Thursday, April 11, 2013

Austin Wylie & His Golden Pheasant Orchestra (1926)

In 1926, at age sixteen, Artie Shaw left New Haven for Joe Cantor's Far East Orchestra, a band which played at a Chinese Restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. Shortly afterwards, he left Cantor's band for Austin Wylie's Orchestra at the Golden Pheasant, which was the top band in Cleveland at the time. Shaw thrived in the Golden Pheasant Orchestra, not only playing but serving as an arranger and director. When he left, Wylie came with him--this time as Shaw's road manager.

While in Cleveland, his roommate was none other than Claude Thornhill. I've always thought there was a musical kinship between Shaw and Thornhill that lasted beyond their Cleveland days. Thornhill was to ultimately create a unique type of big band jazz that served as a precursor and influence upon Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool, while Shaw was to repeatedly return to the development of what he termed "chamber jazz"--a concept that would come to final fruition in his "pellucid" Gramercy 5 recordings of 1954. This crystalline quality, found in Thornhill's "Snowfall" and Shaw's last recordings, are to me direct outgrowths of their formative years in Cleveland, where the musical life has so long fostered that same clear quality.

Fortunately, there still exist some recordings of Austin Wylie's Golden Pheasant Orchestra. When I stumbled across a few of them the other day on YouTube, they were a rare thrill to hear. This band, recorded shortly before Shaw's arrival, was certainly as good as the other major bands of the 1920s. They swing, play tightly in tune, and are in general as good or superior to many of the more famous groups associated with that era.

Many years later, Shaw was to wonder if he hadn't made a mistake leaving Cleveland. Listening to this recording helps us understand both the influences and the draw of the Cleveland Jazz scene upon Artie Shaw at an important stage of his development.

[ Reposted 4/11/13--ES]

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