Even Bandleaders Get The Blues

Tara and I had a debate over bandleaders the other day.

We had just gotten back home after watching American Hustle. There’s a song in the movie by Duke Ellington called “Jeep’s Blues,” and a scene in which Christian Bales’ and Amy Adams’ characters commiserate over the great musician’s still recent (at that time) death. The song is exciting and powerful, with a blast of saxophone knocking down the door to kick things off. I’ve only ever had a passing interest in jazz, but man, hearing that tune might’ve just made me a convert. “Who starts a song like that?” Bales wonders aloud.

But the thing is, Duke Ellington didn’t start the song like that. The sax is being played by Johnny Hodges, one of the premier alto saxophonists of the Big Band era. (I really sound like I know what I’m talking about, huh? Thank you, internet!). The song was written to specifically showcase Johnny’s sax skills, and man, does he deliver. Check it out for yourself.

Pretty damn fantastic, huh? Makes me want to slide into a dark booth on a rainy night, sipping classic cocktails while listening to some cool jazz. Tara’s game. Portland has a club called Jimmy Mak’s. We’re totally doing that one of these nights.

Anyway. As good as that song is, the featured musician is Johnny Hodges, not Duke Ellington. So I wondered aloud why bandleaders get all the acclaim. What do they do, really? Stand in front of an orchestra and wave a stick in the air? Do those up-and-down movements even mean anything? It looks to me like they’re swatting at flies. I remember the first time I saw an orchestra play. It was during a field trip in junior high (note to Audrey: this is what we called middle school when we were your age). I watched the guy in the fancy suit gesturing wildly as the music swelled and ebbed, and thought, what a cushy job that bastard has. Like the guy on the tarmac who directs airplanes to their gates, only instead of having a 737 crash through the terminal glass if he makes a mistake, the worst that can happen is the trombone player hits a wrong note. It’s an attitude that has persisted to this day.

“Where’d my other chopstick go?!”

And yet, people like Duke Ellington are musical legends, revered to this day. And there are plenty of others. Glenn Miller. Tommy Dorsey. Benny Goodman. Count Basie. Surely, there must be more to their skills than meets the eye.

“There’s more to their skills than meets the eye,” Tara said. “They compose the music, sometimes play instruments themselves, and make sure everybody follows along correctly.”

Hmm. Could it be that I had underestimated the importance of bandleaders all these years? Deciding a bit of research was in order, I turned to Dan Fogelberg. Because when the answers to life’s most important questions are frustratingly out of reach, who else are you going to turn to? And also because one of his biggest hit songs was called “Leader Of The Band.” Would I find meaning in the lyrics to an early 80s pop song?

Kind of.

A quiet man of music
Denied a simpler fate
He tried to be a soldier once
But his music wouldn’t wait
He earned his love through discipline
A thundering, velvet hand
His gentle means of sculpting souls
Took me years to understand

The leader of the band is tired
And his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul
My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man
I’m just a living legacy
To the leader of the band

Hmm. There’s some powerful imagery here. The thundering velvet hand, the sculpting of souls and such. But the leader of the band, in this case, is the singer’s father. I wasn’t quite convinced this wasn’t merely a vocalized litany of daddy issues set to verse. So I turned to the one source that towers above all others. Even Dan Fogelberg.


"Hold the camera steady, would you? I'm going to end up sideways."
“Hold the camera steady, would you? I’m going to end up sideways.”

And Wikipedia describes bandleaders as The leader of a band of musicians…most bandleaders are also performers with their own band. The bandleader role is dependent on a variety of skills, not just musicianship. A bandleader needs to be a music director and performer.

There it was then, in black and white. The mystery was solved. Bandleaders, it turns out, have a lot of balls to juggle at once. They are the ultimate multi-taskers. Talented professionals and natural-born leaders.

Who knew?

I can admit when I am wrong, and will officially go on record and declare this: Duke Ellington was great.

There. I said it.

Now, if I could only figure out why basketball coaches are so respected when all they do is stand on the sidelines in fancy suits while their players are the ones dribbling the ball up and down the court…

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12 thoughts on “Even Bandleaders Get The Blues

  1. Mark, both my mother and father LOVED the sound of the Big Bands ( Glenn Miller. Tommy Dorsey. Benny Goodman. Count Basie), so we always had the LP’s playing on our console stereo. And in turned, learned to love them as well. To me, there is NOTHING like the sound of a big band. One of my favorite Glenn Miller songs is “Moonlight Serenade.”

    I was very much like you and always wondered what the deal was with the conductor of an orchestra, because I never really understood what ‘waving the baton’ did. However, I was once in an opera (La Boheme) and was able to witness from being onstage, not only how important a conductor is for the orchestra, but also for the singers. Because the singers watch the conductor out of the corner of their eye, to stay in temp with the music.

    And speaking of Dan Fogelberg, one of my favorites of his is “Same Old Lang Syne.” Love that song!


    1. I have very mixed feelings over “Same Old Lang Syne.”

      It’s a great song, but I have such a vividly awful association with it. That song was playing on the radio one cold and drizzly December afternoon as I drove to the courthouse to meet with my wife and a judge. We got divorced that day, and the plaintive lyrics with their message of what could have been hit me square in the heart. I always think of that now whenever I hear it. And that’s kind of a bummer.


  2. I only lasted one year of band (4th grade) so I never really appreciated what the band director did. Then my son was in band from 5th grade till he graduated. I was amazed at how much those kids loved and respected their directors.


    1. Have you ever seen “Mr. Holland’s Opus” with Richard Dreyfuss? Great story of a high school band director beloved by his students. And – bonus points – it was filmed in Portland! Just watch that and try not to tear up at the end. I dare you.


  3. Interesting.

    My Orchestra teacher let me orchestrate once. It’s not as easy as it looks. You need to follow the notes and each one of those hand swervy movements that looks like you’re swatting at flies actually means something to the rest of the band/orchestra. Speeding up, slowing down, louder, softer, ect…

    Just thought you would like to know and I’m glad you are the type of person to admit when you’re wrong. There’s a lot out there that wouldn’t even if it was in black and white.


    1. I always figured the machinations of orchestration meant something, but could never figure out quite what. I didn’t realize there were so many different possible commands conveyed through the baton. Wouldn’t it be easier if the conductor just yelled out “Omaha!” every now and then?


  4. I can only imagine how this conversation would have gone with my Joe there. He’s constantly remarking on whether or not the people in the movie are actually playing the instrument or not, whether the sounds heard reflect the instruments shown, etc. LOL. Music nerds.


    1. There was a lot of background soundtrack music during the film, but not much in the way of actual performances so we didn’t have to decide on any of that. Not that I would have done that anyway. I guess it takes a musician to think in those terms!


  5. I don’t have much to add here because I never could get too much into jazz. I enjoy the odd song, but I don’t want to spend the whole evening in a dark, smoky club (like my girlfriend Suzy) listening to the stuff. After a while it just starts sounding like noise to me. I’ll take a pinch of jazz only please.


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