Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, pt. 3

In Chapter Three of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, we are, er, um, honored with a treatise on leading a band—specifically, on informing the band members of the next song and the key in which it is to be played.

Fascinating? Well, to a niche audience, perhaps. Our Mr. Vallée could be a bit obsessive, and I can’t imagine that the experience of being one of Rudy’s Connecticut Yankee was always a pleasant one. And I wonder about all the young women who carried such a torch for this popular crooner in 1930. One spin through Chapter 3 of his memoir surely put a damper on any ardor they felt for Rudy.

Chapter III


TRULY my problem as saxophonist and director of the Connecticut Yankees is a difficult one, in fact I really am busier than the proverbial one-eyed dog in a sausage shop. This will be more apparent if I explain my predicament in detail and then show you the system that I evolved as my only solution.
In the first place we have only eight men, including myself and there are only four of the instruments contributing a musical voice to the general ensemble, that is, the two violins and the two saxophones, of which I am one. Th rest constitute was is known in orchestra parlance as the “back row.” The “back row” is the rhythmic section consisting of piano, banjo, drums and string bass; these four contributing practically nothing but rhythm, except when the piano “cues in” to help the melody out.
Though the four voices (as I term the two violins and the two saxophones) always play at the same time, I only permit two of them to carry the melody simultaneously; usually the first violinist and I take the melody against the harmony supplied by the second violin and the tenor saxophone. The last two boys may each play a separate counter melody simultaneously, but they must be sure their obbligatos (which they usually improvise themselves) do not conflict at any point. Then on the next chorus I shift to obbligato, the tenor saxophone shifts to melody while the first violin stays on the melody, the second violinist and I contributing the harmony, being careful likewise not to let our respective harmonies conflict.
Now, quite obviously, if any one of those four instruments ceases to play, even for a few measures, a valuable voice is missing and its absence is usually noted by even those patrons engrossed in eating, or in talking as they dance. The feeling that something is wrong is instantly in the air.
So I demand of the boys that they play at all times with no “lay outs” and no rest choruses for anyone. That goes for myself, too.
This might seem very hard, but it really isn’t, when you consider that we play only for short periods and that six of us secure a rest about every third or fourth chorus when I turn my pianist loose for a chorus featuring the piano with the drums playing a soft rhythmic background. Even without this rest, it would not seem difficult to us because most of us have played many club jobs in our earlier days, where we did not drop the instruments or take them from our mouths for hours at a time.
The word “fullness” and “sustained tone” have been cardinal points in my direction of the boys. I abhor what I term “gaps,” that is empty spaces between the phrases of a song where the whole band seems to have gone out for a haircut or shave. It was some time before I conveyed to the boys just what I expected of them, that is, a fullness of tone giving the impression of twice the number of men, which is secured by the proper blowing and bowing on the part of the four voices with the proper rhythmic background.
That we have succeeded in this endeavor is shown very clearly by the surprised remarks of many people who, upon seeing the band for the first time, have asked me where the rest of the men were. Most of them have been laboring under the impression that we had twice as many players.
This effect of continuous, sustained tone is a beautiful one and easily achieved. But the value and importance of each individual in a small unit giving his best (and that with hardly a pause for breathing) to secure a richness of volume, is seldom realized.
The problem that confronted me was this: I must direct the band, that is, tell the boys what we were going to play and how we were going to play it, and yet play my sax.
I have told you that the style which we had adopted was to play only the choruses of each particular piece. To play more than three choruses of the same tune is to risk monotonous repetition and to bore our listeners. Therefore after two or three choruses, we go right into another tune, being careful to choose one of contrasting type and key; that is, if the tune we were first playing was one of smooth sustained notation, such as all half-notes and whole notes, and of a dreamy nature, I would consider while we were playing it what would be a good tune to go into,—obviously something of the staccato type, with many rhythmic accents. A tune that would sound broken up, and what we term “peppy,” would be an ideal contrast with the tune we were playing. The name of such a tune occurring to me, I must convey it and its key to the boys.

I had watched so many society orchestra leaders, who upon receiving a request for a certain tune, had attempted to go into it without telling the men the key of the piece! Now it so happens that sometime a tune is orchestrated and published in various keys for various reasons. Bands on club jobs are composed of men who play under three or four different leaders a week and each leader plays these certain pieces in keys that seem most suitable to him. Therefore, for one leader to assume that the men playing under him for the evening all are aware of the key in which he wishes the piece to be played, is to make a grave error. And too many times I have heard the horrible bedlam when the change was made, due to the fact that several of the men had their own ideas as to what key the piece would be played in.
And so when we approached the time for a change I would turn to my boys, give them first the key in which the new piece was to be played, then the name of the piece itself. Thus our changes, after several nights of playing together, became perfectly smooth.
There was obviously one disadvantage which caused me to evolve what I term the “finger system.”
Since I alone stopped playing to name this new tune and the key to the boys, the voice of my instrument was missed and only the other sax and the two violins could be heard. We tried naming all the tunes that I thought we could possibly play in a ten or fifteen minute period, before we began playing the set; but we found that bad memories and day-dreaming made this impossible because we sometimes played six tunes in the course of a fifteen minute period. Obviously, although I might name the tunes over before we began playing that fifteen minute set, the boys whose memories were none too good were inclined to forget, not only the order of the tunes but the names of the tunes themselves, which resulted in trouble.
Again too, I might notice someone on the floor whose preference for a certain tune I knew. I might want to go into this tune immediately, and the naming of it would upset the entire order as I had given it out before we began playing.
I finally concluded there was no alternative but to name the new piece w hile we were playing the old one. Therefore I realized that something would have to be done so that the voice of my saxophone would not be missing when it was so badly needed. After all, the most important thing was that the boys should know the key.
We usually played our tunes in a certain order and in certain groups, especially the three or four hits from a musical comedy were always played in a set order. Therefore since the boys wre able to guess what tune would follow the one we were playing, all they really needed was an indication of the key to confirm their suspicion.
The time taken in naming the key by word and turning my head right and left so that everyone on both ends knew what I wanted, took me away from my saxophone for nearly half a chorus. Then again it was always difficult for the boys to tell just I had said because the keys sound very much alike in name. You can readily see that it would be easy to confuse the words E flat with B flat when a band is playing. So I conceived the idea of indicating the keys by the fingers of my right hand, because, under the circumstances, the eye would be more accurate than the ear.
It is possible sometimes to play for several measures on the saxophone without using the right hand, while the left hand does the work alone. Taking advantage of that fact I indicated the flats by starting with the first finger for one flat, adding the next finger for two, the middle one for three and the little finger for four. By adding the thumb, or in other words extending all the fingers, I indicated a key of five flats, which is the maximum number of flats we have ever played in; in fact we very rarely go beyond four. Should we ever strike a key of more than five flats, which we have yet to do, I would verbally tell the boys the new key.
Now to indicate sharps with the same hand is very simple. I was greatly helped by the fact that hardly a piece of dance music is written in more than two sharps, so began with the little finger alone, for one sharp; joining the finger next to it for two sharps, and adding the middle finger for three, which key we have yet to play in. Since the first finger indicated that the key was going to be in flats … when that was not extended the boys knew that the other fingers were indicating sharps.
Musicians will probably wonder how I indicate the key of C, and minor keys. In the case of the key of C, I make a deaf and dumb alphabet C by slightly curving the thumb and first finger. I signal a minor key by first indicating the major key with the fingers as explained above and then stick up the thumb alone, which shows that it is to be the relative minor of the major key just indicated. All this is done in the twinkling of an eye and the boys have to watch me very closely.
Ofttimes I want to tell the boys to play another chorus of the same tune before they change to the new tune. Obviously it takes several seconds to say “Another chorus of the same tune.” This simple syllable “ex” is one that is heard easily, and to us means “One more chorus of the same tune we are now playing.” By crossing the first and second fingers I make the finger signal “ex” which the boys get very easily, and my drummer quickly speaks for me (I do not take the saxophone from my mouth). When I am singing or even playing the saxophone, the raising of my elbow till it is parallel with my shoulder indicates that we are to finish the chorus and stop entirely. When this signal is given, invariably the bass player, drummer and pianist all three simultaneously speak the word “out” and watch to see that the boys sitting in front of them have heard, because nothing is worse than half the band stopping while the other half continues to play. In the matter of calling out my finger signals, they are all their brother’s keepers.
This system has enabled us to make key changes with very few mistakes and the boys do not have to strain their eyes or try to guess what I have said, but simply must pay attention to my right hand. They know that they are pretty safe in relaxing or day-dreaming on the first chorus of a new number; but toward the middle of the second chorus they must give me their thorough attention, in order to avoid trouble. After all, this is little enough to ask of them as they are sitting down with nothing to do but play their instruments and watch me, while I do the thinking.
The finger system worked our perfectly, but it took some time before the boys watched me closely enough. At times I despaired of success.
The logical man to act as spokesman for me was my drummer, directly behind me in the middle of the band, high up on the platform, with a good strong voice, no part to read and, except for the beautiful women on the floor, nothing to divert his attention.
But my drummer is a great lover of the modern “hot” music. In fact when he joined us at our first meeting he was laughing up his sleeve at my ideas for our style. Although he did not dislike sweet music, played as we played it, neither was he tremendously thrilled by it, and he firmly believed that for us to attempt to play as we did was sheer foolishness, and that we would certainly be a “flop.” He delighted in getting absorbed in the “hot” rhythms which he played on the drums, and with his head over on one side, slightly nodding to the tempo of his rhythms, he was usually miles away from my little group, dreaming of “hot” dance music.
I had asked him to relay my signals to the entire band as he was completely free to watch me and carry this out. But the tragedy came when after flinging my right hand out with the key clearly indicated and waiting for him to relay the signal, I would find him wrapped up in “hot” rhythms and completely oblivious of the signal.
It took some stormy sessions before he and everyone else finally became alert and on their toes, watching me like hawks.
We have accomplished even more than I had hoped for at first. We hvae become so much like clockwork that the boys even get the keys without a signal, guessing just what tune I intend to play and thus reaching certainly the height of perfection. I imagine it must be quite amazing to anyone who does not understand how we work to see us jump from one tune to another, with nothing said and with no confusion whatsoever. But this perfection of co-operation has come only after many headaches and heartaches and much practice.
Perhaps my most difficult personal feat is directing the band while broadcasting.
I have often stepped up to the microphone to sing, and while in the midst of a song have had to figure out first, just how many more tunes we could cram in before the station announcement; second who was to take the next chorus; then I had to give the directions behind my back with my hands to that individual, meanwhile I was thinking of melody and lyrics, trying to phrase the song with feeling, and lastly, to control the volume.
To top it off there have been those well-meaning but noisome people who persist in dancing by and either talking to me or asking questions while all the rest of this is on my mind. Those people forget, or maybe are only too well aware of the fact that their loud conversation is being broadcast, perhaps to the four corners of the United States, and is no aid to our program!
I am happiest before the microphone and although all of this responsibility and effort might be a tremendous strain to some, I am more at ease during an hour of broadcast than I am in making one master of a record.
Our deaf and dumb system is a great aid to us in broadcasting, especially any of the impromptu affairs at which we sometimes play, because the boys have only to watch me for the routine.
Although I enjoy playing the saxophone so much that I would be unhappy not to be paying with the band, yet my load will be much lighter on the day when I can stand before a larger band with my hands and vocal organs free to do nothing else but secure from the band the best and most unusual effects.

Read Chapter 4

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