Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Profoundly infuential jazz-oriented dance band formed c.1929. Personnel included Glen Gray Knoblaugh (b 7 June 1900, Metamora IL; d 23 August 1963 NYC), saxes, frontman; Harold Eugene 'Gene' Gifford (b 31 May 1908, Americus GA; d 12 November 1970, Memphis TN), guitarist/arranger; Clarence Hutchenrider (b 13 June 1908, Waco TX; d 18 August 1991), reeds; Kenny Sargent (b 3 March 1906, Centralia, IL; d 20 December 1969, Dallas TX), saxes, vocals; Elmer Louis 'Sonny' Dunham (b 16 November 1914, Brockton MA), trumpet. Originally a Detroit-based Goldkette band in the mid-'20s called the Orange Blossoms, they left Goldkette and may have renamed themselves after a dance hall that operated in Toronto from 1927 into the '50s. They formed a corporation with Gray (aka 'Spike') elected leader. They made their first records for Okeh '29; they also recorded for Victor as Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra. Pee Wee Hunt was a founder member (see his entry); Gifford joined '29, Dunham early '32; Sargent came from Francis Craig; in the 1940s Herb Ellis, Red Nichols and Bobby Hackett passed through. We have the impression that the tall handsome Gray was more front man than musician, but Spud Murphy (who wrote over 70 arrangements for the band in the late 1930s) said that Gray was a perfectly good player and led the reed section on alto sax, although he couldn't improvise.

The Casa Loma band compared better to black bands than any other white group of its era. It was playing big band jazz for several years before Benny Goodman hit the big time, its popularity, especially on college campuses, keeping the flame alive. Romantic ballads were featured for dancing with sweet vocals by Sargent ('For You', 'It's The Talk Of The Town'), but the period vocals could be a let-down; for example, they smoothed out Irving Berlin's 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' to a swinging riff in a 1931 recording, but after a couple of choruses Jack Richmond's vocal reminds us what a corny tune Berlin actually wrote. But the hot tunes were influential and the envy of all the other bands: 'Black Jazz', 'White Jazz', 'Blue Jazz', 'Casa Loma Stomp', 'Maniac's Ball', 'Rhythm Man' etc were all written by Gifford (as was the band's theme, 'Smoke Rings'); Gifford also arranged 'Milenberg Joys', 'Copenhagen', 'Bugle Call Rag', 'Royal Garden Blues' and many more. The power of the band's ensemble impact and swing proved that such a band could be a virtuoso instrument; Duke Ellington was still learning at the time and Fletcher Henderson's ensembles often did not play as well. Many years later Buddy Rich said of the Casa Loma's drummer Tony Briglia, 'He was a bitch because that band was a bitch.' (Hear Briglia's backbeat on 'Casa Loma Stomp' and try to keep your feet still.) Henderson recorded 'Casa Loma Stomp' (as the Connie's Inn Orchestra '32), while Don Redman's version of 'I Got Rhythm' '32 and Casa Loma's the next year yield nothing to each other in hotness or in the virtuoso writing for the sections.

The influence of the Casa Loma band has always been underrated by historians and critics, no doubt because it was white. Jimmie Lunceford's 'Jazznocracy' and 'White Heat' (both by Will Hudson), Henderson's 'Tidal Wave' (Russ Morgan), the Mills Blue Rhythm Band's 'Blue Rhythm' (by trumpeters Wardell Jones and Shelton Hemphill), Benny Goodman's 'Nitwit Serenade' (co-written by Hudson) and many more could have come straight out of the Casa Loma's book. Gifford went freelance in '34 (he made classic small-group sides for Victor the next year with Bunny Berigan, Bud Freeman and Wingy Manone). Larry Clinton as well as Murphy arranged for the band in the late '30s; Dunham and Sargent led their own bands in the '40s; Sargent returned to lead the Casa Loma Band in the late '40s and later was a late-night Dallas disc jockey. The Casa Loma was re-created on Capitol in 1956 (Casa Loma In Hi-Fi); using star sidemen of the Swing Era, the arrangements still having the old snap, but veteran big band fans knew that although Hollywood studio bands could do that wonderfully well in the mid-1950s, the Casa Loma band had already done it 25 years earlier. Three CDs on Edinburgh's Hep label are highly recommended: Casa Loma Stomp, Maniac's Ball and Boneyard Shuffle compile 72 tracks from 1929-41 in excellent transfers.