Sweet sounds live on

Ella Fitzgerald came to Baltimore’s Fifth Regiment Armory for a concert when I was a high school kid directing my own dance band. She shared the stage with a major big band, I believe it was Tommy Dorsey’s, if memory serves. I begged my parents, but we simply couldn’t afford tickets. To this day, I regret the missed opportunity to hear the great Ella in person.

The armory, built at the turn of the century, resembles a stone fortress. In 1912, it hosted the Democratic National Convention that nominated Woodrow Wilson. In my youth, I found my way inside its walls for a Boy Scout Jamboree event and to witness wild west shows that included audience members trying to last a minute or longer on the back of Big Sid, a fierce-looking bull.

Dance bands were at their peak of popularity in the 1950s, and Baltimore was full of them, many of them populated with young musicians, including high school students, as mine was. We competed for gigs with older bands, all of us providing live music for dances and wedding receptions across the city. One established band leader directed a large roster of experienced players, most of them African American. He had so many working for him, he could book his bands at multiple engagements on the same might and often did.

Our aggregation consisted of seven to 12 players, depending on the gig, and always included a minimum of a lead trumpet, a trombone, three saxes, piano and drums. We frequently added a second trumpet, a bass player and a fourth sax as the gig required. We played a lot for sock hops and occasionally high school proms and more formal dances at city recreation centers, the downtown YMCA, and large churches. Our biggest engagement was a booking for a 12-piece band at Gettysburg College.

Baltimore’s USO invited us to join its weekend troupe that traveled to various military venues surrounding Baltimore and Washington, including Fort Meade, Holabird, Quantico, Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval hospitals. Every Sunday we were bused to these military bases, along with a cast of dancers, singers, puppeteers, and magicians, to entertain the troops and hospital patients. My head is full of happy images and memories of these outings.

Bill Haley and the Comets recorded “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Rock Around the Clock” during my senior year, and suddenly a new breed of bands, the kind that had to be plugged in to electric sound systems, took over.

Live dance band music continues to please multiple generations of listeners and dancers. We who love big band music find that we have lots of company today, these many years later. I don’t play my trombone any more, but I still derive a lot of pleasure singing with a 17-piece aggregation called The Ambassadors Big Band.

And listening to Ella’s recordings.





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