorsey himself was known to be somewhat contemptuous towards bebop, and discouraged his band from using the new musical language in their improvisations.
Tommy and his brother Jimmy finally reconciled in 1953, three years before Tommy's death. When Jimmy was unable to continue with his own band, Tommy brought him on as a featured guest with his own orchestra. Their work with Gleason at CBS marked some of their best work during this time, which eventually spun off into the Dorsey Brothers' own television show, Stage Show. The most notable guest on Stage Show was a young Elvis Presley, whom the Dorsey Brothers helped introduce to a national audience. Sadly, this period of activity was cut short on November 26, 1956 when Tommy accidentally choked to death on a meal after having taken sleeping pills.
The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra has lived on under the leadership of a succession of fellow musicians including Jimmy Dorsey, Warren Covington, and more recently trombonist Buddy Morrow. Most important, however, is the enduring impact of Dorsey's singing trombone and his incredible success as one of the Swing Era's most popular musicians.
Contributor: Alex W. Rodriguez