(originally published May 27, 2006)
Our final "Swingin' At Decca" entry highlights the orchestra of Jan Savitt, one of the better big bands to come out of Philadelphia in the 1930's.
Of all the leaders who achieved success for themselves during the Big Band Era, there were probably only a handful of men with as unlikely a background as Jan Savitt. Savitt was born Jacob Servetnick in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1908. His parents immigrated to America and settled in Philadelphia when Jan was in his early teens.
Young Savitt was a prodigy on the violin, and was invited to join the Philadelphia Orchestra at the astonishingly young age of fifteen. Later, Savitt served as orchestra concertmaster under the baton of the great Leopold Stowkowski. At the age of 19, Savitt organized a nationally-recognized string quartet. Savitt's quartet became a regular feature on Philadelphia radio and soon their broadcasts were picked up by CBS and broadcast coast-to-coast. Radio station WCAU offered Savitt a job as the station's musical director, but soon after station KYW offered him even more money. And it was out of the studio orchestra that Jan Savitt's Top Hatters was first born.
Savitt's Top Hatters began recording for Victor Records in 1937 after becoming a regional success both on radio and in person. The band featured a "shuffle rhythm," a kind of "oompah-oompah-oompah-oompah" rhythm played with the left hand on the piano. Savitt was an enthusiastic leader but not a jazz musician, so his early bands sometimes played too fast or too loud. But audiences supported Savitt and his popularity steadily grew.
By the time Jan Savitt began recording for Decca Records in 1939 his band was polished and could swing with the best of them. He also featured two very good singers, a girl named Carlotta Dale and a young African-American man named George Tunnell who preferred the stage name "Bon-Bon." Unfortunately Bon-Bon was forced to endure the racial discrimination of the era, often signing in as the band's valet in order to stay at the same hotel as the rest of the band. But he was an engaging and popular singer and audiences loved him.
Jan Savitt recorded his biggest hit for Decca at the end of 1939. "720 In The Books" was actually the band library's number for this instrumental. But it proved so popular with audiences that lyrics were added -- even though the title was never changed. You can hear Savitt's signature "shuffle rhythm" in the opening bars of the record. George 'Bon-Bon' Tunnell is the vocalist.
Jan Savitt recorded his version of Erskine Hawkins' "Tuxedo Junction" not quite two weeks before Glenn Miller waxed the version that went on to become a million-seller and a Top Ten hit in 1940. Savitt's version is taken at a much quicker tempo that Miller's, and while Miller's arrangement invokes images of a lazy train depot on a hot summer's day, Savitt approaches the tune as a hot swing number.
When the radio networks refused to honor the royalty demands of ASCAP (which owned the copyrights to virtually every popular song published in the United States) ASCAP responded by banning their songs from radio play. In response, broadcasters created BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated), but in order to fill the void left by the ban of ASCAP songs bandleaders were forced to use material that was already in the public domain. The classical repertoire lent itself nicely to this purpose, and Savitt's formal training as a classical violinist certainly proved to be an asset for him. This version of Max Werner-Kersten's "Bummel Petrus" (Jolly Peter) transforms the piano piece into jazz arrangement that owes a lot to the "Big Band Dixieland" sound of the Bob Crosby Orchestra.
Our final Savitt selection is one of his best swing tunes, "Kansas City Moods". Originally issued as the flip-side of "Tuxedo Junction," it was this song that ended up being a big hit for the Savitt Orchestra. A final note to dispel some possible confusion: Savitt recorded for Victor/Bluebird under the name Jan Savitt and his Top Hatters; he recorded for Decca as Jan Savitt and his Orchestra.
Although his Decca recording contract ran out in 1941, the handsome and likable Savitt continued to record for Victor/Bluebird and remained active during the war years, eventually adding a sizable string section to his orchestra. A cerebral hemorrhage in 1948 cut his life tragically short at the age of 40.