Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, pt. 2

In Chapter Two of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, we’re there as Vallée’s band of musicians begin the engagement that would bring them fame and acclaim, at NYC’s Heigh-Ho Club.

Chapter II


I was not a bit hurt when I saw the change of expression that came over the faces of the five boys who did not know me, because I realize only too well that I do not look like an orchestra leader. The other two, Cliff Burwell and the tenor saxophonist, Joe Miller, had played with me and knew that I had some ideas and liked my work. I had played many engagements with Cliff Burwell at the Westchester Biltmore during my college years. In fact, I regarded his pianistic ability so highly that had I been unable to secure him I would not have taken the Heigh-Ho engagement.
To me the piano is the and soul of the orchestra, without which you have nothing. And as I had for a long time had the idea in my head which I was now about to put into practice, I knew I would need a pianist who knew his keys thoroughly, and had a good memory for old pieces; one who could learn new pieces quickly, could play a tune in any key and, above all, could take piano choruses alone with only the drum accompanying him and play them in a way that would sound like four hands at the piano.
In all my dance orchestra experience I had played with the best of pianists. In London, our pianist was England’s best. The American with whom I had sailed to London, who was one of America’s greatest. The men I played with while at Yale were the best. I had become quite spoiled, and since this was the first band of my own, I felt that to start with a poor pianist would be to whip me before I began.
I had wired Burwell, who was in New Haven, playing very little as work was at a standstill. He was a wonderful man who had never been sufficiently featured and brought out where the public could appreciate his marvelous artistry. Today I think he thanks me for doing just that. I was very greatly relieved when he wired back that he would come, and that he could also secure Joe Miller, the tenor saxophone who lived near him and to whom I had also wired.
The rest of the men were strange to me.
There was Ray Toland, drummer, six and one half feet tall, size fifteen shoes. For several years he had played with Mannie Lowy, our first violinist, who has a wonderfully sweet tone and a loyal and energetic personality.
Next came Charlie Peterson, our banjoist, who came in from the middlewest with a Minnesota accent and the taste of several colleges; good-natured and always day-dreaming.
Then there was Harry Patent, our little bass player, quite as devoted to the study of music as my pianist. Harry had played the violin in junior symphonies and had decided to take up the string bass at the age of seventeen. He had practiced long and faithfully but had failed to secure an engagement anywhere, because he looked too young; so he conceived the bright idea of growing a mustache, which did indeed lend him an air of sophistication. Someone had recommended him to us and we gave him his first opportunity. Today he is rated as one of the world’s finest string bass players and has never failed to evoke admiration from other musicians.
Finally came one of the boys who is the bane of my existence and at the same time a great personality. With a name like Jules De Vorzon you would look for no less than one of the descendants of the old Canadian fur trappers who would have difficulty in eliminating a “Canuck accent”; instead you find a pop-eyed individual whose face is a puzzle. He might be Italian, or French, or even Jewish, which he really is. Jules—always late, always making engagements at the last minute; wrapped up in his girl whom he loves more than life itself—but little Jules, irrepressible, buoyant, with a vitality that expresses itself in a thousand ways that always brings a smile and an invitation to the tables of our guests.
These were my recruits, and I saw they looked at me in a disappointed sort of way because that is the first reaction of the average person who sees me for the first time. My appearance was never calculated to inspire awe or respect in anyone. It has given me a great humorous kick, when, in the course of our vaudeville engagements, we have gone to the stage door of a new theatre to find our dressing rooms and the stage door man has invariably said to me, “When will Mr. Vallée be here?

I have long ago become resigned to this. And indeed it was some time before my boys came to realize that when I spoke to them they should give me attention because my words usually meant dollars and cents—the thing they were striving for. I have often wished for a personality that even in immobility would command complete silence and attention. But I suppose that that carries with it a certain hardness that might have destroyed some other part of me which, perhaps, is likeable. Those who know me, know that in spite of this day-dreaming attitude of mine, I can be very quick, and firm, and I have always been able in the end to secure discipline from those who work for me.
We had only a little while to do anything, but I saw one thing that must be accomplished before we entered the Heigh-Ho Club.
Don Dickerman, whom we had yet to meet, had been trying various bands. He had opened the Heigh-Ho Club in a rush, to be ready for New Year’s Eve. The floor was poor and he said his opening band was worse. A bad impression had been given those whom he wished to impress favorably. The food, as always in any Dickerman establishment, was superb and beyond reproach. Our manager had also had a previous opportunity for tryout, but his first band had failed. The appearance of the band had been against it and there had not been enough singing.
We had hired Jules De Vorzon as the vocalist. Although in my letters to the orchestra leaders I had said that I sang a bit, the kidding I had received at the hands of a Yale pianist with whom I had been in vaudeville, had made me feel, even though he had chosen me to sing lead in a trio on our tour of vaudeville during the summer, that I should stick to my saxophone. I was engaged primarily to lead our little orchestra at the Heigh-Ho Club and to play the saxophone.
Our manager had talked Dickerman into a second tryout. I took account of stock and I saw that, having only eight men, our instrumentation would not permit us to play the complete scores of the tunes as they are usually orchestrated. We had no brass, that is, no trumpet or trombone. And these are absolutely essential in different spots in the course of any one of these orchestrations. But the fact that we began by playing only choruses, with an occasional verse, was not primarily born of necessity; rather did I realize that the chorus was the kernel an the heart of the tune in question and that all else, even the verse, was superfluous.
By that, I mean I had noticed that the average person listening to a band begins to hum or whistle the air only at the chorus. These are the people we are playing for, and I realized that if they become bewildered by a complicated modulation leading to a chorus, or a chorus harmonized so elaborately that its simplicity is lost, then the average person is unable to carry the melody along; the listener becomes bored with orchestra, which he promptly characterizes as monotonous, and either turns away from it, or tunes off if he is listening to it on the radio.
I knew that the vogue for “hot” bands was really appreciated only by musicians and by a few individuals were interested in “hot” band arrangements and who at places where these bands performed were of a nature to allow this music to work them into a frenzy of dancing. I knew also that to play “hot” music one must have brass. Although I do enjoy this so-called “hot” music, when properly rendered, and get as great a kick as any musician out of Red Nichols, Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang and other masters of that style, I realized that it was over the heads of the vast majority of people who, after all, are those who buy the records and sheet music.
But there was one other vital point that most inexplicably seemed to have been lost sight of, or never thought of, by most of the orchestra leaders that I had played under; (and it had been my good fortune to have played under something like forty leaders since I had taken up the saxophone in 1920). This point I call “key color.”
Every key has its own tone color which produces a certain definite effect, just as every actual color makes an impression upon us human beings. For instance, we all know that white gives the sensation of cleanliness an coolness; that is why hospital rooms and ice boxes are so painted. Red suggests warmth and relaxation. Likewise each key has either a certain brilliance, or the very opposite effect of sombreness or gloom. The greatest offense of most orchestra leaders is their absolute failure to realize the value of contrast in key color. I have played under leaders who for half an hour have played six pieces consecutively, all in the same key, never realizing that they were not only boring themselves to death but sapping the very life out of their listeners. Versatility and contrast have been two of the cardinal features of my work ever since I can remember; never to let people know what was coming next, to keep them guessing, has always been one of my ambitions. Therefore I realized there was nothing more beautiful than contrast of keys. This contrast is accomplished by following a piece in one flat by another piece in two; then change to another in three and so on, deceasing or increasing the signature in flats or sharps or by changing radically, say from four flats to two sharps (which method often gives a more beautiful and striking effect).
The majority of the listeners who now like our music are not really aware of the reasons why our music first intrigued them. But it was just such contrast of tone color that made our music so agreeable. I had noticed that on society engagements, some orchestras had received a request for another tune, and not wishing to stop and get the music out, had attempted to go right into it, with the result that the transition was usually very discordant and distasteful to the ear. And yet this thing was a very common occurrence in the best orchestras at the best affairs. I realized that the only way this could be avoided was to make a perfect bridge between each song; each man must know where the change came and just what notes he should strike when the change occurred. I know that all changes, regardless of the tune or the place where the change itself took place, were guided by certain rules, adn that the men would have to learn these rules and the different chords they would have to hold, to perfect the change.
So we spent that hour in perfecting that one thing. I know that most of the boys were rather skeptical and surprised; even though they were of a musical turn of mind, they thought me rather crazy. But today they are tremendously proud of the ease and clocklike precision with which we jump from one tune to another.
After that hour of rehearsal we went with our instruments to the Heigh-Ho Club, over in the aristocratic East Side section. I will never forget the breath-taking sensation we experienced on entering the Heigh-Ho Club. To describe it is impossible. I think it was the greatest thing that Don Dickerman ever did.
Simplicity, and yet great beauty. Gold as the predominating color. Everything so tasteful, so subdued. Dignified, and yet with a touch of Dickerman humor beneath it all. A tremendous landscape mural on one side, faced a mural of the bottom of the sea, decorated with the odd fish that Dickerman had drawn as staff artist with the Beebe expedition. In all this there was humor, which you might see by glancing at the centerpiece in the middle of the ceiling where, among the stately signs of the zodiac, you encountered one of the little half-man, half-animal figures thumbing his nose! That was Dickerman, always dignified with his tongue in his cheek!
The band platform, beautifully draped, was the best, acoustically, from which we have ever played.
Directly behind my drummer was a big live white cockatoo, from South America. He was not a speaking bird, but we had only to frighten him by a glance or unintentional movement, or even a loud voice, to cause him to raise his beautiful yellow crest while he watched for trouble. We loved that bird from the moment we saw him, but it was months before we were able to stroke him on the crest or under his beak.
Three lights played on us from different angles, one directly on me from the middle of the stand.
The evening found us ready to play at seven, and off we went.
As I have said, the stage was acoustically perfect and the opening number did my heart good. After a while Dickerman joined some of the guests and I asked our vocalist, Julie, to sing a song while we played.
I was called to the Dickerman table and told that Julie’s voice was taboo. Julie had been a great entertainer in vaudeville with some great acts, but Dickerman felt that his style was not quite suited to the Heigh-Ho Club, in which point I was forced to agree with him.
This was an embarrassing situation. The man we had hired to sing was barred from his task. There was a danger of losing the audition,, just as our manager’s other band had lost it, due to the lack of singing.
No one else felt like coming into the breach, so, nothing loath, I picked up a megaphone which I had carried in the bell of my baritone saxophone (it was an old one which I had used several summers before at a beach in Maine where I played and occasionally sang a few songs). It happened that I knew the words of a couple of songs which I had taught Burwell, our pianist, in New Haven. I sang these, and one of them, called “Rain,” later became one of our radio favorites.
Dickerman smiled broadly, which was his way of showing approbation. At the end of the evening he told me that he was satisfied; in fact, he was more than satisfied, he was enthusiastic about the band from both the appearance angle and the playing angle. The band and my singing had pleased him, and the job was ours. So we felt very happy.
The most surprised man in the band was my drummer who had heard me previously and who thought it was sheer suicide to put me in charge of this delicate engagement. He himself had an excellent voice which also pleased Dickerman very much. Our two violinists, alone, were good men, and together they were unbeatable. Miller and I blended our sax tones, as we has played together before. On slow tunes we played two clarinets in the low register, which gives a most unearthly quality to the tone. (This swept Dickerman off his feet.) And with my perfect pianist, drummer, string bass and banjoist, all excellent men, we had a unit that I had every hope of developing into one of the best dance orchestras in the city.

Read Chapter 3

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