End the Beguine

Posted March 22nd, 2013 at 10:13 pm (UTC+0)

by Eric Felten

Ray McDonald notes the new entries from the world of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. Given how many classic recordings there are, no doubt one could argue over whether “Saturday Night Fever,” for instance, really belongs on the list.

But permit me to quibble over a disc that might otherwise seem quibble-proof. Among the 25 sound recordings added this year to the registry is an undisputed classic of the Big Band Era, a Cole Porter tune that was rescued from obscurity in 1938 by Artie Shaw (and re-imagined brilliantly by Shaw’s arranger, Jerry Gray): Begin the Beguine.

Let’s agree that the recording is a thing of near-perfection from the first bars, in which the brass and saxes establish a sensual groove that is both relaxed and energetic. It builds steadily and finishes with an exuberant brass shout section and searing high notes from Shaw. But for all its wonders, I rather wonder if Begin the Beguine was such a good choice.

For one, there’s Shaw’s own crotchety disdain. In its write-up on “Begin the Beguine,” the Library of Congress notes that Artie “Shaw became disenchanted with having to play the song at every performance.” Talk about your understatement. Here’s how Shaw expressed his disdain for the recording that catapulted his band to fame: “How do you do the same tune every night in the same way? How many years can you play Begin the Beguine without getting a little vomity?” Such are the hazards of an iconic hit.

There are a couple of reasons to suggest another Shaw side for the Library of Congress’s honor roll of recordings. The first is that, for all its delights, Begin the Beguine lacks something essential — an improvised solo by Shaw, who was one of the most sophisticated soloists of the age, combining harmonic complexity with an aching, angst-inducing romanticism. The second reason is that on Begin the Beguine there is no solo by trombonist Jack Jenney.

It is Shaw’s recording of Stardust that remedies both those deficiencies. That recording is not a thing of near-perfection, but of perfection itself. Listen for the octave leap in Jenney’s trombone solo: It’s a moment so breathtaking that it could be on anyone’s registry all by itself.

Alas, Jack Jenney died just a few years after this was recorded.

3 responses to “End the Beguine”

  1. al gray says:

    Great to hear this comment. My dad was Jerry Gray (so is my son) and I love to see when he gets credit for his work. Thanks so much for the very kind words. al gray

    • efelten says:

      What a treat to hear from you. The arrangers were the all-too-often unsung heroes of the Big Band Era, and Jerry Gray was one of the best. Among his great arrangements for Artie Shaw was not just “Begin the Beguine,” but a beautiful side from the brief moment when Billie Holiday was singing with Shaw, “Any Old Time.”
      For those who may not know Gray as well as they should, he was the composer and arranger responsible for many of Glenn Miller’s biggest hits, writing and arranging “String of Pearls,” and (one of my favorites) “Caribbean Clipper.” And he was no less effective as an arranger of other composer’s tunes, such as his chart on the Harry Warren song “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”

  2. QB says:

    Quite right. Stardust is wonderful. I’ll never forget the surprise and joy when it came on over the credits of the Nicolas Roeg film The Man Who Fell To Earth back in the 1970s. No obvious reason for it to be there at all, except that it is timeless and perfect, and it was great to hear blasted out over the speakers of a full-size cinema like the Leicester Square theatre I was in. Big smiles all round.



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