Boyd Raeburn (1913-1966)
Bandleader and multi-saxophonist Boyd Albert Raeburn started out as bandleader in 1933, after dropping out of Medical School, at the University of Chicago. By 1943, after leading various sweet dance bands for almost a decade, he decided to modify the polite sound of his band to the more radical idea of “modern classical music applied to swing” as one of his later collaborators, George Handy, came to call it.
Raeburn was driven by an enthusiastic belief that swing and modern art music could be fused. He was also hopeful that such a blend (referred to as “hip music”) would eventually convince audiences. In a 1945 Down Beat article titled “Raeburn’s Jazz Too Hip For Success?”, Raeburn stated heroically: “Right at this minute I’m almost thirty thousand bucks in the red and the end isn’t in sight. Some guys tell me that I’ll never have a successful band as long as I play hip music. I don’t believe it and I’m going to prove them wrong.”
Raeburn’s announcement came at a time when a heated debate raged in the jazz press. The newly emerging bebop created serious turmoil among jazz fans, critics and musicians. The central question was: is this still jazz? As defenders and detractors of old and new took up their positions, band leaders such as Raeburn were drawn into the controversy, inevitably if often unwillingly, and had little choice but to declare their stance. Raeburn believed that he would succeed in educating his audience to appreciate “hip music,” and steered his orchestra away from the well-beaten road of swing. He cautiously began experimenting with new ideas in 1941, possibly with the help of Paul Villepigue, to go full throttle in 1944, with the addition of various forward-looking arranger-composers. The first new hand on board was Eddie Finckel, who employed a concept he labeled “orchestrated Lester.” While Finckel’s arrangements put an emphasis on light swing, a short encounter with Dizzy Gillespie brought Raeburn his first exposure to bebop. Raeburn bought Gillespie’s latest arrangement, A Night In Tunisia, and he would be the first to record it. With the addition in the spring of 1944 of pianist-composer-arranger George Handy, a student of Aaron Copland, the orchestra’s repertory truly became radically innovative. In originals such as Dalvatore Sally and Yerxa, Handy overturned the unspoken conventions of the dance band idiom. To Handy’s music, replete with tempo and meter changes, one could not dance. “This Raeburn band is by no means a dance organization,” Barry Ulanov wrote in 1945, “[t]he music it plays is designed for listening; it’s modern music, cast in new molds out of classical forms and jazz rhythms and harmonies. . . . This is the way music will be played from now on by the really hip and talented and profound and musically healthy.” Not only did Handy seek to free his scores from the strict-tempo swing idiom but he also experimented with harmony and orchestral color, with an eye on the “French impressionists.” Handy was looking for a music that would not scare away a jazz audience, but at the same time would appeal to new audiences that might be attracted by an artistically more ambitious idiom. The collaboration between Raeburn and Handy was short, and they ended their partnership in 1946, after various disagreements. Reportedly, Handy was a difficult man. There were copyright disputes, he missed deadlines, and his life-style was perceived by some as “out of control.” Despite all the efforts Raeburn put into his orchestra, the time was not right, and in 1948, he saw himself forced to disband. Thus ended one of the most experimental jazz orchestras of the 1940s. Although this orchestra didn’t have true off-spring (unlike Claude Thornhill’s, which led directly to the now-famous Birth of the Cool recordings of the Miles David Nonet), Raeburn was very much part of a musical movement that helped pave the way for 1950s “cool jazz.”
The Dutch Jazz Orchestra performed a concert with music from The Boyd Raeburn Orchestra at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2005, with Buddy DeFranco and Lydia van Dam as guest soloists. The orchestra intends to record the music of the Raeburn orchestra in 2009-2010.
© Dutch Jazz Orchestra
Boyd Raeburn and His Orchestra (Circle) Recordings from 1944-45
Rhythms by Raeburn (Aircheck LP) Recordings from 1945
The Unissued Boyd Raeburn (Joyce LP) Recordings from 1945
Experiments in Big Band Jazz (Musicraft) Recordings from 1945
Where You At (Hep) Recordings from 1945-48
The Legendary Jubilee Performances (Hep) Recordings from 1946
Airshots (IAJRC) Recordings from 1944-46
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