By James M. deFrances
Last Thursday when I walked through the door at Catalina’s Jazz Club it felt as though I had just walked through a portal to a different time. The club beamed with old Hollywood, from the bandstand on stage to the many recognizable industry folk who dotted the room. As far as the big band, jazz and film music world are concerned this night was a “who’s who” event.
Produced by April Williams and veteran orchestrator/conductor, Tim Simonec, “Vintage Masters of Swing” was a guaranteed hit, even on paper. The concept was to bring together some of the greatest living legend Swing arrangers, composers and conductors in one room for one night, and it succeeded overwhelmingly.
First to take the baton was Elliot Deutsch, a bright young bandleader whose big band has been turning heads lately. Simonec chose Deutsch’s band to play as the house band for the evening with all the living legends conducting their respective tunes. The first selection was “Pure Imagination,” from Deutsch’s new album The Push.
Next to take the stage was veteran arranger, perhaps the Grandfather of all modern arrangers, 99 year old Van Alexander. He delighted the audience with some comedy and reminisced about his long career before playing “Blues in Twos” followed by “A Tisket, A Tasket” with vocals by jazz artist Tierney Sutton. Alexander concluded by providing some insight on living long, which he attributes to his policy of “never touching a cigarette, a glass of whiskey or a woman until he was 11 years old!”
Next on deck was Patrick Williams who got up and exclaimed: “Why is it that everyone I care about is in this room right now?” a clear reminder of the sheer amount of talented individuals both on the evening’s playbill and in the audience. Williams talked mostly about Frank Sinatra, then proceeded to conduct his instrumental arrangement of “I’ve Got The World On A String” from his Sinatraland album.
After Williams took his bows, Sammy Nestico’s segment began, Deutsch conducted because he said Sammy had told him to “let a younger guy do it!” Nestico could be seen sitting with his wife Shirley, smiling and nodding as his songs “Two Sides Of The Coin” and “Blue Samuel” were played to his satisfaction. He did not address the audience after the set, but waved affectionately as they applauded. Simonec then returned to the stage to talk about Whiplash, the new film he scored which is in theaters now. He brought up JK Simmons, who stars in the film, to conduct the next piece entitled “Too Hip To Retire.”
Ralph Carmichael was up next and he stole the show with his new, never before heard arrangement of “Unforgettable.” He dedicated the love song to his wife and as the final bars were played the thunderous applause was a direct indication that this was a definite high point of the evening.
Unfortunately, renowned arranger Bill Holman couldn’t attend but Deutsch picked up his conducting responsibility after Carmichael left the stage, playing Holman’s chart on “Stomping At The Savoy” and his closing theme for the Oscars. In the end the band closed with a supercharged, Ralph Carmichael arrangement of The Gershwins’ “Strike Up the Band.”
The audience roared as the legendary conductors came up to take their final bows. Simonec assured the patrons that this would indeed be happening again and soon if he could help it. To be certain, this was a golden aged Hollywood evening for the music history books.