Lacking a clear definition from the start — some would argue, to this very day — the word “jazz” has been used to describe everything from the “real thing” to hot dance music, world music, “smooth jazz,” and even musical styles that bears no resemblance to jazz at all. Recordings from 1920s by The Synco Jazz Band or the Broadway Syncopators, for example, are jazz-influenced, but not necessarily jazz per se. The same ambiguities existed in the 1930s when “Swing” was the dominant form of popular jazz expression. The term was often applied to any band or combo that played in a peppy manner. The fact that fine dance bands like the one led by Kay Kyser could also play jazz muddied the situation either further. As a result, one approaches the 1939 Vitaphone short Swing Styles with some hesitation, although ultimately it is a fascinating eleven minute short that deserves detailed discussion.
Swing Styles was produced by Warner Bros. in New York City during mid-April 1939. Production file documents cryptically note that the film was completed “prior to July 6, 1939,” although this may refer to the date when the film was edited and ready for release. Rather than create a story for this “Melody Masters” one-reeler, producer Sam Sax and director Lloyd French decided on a simple stage setting with the segue from one act to the next accomplished via a rotating platform. This economy of staging and movement allowed for no fewer than six featured groups performing five musical titles, all of which were familiar tunes of the day. While David Mendoza is credited as musical director, his work was probably limited to organizing the one number that involved all of the artists in the short’s finale; the other numbers were likely part of each group’s “book” at the time.
The film was released in the fall, probably reaching the public in September or October 1939. While not the last Vitaphone short filmed on the East Coast, production of musical shorts would soon migrate to Hollywood, with a new production team, and less experimentation and innovation as we see in the East Coast releases.
Tito and Swingtette “A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn’t.” So goes the old joke, written by a wit who had never listened closely to Charles Magnante, Tommy Gumina, Joe Mooney, Leon Sash, Flaco Jimenez, Art Van Damme, or a host of others. Add to the list, if you will, Tito Guidotti.
Born October 22, 1910, Guidotti learned accordion as a youngster and was a working professional by the late 1920s. In the early 1930s he joined the Frank and Milt Britton Comedy Band, and he appeared with the band in the 1935 Rudy Valle feature SWEET MUSIC (Warner Bros.). The Britton band was a popular attraction and it is possible that Guidotti can be seen in its earlier films, including HITTING THE HIGH C’s (Warner Bros., 1931), MOONIGHT AND PRETZELS (Universal, 1933), SOCIETY NOTES (Paramount, 1934) and the later Warner Bros. short MILT BRITTON AND HIS WORLD FAMOUS ORCHESTRA (1937).
In late October 1938 Sidney Mills had what was reported in Variety (November 2, 1938) a “friendly parting with his father, Irving Mills… [as he] branched out as a talent manager on his own.” The first act signed by the newly-independent entrepreneur was Tito and Swingtette, which was playing at the time in the Blue Room at the Lincoln Hotel in Manhattan.
Sidney Mills was apparently an enterprising and motivated agent — he had certainly been well-schooled by his father — and he soon got Guidotti’s five piece group a sustaining program on NBC, as well as guest appearances on radio programs starring Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman. Guidotti’s “Swingtette” also appeared on the famed Saturday Night Swing Club. Mills, motivated by his success in New York City, soon obtained bookings out of town, including one at the State Theater in Hartford, Conn. A reviews in Variety (May 3, 1939) notes, “Unit is obviously experienced, but yet has a lot to learn about playing before a visual and instead of over the air audience. Starts off slow and works up to a fast tempo.”
During this period the Swingtette recorded on Victor’s low-price Bluebird subsidiary, although only one release has been traced to this point in time. They also recorded for the World Transcription service; the date and contents are not known. Guidotti was busy throughout the war years, and he made USO tours with Betty Hutton and Joe E. Brown.
In a recent interview Guidotti’s daughter, Dr. Sylvana Guidotti, noted that Tito “really enjoyed performing on the front lines with Joe E. Brown,” and that he had been chosen for the tour in part because Brown was looking for musicians who were willing to take that particular risk. “Brown needed men who could play without electricity, The young men would come in from the field, and the show would be presented at, say, an ammunition dump. They were filthy from their service, and after the show they would walk back to the front line and another group of soldiers would be brought in. All of the performers had paperwork that identified them as officers, in case they were capturedby the Japanese.”
After the war Guidotti and his family moved to Los Angeles where Tito and his wife opened a studio. With teaching, casual performances and a great deal of writing keeping him busy, Guidotti was active throughout the 1960s. By the early 1970s he had pretty much stopped public performances and was primarily teaching. He passed away in January 1981.
The group that appears in this short subject has only been partially identified, although it is definitely British musician Albert Harris who we see and hear on the Epiphone Emperor guitar. The accordion player to Guidotti’s left (Tito is seated in the center of the group) is probably Augie Papile, brother of Frank Papile, who played with Abe Lyman for many years. The remaining accordion player and string bass are unidentified.
Adrian Rollini Trio
During the 1920s there were relatively few jazz artists who specialized on the bass saxophone, and none were Adrian Rollini’s equal in terms of inventiveness, fluid technique and swing. Rollini can be found on hundreds of recordings beginning with the California Ramblers in 1922. He also recorded with the Goofus Five, a small group drawn from the Rambler personnel. Here he often worked on a penny whistle-type instrument called the hot fountain pen. Rollini recorded with the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Dorsey and others. Few of his waxings disappoint! At the same time Rollini also took up the vibraphone, becoming proficient on an instrument that is as different from the bass sax as possible.
Sometime in 1938 Adrian Rollini gave up the bass sax completely. Some have suggested that breathing problems due to asthma might have been the culprit. From that time on Rollini specialized on vibes and chimes. Between late 1937 and 1939 Rollini was associated with Richard Himber, and he appears in at least three shorts with the dance band leader. Most of Rollini’s work, however, was with a trio, and in this short subject we see him with his working trio that included Frank Victor on guitar and Harry Clark on string bass.
Rollini remained active throughout the 1940s, recording on occasion, appearing on radio (he had a series on WJZ in 1939), and performing on stage regularly, usually along the East Coast and as far west as Chicago. In 1948 Rollini’s trio recorded a series of television shorts for Video Varieties, the story of which (and one musical sample) can be found on my website by clicking here.
Milt Herth Trio
Organist Milt Herth was by no means a jazz artist, although he was certainly informed by the “swing” of 1930s jazz. The presence of Frank Froeba on piano adds a jazz sheen to the groups’s performance here. Like many other organ players of the period, Herth cut his musical teeth as a theater organist before beginning to perform on the radio and, ultimately, film. Moving from the midwest to Hollywood, Herth was featured on Al Pearce’s popular radio series.
Milt signed a contract with Decca Records and recorded organ solos for the label in 1936. Moving to New York City, Herth began a series of trio recordings that, surprisingly enough, featured two African-Americans: Willie “The Lion” Smith on piano, and O’Neil Spencer on drums and occasional vocal. The recordings were successful and at various times guitarist Teddy Bunn was added to the combo, with Billy Kyle occasionally replacing Smith. Obviously, film and stage appearances by a racially integrated group were rare during this period and while the mixed group may have appeared on radio, it is doubtful that they appeared together on stage.
Hardly a household name, Frank Froeba was on the jazz scene for many years, performing as a soloist, member of jazz combos and as big band pianist. Once, many years ago, a jazz historian mentioned to me that Art Tatum had the utmost respect for Froeba, and said that he [Tatum] would not want to “go up against him in a cutting contest.” This certainly runs counter to the Froeba we hear in the early Goodman band, whose constant ramblings in the higher keys brings to mind the lyric, “a tinkling piano in the next apartment.”
On the other hand, Froeba, who first recorded in 1924, spent the 1930s in constant demand as a reliable pianist on radio and on record dates as a Decca house pianist. For Decca, Froeba recorded with such diverse artists as Lil Hardin, Bob Howard, and the Andrews Sisters. In the early 1940s he spent time on New York radio and was a member of Merle Pitt and his Five Shades of Blue, a featured combo on WNEW. Froeba continued to recordas either a solo pianist or leader of a small combo well into the 1950s. His last public appearance might well have been at the IAJRC convention in Miami, Florida, in the summer of 1978. Froeba died in Miami in 1981.
Beside his work with Herth, drummer Dick Ridgely served as an auxiliary drummer for Paul Whiteman in the 1940s, often called in when George Wettling was not able to perform. He also played percussion with Whiteman in the 1950s0 and can be heard on Paul Whiteman recordings from as late as 1956. Soon after, Ridgely retired from music and opened Southhampton Steak House in the 1960s, which was a popular culinary destination for many years.
The Frazee Sisters
The Frazee Sisters, Ruth (the older of the two) and Jane, preformed as a vocal duo throughout the 1930s, one of many acts that featured tight harmony and a strong awareness of Swing music. The act was popular on radio and record, and they made a handful of short subjects before the act broke up in 1940.
Jane Frazee moved easily from the world of stage and radio vocalist to actress in which she had a long and successful career in film. Most of her screen appearances were in “B” films, many allowing her to sing and others featuring her in largely comic roles. Franzee went on to appear on television, later moving from the entertainment industry to real estate.
The Frazee Sister
Troy and Lynn
Little is known about Charles Troy and Zoe Lynn, although Troy was a working professional by the late 1920s, appearing as a “specialty dancer” in the 1929 Broadway play Lady Fingers. (It should be noted that Zoe Lynn is incorrectly credited on screen as “Joe Lynn.”)
When Charles Troy and Zoe Lynn began working together is unknown, although the two were on the vaudeville circuit for at least a decade, never headlining, but always appearing in prestige locations. They seem to have been constantly on the road as billings during the later 1930s and 1940s include Chicago’s State Theater (September 1937); the Paramount Theater in New York City (March 1939); the Olympia Theater in Miami (October 1941); Chicago’s Oriental Theater (August 1942); and the National Theater in Louisville (December 1945).
The team appeared in an extravagant Radio City Music Hall fantasy titled “Symphony in Color.” A November 1938 Variety review of the show pointed to the team’s “snappy ballrooming.”
Troy and Lynn
As one would expect, reviews of their act varied from booking to booking, probably reflecting more the taste of the reviewer than any lack of consistency in their routine. “Troy and Lynn are standard eccentric dancers, lacking any bell-ringing returns,” reads one review. Shortly thereafter, however, they are noted for their “clever stepping tactics… and nifty footwork in smooth precision style.” “Troy and Lynn do a neat dance act,” trumpets one review. “The semi-ballroom work rates as something of a novelty following the usual type of hotcha legomania tapping.” One reservation is noted by the reviewer: “Girl could use a skirt costume, however. Those pajamas don’t match the man’s tails.”
As late as summer 1947 the pair were being booked by the Lowes vaudeville booking office.
Diga Diga Doo
The film opens with Tito and Swingtette, playing behind the credits. All of the songs in the short would be familiar to modern audiences, and that was probably the case with audiences in 1939 as well. Diga Diga Doo is a song we often associate with Duke Ellington, although it was written for “Blackbirds of 1928” where it was introduced by Adelaide Hall. Dorothy Fields’s lyrics are not heard, and Tito and his combo work out on the music by Jimmy McHugh.
The tune is played up-tempo, with Guidotti soloing throughout to strong support from the other members of the group. If Guidotti’s phrasing and note choice is slightly “busy” at this tempo, his ideas are interesting and his technique strong; he should certainly be recognized as one of the earliest jazz accordion players. Midway through the number the tempo is cut in half and the team of Troy and Lynn enter for their dance routine. Guidotti seems more comfortable with this tempo, and his improvised line are more lyrical and inventive.
Considering that the song was written for a black musical, it is fascinating to see the dance team perform in a manner that has little to do with black vernacular dance. The two perform what would be considered “jitterbug dance,” but the routine is so full of dance cliches that, if one did not know better, it could be assumed that this was parody, rather than straight performance. The tempo doubles again for a chorus, then slows for a four bar break from Albert Harris. As the song concludes, the Swingtette is joined by vibes, guitar and string bass as the stage revolves to reveal the Adrian Rollini Trio.
Taken at a medium tempo, the performance begins with an “oriental vamp” and a counter melody played by Frank Victor. The group then moves into the familiar theme, with Rollini soloing in a relaxed and swinging manner. Rollini is spot on and economical, the essence of jazz swing and phrasing. String bassist Clark and Victor split a chorus followed, surprisingly, by a full chorus by Rollini on the tubular bells. He looses none of his jazz feel on this instrument. Frank Victor vamps as Rollini returns to the vibes. A swinging coda to the performance leads to the roving stage once again and to the next act in the film. This clip can be viewed on my website at:
Pagan Love Song
A drum introduction by Dick Ridgely introduces this pop song by Nacio Herb Brown, with Herth mainly playing melody, and Froeba improvising behind him. Herth’s solo follows in the same vein that might expect from Glenn Hardman and other popular organists from the period. Not a jazz feel, but no harm done. Froeba displays a strong right hand in his solo, with stride piano in the left. Hearth takes a chorus using just the organ pedals, a specialty of his, I would suggest, then a drum solo by Ridgely, a busy chorus that draws on the press roll and a lot of technical pyrotechnics. Back to the entire trio with for the final chorus.
It Had to Be You
The Frazee Sisters present this standard in swinging two-voice harmony, accompanied by Tito Guidott’s combo, and perhaps others, off screen. The girls have a strong screen presence, especially during the two shot close up when they sing the verse. While their vocal style is more pop than jazz — the duo’s vibrato is broader than that used by most jazz singers —- the arrangement is strong and their performance is one of the unexpected delights of the film.
The entire cast is present on screen for the finale. Trio and Swingtette are up first, followed the Rollini Trio, once again showcasing its jazz foundation and the chops of the trio members. The Milt Herth Trio is up next, with both Herth and Froeba given a chance to solo briefly. Out come Troy and Lynn, doing a comic two-in-one dance performance that would have been entertaining in its day but is dated and slightly embarrassing today. The Frazee Sisters enter from the left, applauding the proceedings as the short ends.
While not the strongest Vitaphone short where pure jazz content is concerned, this is nevertheless one of the better musical on- reelers released by Warner Bros. in the late 1930s. The short subjects division would soon abandon Brooklyn for Hollywood, and the new production personnel were, for the most part, less inventive than their East Coast counterparts. (Gjon Mili’s “Jammin’ the Blues” is, of course, the marvelous exception.) All of the tunes are well-known standards, all performed in a swinging manner. The trades tended to like the short: “Here’s an unusually good musical reel, done in gay spirit and featuring some odd, but always pleasing, instrumentation,” said Film Daily in October 1939.
The highlight of the film is, of course, the Adrian Rollini Trio, which proves that Rollini was a far more accomplished and underrated vibraphone than jazz historians have generally acknowledge. At a time when the Benny Goodman Trio was garnering most of the small-group accolades, the Rollini combo was not far behind.
Frankie Froeba’s work with the Milt Herth trio makes clear why he was such as highly respected musician. Securing the role of house pianist for Decca during this period, when many musicians were available to perform this respected and well paying service, points to Froeba’s musical versatility. Tito and Swingtette is exciting to see in action, and through this short we can begin to resurrect the career of an underrated musician who was one of the first to seriously explore jazz on the accordion.
The performance by the Frazee Sisters falls squarely in the realm of 1930s pop music, and, as noted above, is delightful. Of Troy and Lynn, perhaps it is fairest to say that they are “of the period,” and probably much more entertaining to audiences in 1939 than today.