Musical Notes from Jazz Age, Big Band Era

April 01, 2011

Over the years these icons of 20th-century music worked with everyone from Tommy Dorsey and Nat “King” Cole to Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Carol Burnett, from to Leonard Bernstein and Burt Bacharach to Ella Fitzgerald, Barbara Streisand and Linda Ronstadt.

They played music, led bands, wrote original arrangements, won awards and – fortunately – saved enough material to create a detailed mosaic of 20th-century American music that lives on at the University of Arizona. The Artie Shaw Collection alone includes 93 boxes that span 30 linear feet.

The Jazz and Popular Music Collection in the UA School of Music has been expanding since 1991 and now attracts international attention.

The collection began with Artie Shaw (1910-2004), a noted jazz clarinetist, bandleader, composer, arranger and writer. He was born Arthur Arshawsky and taught himself to play the saxophone in Manhattan. He worked as a session musician until forming his own band in 1936. His first hit recording was Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” in 1938, the year Shaw became known as “King of the Clarinet.” He led several bands, then wrote books. The Artie Shaw Collection is made up chiefly of more than 600 music scores and instrument parts, plus photographs, correspondence and all known “Artie Shaw and His Orchestra” recordings.

Nelson Riddle (1921-1985) was a prolific arranger/composer known for his radio, television, film and recording successes. He started as trombonist, performing with a Marine Corp Training Band, then the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. He was hired as an arranger for NBC Radio, met Nat “King” Cole and arranged 15 of his recordings for over 10 years. He also became the primary arranger for Frank Sinatra and other vocalists, spanning three decades and including albums with Tucson’s own Linda Ronstadt. The UA Collection includes arrangements, correspondence, photographs, recordings and personal materials.

Les Baxter (1922-1996) was a Texas-born pianist with roots in the big-band era and a vision very far beyond. A sophisticated world traveler, his music became know as Exotica, reflecting in lavish colors and sounds found in the far-flung corners of the world. His first record was “Music Out of the Moon,” featuring an eerie unearthly electronic instrument called the theremin. An album with Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac set sales records worldwide. After scores of hit albums, he focused on film, arranging 150 motion picture scores in every genre – from horror and sci-fi to Ingmar Bergman and contemporary rock. The bulk of his library consists of his music arrangements, plus photographs, recordings and production materials.

Tommy Shepard (1923-1993) took up the trombone at 16 and won a national competition a year later. After touring, he settled in Chicago as a studio trombonist for orchestras at NBC, ABC and CBS. He moved to Los Angeles where he worked for the major film studios, played for television networks and recorded for an eclectic array of celebrities – ranging from Sinatra, Cole, Crosby, Streisand, Fitzgerald and Ronstadt to Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, Ray Charles, Andy Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Vikki Carr and Barry Manilow. In 1963 he began taking photographs of stars and musicians alike to document his work in Hollywood. This collection includes 8,000 prints and negatives – images that preserve an era of American music.

Another esoteric collection focuses on copyist, librarian, orchestrator and woodwind player Vern Yocum (1909-1991). The Vern Yocum Collection is the first of its kind to honor not only the legacy of a music copyist, but also the art of handwritten music notation. Yocum is best known for developing Hollywood’s top music preparation office, servicing hundreds of performers from the radio, television, film and recording industries. Before printed music and computerized notation programs, music was written by hand in fine calligraphy, sometimes on Yocum’s personalized music-staff paper, or by using the Ozalid print process from a master holograph composed on onion skin. The collection includes music, calligraphy tools, business records and other documents.

These and other rare collections “preserve part of our cultural heritage,” said Keith Pawlak, UA adjunct music instructor and curator. He teaches Jazz History and Jazz Arranging. Much of his time is devoted to preserving and perpetuating the great music produced by American recording artists of the 20th century. He has produced numerous oral histories on the musicians of Hollywood.

These and other archival music collections are open to the public by appointment. Contact Pawlak in the UA School of Music at keithpatemail [dot] arizona [dot] edu (keithpatemail [dot] arizona [dot] edu) or visit these links to the collections: