THE BIG BAND IN THE SKY
Our father would tell us during thunderstorms that the loud sounds were coming from the big band in the sky. There would be a clap of thunder and he'd say "that's Chick," or there would be a rumbling and he'd say "that's Bunny." There were always new names added to the band. Being children, we didn't realize he was talking about people he once knew and that they were famous musicians who had passed away. Chick was the great drummer Chick Webb. Ella Fitzgerald sang with him. Bunny was Bunny Berigan, the great trumpeter of "I Can't Get Started With You" fame.
Families have many stories. This is one of our family's stories. It's about the Holland years at Canobie Lake Park in Salem, N.H. from 1931 to 1958. Our grandmother (Rina), our father (Maurice) and our mother (Mary) would tell us about the park and about our grandfather (Pat). This is based on their information and our memories.
Maurice loved jazz. The first real swing band he saw was the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1935 at the Recreation Ballroom in Lawrence, Mass. Fletcher Henderson led the most important of the pioneering big bands. It was an all-star aggregation, featuring Buster Bailey, Ben Webster, Chu Berry, Roy Eldridge, Red Allen, J.C. Higginbottom, Sid Catlett, John Kirby and, of course, Fletcher.
In 1936, Maurice's father, Pat Holland built one of the largest and most beautiful ballrooms in New England. It replaced the dance hall. The ballroom was built on the shores of Canobie Lake. It had the finest dance floor. The large stage was on one end and the soda fountain was on the opposite end. The sound system was modern. The many windows were always open to welcome the summer breeze from the lake. Pat told Maurice, "someday the ballroom will hold 6,000 people." Maurice found it hard to believe since the entire population of Salem was only a few thousand. But eventually, the crowds of dancers grew and close to 6,000 people did come to the ballroom.
The ballroom echoed with the music of the country's leading dance orchestras. The orchestras or bands were built around their leaders and their instruments. Vocalists would be featured. A big band would usually have more than 10 musicians. They were all very talented, disciplined and perfectly groomed. No matter how warm the ballroom got, the suit coats and ties remained on. A band's request to remove their coats, although rare, would be met with a firm no from Pat.
The band leaders were billed as royalty. Benny Goodman was the king of swing. Paul Whiteman was the king of jazz. There were the kings of their respective instruments; blues trombone-Jack Teagarden, drums-Gene Krupa, saxophone-Charlie Barnet, clarinet-Artie Shaw and trumpet-Roy Eldridge. Many had titles; William Basie was Count, Edward Ellington was Duke and Ella Fitzgerald was The First Lady of Song.
The bands had their own signature tunes or theme songs. Glenn Miller's was "Moonlight Serenade", Guy Lombardo's was "Auld Lang Syne", Harry James' was "Ciribiribin", Count Basie's was "One O'Clock Jump", Duke Ellington's was "Take the"A" Train" and Bob Crosby's was "Summertime".
The big band era has been considered to be a period from the mid 1930's to late 1940's. Because the big bands continued to draw crowds to the ballroom into the 1950's, Maurice considered the big band era to be a period of 21 years from 1934 to 1955. During those years, Benny Goodman performed his hard-driving swing on his clarinet. Jimmie Lunceford played his relaxed swing. Bob Crosby swung a forceful Dixieland. On his piano, Duke Ellington performed his highly developed swing. Count Basie played the swingingest swing on his piano.
Some band leaders, like Bob Crosby, didn't play an instrument. Others, like Jimmy Dorsey, played several instruments. Some, like the great Louis Armstrong, would play and sing.
Over the years, orchestras would disband and some would regroup. Each decade brought new band leaders and they continued to draw crowds to the ballroom.