Celluloid Improvisations logo Jazz on Film Mark Cantor

Al Cooper and the Savoy Sultans “Looney”

In the late 1930s, Columbia Picture’s beloved Harry Cohn was “out sourcing” his musical short subjects. Many of them were produced by New York-based Ben (Benny / B.K.) Blake, with Milton Schwarzwald (who was a prolific producer and director in his own right) often taking care of the musical direction. ROOFTOP FROLICS was one of the best in the series. The plot, to the point that there is one, involves a high class party on a Manhattan rooftop. The master-of-ceremonies for the affair is Kirk Allyn, later to play Superman in Columbia’s 1948 serial. The people next door have not been invited so they watch from their own roof. (The spectators include short-term Benny Goodman vocalist Peg LaCentra, who performs at the end of the short, and can be seen in close up toward the end of the clip, digging the music.

The musical high point, of course, is the band number by Al Cooper and the Savoy Sultans. The house band at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, the Sultans always had a big, swinging sound, despite its smaller (eight piece) size. While the band is on screen for the entire short, the soundtrack accompaniments to La Centra’s vocal and the other variety acts were provided by a New York studio orchestra, personnel unidentified. The Savoy Sultans’ tune is titled LOONEY, and it is one of the songs that they recorded for Decca Records in July 1938, a full year after the production of this film short. The band personnel is as follows:

trumpets, left-to-right: Pat Jenkins, Sam Massenburg (solo trumpet)
reeds, left-to-right: Rudy Williams (solo alto sax), Pat McNeil, Al Cooper
Oliver Richardson, piano
Grachan Moncur, Sr., string bass
Alex “Razz” Mitchell, drums

A few things to note: Rudy Williams alto solo sounds bi-tonal, but is, I think, actually an improvisation that uses the notes to the minor over the changes, which are in the major key. Regardless, the whole solo really works for me. And bassist Moncur is the father of modernist Granchan Moncur, Jr. Last you can hear members of the band shouting encouragement in the background. Watching the clip, you can understand why.

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