Blast From The Brass – Patrick D Maguire, June 2013

Little J (Not so Little J these days) stirs and wags his tail as my Hunter Valley hideaway is filled with the delicious aroma of spaghetti with garlic butter, bacon and prawns. My mouth watering I empty the contents of a bottle of red, making sure that my good friend Rocco’s glass has been filled first. The “siege” has been lifted! With floodwaters beginning to recede Rocco had splashed his way through waist deep water holding a hamper full of delicacies above his head including hams, pasta, sour dough, olives, tomatoes and seafood.

For six days (and nights) I had lived on the bounty of the red grape – and not a peep from the homestead. Maybe it’s because I had told The Voice I was auditioning for a part in the TV series Back To The Cave. “You’ve never left the cave,” she had replied tartly while my insufferable brother-in-law Clifford sniggered in the background. But I was content – music, wine, the company of my pig and not tormented by the joys of “civilisation” such as the “entertainment” of prescription TV.

The music is really swinging in the background. Rocco tapping his foot as Benny Goodman’s clarinet is replaced by a strong trumpet solo erupting from the brass. “Who’s that?” he yells. “Billy Butterfield,” I reply. (It’s a recording of Fletcher Henderson’s arrangement of What A Little Moonlight Can Do which also has a vocal by Goodman’s one time paramour Helen Ward. It was the perfect take. At the end of it on February 19, 1953 the band applauded.) Butterfield, not only had an enviable big band pedigree – Goodman, Artie Shaw and Bob Crosby – but his trumpet complemented such popular records as the 1943 hit of Moonlight In Vermont by a 19-year-old Margaret Whiting and Frank Sinatra’s sensitive 1950 treatment of the ballad Nevertheless with arranger Axel Stordahl’s Orchestra. At the end of World War Two Butterfield led his own orchestra for a couple of years until the big band business collapsed.

The Goodman brass team of 1940-41 was “one hell of a section” according to Butterfield. As lead trumpeter, he was a key member along with Cootie Williams, Jimmy Maxwell, Irving Goodman and trombonists Lou McGarity and Cutty Cuttshall. It wasn’t as big as some of the other sections around but it was powerful. As a member of Shaw’s band, Butterfield was featured but with Goodman it was a different story. He was mainly on lead as Williams did most of the solo work with the orchestra and sextet. Butterfield summed it up: “I would get eight bars (solos) here and four bars there but it was mostly slogging away.”

He had more opportunity for actual jazz playing during his three years (1937-40) with Bob Crosby, especially when trumpeter Yank Lawson was poached by Tommy Dorsey enabling Butterfield to take over trumpet with the Bob Cats, the small band drawn from the orchestra. It’s interesting to read Butterfield’s insights into the bands of the swing era. He describes the Crosby unit, with which he first gained fame, as a “fun band – like a family band. We had a ball.

Artie Shaw
Billy Butterfield

“All the guys in the Crosby were given the opportunity to play their features a lot. There was more room to stretch out than in any other big band! And talking of features, Bob Haggart came up with two specials – I’m Free which was meant for (clarinettist) Irving Fazola and another one to feature myself which subsequently became My Inspiration. It was originally two different tunes but Haggart tied them together. We eventually changed these over and I ended up with I’m Free (with lyrics added later it became What’s New). My Inspiration was originally called Big Mouth which is what the New Orleans’ guys used to call gin. Since Fazola drank his share of gin that’s what they called the tune. ‘‘There are loads of stories about Benny and Artie and the Dorseys and all their funny ways. Lots of them are true but they were all businessmen and successful ones at that. Bob Crosby had his gloomy side, always believing everybody liked Bing and nobody rated him. He often seemed to be under a dark cloud – understandable in a way because (saxophonist) Gil Rodin was really the band’s boss.

“Shaw was a strange one. I could never understand him. He really was a lucky guy getting where he did because the way he used to treat the public was something. I mean downright rude and very contemptuous. Still, they loved it, and he got away with it. He had this big band (1940) with 29 or 30 strings and we were playing at The Palace, a fine old hotel in San Francisco owned and run in the old tradition. We had two band uniforms, neither of which were tuxedos. The owner, a dear old lady, wanted the band to wear tuxedos. Artie argued they were businessman not waiters. He lost the argument – the band wore tuxedos! His way to get even with her was not to show up until 12.30 a.m. after disappearing with Paulette Goddard (the female lead in the movie Second Chorus which featured his band). Trombonist Jack Jenney would front the band and Johnny Guarnieri would play the clarinet solos on piano. There were a couple of good clarinet players in the band but nobody wanted to do it.”

As Rocco places a steaming pile of pasta on the table he wants to know how I know so much. I think of the many yellowing pages on my swing idols in my den and feel depressed as I wonder what will happen to them when I’m gone. But Woody Herman’s Second Herd is storming through Dance Ballerina, Dance in the background, the food is delicious, the wine perfect and I am free from the populist punditry of today’s society. Let it rain!