Celluloid Improvisations logo Jazz on Film Mark Cantor

Cootie Williams and his Orchestra

By the early 1940s, however, Columbia was ready to produce its musical fare “in-house,” and in September 1943 a “niche series” dubbed Film Vodvil was premiered nationwide.

Film Vodvil
Cootie Williams and his Orchestra

For more than thirty years, throughout the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” theater owners used the phrase “plus selected short subjects” to lure customers to the box office. Ultimately the “selected shorts” — films ranging in length from three to thirty minutes — would include more variety than the feature films that followed on screen. Animated cartoons, travelogues, newsreels, comedy shorts and dramatic pieces, serials, fashion reviews, sports performances, documentaries, trailers, in-house promotion: all fell within the realm of the “short subject.” To those interested in jazz on film, however, the musical one-and two-reeler — the “band short” — is one of the most fascinating and essential elements of film history.

Experimental shorts featuring “hot music” had been screened since the early 1920’s; musical selections produced by Orlando Kellum and Lee DeForest are extant, and form the foundation of jazz history on film. More attention has been focused on the early Warner Brothers/Vitaphone shorts, as well those produced slightly later by Paramount and Universal. While these three studios produced the bulk of the important short musical films released between 1926 and 1955, all of the major studios released short subjects that included music, vocal, dance and variety performance.

Enter Columbia Pictures Corporation
For the first forty years its existence, beginning in 1918, Columbia Pictures Corporation was managed and controlled by the most reviled man in Hollywood, Harry Cohn. Described by various writers and employees as foul-mouthed, vulgar, uncouth, mean-spirited, manipulative, and down-right mean, Cohn was without question the least-liked of all studio heads. Film historian Richard Bann notes, “Writing of Cohn’s funeral, attended by 2,000 persons, Harry Cohn’s biographer quotes Red Skelton’s televised explanation for the huge crowd: ‘Well, it only proves what they always say — give the people something that they want to see and they will come out for it!’”

Yet, despite (or perhaps because of) Cohn’s all-controlling personality, he was an effective and successful producer of motion pictures. As a whole, preferred to focus on comedy: The Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Edgar Kennedy, Leon Errol, Hugh Herbert, El Brendel and many others made entertaining comedy shorts for Columbia.

Columbia Pictures, as well as many of the other major and “minor-major” studios, often turned to independent producers to put together their musical product. Mentone Productions, for example, produced short subjects for many years, releasing them during the 1930s through Universal; Milton Schwarzwald, a musical jack-of-all-trades (and the primary producer for Mentone) also released shorts through RKO under the Nu-Atlas banner. Much of the Fox musical product was produced for the company by Educational Pictures and Jack Skirball’s Skibo Productions.

The above-mentioned Milton Schwarzwald also served as musical director for New York producer and director Ben (Benny) K. Blake, whose Tru Pictures Company produced short subjects released by Columbia in the late 1930s. Drug Store Follies and Brokers’ Follies, for example, were distributed by Columbia in 1937; band singer Martha Tilton appeared in the latter, along with Campbell’s Royalists (vocal harmony group), Lewis and Van (tap dancers) and The Loria Brothers (juvenile band). Little known, and less often revived, these shorts are typical of the period: create a “set-up” or frame (how far fetched or corny did not matter) through which a number of musical, dance and vaudeville acts might be shared.

Film Vodvil
By the early 1940s, however, Columbia was ready to produce its musical fare “in-house,” and in September 1943 a “niche series” dubbed Film Vodvil was premiered nationwide. Richard Bann comments, “Moe Howard, or maybe Jules White, made the point that Harry Cohn left the short subject companies and units alone. As long as they met budgets, they could do what they wanted …. however they wanted to do it. Cohn was only concerned with delivering film shorts to fill out diversified programs for theaters which offered double bills.”

Columbia turned once again to Benny Blake to produce the series. Blake, in turn, utilized the good services of veteran editor Leonard Weiss. Harry Foster was called upon to direct at least some of the films. Three separate series of Film Vodvil shorts were distributed between September 1943 and September 1946:

  • series 1 – five one-reel shorts released between ca. September 1943 and ca. April 1944
  • series 2 – five one-reel shorts released between ca. September 1944 and ca. August 1945
  • series 3 – eight one-reel shorts released between ca. August 1945 and September 1946
Film Vodvil Cootie Williams and his OrchestraMark Cantor Jazz on Film Celluloid Improvisations

As the name of the series suggests, the musical content of Film Vodvil tended toward variety acts in general, rather than jazz music per se. While occasional focus was placed on jazz bands — Herbie Fields’s armed forces band is featured in series 1, no. 4 — most music was more “popular” in nature. Among the performers seen in the series was crooner Jack Leonard, The Kim Loo Sisters, Mousie Powell, The McFarland Twins, Jeb Carver and his Country Cousins, among many other. A major exception was the jazz band of Cootie Williams, whose 10 minute film from 1943 is one of the most important band shorts of the decade.

Cootie Williams

Film Vodvil Cootie Williams and his OrchestraMark Cantor Jazz on Film Celluloid Improvisations

In November 1940 Cootie Williams, with maestro Duke Ellington’s blessing, left the Ellington band to join Benny Goodman for one year. While composer Raymond Scott was sufficiently moved to write the infamous “When Cootie Left the Duke,” Ellington, as always, took things in stride. Cootie’s magnificent open horn was soon replaced by that of Ray Nance, while both Nance and Rex Stewart contributed masterful solos using the plunger mute.

Fewer writers have lamented that Scott failed to write a follow up piece, “When Cootie Joined The Ray,” since Williams had an immediate effect on the Goodman organization. His horn can be clearly heard, as both soloist and section member, in many of the big band recordings and broadcasts from 1940-1941. More important, with Williams on trumpet and Georgie Auld on tenor sax, the light clarinet-vibes lead of the old sextet was replaced by a heavier, more solid, lower-pitched lead in the new seven man sextet. Cootie’s intense growl trumpet improvisations, along with the advanced guitar work of Charlie Christian, helped elevate the combo to one of the most important small groups in jazz.

Born Charles Melvin Williams in Mobile, Alabama (July 24, 1909, 1910 or 1911, depending on your source), Cootie Williams was largely a self-taught musician. Early in his career he played alongside brothers Lester and Lee in the Young Family Band, and then moved on to a territory band led by Alonzo Ross. Williams reached New York City in 1928, and was soon working with Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, and James P. Johnson, among others. In 1929 Williams joined Duke Ellington, taking over the trumpet chair formerly held by Bubber Miley. Williams flourished under Ellington’s tutelage, becoming a major soloist with the band before leaving to join Benny Goodman in 1940.

D. Russell Connor notes that Cootie’s one-year contract with Goodman began November 6, 1940. Williams’s tenure with the Goodman band thus ended in November 1941, and Williams, like many other big band sidemen, decided to try his hand at leading a band of his own. It should be noted, however, that leading an orchestra was not a high priority with Cootie. “He had told Ellington,” comments Stanley Dance, “that he would be away for a year, and when it concluded, he phoned him [Ellington] to say he thought it was time to come back.” Ellington, however, had other thoughts: “You’re a wonderful guy. You’ve got a big name now. You can go out on your own and make money. Do it….” And so Cootie succumbed to both Ellington’s advice, and the feeling that he could perhaps do something special and unique, with a jazz band of his own.

The Birth of A Band
It took Williams less than three months to put a band together. The Cootie Williams orchestra “premiered” not in New York City, as one might expect, but rather in Chicago. The Chicago Defender (February 2, 1942), announced, “Invitations are out for a ‘blessed event’ in the realm of swingland, for on next Friday night a new band will be born at the Grand Terrace where Cootie Williams, famed trumpeter, launches his new orchestra.” The lengthy article concluded, “Cootie Williams is under the management of Willard Alexander of the William Morris agency, the same booking executive who developed the Goodman and Count Basie attractions.”

The band returned to the Grand Terrace Ballroom in March, and one month later, on April 1, made its first recordings, a set of four sides for Columbia, probably intended for release on their budget Okeh label. The Columbia recording executives, however, were apparently not impressed with the results, and the recordings went unreleased for decades. In any case, with a possible recording strike looming in the near future, the band was not signed to a contract.

Among the sides unreleased at the time was a tune titled “Fly Right,” actually Thelonius Monk’s “Epistrophy.” A superior recording featuring Cootie Williams, modern-leaning trumpet soloist Joe Guy, and pianist Ken Kersey, “Fly Right” was an early indication that Williams was an open-minded musician, willing to listen to the advanced harmonies and melodies of the early boppers.

The threatened recording strike became a reality on July 31, 1942; January 1944 found the major labels still at odds with the American Federation of Musicians, and Williams, wanting the exposure that recordings could bring, signed with Eli Oberstein’s Hit Records. Oberstein had settled with the union, and would release the band’s recordings until Cootie signed with Capitol Records in mid 1945.

The recorded output of the band was eclectic, to say the least: familiar Ellington themes were balanced with occasional compositions and arrangements that hinted at the incubating bop style. Jazz standards and popular melodies were pitted against tunes based on simple riffs. Blues-based compositions were played at both slow and breakneck tempos. Never far from the performance was a deep and sincere feeling for the blues, an essential part of Cootie Williams’s music.

But despite such recordings as “Fly Right,” “Perdido,” and “‘Round Midnight,” and the presence in the band of Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, “Lockjaw” Davis and other modernists, Cootie Williams did not lead a bop band. Based solidly in the Swing tradition, the band seemed most comfortable with mid and up-tempo jazz arrangements based on riffs and the 12-bar blues idiom.

The choice of repertoire, and the well-rehearsed nature of the band, certainly worked for Williams, and the orchestra soon became immensely popular on the East Coast. The band was booked regularly at the Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theater in New York City, and toured the East Coast circuit, only rarely venturing west of Chicago. Certainly this exposure was noted by Columbia Pictures executives who, recognizing the popularity of black Swing bands, decided to place the band in its new Film Vodvil series.

Film Vodvil – series 1, no. 2: Production Details
Much of the confusion about this short subject can be traced to David Meeker’s pioneering — if not always comprehensive — Jazz In the Movies. Meeker was one of the first to cite two Cootie Williams film shorts, Film Vodvil (1943) and Cootie Williams and his Orchestra (1944), not knowing that the second film was merely an Official Films “home use reissue” of the first title. Meeker also promoted the belief that the film(s) included Bud Powell, which is patently false. Sadly, many of his assumptions were adopted by others, leading jazz film enthusiasts to spend years searching for a film that did not exist.

There is little to suggest that the production of this short was any different than that of hundreds of other band shorts made during the early 1940s: gather the band at a recording studio for one or two days and cut the soundtrack. Then call the band, the vocalist and any variety acts back for a photography (sideline) session, and have the artists “perform to playback.” Probably one day of recording, and one or two days of photography, would be sufficient.

Fortunately the production of the Cootie Williams short was noted by a writer for the New York Amsterdam News, who reported the completion of the film in an article dated June 19, 1943. “Trumpeter “Cootie” Williams and his 15 piece combination came in from theater dates and one-night stands to make a band short for Columbia Pictures. The band spent two days on the set recording and shooting scenes which were being filmed at New York’s Movietone Studios.” Thus, we can safely ascribe the recording of the soundtrack to one or two days in mid-June 1943, in New York City. The sideline photography would have been completed shortly thereafter, in either late June or early July 1943.

Film Vodvil, series 1, no. 2, was copyrighted on October 12, 1943. In general the producers of short subjects copyrighted their works around the time of initial distribution, so we can assume that this film was released to the public ca. October 1943.

Cootie Williams and his Orchestra
The Cootie Williams orchestra existed for approximately seven years in the 1940s. Williams was able to maintain a fairly consistent personnel, despite the draft and the usual movement of sidemen from one band to another. Perhaps the regular extended stays at the Savoy Ballroom and other East Coast venues created both a loyalty and comfort level that discouraged turnover.

During the war years Cootie’s orchestra seemed to have toured less than other black bands. At least this appears true where cross country bookings are concerned, since the only confirmed appearance on the West Coast seems to be in the spring of 1944. (This pattern would change in 1947, when the orchestra commenced intensive touring, including the deepest South.) During the period 1942-1945 the trades indicate appearances at the Savoy Ballroom, Apollo Theater, Rockland State Recreation Hall, Golden Gate Ballroom, Roosevelt Hotel, Paramount Theater, Orient Theater …. all within the New York City area.

Williams contributed regularly to the Ellington “song book,” and was most comfortable with less elaborate riff tunes and the blues. If he is not particularly noted as a composer, he is known even less as an arranger. If others performed the arranging tasks, however, they were certainly working to “specifications” prescribed by Cootie, who took an active leadership role in determining the band’s musical direction.

The arrangers for the Cootie Williams orchestra have never been completely identified and credited, although they are all big band professionals, working within the model developed a decade and a half earlier by Don Redman, Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson and others. Both Brian Priestly and Yves Francois point out that Bill Doggett did quite a bit of arranging for the band at this time, and Doggett indeed claimed credit for the arrangement on the Hit recording of “‘Round Midnight.” Stanley Dance discusses the band at some length in The World of Duke Ellington, and points out that journeyman arranger Don Kirkpatrick did many arrangements for Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” may well be his. (But beware: the arrangement of the tune played in the film has little in common with that used for the Hit recording of June 1, 1944.) Franz Jackson informed Yves Francois that he also arranged for the band, working mainly in support of vocalist Pearl Bailey; the possibility exists that “Giddap Mule” may be his work. Last, the liner notes for Jazz Archives CD-11 (a fine release that features all of the Columbia and Hit recordings by Williams’s orchestra) ascribe “Fly Right” to Dave McCrae, who may have arranged other tunes for the book.

If the band’s music was somewhat “generic” — one does not often refer to “the style of the Cootie Williams orchestra” — certainly the performances by the band were first rate. While Williams later strayed into the realm of R&B-flavored Swing music, his early-to-mid 1940s band was clearly a jazz orchestra. Strong, solid arrangements were played by a group of dedicated, enthusiastic jazz musicians. And the band that made the Film Vodvil short was powerful in all areas of concern: strong section leaders, fine soloists, and a driving rhythm section anchored by the drumming of “Butch” Ballard all combined to provide a powerful, rough-hewn swing.

Over the years there have been many claims and counter-claims regarding the personnel appearing in Film Vodvil. The most fatuous, as noted above, was the notion that Bud Powell appears as the band’s pianist. This misconception was reinforced by David Meeker, who apparently used the standard discographies as his source material. Would that this claim were true! To the contrary, the piano chair was held by Fletcher Smith. The complete band personnel, as seen on screen, is as follows:

Cootie Williams – trumpet, vocal and leader

Film Vodvil Cootie Williams and his OrchestraMark Cantor Jazz on Film Celluloid Improvisations
Trumpets, left-to-right: Louis Bacon, Ermit V. Perry, Frank “Fat Man” Humphries

The trumpet players were all big band veterans, with years of experience playing jazz and Swing with such leaders as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb, Lucky Millinder and many others. While I am not sure who played lead trumpet (that is, when Cootie was not playing the first part), it is unlikely that, with Cootie out front, much solo space was given to the three other members of the trumpet section.

Trombones, left-to-right: Ed Burke, unknown trombone, possibly Jonas Walker, Robert Horton

Film Vodvil Cootie Williams and his OrchestraMark Cantor Jazz on Film Celluloid Improvisations
soloist Ed Burke

Although somewhat less well-known than the trumpets, the members of the trombone section also brought years of experience to the band, having played with orchestras led by Buddy Johnson, Willie Bryant, Edgar Hayes and others. It is interesting to note that two of the trombone players recorded as early as 1928, Burke with Walter Barnes, and Horton with Chick Webb. The trombone solo on film is by Ed Burke. It should be noted that the trombone was rarely given solo space on the OKeh or Hit recordings, the single exception being a solo on “Blue Garden Blues” by Robert Horton, as suggested by Albert McCarthy in Big Band Jazz .

Film Vodvil Cootie Williams and his OrchestraMark Cantor Jazz on Film Celluloid Improvisations

Saxophones, left-to-right: Sam “The Man” Taylor, tenor sax; Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, alto sax and vocal; Lee Pope or Bob Dorsey, tenor sax; Charlie Holmes, alto sax; Greely Walton, baritone sax

Cleanhead Vinson – Lee Pope – Charlie Holmes

Film Vodvil Cootie Williams and his OrchestraMark Cantor Jazz on Film Celluloid Improvisations
Sam “The Man” Taylor

Film Vodvil Cootie Williams and his OrchestraMark Cantor Jazz on Film Celluloid Improvisations
Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson

The reed section was, in the parlance of the time, “a killer!” All sidemen were fine section players, as well as highly capable soloists. The featured tenor soloist was Sam “The Man” Taylor, already into his extroverted “Texas tenor” sound …. this despite the fact that he was born in Tennessee. Taylor is one of those forgotten giants of the late Swing Era, perhaps because he moved into the field of honking R&B tenor sax in the 1950s. Still, he was a mainstay in the bands of Lucky Millinder and Cab Calloway, soloing often in the large-toned, exuberant style that we hear in this film.

At research screenings, Harvard Davis, Milt Hinton and others identified the section tenor sax as Lee Pope. It should be noted however, that Theo Zwicky has suggested the possibility of Bob Dorsey in place of Pope.

Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson had already developed the blues based vocal style that would make him an audience favorite for decades. Unfortunately, despite many alto sax solos on the recordings of the period, Vinson does not solo in the film. His vocal on “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be,” however, is a highlight of the short.

Charlie Holmes, a great musician in the Johnny Hodges tradition, plays alto sax in the section, but unfortunately does not solo. (To see and hear Holmes in that capacity one may refer to his performance with the John Kirby Sextet in the 1947 black cast feature Sepia Cinderella.) In his liner notes to the Affinity LP of Cootie Williams recordings, Stan Britt notes, “[Holmes] asked Williams not to consider him in any solo capacity, he preferred merely to undertake normal sideman duties.”

Greely Walton was long associated with Louis Armstrong, with whom he takes some early solos on tenor sax. By this time, however, Walton was comfortably anchoring the reed section on baritone sax, and probably performed little solo work on that instrument.

Rhythm section: Fletcher Smith, piano; Norman Keenan, string bass; George “Butch” Ballard, drums

Film Vodvil Cootie Williams and his OrchestraMark Cantor Jazz on Film Celluloid Improvisations
Fletcher Smith

Film Vodvil Cootie Williams and his OrchestraMark Cantor Jazz on Film Celluloid Improvisations
Norman Keenan

Film Vodvil Cootie Williams and his OrchestraMark Cantor Jazz on Film Celluloid Improvisations
Butch Ballard

The rhythm section in the band was especially strong, and this certainly comes across in the film. Norman Keenan was later to play with the latter-day Basie band. Butch Ballard would later play with both Basie and Ellington. Keenan’s bass and Ballard’s drums are well recorded, giving the band a strong, deep sound. And again we must point out that this short was produced well before Bud Powell joined Cootie Williams; Fletcher Smith’s presence is certain! It is also interesting to note that Williams, even after playing with Charlie Christian for a full year, decided not to carry a guitarist during this period.

Vocalist: Laurel Watson

Film Vodvil Cootie Williams and his OrchestraMark Cantor Jazz on Film Celluloid Improvisations
Laurel Watson

Lauren Watson, until just recently, was the sole survivor of the musicians appearing in Film Vodvil. She first recorded with Don Redman in 1938, moving the following year to Roy Eldridge’s big band where she appears both on recordings and broadcast transcriptions. Watson was not a member of the Cootie Williams orchestra at the time this short was produced, however, but rather was recruited by Ben Blake, “after several singers were auditioned.” (New York Amsterdam News) At this time of her appearance in the film, notes the Amsterdam News, “the sultry voiced Laurel Watson [was appearing] at Small’s Paradise.” Director Foster is quoted as stating that, “Laura [sic] has that certain something in her voice which does justice to that particular number [Giddap Mule].”

A few years later Ms. Watson recorded with another Williams, Pinky by name, on the obscure Bandstand label. Recently Watson had experienced a remarkable comeback, appearing in concert and on record with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band. The band’s manager, Dr. Al Vollmer, noted that Watson was “unique, and one of the best singers I’ve ever heard. She deserved much more recognition that she got.” Watson passed away in April 2001 after 89 years of a “rich, full life.”

Film Vodvil Cootie Williams and his OrchestraMark Cantor Jazz on Film Celluloid Improvisations
Dancers: The Douglas Brothers (first names not known)

Little is known about the Douglas Brothers. According to Harlem-based dancer Mabel Lee, “Yes, they were on the scene at the time.” Fayard Nicholas also remembered them and commented that they were skillful, professional dancers who “had their own thing going. Of course, they weren’t the Nicholas Brothers!”

The New York Amsterdam News is quite kind to the duo, whose performance is ultimately not much different than that of many other “second tier” dance teams: “The Douglas Brothers…acrobatic footwork should find a place in Hollywood musical features.” This was not to be the case, however, and Film Vodvil is the team’s only celluloid appearance.

The Lindy Hoppers (identified by the New York Amsterdam News as “The Kings and Queens of Rhythm”) are Leon James & Dottie Mae Johnson; Russell Williams & Connie Hill.

Today’s younger Swing dance fans, even those passionately involved in the music, probably cannot understand the importance of dance to those who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, much of the jazz that we listen to as an “art music” was created as accompaniment for social dance. It comes as no surprise that a dance group, billed on screen as The Lindy Hoppers, is the focus of the film’s finale.

Leon James began his dance career at the Savoy Ballroom as one of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, and appeared with the troupe in the Marx Brothers feature “A Day At the Races.”. His on-stage presence was electric, and his career (often in tandem with partner Al Minns) extended into the 1970s. The Internet site “Archives of Early Lindy Hop” comments, “With his constantly moving legs and hands and his flashing eyes, everyone would always notice him first. His styling was a favorite of the ladies at the Savoy, who still like to remember the way he moved his hips. He and [then] partner Willa Mae Ricker were featured in the 1943 Life Magazine spread on Lindy Hop….” Poor eyesight kept James from military service during the war, with the happy result that he appears in this short.

The other male dancer, Russell Williams (later Rasul Ali) also appeared as a member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. With Connie Hill, his partner in this film, Williams had won the Harvest Moon Ball competition in 1937 or 1938. Later in the 1940’s he joined dancer / choreographer Frankie Manning as a member of The Congaroos, but died soon thereafter, killed while trying to break up a fight.

I know little about the female members of The Lindy Hoppers, save that they too came out of the Savoy Ballroom “experience” and acquit themselves well in this dance performance.

Film Vodvil: The Performance and the Music
As is often the case with historical research of any kind, the discovery of a new “primary source document” frequently provides new information, but also raises previously unasked questions. The cue sheet for this short subject certainly proves the point! Cue sheets are generated for all films, and allow the film’s copyright owner to identify song titles, composer credits, and music publisher assignments … this so appropriate payment can be made to all involved when the film is issued or reissued, or when clips are licensed for any other purpose. The questions raised by this film’s cue sheet become quite clear as we discuss the short, title-by-title.

Unlike many short subjects of the 1930s and 1940s, the band is presented in this film without “framing action”: no cute story, no contrived situation to bring the band on stage. Rather, the Williams orchestra performs for the entire 10 minutes, seated on simple band risers, with four cartoon Lindy Hop dancers pictured on the background curtain. The camera coverage is exceptional, giving us the opportunity to see all band members up close, especially the soloists.

(1) Let’s Keep On Jumping – Cootie Williams and his Orchestra
The short subject opens with a fragment from “Let’s Keep On Jumping,” played behind the opening credits. This excerpt is actually from the conclusion of the arrangement, and since a performance of the title returns in full at the end of the short, it will be discussed in detail at that time. (Suffice it to say here that permission to use this title in the film — “licensed secured” is how the cue sheet puts it — was obtained from Frank Brown, of whom I know nothing, but who plays a prominent part in what follows.)

(2) Get Hep(composers: Frank Brown, Stanley Baum) – Cootie Williams and his Orchestra (soloists: Cootie Williams, trumpet; Ed Burke, trombone; Sam “The Man” Taylor, tenor sax; Fletcher Allen, piano; Norman Keenan, string bass; “Butch” Ballard, drums)
The soundtrack of this number was released years ago by Ken Crawford on Extreme Rarities 1002, a now out-of-print LP entitled Hot Jazz On Film, vol. 2. While I am not sure how Ken determined the song title to be “Wild Fire” (it is not noted on screen), David Meeker repeated the error, as did Klaus Stratemann, and it now seems to have worked its way into all discussions of the film. However, the Columbia cue sheet identifies the song title as above, and assigns the composer credit to Frank Brown and Stanley Baum.

The composition is a forward-looking theme based on the 12 bar blues pattern. The melody itself is quite advanced; each of the three strains is different, with the last being rhythmically adventuresome. A full half-dozen band members are given the chance to solo, this in addition to leader Cootie Williams. The three members of the rhythm section split a blues chorus — only four bars each for piano, string bass and drums — and there is not too much to analyze. (Still, I am not sure how early researchers could have listened to the piano and thought “Bud Powell.”) Ed Burke and Sam Taylor, however, each get a full chorus. Burke is quite robust, straight from the tradition of Jimmy Harrison and the other 1930s trombone stylists. But Sam Taylor is the big surprise, playing a highly inventive solo that reminds one of both Illinois Jacquet and Lucky Thompson. Cootie then enters on open horn — he does not work with his mute at all in the short — soloing with the grand, majestic sound that so impressed Ellington. He takes four full choruses, with the band riffing and swinging behind him for the last two.

(3) Things Ain’t What They Used To Be (Mercer Ellington) – Cootie Williams and his Orchestra + Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, vocal (soloist: Cootie Williams, trumpet)
Despite the fact that Johnny Hodges’s recording of this title in 1941 created a sensation among record buyers, the reviewer for the Amsterdam News misidentifies the composition as “Get Hep, Things Ain’t What They Used To Be,” and mistakenly cites the featured performer as Sam Taylor. Was the reviewer, perhaps working from a studio press release, confusing or combining the first two songs titles in the short?

A clarion call from Cootie leads us to one of the highlights of the film. Although less than two minutes in length, this blues is everything we would expect from Cootie and “Cleanhead.” Elegantly (if a bit eccentrically) dressed, already sporting the bald head that gave him his nickname, “Cleanhead” Vinson sings the blues in a most convincing manner. I had the opportunity to see “Cleanhead” many times in Los Angeles, and his style didn’t really change much over the years … which is to say, what a wonderful jazz-blues performance, somewhat understated, yet fully emotional and committed.

(4) unidentified title (noted on the cue sheet as Tap Dance Number) (composers: Frank Brown, Stanley Baum) – The Douglas Brothers, tap dance, accompanied by Cootie Williams and his Orchestra
The band appears in a supporting role for this number, backing the dance performance by The Douglas Brothers. The tune, title unknown, is an attractive theme, with the “A” section reminiscent of Victor Young’s “Sweet Sue, Just You.” The bridge is altered, however, and is unrelated to the Victor Young composition. The song and tempo change after two choruses, in support of the dance act. This strongly suggests that the composition was written and arranged especially for the film, and that it was not a part of the band’s regular book. (I can find no evidence that The Douglas Brothers were appearing with Cootie’s band during summer of 1943, although this is entirely possible.) There are no solos, just a musical accompaniment played in a swinging, professional manner.

The performance by the Douglas Brothers is similar to many seen in short subjects of the late 1930s and early 1940s. True, they “weren’t the Nicholas Brothers” — they employ “fake splits” rather than the real thing, and were more “mechanical” than the famed Fayard and Harold — but were indeed competent dancers, more in the acrobatic mode of The Berry Brothers than the classical tap of Fayard and Harold Nicholas.

(5) Giddap Mule– Laurel Watson, vocal, accompanied by Cootie Williams and his Orchestra
Written by guitarist and composer Leonard M. Ware, this is a typical wartime, morale-building song, transferring the patriotic focus to the farm. Laurel Watson, backed by the band vocally and instrumentally, sings in an engaging, personal style. Her appearance in the short is a treat, especially since the song seems to fit her approach quite well, and certainly makes one wish that there were more recordings or films of her from this period.

(6) Let’s Keep On Jumping – The Lindy Hoppers, accompany-ied by Cootie Williams and his Orchestra
Also known as “Just Keep On Jumping,” this song was also in the band books of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. (Armstrong played the tune on an October 1944 “Spotlight Bands” broadcast (reissued on IAJRC LP 17), and Hines performed the song on a Jubilee broadcast in March 1945.) The tune, a fragment of which opens the short, is reprised here in full. Cootie is heard briefly as soloist, and for the remainder of the tune leads the trumpet section. We have the opportunity to again hear Sam “The Man” Taylor, who is even more into the Jacquet bag than in the opening number.

The Lindy Hoppers were experienced dancers who had moved from the New York social dance scene to professional dance performance. Their presentation is typical of the period, if a bit less polished than the Lindy Hop showcases in the feature film Hellzapoppin’, or the SOUNDIE Hot Chocolate. After a segment with both couples on screen, Russell Williams and Connie Hill are given the chance to solo, followed by Leon James and Dottie Mae Johnson. (It should be noted that in a performance such as this one, the more competent couple would have danced second.)

Some Pivotal Questions
As mentioned above, the Columbia cue sheet calls into question many assumptions about this film. According to Merlene Travis Maggini, Vice President in Charge of Copyright for Warner-Chappell Music, the presence of Frank Brown and Stanley Baum on the cue sheet clearly indicates that they were “by all appearances, intimately involved with the music used in this short.” Little is known about Stanley Baum, although Baum was arranging for Charlie Ventura when he (Ventura) recorded to National in 1946; the two part arrangement of MOON NOCTURNE (two sides of National 9029) is Baum’s work. (Arrangements from an earlier Ventura date have been variously assign to Baum or Neal Hefti.)

Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate Baum and Brown’s names in other film or music literature, but we can assume that they were members of the Columbia music department staff, and were called in to provide music for this short. But the question remains, in exactly what capacity? As composers? Almost certainly so. As arrangers? Somewhat doubtful.

I suggest that Columbia Pictures was interested in using the Cootie Williams band in a short, and felt that Cootie’s “name value” was strong enough to sell the film, especially in urban neighborhoods. But someone at Columbia believed that closer control over the musical content of the film was necessary, and two studio employees, Frank Brown and Stanley Baum, were assigned to write some of the music to be used in the short; indeed, their names are associated with three of the five numbers performed in the one reeler.

Assuming the above to be correct, did studio employees also produce the arrangements, not only for Brown and Baum’s three new numbers, but also the two vocal accompaniments? My suspicion is that the compositions were passed on to Williams, and that he assigned members of his staff to put together arrangements to be used in the film. (It would be unusual for one of Columbia’s staff arrangers to so accurately imitate the style of the Williams band, to the extent that nobody would have questioned the source of the music to this point in time.) Cootie’s band did not record “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” until 1944, at which time a new arrangement was commissioned for “Cleanhead” and the band.

Ultimately, it appears highly likely that the music for this short was composed and arranged especially for the film, and that we are not listening to music that had been in the band’s book before the film was produced. But at least some of the music might had remained in the band’s book, leading to the later performance of “Let’s Keep On Jumping” by the Armstrong and Hines orchestras.

Final Evaluation
The professional look of this short subject belies the limited budget with which the crew had to work. While there is little cinematic creativity to speak of — just point the camera at the performers and shoot — the artistry of the musicians and dancers is there for all to see and hear! The power and swing of the Williams band is readily apparent, especially in the first and last band number; the depth of its solo power is clear. The versatility of the band is also apparent, as it moves from big band swing to blues to vocal and dance accompaniment. Cootie is always up front, soloing, singing and leading the band in an exuberant, energetic manner. Even after six decades Cootie’s and the band’s charisma comes across on screen, making it obvious why the band was one of the most popular New York attractions for almost ten years.


Bruyninckx, W. Swing Discography (publisher uncertain, various volumes and dates)

Chilton, John Who’s Who of Jazz (Chilton Book Company, 1970)

Connor, D. Russell Benny Goodman: Listen To His Legacy (Scarecrow Press, 1988)

Dance, Stanley The World of Duke Ellington (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970)

Fernett, Gene American Film Studios: An Historical Encyclopedia (Mc Farland and Company, 1988)

Hoffman, Franz Jazz Advertised (various volumes) (self-published)

Kernfeld, Barry The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (St. Martin’s Press, 1995)

Lord, Tom The Jazz Discography (Lord Music Reference, Inc., 1992 1999)

McCarthy, Albert Big Band Jazz (Berkley Windover Books, 1974)

Meeker, David Jazz In the Movies (Talisman Books Limited, 1981)

Stratemann, Klaus Negro Bands In Films – Big Bands, 1928-1950 (Verlag Uhle & Kleimann, 1981)

Thomas, Bob King Cohn – The Life and Times of Harry Cohn (Barrie and Rockliff, 1967)

Westerberg, Hans Boy From New Orleans – Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (Jazzmedia, 1981)


Billboard Magazine
Chicago Defender
New York Amsterdam News


Internet site “Archives of Early Lindy Hop” (http://www.savoystyle. com/big_apple.html)

Liner Notes

Britt, Stan – liner notes, Affinity LP ASF 1031, Big Band Boogie – Cootie Williams, Echoes of Harlem

Buzelin, Jean – liner notes, Jazz Archives CD 11, Cootie Williams – Sextet and Big Band