When we were teenagers we defined ourselves through the music that we listened to, and I suppose that that is something which remains true for teens today. I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to James Taylor (even if I sat enthralled with “Sweet Baby James” when no one was around) and the same was true for big band music. In the 70s, big band music was the soundtrack of our parents’ lives, which was synonymous with lame.
Well, I’m older now, and with age comes the freedom to be lame in my children’s eyes. It’s a great freedom, because it allows me to listen to music in ways I never did before. Since I got a turntable for Christmas, I’ve been buying LPs at garage sales, thrift shops, wherever. As a result, I have a new fave: Tommy Dorsey.
No, “Tommy Dorsey” doesn’t sound very hip, does it. Dorsey was a famous bandleader, arranger, and trombonist. But there’s something otherworldly about so many of his recordings that I find myself resisting saying the kinds of things that David Sedaris quotes from his father, like “Listen to this! They really don’t make records like this anymore!” (But, seriously, they don’t. I’m not sure anyone even could.)
The frontrunner Dorsey album for late night summer listening is, hands down, a collection called “Yes, Indeed.” I say collection because it was never a proper studio album, but a collection of hits of a sort, some from the early 30s and then on up to a couple from the post war years. There was a time when this music was pop, but now it sounds veiled, clandestine, and mysterious. “Star Dust” “Song of India” “Marie” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” The album features a young Sinatra and the Pied Pipers, a vocal group. Group shouts, brass, mellow reeds—lots of variety and the kinds of intense arrangements that Dorsey was famous for. It just makes you feel like you’re someplace else. Someplace like Europe with an American regiment during the war.
Vinyl is important, because it really makes you feel like you are eavesdropping on another place and time. There’s something about knowing that the album is a thing that has made the trek from back then. It was once bought new from a record store and held in, perhaps, a young pair of hands. The copy I have was pressed in the late 40s, and the pops and background hiss add to the exoticism of the album. It just sounds like plantation humidity to me. There is a laziness to the record going around and around until the hiss, pop, and then silence when the needle lifts at the end of a side. The liner notes are great too, including the ubiquitous note to “Beware the Blunted Needle.” There isn’t a hint of irony or sarcasm anywhere, which can seem disingenuous to a modern reader.
There’s nothing sarcastic or ironic about the music, either, even though the modern ear can play some tricks in that regard. But alone, late at night, if you just give yourself over to it, this is the kind of music that can remind you that it’s a very big world out there. I’m not sure why, but it just does. And it is. Bigger than I ever imagined.