Matt Dennis was born on February 11, 1914 in Seattle, Washington. His early exposure to music came from the family business of vaudeville, his mother who was a violinist and his father a singer. In 1933 he joined Horace Heidt’s orchestra as a vocalist and pianist. Later he would form his own band, with Dick Haymes as vocalist.
Dennis became a vocal coach, arranger, and accompanist for Martha Tilton and then worked with a new vocal group, The Stafford Sisters. Jo Stafford, one of the sisters, joined the Tommy Dorsey band in 1940 and persuaded Dorsey to hire him as arranger and composer. He would go on to wrote prolifically, with 14 of his songs recorded by the Dorsey band in one year alone, including “Everything Happens To Me”, an early hit for Frank Sinatra.
With four years in the U.S. Air Force in World War II behind him, Matt returned to music writing and arranging. He got a boost from his old friend Dick Haymes, who hired him to be the music director for his radio program, and with lyricist Tom Adair wrote songs for Haymes’ program.
Dennis made six albums, most of which are out of print; however, his 1953 song Angel Eyes that he composed with lyricist Earl Brent has become a frequently recorded jazz standard. Added to that list of standards are Will You Still Be Mine, The Night We Called It A Day and Violets For Your Furs.
Composer, pianist, arranger, singer and bandleader Matt Dennis passed away on June 21, 2002 in Riverside, California at the age of 88.
Cecil Irwin was born December 7, 1902 in Chicago, Illinois. Learning to play clarinet and tenor saxophone, his career began playing with Carroll Dickerson, Erskine Tate and Junie Cobb. He would then join Earl “Fatha” Hines in 1928 in the reed section and arranging for the big band.
During this period Cecil recorded on more than a dozen sessions with Hines in a variety of ensembles with which his playing and arranging is prominent. Irwin also freelanced as a sideman working and recording with New Orleans notables Johnny Dodds, Jabbo Smith, King Oliver, and also with Stephane Grappelli and Joe Venuti.
While on tour driving outside Des Moines, Iowa, tenor saxophonist and arranger Cecil Irwin perished in a car accident at the age of 32 on May 3, 1935, cutting short a promising career.
Billy Strayhorn was born William Thomas Strayhorn on November 29, 1915 in Dayton, Ohio but the family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania shortly after his birth. Protecting him from his father’s drunken sprees his mother sent him to live with his grandparents in North Carolina, which is here he first became interested in music. He learned to play hymns on the piano and listening to records on her Victrola.
By high school he was back in Pittsburgh and began his music career studying classical music, writing a school musical, forming a trio that played daily on the radio and composing Life Is Lonely (renamed Lush Life), My little Brown Book and Something To Live For while still in his teens.
When the harsh reality of a black man making it in the white classical world shattered his 19-year-old ambitions, Strayhorn turned to the music of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson and was guided into jazz. In 1938 he met Ellington, impressed him with an arrangement of a Duke piece, went to New York and collaborated with Ellington for the next quarter century. He composed Take The “A” Train, Chelsea Bridge, Day Dream, Such Sweet Thunder and A Drum I A Woman among others and the landmark score to the film Anatomy Of A Murder.
Billy was openly gay, participated in many civil rights causes, was a committed friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, influenced and help propel the singing career of Lena Horne, embarked on a solo career and continued to compose and arrange for Ellington.
Billy Strayhorn, composer, pianist and arranger whose compositions are known for the bittersweet sentiment and classically infused designs that set him apart from Duke succumbed to esophageal cancer on May 31, 1967. His final song “Blood Count”, composed while in the hospital, was the first track on Ellington’s memorial album for Strayhorn, …And His Mother Called Him Bill. The final track is a solo version of Lotus Blossom performed by Duke for his friend while the band was packing up.
Clare Fischer was born October 22, 1928 in Durand, Michigan and started general music study in grade school with violin and piano as his first instruments. By age 7 he was picking out four-part harmony on the piano and by 12 was composing classical music and creating instrumental arrangements for dance bands.
In high school he added cello, clarinet and saxophone to his arsenal of instruments and studied music theory, harmony and orchestration privately. He started his own band at 15, writing all the arrangements, went on to college studying music composition and theory as a piano major. After graduation and a stint in the Army as the arranger for the U.S. Military Academy Band at West Point, N.Y., he returned to Michigan State and received his Masters in 1955.
He went on to arrange for the vocal quartet Hi-Lo’s that would later become a major influence on Herbie Hancock, would record under his own name in 1962 for Pacific Jazz, play with Bud Shank, Joe Pass and Cal Tjader among others, arrange for Sergio Mendes and Willy Ruff, began playing organ and composed his most famous compositions, Pensativa and Morning.
By the mid-‘70s Fischer was pioneering the electric keyboard, reconnected with Tjader started his group Salsa Picante, won a Grammy for his album 2+2 and Free Fall, forayed into R&B doing orchestral sweeteners, worked with Rufus with Chaka Khan, The Jacksons, Earl Klugh, The Debarges, Shot-gun and Atlantic Starr and pop artists such as Paul McCartney, Prince, Celine Dion and Robert Palmer, picking up numerous gold records.
From the Eighties on Clare has been commissioned to score symphonic work using Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn themes, working with Branford Marsalis, the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra, arranged for Spike Lee’s Girl 6, has conducted clinics and master classes at numerous universities, and continued to record in small group and orchestral settings until his death in Los Angeles, California on January 26, 2012 at age 82..
Ernie Fields was born Ernest Lawrence Fields on August 28, 1904 in Nacogdoches, Texas, though raised in Taft, Oklahoma. He attended Tuskegee Institute before moving to Tulsa. From the late 1920s, he led the Royal Entertainers, and eventually began touring more widely from Kansas City, Kansas to Dallas, Texas, and recording. Fields’ band became the first African-American band to play at Tulsa’s landmark Cain’s Ballroom.
A 1939 invite to New York by John Hammond to record for Vocalion. He began touring nationally, never became a star but continued to work steadily, recording for smaller labels, and gradually transforming his sound through a smaller band and a repertoire shift from big band and swing to R&B. During WWII he entertained troops both at home and abroad.
Continuing to straddle these styles into the 1950s, Ernie played swing standards such as “Tuxedo Junction” and “Begin The Beguine” in a rocking R&B style. In the late 1950s he moved to Los Angeles, California and joined the Rendezvous Records and ran the house band In 1959 this band had an international hit with an R&B version of Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” that reached #4 on the Billboard chart, selling over a million copies. He would go on to record instrumentals under a variety of names including B. Bumble and the Stingers, The Marketts and The Routers.
After Rendezvous Records folded in late 1963, trombonist, pianist, arranger and bandleader Ernie Fields retired and returned to Tulsa. He died on May 11, 1997, at the age of 92.