Little Big Band
The time and place was 1941 Bates, and the Bobcats were as hip as they knew how.
By Bruce Park ’44
The trio — squeeze box, bass, and guitar — played a little oval dance floor on the excursion steamer that took us down the bay to the Cape Cod Canal. They played “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and I was hooked. 1934. Then came The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street for 15 minutes, Sunday afternoon on WEEI, broadcasting from Tremont Street in Boston. Good. 1935.
One Saturday morning in the Commodore Record Shop in New York City, I put on a 78 of Muggsy Spanier and about four others playing thrusting Chicago-style jazz. A skinny, middle-class kid in spectacles from Melrose, Mass. — “Spotless Town” — was getting into it. 1936.
Benny Goodman opened Camel Caravan with “Let’s Dance” and closed down with a “Goodbye” that would have surprised Tosti. In between we heard, maybe, “Stealin’ Apples,” and some ballads played so they moved. Artie Shaw’s band did “Back Bay Shuffle” on the Boston Common, for free. We had to pay to hear Tommy Dorsey, with Frank Sinatra. Better. 1937-38.
Moving up: One Friday night, Harvey and I went up to Kimball’s Starlight Ballroom in Lynnfield, Mass., to hear the Duke Ellington band. Sonny Greer, so thin he could have disappeared behind Sinatra, came on first, tuned his snare, hit a few muted rim shots. The rest drifted in a few at a time, noodled. Then, The Man Himself was at the piano. 1939.
I went, pretty shaky, to a dance band tryout-rehearsal one evening in Chase Hall. I survived and got the job, largely, by default. There really wasn’t anybody else. I could read and play the blues. My best key was C. Saverio “Shove” Scavotto ’42 fixed me with a commanding eye from behind his traps: “Your job is to keep the beat.”
This was the best. I was inside — not far — but inside. I was the piano player for the Bates Bobcats, the most popular thing on campus in 1941. For a fearful, acnoid freshman, being a Bobcat meant instant status: In Rand Hall’s reception lounge, some pretty girl I didn’t even know would spot me and conduct me to the piano to play “Stardust” or “Sophisticated Lady.” Maybe I played “Walkin’ by the River” — hardly near the top of the hit parade but popular at Bates — where the title was sometimes rendered “Scroggin’ by the ‘Scoggin.” I didn’t have to stand with the rest of the ravenous in the holding pen at the Commons. The door opened to me, and I was brought to a beat upright to play boogie-woogie. I even got to claim my spot at table before the herd thundered in.
The proximate power at Bates in the early ’40s was Harry W. Rowe ’12, properly a Bates icon. At best, Dean Rowe tolerated the Bobcats. Perhaps he’d have liked to close us down. Like most of the people who ran Bates in those days, Harry Rowe liked to be in control of things, liked to see that they fit his image of the College.
Yet the band was slippery, and Dean Rowe couldn’t keep tabs on us. Our leader in the early ’40s, Howard Jordan ’44 (succeeding Stanton Smith ’41) had connections and got us jobs off campus: Bowdoin, the University of Maine, at fraternity tea dances, four in the afternoon until three in the morning. One famous gig took the band to Bar Harbor and back in time for 7:40 class on Monday. We played grange halls and town halls, sometimes a long way from campus. Once we got a booking for a club in Boston. Dean Rowe said no.
We took the college name on our Bates-garnet flannel blazers, on our music stands, to uncertain places. Further, he scented something like sin. One phrase from the Freshman Handbook became proverbial irony among us all: “Bates frowns….” Some shadow of that frown crossed Dean Rowe’s brow. Did he smell alcohol? A little. A jug of fermented cider might have sat on the outside window sill in a hard freeze: Bates Calvados. My freshman roommate, the late Perry Stone ’44, came home drunk after an evening at the Silver Slipper. (His widow told me he had got drunk because he was a homesick Jew from East Orange, N.J., in a nest of New England WASPs.)
Was there sex in the air? Maybe. We were young. But what was at the root? Know it or not, Dean Rowe smelled jazz, more dangerous than the poolroom in River City, more potent than the fetid Androscoggin River. The music curriculum at Bates in those days included just two courses — Music Appreciation 201, 202 — taught by Seldon Tupper Crafts, organist and choir director. What did he think of the Bobcats? Probably he heard what we played as a renegade music, quite outside the pale.
What Dean Rowe smelled was what we loved, what the student body loved. We agreed with Ronnie Graham in Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952: “Man! I can’t stand anythin’ square.” We took our pants to a tailor downtown to have them pegged, cinched from the knee down so tight you had to take off your shoes to take off your pants. Some of us wore porkpie hats. We really looked sharp. Our form of address was “Man.”
But as my roommate Perry knew, we were a long way from New York and even further from New Orleans, where 24 years earlier the U.S. Navy had shut down the infamous Storyville — the dance clubs, the bars, the cribs, the whole tissue of black-polyglot life in and out of the quarter from which jazz had come. Ours was a pale imitation of vice. We were as hip as we knew how at Bates College, 1941. We felt our limits. We were Bates boys about to enter a wider world the hard way.
Sixty years later, after 47 years of rock — Bill Hailey and the Comets, “Rock around the Clock,” to heavy metal and punk — the Grateful Dead are now old. Jerry Garcia’s dead. On April 15, 2001, Jeffrey Hyman, Joey Ramone of the “three chord thrash,” father of punk, died at 49. On page 14 of the Bates President’s Report 2000, Mark Dobbyn ’03 of Warren, R.I., sits on the porch of Wilson House, on Frye Street, on a warm October afternoon. “This winter,” says the caption, “he’s taking ‘Jazz Performance Workshop,’ a theory and applied music course that culminates in public performances of small-group jazz improvisation as well as jazz standards.”
Mark could use a nice big 17-inch traditional archtop jazz guitar like the one Mike Lategola ’46 brought to his tryout in 1942. Mike had waited and waited at Chase. Finally, Howard, Merle, and Lou — expecting no tryout candidates — showed up, spotted Mike’s pickup and amp and said, “You’re hired!” Perhaps Mark and his mates in that music course watched Ken Burns’ Jazz: America’s Music and listened to all five CDs for the rest of the homework. I hope they enjoyed it. I hope they like to play. I hope they had a great recital. I don’t suppose anyone danced.
Jazz made it all the way to Carnegie Hall. Now it’s enshrined at Lincoln Center. Wynton Marsalis gives an annual viewing. Jazz — sanitized, sanctified, where once it was suspect, a musical pariah — has come to roost in the catalog and classrooms at Bates College 2001. Mark and his mates may be living in the latter days of the music, the time of summing up, codification — curriculum.
The Bobcats of 1941 were about 20 years from the jazz’s beginning. The inner circle in the early 1940s included Howard Johnson ’44, trumpet; Lou Scolnik ’45, tenor sax; Merle Eastman ’43, alto sax; Bill Walters ’43, trombone; and Stan Smith ’41 and Camp Thomas ’43, trumpets. Lou and Merle, like any big-band musicians of the day, doubled clarinet.
Big bands grew bigger in the ’40s. Count Basie’s 1937 band had but 12 pieces. By bandleader Stan Kenton’s time in the mid-1940s, bands had swelled to 20 or more. But we couldn’t squeeze 13 pieces out of a student body of about 700. Since Howard Jordan and Lou Scolnik were Lewiston men — they had played together in high school in bands led by Lloyd Rafnell and Lou Paul, with Dick Poulin’s Varsiteers — we were able to recruit some townies. (The Bobcats, which emerged as a band as early as 1930, certainly had roots in Lewiston. Richard Tuttle ’35 remembers band leader Gil Clapperton ’32 augmenting the band with Lewiston musicians.) Our townies in ’41 included Ray Lebel, Howard Dion, trumpets; Carroll Poulin, tenor sax; Bob Bedard, bass. An earnest fellow, Bedard read his bass part. Few bass players do.
The pivot point was the Saturday night dance, seven to 11, Chase Hall, in a space that’s changed little in 60 years. For $36, Bates got a big band for four hours. We might do a little better with off-campus gigs, but our Bates fee was not negotiable, and Saturday night was contractual.
The boys wore their best suits, in some cases their one suit. (Bates ran that way back then: A girl at Cornell in 1953, on the other hand, was surprised to see a roommate unpack 32 angora sweaters.) In Bates’ “New Dorm” at 6:15 of a Saturday night, you couldn’t see in the showers for the steam. More steam came from hot irons on slightly shiny navy-blue pants. A smell of Vitalis hung in the air. Ties were borrowed and loaned. A pocket watch, if you had one, sat in a little pocket on the top right side of your pants. A chain ran to your side pocket with keys or a nail clipper on the end. Shirts: well starched and white. When the boys were ready, they looked ruddy and scrubbed, every hair in place. When the dorm doors shut behind them, shoeshine rags lay abandoned on floors.
And the girls they met at Chase? Beautiful, every one! What was the scene upstairs at Rand or Frye at 6:15 of a Saturday night? We could only guess. Those were mysteries. We saw, smelled only the results. By day it was sox and saddles, sweaters and skirts. For the dance it was pumps, hose, dresses. Chanel? #5!
Remember when we get there honey, Two steps I’m gonna have ’em all!
The Bobcats sat behind folding cardboard stands with the Bates logo; a little clip-on light illuminated the score when the house lights went down and the spot hit the 300 little mirrors on the revolving ball hanging from the middle of the Chase ceiling. When we took the downbeat from Howard for the first number of the first set, that floor was jammed in moments.
The Bobcats did ballads, a lot of them. We were a dance band. The dancing to them was quiet and close, cheek-to-cheek if the girl was tall enough or the boy short enough. They were inside the music, alone together in the crowd. Loves that began on that floor led to Bates grandchildren. We played “I’ll Never Smile Again, Only Forever,” “This Is No Laughing Matter,” “A Sinner Kissed an Angel,” “This Love of Mine,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” “He’s My Guy,” “I Had the Craziest Dream,” “Moonlight Becomes You,” “Serenade in Blue.” We did “Walkin’ by the River.” We did Bob Haggert’s “What’s New?” Sis Entress ’44 sang “Under a Blanket of Blue.”
The band and the dancers were symbiotic. The dance was the upbeat for Monday through Friday. Dancers would cluster in front of the band to hear and see Scolnik or Eastman solo. “The Bobcats made Saturday night come alive, something to look forward to,” Bob Cote ’43 said.
“Your Red Wagon,” “Pompton Turnpike,” “720 in the Books,” “Celery Stalks at Midnight,” “Little Rock Getaway,” “Let Me Off Uptown,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” “Blue Skies,” “One O’Clock Jump” had more brass, up-tempo stuff which, as Virginia O’Brien put it, “done swang.” This dancing was open, fast, athletic, acrobatic — jitterbug, in fact. Bates’ version of “Killer” Joe Piro, the man who cleared a space on the floor with his partner, was George Sommernitz, a Swiss national, a ski jumper off Mount David.
The band dressed as hip as we knew how. We played as hip as we knew how. Lou Scolnik ’45 could practically get sideways as he soloed. Norman “Doc” Lloyd ’44 worked on a tenor tone that could scrape the paint. When he soloed he pumped out the notes.
Down on 52nd street, at Minton’s, Thelonius Monk was the house pianist. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were inventing bop as they went along. Part of the idea was stuff the white boys couldn’t play: “Epistrophe,” “Parker’s Mood,” “Donna Lee,” “In Walked Bud.”
We were white boys in Lewiston, Maine. What did we know?
Yet even Saturday night ends. After a dozen sets and the intermission, dance cards complete, the lights went down, and we went into Camp Thomas’ arrangement of Bates songs: “The Bates Smoker”: “Oft’ times at night, I light my pipe, and dream of dear old Bates.” We were as sinful as we knew how.
After the ball was over? For the boys, grilled-cheese sandwiches from a waffle iron, Bismarks and Napoleons from Peterson’s. All-night bridge games. Parlor games, like a limerick circle, where you drop out if you can’t invent a limerick on your turn. (A decade earlier, Richard Tuttle ’35 remembers the band packing up and rushing back to the dorm to listen to the National Biscuit Co.’s Let’s Dance, 11:30 to one in the morning. Benny Goodman alternated with Kel Murray and Xavier Cugat. The Bobcats preferred Goodman: “We’d all groan when Cugat came on,” Tuttle said.)
And what did the girls do? The girls had to be logged in by 11:15. The curfew reduced the occasions for sin. What did they do once in? Who knew?
As the years passed, we wondered how the band really sounded. Mike Lategola ’46 says the band was good, that the section work was right — good intonation, clean attacks and cuts. No one will ever know: The Bobcats were never recorded.
At the 40th Bates Reunion of ’44, the remnants of 1941-43 gathered in Chase with the remnants of the townies to play a Chase Hall dance. The band was pretty bad, but when I saw the moves on that floor I knew we were still a dancing generation. We played the ballads for the dancers. We also played the stuff that swung. We played it for the dancers, but even more, we played for us.
Some of the band kept on, even still are, playing. Lou Scolnik found time off from his seat on Maine’s highest court to play tenor. Merle Eastman played with a big band around Concord, N.H., until recently. Stan Smith plays with two bands, one called The Ambassadors. Howard Jordan had one band or another most of his adult life. After meeting the Russians on the Rhine in the spring of ’45, mortar-squad man Mike Lategola played guitar with a group that went to camps where American soldiers waited to go home. They held occasional reunions for years.
In the 1940s, we didn’t have to buy a CD and take it home to hear jazz. We were living in a window when, largely through big bands, jazz surfaced and triumphed. Jazz was everywhere. When Artie Shaw took his band to the allied camps in Europe after Normandy, he was “stunned” by the response, as he said on Ken Burns’ Jazz. He was not easily stunned — he owned the bobbysoxers. Postwar, the music faded until the knockout blow from rock sent it back underground.
At Bates, the lights went down for the last smoker in the spring of 1943. The annual group photo of the Bobcats disappeared from the Bates Mirror that year too. Many of the men on campus were already in boot camps, basic training, on battlegrounds. By the summer, nearly all of us were gone, leaving the Bates campus to be populated mostly by women and V-12s, potential Navy officers in gobs uniforms. In the spring of its last year, the Bobcats were playing “When The Lights Go On Again All Over the World”:
When the lights go on again all over the world
And the boys are home again all over the world
And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above
A kiss won’t mean “goodbye” but “hello to love.”
At a Bobcat gig in Orono, Howard Jordan ’44 entered a cutting contest with the UMaine band’s lead trumpet man. When it was over the Maine man was in shreds. Jordan retired behind the stand to throw up — it’s called blowing your guts out. He was not a man to duck or lose a contest.
Howard Jordan, who died in January 2000 at the age of 77, was the Bobcat band leader 1941-43. He had an imperturbable oval face, a disposition toward five o’clock shadow, dark hair lying close to his head, a compact figure, and a taste for double-breasted suits. His movements were economical and purposeful. Merle Eastman ’43 nicknamed him “Mole,” from the Dick Tracy villain with furry hands, but you didn’t say it to his face.
His style was laconic, ironic. He would chant, obliquely, “You must remember this, a gliss is still a gliss.” He was simply sure of and sure in himself, as a man, as a musician. By the fall of 1941, not yet 20, he was not only a trumpet player both talented and authoritative, but a bandleader, a veteran professional in a trade I’d just entered with real joy and realer trepidation.
From him I learned a useful principle of musical judgment: “He couldn’t play ‘Come to Jesus’ in whole notes.” He liked to play the blues, but he had no false reverence for that archetypal American art form:
Pappy’s got bunions,
He don’t wear any shoo-hoos.
Pappy’s got bunions,
He don’t wear any shoo-hoos.
Pappy’s got bunions,
He’s got those barefoot blues.
Jordan came to Reunion 1984. Behind Chase, he opened the trunk of his car to show me his new horn. Years before, he had played a long horn. Sis Entress Holmes ’44, Bobcat vocalist, says she thought of him as “the archangel Gabriel.” Behind Chase, he showed me a Bix horn, a cornet. At that Reunion, he played not only cornet but alto sax. His wife, Pat, herself a fine musician, had taught him. Four years later, Jordan had survived encephalitis, but his memory had not. He no longer played alto. But he could still play the trumpet. Early and late, he was faithful to the horn.
— Bruce Park ’44