John Wriggle is a musicologist, composer, arranger, and trombonist who has taught for the City University of New York, Rutgers University, and Boston University. He answered some questions about his book Blue Rhythm Fantasy: Big Band Jazz Arranging in the Swing Era.
Q: Did jazz have a unique popularity in New York City during the 1930s/40s? More so than other places around the US?
John Wriggle: Jazz’s popularity wasn’t necessarily unique to New York, but the city did set the standard for Swing Era style. The jazz “big band” format that developed during the 1920s was basically a combination of a New Orleans jazz combo, an all-purpose dance rhythm section, and a Broadway theater orchestra. It was in this fusion form that jazz really entered mainstream popular culture via radio, theater revues, recordings, and music publishing. And all these industries were based in New York, so most of the product came from there. Musicians in other locations eventually emulated—or, in the case of Hollywood, expanded upon—what the New York entertainment industry was selling. By the 1930s you could find New York-style big bands almost anywhere in the country.
What’s always fascinating to me is how much labor was involved in Broadway-style variety entertainment of the period: composers, lyricists, arrangers, manuscript music copyists, dancers, choreographers, comedians, scriptwriters, plus an ensemble of ten or more musicians. New York in the first half of the twentieth-century was a very special place for entertainment, and if you’re interested in the history of jazz or popular music arrangers, it was kind of a golden era for those musicians in terms of artistic inspiration and public stature.
Q: Why did you choose Chappie Willet as the main figure of focus for your book?
Wriggle: As an aspiring composer-arranger, I first took notice of Willet’s music in the mid-1990s, when I was co-hosting a pre-stereo themed jazz program on college radio station WKCR. I heard the 1937 Mills Blue Rhythm Band session he arranged, including a version of “Blue Rhythm Fantasy.” The combination of musical adventurousness and balanced logic in those arrangements is beautiful, and I was an immediate fan. In 1999, I composed and presented a series of “Variations on Blue Rhythm Fantasy” for a new music ensemble I was leading. But as I tried to find more about Willet through standard jazz history sources, it was always a dead end. When I applied to the Rutgers Jazz History and Research program in 2003, I decided I would see if I could make a thesis project of it. A telephone book cold call led me to a musician named Chico Hicks, who had performed with Willet during 1933-34, and the pieces finally began to fall into place.
The more I was able to discover in newspapers and archives, the more I realized what a fascinating figure Willet was. His career reflects so many aspects of the music industry during that period that it made perfect sense to build a book around him. He was really tied into the Swing Era stage entertainment scene, which is something that jazz historians have attempted to ignore for decades as too “commercial.” Willet was also involved in music publishing, home recording, talent booking, and a music school—all the stuff that professional musicians still to do today in order to eke out a living.
Q: Were there any particular events that led to more opportunity in the Swing Era for African American musicians and arrangers?
Wriggle: Similar to music performers working in recording studios during the 1920s and ‘30s, swing big band arrangers were able to cross lines of racial segregation simply because no one could see them. As long as they weren’t appearing in mixed company on the public stage, it didn’t bother the establishment so much for white bandleaders to hire black arrangers, or vice versa. Whether or not these shrouded work opportunities actually helped to break down inequality is an interesting question—and one that was debated in the African American press at the time. On the one hand, arrangers could be considered pioneers of integration; on the other hand, these less-publicized instances of black writers working for white bands could also be interpreted as another form of exploitation. Some black bandleaders even worried that black arrangers were providing unfair advantage to their white competitors, as concerns regarding music and jazz authenticity were often tied to race. The popular success that white bandleaders enjoyed while playing the music of black arrangers like Jimmy Mundy, Sy Oliver, or Chappie Willet certainly highlighted issues of racism and segregation that America was struggling with leading up to the civil rights era. Willet himself was embraced as a “race man” in the African American press: a role model for economic success in an entertainment industry that was just beginning to consider strategies for integration.
Q: Did your research into the influence of arrangers such as Chappie Willet provide you any new personal insight into that era of jazz?
Wriggle: Focusing on a more “anonymous” freelance arranger like Willet allowed me to explore issues of style and identity that don’t always arise with better-known bandleader-arrangers like Duke Ellington or Fletcher Henderson. When Willet fulfilled his arranging duties for competing clients—helping bandleaders to establish or reinforce their recognizable sound and style—his arrangements showcased different characteristics of his client’s commercial identities. For example, Willet’s work for Louis Armstrong reinforced the bandleader’s historical reputation as a New Orleans jazz pioneer, while his writing for Lunceford emphasized conceptions of dramatic ensemble virtuosity. But at the same time, Willet included enough of his own signature arranging style that listeners can recognize his personal identity as well. This stylistic negotiation between performer and arranger wouldn’t necessarily be as observable in the work of arrangers who only write for their own ensemble, or only one or two clients. It’s an aspect of popular music that gets very little attention in historical narratives, but it plays a huge role in the resulting sound of the music.
From a musician’s perspective, the role of an arranger is fairly obvious—composers create the song, while arrangers determine how to perform it—but for many listeners this distinction is too subtle to really get a handle on. So a lot of jazz and popular music histories dutifully include one or two sentences about how important and brilliant arrangers are, and then leave it at that. This book attempts to provide a window into the broader world of professional arranging in jazz and popular music: What were these musicians trying to do with their music? How were they trained? Where did they work? How much were they paid? And looking in more detail, I also hope to highlight the artistry involved. Audiences of arranged music are being provided more sonic information than just the song lyrics or featured solos. And a good arranger can transmit a lot of information very effectively.