Swing Time in Venice

What is it about Venice that attracts Midwesterners – like myself – to her shores? Friends including Jacky, Lynn, Stephen, Bob, Todd, Matt and others have all relocated here, probably lured by the freedom found in this city. Abbot Kinney had originally declared his independence by transforming the marshlands along the Pacific coast into a utopian landscape of graceful canals and flamboyant western seaside attractions, to inspire public-spirited citizens to come together and envision a new urban city, Venice of America. A freedom like nothing found in the frigid Midwest. Or the happening West Coast.

But Venice in 1925 was in transition. The talk of the town was the upcoming vote for annexation into the city of Los Angeles, and the city was still reeling from the local government embezzlement scandal. Luckily, the pleasure pier was still a sure draw, with both common folk and Hollywood stars seeking out its delights as their own personal playground.

Fortunately, it was then that a whole slew of Midwesterners came to Venice, to help share the current rages of Chicago-based jazz, the Charleston dance trend, and the popular flapper dress style with the pleasure seeking masses. So, musicians Harry Baisden, Ben Pollack, Gil Rodin, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller all converged on the Sunset Pier and Venice Ballroom bandstands in Venice to ply their musical trades, and they all conveniently came from the Midwest.

Los Angeles and Venice in the ‘Roaring Twenties,’ was part of an ever-expanding national music scene. Harry Baisden, a Midwesterner purportedly from Ft. Dodge, Iowa, had been writing songs since before World War I. His ‘Famous Players Rag’ was composed in 1915, along with Harry L. Alford, himself from Chicago. Baisden also wrote ‘Meet Me at the Red Cross Ball,’ ‘Camp Cody Blues,’ and ‘I’ll Steal You’ in 1917 and 1918. But it was out here in California in 1922 that ‘California We Owe A Lot to You’ was composed and recorded under the name Harry Baisden & His Orchestra. The lyrics to this tune were written by Carlyle Stevenson, who went on to record with his El Patio Orchestra, and later his Bon Ton Orchestra such tunes as ‘Milenberg Joys,’ the ever popular ‘Yes Sir, That’s My Baby’ and the ‘Charleston’ on the local Sunset Records label, all in 1925.

It was during this time, 1922 – 1924, that Harry Baisden, sometimes appearing as Harry Bastin, was the featured leader of the house band at the Venice Ballroom. Times were wild back then and a grand time was had by all. But now we have to back track a bit.

Let’s start with Ben Pollack, who, with his group "Ben Pollack and his Californians" occupied the Venice Ballroom bandstand after Baisden in 1924 and 1925. Pollack has been called the Father of Jazz, for his building a reputation as having the first large white jazz band. And while his orchestras were basically commercial dance bands, they also gave his imported soloists plenty of freedom in determining the shape of the music.

Pollack was born into the family of a Jewish furrier in Chicago on June 22, 1903. His older brother Ollie would play a role in the development of Ben’s career. By 1917 Ollie was regularly making the rounds of the jazz spots in Chicago and, on occasion, he would park the family car near enough to an open window to allow the 14-year old Ben to get his fill of music emanating from the Black and Tans and Chicago saloons. It wasn’t long before Ben was taking drum lessons and eventually organizing his first band at Eli Whitney Grammar School. Music was now in his blood and very soon school and part-time jobs became very unimportant to him.

It was about this time that the infamous Chicago gangs began to organize in earnest. Pollack’s home was in the ghetto, with gang brawls and shootings commonplace, many of them involving Ben’s onetime classmates. Music was his way out, and he later remarked "If it hadn’t been for my drums, I no doubt would have gotten involved too, but music had a strong hold on me, and I liked it."

His persistence with music finally paid off when, one night while watching one of his favorite bands, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, he overheard drummer Ralph Snyder begging out of a jam session scheduled for the following afternoon. When Snyder left the room, Ben approached trombonist George Brunies and offered to fill in. The next day, a Sunday, Pollack arrived at an apartment where he found Brunies and other members, ready to leave for their gig. After repeated warnings from Brunies to just hold the beat and keep it simple, Ben recalled, "So here I was at last, playing with all the guys who really sent me. Despite Brunies’ warning, I opened up and everything I did was right and I rocked that band. That same day, the guys fired Snyder and hired me."

One night in 1923, a sax player named Maurie Hicks and a trumpet man named Fred Ferguson came into the club where the Rhythm Kings were working and offered Ben a deal to go to California and join the happening scene. He’d never traveled west of Chicago before, and was attracted to the proposition.

So, Pollack came west and joined the band of Erd King, a banjo player, at the Sunset Ballroom in Venice, along with Ferguson and Hicks. King’s band was soon unsuccessful, and Pollack struggled to find work, finally finding a steady gig with Harry Baisden’s band at the Venice Ballroom. After Ben spent eleven months with Baisden’s band in California, he returned to Chicago with plans to take over his family’s fur business, but was unable to get music out of his blood.

His next move was to New York to hear and eventually sit in with the Original Memphis Five. He also worked briefly with Ray Miller’s band. It was during this time, early 1924, that he received a call from Jack Garrity, boss of the Venice Ballroom, to return to the West Coast and take over leadership of the Harry Bastin band. Such was his fate.

When Ben got to Venice, he found Gil Rodin, a sax player looking for work, and invited him to play in his band. Other members of that 1924 band included Ross Dugat, Harold Peppie and Al Gifford. The band stayed together for more than a year and, in 1925, it was augmented by Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Harry Goodman. Banjoist Al Gifford referred to Pollack as "Mr. Rhythm King," due to his swinging yet consistent beat, and his innovative cymbal technique. He was the real starting point for many of the best-known men in the music business, giving them important exposure early in their careers.

They played nightly at the Venice Ballroom for the large crowds who danced beneath a multi-faceted crystal ball. This was the first ever of its kind, having been invented by the ballroom decorator and right-hand-man to Abbot Kinney, Arthur Reese. The effects of the spotlights hitting the mirrored ball were amazing, putting the crowds in an otherworldly state of mind.

Fud Livingston was the group’s reed man and in charge of most of the arrangements. Al Harris and Harry Greenberg played coronet. Wayne Allen played piano. Gil Rodin played the saxophone. Benny Goodman played the clarinet. Glenn Miller played trombone. Dick Morgan assisted with his banjo. Pollack played the drums and sang the vocals, closing each number with the words; "May it please you – Ben Pollack." On stage they played tunes like "Hot Stuff," "I’d Love to Call You My Sweetheart," "Sunday," "Deed I Do," "You’re the One for Me" and other Pollack favorites.

After six months in Venice, the group decided that it was time to leave the West. They packed up their instruments and "Ben Pollack and his Californians" headed back to Chicago where they would cut their first record for the Victor label in 1926. They worked briefly with Art Kassel and then Pollack took the band to New York where it found a home at the Park Central Hotel, playing as its house band for several years.

Though Pollack may have had an all-star line-up, he was unable to keep most of them for very long. By 1930 Goodman, Miller, and many others had left, forcing Pollack to revise the group’s direction. Pollack's band of the 1930s, while still talented, was not as consistent as his 1920s grouping. It also suffered because of Pollack's inattentiveness. In the early 1930s Pollack fell in love with vocalist Doris Robbins, and the two eventually married. As he began to concentrate more and more on her career and less on the orchestra, his musicians became disgruntled. Finally, in 1934, they quit en masse and formed a new group under sax player Gil Rodin, which later went on to fame under Bob Crosby's name.

Pollack continued to lead bands into the 1940s including one for comedian Chico Marx, and owned his own record company called Jewel. He also owned restaurants in Hollywood and Palm Springs where he played from time to time. Pollack kept organizing bands until well into the 1960s, but remained frustrated that he did not receive the rewards as "The Father Of Swing." Depressed by a developing heart condition, he hanged himself in his bathroom in Palm Springs on June 7, 1971, at the age of 67.

Now back again in time to the member of Pollack’s band, Gil Rodin. He was more important behind the scenes than he was as a musician. Although born December 9, 1909 in Russia, Rodin had studied reeds, flute and trumpet in school and played in Chicago in the mid-1920s, primarily on alto sax. Rodin next spent time in California with Harry Bastin’s orchestra, and in 1924 he joined Ben Pollack’s band. The alto sax player was with Pollack until the band broke up in 1934. He kept the nucleus of the band together - they recorded with singer Clark Randall in 1935 - until it was taken over by Bob Crosby.

As the first altoist with Crosby, Rodin played in the ensembles but never soloed; however, he did significant work as president, music director and business manager for Crosby up until the time he was drafted in 1942. He then served in the military, playing in the U.S. Army Artillery Band, and after serving, soon rejoined Crosby.

Later in life, Rodin was a radio and television producer, occasionally working with Crosby again as his music director. And three years after Pollack’s passing, he too died in Palm Springs on June 17, 1974, at the age of 64.

But the most amazing of the Midwest talent that arrived in Venice in 1925 was the 16-year-old Chicago clarinetist invited to join Pollack’s group, Benny Goodman.

Sixteen years earlier Benjamin Goodman was born on May 30, 1909, the youngest son of a very poor family in Chicago’s Maxwell Street Jewish ghetto. His father, a garment worker, heard about a program of free lessons at the nearby Kehelah Jacob Synagogue and brought all three sons there to enroll. Harry, the oldest and biggest boy, was awarded a tuba by the music teacher. Freddy, the next in size, was handed a trumpet. As the smallest, at only 10, Benjamin was to learn how to play the clarinet.

He learned quickly and soon moved to another similar program at Hull House where he studied under Johnny Sylvester. Private lessons began when he was twelve, under the tutelage of a classical musician named Franz Schoepp. At the same time he was informally studying the southern music that was being played all over Chicago by such early jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Leon Rapallo, Jimmy Noone, Baby Dodds and Bix Beiderbecke.

At the age of twelve, Benjamin Goodman made his professional debut doing clarinetist Ted Lewis imitations at Chicago’s Central Park Theater. Born in Circleville, Ohio, Lewis was one of the first Northern musicians to start imitating the New Orleans jazz musicians who came up to New York in the teens. In 1915 he joined Earl Fuller’s band at Rector’s supper club in Manhattan. It was in Fuller’s group that he rose to fame. Lewis’ wild stage antics and crazy clarinet sound stole the show and by 1919 he had left Fuller’s band and started his own group. Ted Lewis and his Band were one of the most popular jazz bands of the period. His popularity remained high throughout the 1920s and 1930s, being billed as the "High-hatted Tragedian of Jazz" and "The Medicine Man for Your Blues." Lewis continued touring and performing until the late 1960s. For over 50 years, the man with the smashed-up top hat would ask that musical question "Is Everybody Happy?" He ultimately died in New York City in 1971.

But back to Benny Goodman. A year later, at age 13, he held a card in the American Musician’s Union and began playing in the ballrooms, riverboat palaces and clubs around the Windy City. By 1925 his reputation was building and the 16-year old clarinetist was playing regularly with Art Kassel’s band at the Midway Gardens.

One night a friend of Kassel’s dropped by to hear the band play. He was Gil Rodin, the saxophone player who had been working on the West Coast since 1924 with Ben Pollack. Rodin introduced himself to Goodman and suggested they do the nightspots together. Later in the evening Rodin told the young Goodman that Pollack has suggested he look up "the kid in short pants who plays clarinet." He wanted to import Chicago talent to his Venice-based band so that when the band was on solid footing they could crash the Midwest again. Rodin offered Goodman a job.

Goodman was excited. It would pay nearly $100 a week, a fabulous sum back then. And it would take him to California. The wire inviting him to join arrived in August of 1925, and Benny Goodman said his good-byes and headed west. Upon his arrival in Venice, Gil Rodin lent Goodman a suit so that the kid would have long pants to wear on stage.

A week after Goodman joined the group another new member arrived. He, too, was young, 21-years old. He came with a reputation as both a trombone player and top-notch arranger for Max Fisher’s old band. His name was Glenn Miller.

Miller had heard about Goodman. The word was that the clarinet player in Pollack’s band was just a kid but already was playing better then Leon Rapallo and Jimmy Lytell of the Memphis Five. Miller thought the rumors were crazy. How could a kid cut fellows like that? After playing with Goodman for a week he told the skinny clarinet player that the stories weren’t exaggerated. This kid Goodman was a real hot star!

Goodman, Miller and Harry Greenberg roomed together at the Haley Hotel in Venice, at the southwest corner of Market & Trolleyway (Pacific Avenue), practicing, talking about jazz until the sun came up, hitting the bistros and giving the apartment maids and manager a rough time. They were on top of the moon.

During this period Goodman recorded his first sides as a leader with members of the Pollack band including one 1928 date which features the only known recording of Benny on alto and baritone saxophones. In 1929, when he was just 20, Benny struck out on his own to become a typical New York freelance musician, playing studio dates, leading a pit orchestra, making himself a seasoned professional. All this was followed by the formation of his own band. It, too, however fell on hard times during the depression, but a trip to California in 1935 was the turning point in his career.

On that August 21st, Benny Goodman began his first Palomar engagement that historically marked the start of the Swing Era. The Palomar Ballroom, built in 1925, was originally named the El Patio Ballroom, located on Vermont Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Street in L.A. It boasted being "the largest and most famous dance hall on the West Coast." The dance floor could accommodate four thousand couples.

The first night, Goodman and his band started cautiously playing some recently purchased stock arrangements. The reaction was, at best, tepid. Seeing the reaction, Gene Krupa, the drummer, said "If we’re gonna die, Benny, let’s die playing our own thing." At the start of the next set, Goodman called his band to play the Fletcher Henderson charts and those of other swing writers working for the band. The pivotal moments came when trumpeter Bunny Berigan went into solos from Henderson’s ‘Sometimes I’m Happy’ and ‘King Porter Stomp.’ The audience reaction was stunning, cheering wildly and pressing up to the stage, totally captivated.

Over the following nights of the engagement, a new dance labeled as the "Jitterbug" captured the dancers on the floor, and a new craze had begun. Within days of the opening, newspapers around the country were headlining stories about the new phenomena that had started at the Palomar. Goodman was finally a nationally known star, and the Swing Era began. Following this, the big band era exploded.

This sort of "hot" dance music coined "Swing" became Goodman’s trademark. To an audience of millions it symbolized a new lively attitude and the end of the depression across the nation. As always, to a few it was an immoral and unhealthy craze. It’s path led to popular fame for Goodman, concerts from Carnegie Hall to Moscow, and the immortal designation as the "King of Swing." The title was invented by the wild drummer Gene Krupa - and Goodman reigned as such thereafter until his death on June 13, 1986 in New York City, of cardiac arrest, at age 77.

Which now leaves us with the story of Glenn Miller. Born March 1, 1904 in the town of Clarinda, Iowa. Glenn’s family moved to Fort Morgan, Colorado in 1918, where Glenn attended high school. During his senior year, Glenn decided to play football, and by the end of the season, he was chosen "the best left end in Colorado." Football wasn’t Glenn’s only interest, however, as he became very interested in the popular dance band music of the era. Glenn enjoyed this music so much that he and some classmates decided to start their own band, and when it came time for his graduation in 1921, he decided to skip the ceremonies and instead travel up to Laramie, Wyoming to play trombone in a band. Meanwhile, back home, Glenn’s mother had to accept his diploma and the principal commented, "Maybe you’re the one who should get it anyway; you probably worked harder on it than he did!"

By now, Glenn had made the decision that he was going to be a professional musician. His first professional contract was signed with a Dixieland group called Senter’s Sentapeeds. To most people it sounded like something you would step on rather than listen to. Then another opportunity opened up where Glenn could play in the Holly Moyer Orchestra in Boulder and earn enough money to attend the University of Colorado. This lasted for two years, but in 1924, Glenn’s musical ambition, and a new job with the Tommy Watkins Orchestra, caused him to discontinue his college education so that he could spend full time playing and arranging music. Glenn eventually headed for Los Angeles in 1925, where he had heard there were numerous band opportunities. He soon got the chance to join the Ben Pollack Orchestra, a band noted for finding talented musicians. While playing with Pollack’s band, Glenn roomed with another rising star, the clarinetist from Chicago named Benny Goodman, as we already know.

In 1928, after working in Los Angeles and Chicago, Glenn moved on to New York City where he worked with the bands of Ben Pollack, Red Nichols and Paul Ash as a trombonist and arranger. In 1932, Glenn organized the Smith Ballew Band, and worked two years as manager, arranger and trombonist. In 1934, he helped the Dorsey brothers to organize their first full-time Big Band and in 1935, he organized Ray Noble’s American band.

Finally, in 1937, Glenn decided to fulfill his dream and organize his own band. Miller's signature recordings ‘In the Mood,’ ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo,’ ‘Moonlight Serenade,’ and ‘Pennsylvania 6-5000’ (named for the exchange of his New York hotel residence) have all remained familiar to this day.

In 1942, at the peak of his civilian career, Glenn decided he could better serve those in uniform by putting one on himself. By doing this, the band gave up a $20,000 weekly income. Miller persuaded the Army to accept him so he could in his own words, "put a little more spring into the feet of our marching men and a little more joy into their hearts and to be placed in charge of a modernized army band." After being accepted in the Army, Glenn’s civilian band played their last concert in Passaic, New Jersey on September 27th, 1942. It was such a sad event that the band couldn’t finish playing the closing theme song, ‘Moonlight Serenade.’

Still wanting to do more for the war effort, Glenn arranged for overseas duty for the band. On December 15, 1944, Glenn boarded a single engine C-64 Norseman aircraft in Bedford, England to travel to Paris, France where he was to make arrangements for a Christmas broadcast. Tragically, the plane never reached France and was never found. The great Glenn Miller was gone. And a part of America’s swing tradition was lost forever.

Ah, to be able to go back to 1925, and catch those Midwesterners Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gil Rodin and Ben Pollack wailing on the hits of the day nightly in the local Venice Ballrooms overlooking the great Pacific Ocean. What a time it must have been! And what a great time for Venice’s unique history.