I have recently been watching some of the more obscure Universal-International band shorts from the late 1940s and early 1950s. We are all pretty familiar with the jazz shorts, wonderful films featuring Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman and others. Other shorts in the “Name Band Musicals” series — most of them produced and directed by Will Cowan — are a mixed bag of delights.
This films in the Will Cowan band shorts are often patterned after traditional variety stage presentations. Any given short might feature a name artist supported by such talents as The Shepard Bell Ringers (tuned cowbells); Paul and Paulette (trampoline artists), The Glenns (acrobats), The Amazing Frakson (magician working with cigarettes, clearly a career limiting proposition), as well as vocalists, tap dancers and an occasional unicycle rider.
Most shorts allow for the featured band to do an instrumental, and we here turn to one such band, led by Frank deVol. . deVol was a talented composer, arranger, conductor and band leader. What is not known is the extent to which this band played in public, or is composed of studio musicians brought together for just this film.
But it doesn’t really matter much since this performance is delightful, and well worth our attention. The tune is PAGAN LOVE SONG, written for a 1929 MGM movie, THE PAGAN, by the well-known film composer Nacio Herb Brown. I think we can assume that the arrangement is by deVol, an very inventive piece that opens with a flute and clarinet lead from the reed section, then muted brass, leading us to the jazz choruses.
First up are two musicians trading fours: The trombonist is Ray Conniff, the clarinet player Eddie Rosa. Conniff’s trombone is gutsy, and Rosa recalls his earlier solos with the Harry James orchestra. Now, the tenor soloist is a bit of a problem. Sounding a lot like Wardell Gray, it is not Jimmy Giuffre, who is seated to the far right. Nor is it Joe Koch, who specialized on baritone. Discographies note that Bill Hamilton was an alto man. Which leaves us with Roland Pirozzi, about whom I have heard or learned nothing. Good solo from an otherwise unknown musician.
The rhythm section is a fine one, indeed. Paul Smith is on piano, and he gets a nice solo before the out chorus. Guitarist Bill Pittman worked a lot in the studios, and Norman Seelig, on string brass, spent time with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. And then, on drums, Louie Bellson, just a month or two away from joining Duke Ellington.