The impact the Big Band Era had on the American psyche is almost impossible to delineate. Even the grandchildren of those who danced the nights away to the strains of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, feel a nostalgia for those times.
Perhaps it was the Second World War. But definitely, the clear, melodic and distinctive sounds of these bands, great and minor, had a lot to do with this phenomenon. Whether bouncy and carefree, or dreamy and sentimental, hearing only a few bars of their music can evoke a total atmosphere in seconds.
The Tommy Dorsey Band with Earle Hagen in 1938
Imagine yourself a musician in those fantastic years. The goal had to be to join the best and most famous. It is here in 1934 that we first encounter Earle Hagen. The precocious teenager, graduating from high school at only age 15, found himself within weeks of leaving school, playing trombone on tour under the baton of Jacques Renard, conductor for the top-rated “Eddie Cantor Radio Show.”
Earle Hagen on the
Hollywood High Wall of Fame
He followed this with recording studio work and then toured with The California Collegians (a group featured in the film “Roberta” along with their star-to-be saxophone player, Fred MacMurray).
His next step up the ladder was with the band of Isham Jones (composer of “I'll See You in My Dreams” and “It Had to be You”). This brought Earle Hagen to New York City, where - unbeknownst to him - he was spotted playing at Jack White's Club by none other than Tommy Dorsey. His big break. With the Dorsey band? Not yet. Tommy Dorsey had just received a call from rival band leader Benny Goodman.
Isham Jones Orchestra
The two were well known for stealing musicians from each other, but in this case, it was a friendly call from Benny Goodman, telling Tommy Dorsey he was in need of a trombone player. On the recommendation of the great Tommy Dorsey, Earle Hagen was on a train within hours reporting to Benny Goodman.
This was the biggest of the big time , but it was a hard grind. Theater dates meant seven performances a day in between motion pictures. And there were also regular radio shows during the week.
Earle Hagen solo with Benny Goodman Orchestra
In the middle of his stint with Benny Goodman, Earle Hagen received a call from Tommy Dorsey, whom he'd still not met. About what? Yes indeed. An invitation to join the Dorsey band.. And what a start that was. Because of union rules in New York, Earle Hagen found himself playing simultaneously with not just the two greatest bands of the era, but that of Isham Jones as well. And he was still only in his teens!
But that wasn't all. His first night with the Dorsey band, it turned out that the great trombonist was off on a short vacation, and young Earle Hagen was expected to stand up at the front of the band, playing Tommy Dorsey's trombone part.
Les Jenkins, Earle Hagen & Tommy Dorsey 1938
The Dorsey Days also included a number of recording dates in addition to hotel residences, theater dates and radio shows. Everywhere they went, the band was mobbed. When the Dorsey tour reached Los Angeles, Earle Hagen's home, he decided to leave the road, and joined the Ben Pollack band, which was then on an extended stay in California. Again there were recording dates and radio too, in this case, the “Burns & Allen Show.”
While still working with Ben Pollack on that program, Earle Hagen joined the Ray Noble Orchestra, not just as a trombone player, but as arranger too. Once again it was a tough schedule, including recording dates and radio. They started out in Los Angeles, and went on to appear at the premier hotels in the U.S. It was in 1939 while doing a gig at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco that, in true busman's holiday tradition, on a night off he went to see Duke Ellington play.
The Ray Noble Orchestra 1940
Earle Hagen fourth from right
(and future bride Elouise Sidwell center)
With the strains of that bluesey, sophisticated sound still in his head, he went back to the hotel and penned a tune for fellow Ray Noble bandsman, the saxophonist Jack Dumont. It was called “Harlem Nocturne.” The Noble orchestra played it the very next night, and it is probable that not a night has passed in the following 60 years without “Harlem Nocturne “delighting some audience somewhere in the world.
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But “Harlem Nocturne “ wasn't the only life-changing thing from the Ray Noble period, for it was with that band that he met the beautiful singer from East St. Louis, Illinois, Lou Sidwell. In the Best of All Worlds, she was the summit. Lou and Earl Hagen enjoyed 59 glorious years of married life together. On Valentine's Day 2002 Lou Hagen passed away after an incredibly courageous fight against illness. For everyone who knew her, she WAS The Best of The Best.
The Trio Lee Lynn & Lou with
Snooky Lanson and Earle Hagen
But there was also a very bad moment for Earle Hagen in the Big Band days. A severe, near-fatal illness, during which Ray Noble broke up his orchestra. Following life-saving treatment by Dr. Gurn Stout, Earle Hagen went to work for CBS as staff trombonist on variety and drama shows until 1942 when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps where he was stationed with the Radio Production Unit in Santa Ana.
Lifesaver Dr. Gurn Stout
This was the biggest of big bands - a 65-piece orchestra which tended to the radio and recording needs of the Army Air Corps. But in truth, for trombonist Earle Hagen, it was the last chapter of his own Big Band days, and the beginning of his career as an arranger/orchestrator.
Now read about Earle Hagen's days at 20th CENTURY FOX