Van Alexander and I sat in his living room, his house located in the hills above Studio City. We were watching his Soundies, the first time he had viewed them in more than fifty years. I watched his face as this Soundie unfolded on screen. I would have thought it impossible to smile and grimace at the same time, but that seemd to be the case!
Van was one of the few white musicians who are arranged for black swing bands in the 1930s and 40s. His success with “A Tisket A Tasket,” a huge hit for Ella Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb band, was partly responsible for his ability to form a big band of his own. Although never a top-tier band, Alexander’s group was both jazz oriented and versatile, recording for Vctor and playing constantly in public. Van thought that people from Minoco Productions were in the audience when they played a series of theater dates – it might have been the Capitol Theater in Manhattan – and the producers had some ideas of what might be filmed from the bands book. “Deep in the Heart of Texas” was a big hit, and the “clap-clap-clap-clap” response might result in participation from tavern patrons. This same audience might also enjoy the slightly off-color double-entendre title, “When Are We Going to Land Abroad.” For more sophisticated locales, the pop tune”Sometimes” would do. For the jazz piece they would use Alexander’s arrangement of the standard “Margie.”
But things did not work out as well as Van had hoped. Minoco rationed out straight band performances in a severe manner, and it was decided that “Margie” would be played for comedy. Some of the band’s jazzmen, including the underrated Johnny Austin on trumpet, were allowed short solos in the opening of the tune. Van’s vocalist, phyllis Kenny the bands vocalist takes over then the comedy begins with diminutive stage and screen comic Lou Hearn singing the lyrics and an X in ex in an ex credible manner. Margie then enters, the gorgeous animes, known as the tallest showgirl in Manhattan. The comedy in the sound he has not aged particularly well, but put yourself in a tavern setting back in 1941 and I think you can appreciate a little more what they were trying to do here. Yes, van smiled at the park professionalism of his band, grimaced at what he saw on screen. Sometimes that is the nature of the sound is best.