As the leader of one of the most popular swing-erabands and a skilled saxophone jazz soloist, Jimmy Dorsey (1904-1957) became famous. With or without his equally well known brother Tommy, he wasin demand in nightclubs and in the motion picturebusiness.
Jimmy Dorsey was born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania on February 29, 1904. Along with his younger brother Tommy, Dorsey appeared destined to become a musician. Not that his father's brass band was all that successful, since he had to work on the side to support his family. But the elder Dorsey, a miner and music teacher, wanted a better life for his sons, and he felt music was the way. Both boys studied music with a real passion, each beginning with a cornet. Before long they were allowed to play in their father's band and by the time he was 17 years old, Jimmy Dorsey was playing clarinet in the well-known Jean Goldkette band. His fellow band members included, among other famous early-day jazz greats, Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer. Dorsey, a smooth and superbly skilled clarinet and saxophone soloist, honed his skills with the Red Nichols band in the later 1920s. He also played with the popular band of Ted Lewis.
The two brothers, Jimmy and Tommy, had a longstanding feud and each had a terrible temper. Their disagreements were legendary and created much gossip in the music business, explained trumpeter Max Kaminsky in his book Jazz Band: My Life in Jazz, "They had been brought up in a feisty Irish family where love was expressed with fists as much as kisses. Both Tommy and his brother Jimmy were natural born scrappers." But the brothers finally decided to join forces in 1933 by forming their own "Dorsey Brothers" band. They hired Ray McKinley to play drums, Glen Miller to play trombone, and singer Bob Crosby. The band was a solid success in the music business, and both Dorseys were doing well financially. But they couldn't get along with each other, and in 1935, after a terrible argument that caused Tommy to walk out, the Dorsey Brothers Band broke up.
Kaminsky said in his book, "When they had their own Dorsey Brothers orchestra they fought around the clock. Tommy would kick off the beat. Jimmy would growl, 'Always the same corny tempo!' Tommy would snarl, 'Oh yeah! And you always play those same corny notes!' Jimmy would leap up, snatch Tommy's trombone and bend it in two. Tommy would seize Jimmy's sax and smash it on the floor, and the fight was on."
Neither of the Dorsey brothers had a great influence on the jazz music of the day, and their influence on Swing was yet to come, but they were noted for their fine ensemble work and even more so for their outstanding musical arrangements. Together or apart, they were often at the top of the hit parade, and at one time or another they worked with all of the top soloists of the day. During the times when they played separately, with their own bands, one might be at the top of the biggest hit list on one month, then the other the next month. Each drew an enthusiastic crowd wherever they went.
Dorsey always favored the Selmer saxophone, and so the company produced a very special "Dorsey model." This saxophone was produced between the 26,000 and 27,500 serial number range, and became very valuable as a collector's item. The horn was elaborately engraved, and some collectors even had the Jimmy Dorsey name in the engraving. Jimmy was the brother most committed to jazz. He loved fast music and blaring brass while his younger brother, Tommy, preferred slow, easy music.
Success in the 1940s
After the 1935 breakup of their popular band, Jimmy Dorsey took the remaining musicians and formed his own band. Though recognition took longer than he had hoped it would, Dorsey kept playing. In the 1940s he achieved success with his hit songs sung by Helen O'Connell ("Green Eyes" and "Tangerine") and Bob Eberle ("Amapola"). He continued to feature both popular singers, as his band traveled around the country, giving nightly performances.
First Family of Music
The Dorsey brothers were the first family of music. Each brother continued a fascination with Dixieland music, and Jimmy incorporated the sound into his popular orchestra. Each Dorsey band had a famous singer, Bob Crosby with Jimmy and Frank Sinatra with Tommy. Jimmy Dorsey's band featured Ray McKinley on drums, while his brother had Buddy Rich.
Jimmy Dorsey was a natural leader, enabling him to unite a group of potentially volatile musicians into a smooth group. He was also a virtuoso performer on reed instruments. He specialized in speed on his clarinet or saxophone, in cramming many perfect notes into a very short span of time. Some examples of this type of music were "One O'clock Jump" and "John Silver." Fingers flying over the keys, rocking to the sound of the music, his orchestra backing him perfectly, Dorsey would play precisely, without a miss or a flaw. Big band followers always cheered his virtuosity.
His theme music was "Contrasts," and some of his greatest hits included "Amapola (My Pretty Little Poppy)," "In a Little Spanish Town," "Fools Rush In," "Tangerine," "I Got Rhythm," "Perfidia," and "Green Eyes." The Jimmy Dorsey band was immensely popular in the wartime film "Three Jills in a Jeep," made in 1944. The year before this film, Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra appeared with Red Skelton and Eleanor Powell in a film called "I Dood It!" The film contained some of the best comedy routines in motion pictures. Dorsey's band introduced the modern jazz standard "Star Eyes," and the topical, "So Long, Sarah Jane" in the film. The picture also featured Dorsey in his famous "One O'clock Jump" signature song.
In 1944, Dorsey and his band appeared in a operetta with Marilyn Maxwell. Unfortunately, two Dorsey classics ("What Does It Take?" and "I Know It's Wrong") were cut from the final print of the film. Dorsey's band continued to flourish throughout the 1940s while other big bands faded into obscurity.
The Dorseys are Reunited
In February 1953, with years of successful music behind them, the Dorsey brothers decided to reunite. This may have occurred because of the release of a somewhat fictionalized 1947 motion picture documentary called The Fabulous Dorseys, in which both musicians appeared as themselves. Their music received praise from the critics. Though each had made other films, it was their orchestras that attracted the most attention. The connection with Hollywood continued. They could even make march music swing, and often played "The National Emblem March" in swing-style. The combined Dorsey band continued the popularity of each musician. The brothers also seemed to be able to get along better than before.
The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, featuring co-leader Jimmy Dorsey, was signed to do the band work for Jackie Gleason's "Stage Show" on television. Gleason's was the only bandstand show on TV in the mid-1950s. The Dorsey orchestra, therefore, received tremendous exposure and regained all of its old popularity among band lovers.
But the good times were drawing to a close. Tommy Dorsey died in November 1956, at the age of 51. Jimmy took over the leadership of the band and continued giving performances. The Dorsey band's memorable 1957 recording of "So Rare" became the last big hit from any major orchestra in the country. Ill health forced Dorsey to retire soon after the recording was made, although he lived to see the tremendous popularity of this great tune. Dorsey's own death came only six months after his brother, on June 12, 1957 in New York City.
Dorsey's music has retained its popularity long after the end of the big band era and his death. Remastered and digitized, it is available on tape or compact disk, and has remained in demand by music lovers throughout the world.
Further Reading on Jimmy Dorsey
Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia
Jimmy Dorsey, http://www.redhotjazz.com/jimmy.html
E! Online-Fact Sheet-Jimmy Dorsey. http://www.eonline.com/Facts/People/0,12,4603,00.html
Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, http://rhino.com/features/liners/75283lin.html