Though not well remembered today, bandleader Boyd Raeburn blazed trails in progressive jazz that took his music in directions beyond even those explored by such adventurous types as Stan Kenton and Tom Talbert. Raeburn, however, didn’t start out to be a jazz innovator. For many years, he operated a successful society orchestra before making a big leap into the unknown.
Raeburn, who played saxophone, began his career in the early 1930s, leading a college orchestra at the University of Chicago. During the late 1930s, he fronted a mickey mouse band which played the hotel ballroom circuit. By 1943, though, his interest had shifted into jazz, and he put together a jump band that settled in for a year-long run at the Band Box in Chicago, which came with radio time on CBS. Critics quickly noticed the orchestra, indicating that it showed great promise. Initial vocalists were Ted Travers and Nova Coggan. Doris Day briefly sang, with Ginnie Powell joining by July. When Powell left in September, Sharon Leslie took her place. Leslie would later become better known as June Christy.
Shift to Progressive Jazz
In early 1944, Raeburn made numerous changes to his band, transforming it into a progressive jazz outfit. As a key part of his new sound, Raeburn brought in saxophonist Johnny Bothwell. He also raided Sonny Dunham’s orchestra in February, taking several musicians as well as top-notch vocalists Dorothy Claire and Don Darcy, who replaced Travers and Leslie. The new group wowed the critics when it came into New York’s Hotel Lincoln early that year, producing sounds far more modern than any other orchestra of its day. The band struggled financially though as it toured the east. While jazz fans appreciated their music, it baffled the general public. The group also went through constant lineup changes, including the loss of Claire, who had left by mid-year. Bea Abbott briefly replaced her but was gone by July, leaving Darcy the sole vocalist until at least October.
Raeburn’s early band recorded a few radio transcriptions, which were recordings meant for airplay but not available commercially. One Detroit disk jockey liked the song “Prisoner of Love,” a commercial ballad sung by Darcy, and played it seven days in a row at the same time each day. The stunt backfired on him when listeners sent in thousands of requests for the tune and swarmed local record stores to buy it. When they couldn’t find it, they rushed the station to try and get copies.
Problems occurred that summer when a fire at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey destroyed the band’s book. Raeburn quickly regrouped, with help from Billy Eckstine, who returned copies of Raeburn arrangements he’d been lent and also provided Raeburn with original arrangements of his own. Raeburn considered disbanding and starting anew but was talked out of it by his manager, and instead he reorganized, taking his group a step further, with help from young arranger George Handy, who wrote extremely complex and dissident charts. The band’s sound was further energized by pioneering African-American bassist Oscar Pettiford. Critics used words like “brilliant” to describe Raeburn’s new sound.
In early 1945, Raeburn signed with the Guild label, releasing several interesting sides over the next year, including one featuring trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie. By early 1945, Margie Wood was vocalist. She remained through at least the end of May, followed by Claire Hogan. Darcy left the band in April, replaced by David Allyn. After a dispute with Raeburn, Bothwell left the band in July, taking Hogan with him. Ginnie Powell returned to take Hogan’s place. She and Raeburn secretly married in Mexico that September, a fact that was not made public until mid-1946. Pettiford left the band in late 1945 to join Duke Ellington.
Despite their critical success, Raeburn’s band continued to struggle. The orchestra was idle for much of late 1945, with their agency, William Morris, not being able to line up satisfactory bookings. With little to do, Powell took a job with Harry James, while still remaining available for Raeburn recordings. Down Beat wondered if the band was “too hip for success.” In mid-1945, Raeburn told the magazine:
I’m almost thirty thousand bucks in the red and the end isn’t in sight. Some guys tell me that I’ll never have a successful band as long as I play hip music. I don’t believe it and I’m going to prove them wrong.
In January 1946, Raeburn signed with Ben Pollack’s Jewel label and produced a series of innovative sides featuring Handy arrangements. Six of those sides ended up on the much-lauded and groundbreaking Innovations album, released mid-year. The songs were unlike any other heard at the time, thrilling jazz fans with their unusual composition. Critics were divided, however, with some feeling that the album lacked continuity and relied to much on effect. The album today remains a cornerstone of progressive jazz.
In February, Raeburn put his band on hold but remained active, recording for the Standard Radio library service, who owned the Savoy label, in Los Angeles with talented local musicians, including Dodo Marmorosa, Ray Linn, Jackie Mills, Lucky Thompson, and Britt Woodman. Powell, who was still with James, sang. For the Standard sessions, Raeburn again focused on Handy originals. Reactions to the recordings varied from, as Standard put it, “downright enthusiasm to outright indignation.” Despite that, the company stuck by Raeburn and ordered more. Raeburn took his new line-up out on one-nighters across the southwest in April, though African-American stars Thompson and Woodman temporarily withdrew from the band due to problems caused by prejudice. Allyn remained as male vocalist, leaving at some point shortly after early July.
By mid-1946, Handy, realizing his value to Raeburn, began to demand billing and threatened to leave the band, causing a rift between him and Raeburn. Handy was also upset that some of his compositions had been credited to Raeburn, though this was not Raeburn’s doing. The controversy reached its peak when Raeburn and Handy’s personal manager, Ed Finckel, “swung fists” during a meeting. No one was injured. Handy and Raeburn had split by year’s end. After Handy left, Raeburn downplayed the arranger’s contributions to the band’s musical success, calling Handy “immature” and finding flaws in his work. Raeburn also implied that he had taught Handy how to score for large bands.
1947 Orchestra and Later Career
Toward the end of 1946, Raeburn picked up a rich backer, real estate tycoon Stillman Pond, and built a new thirty-piece orchestra, which in January 1947 he brought east for concerts and radio work. Billed as “Creating New Music for a New World,” the band featured strings and a harp, with Powell as vocalist. Instrumentalists included such prominent names as Buddy De Franco, Ray Wetzel, and Pete Candoli. Though Raeburn had brought in Johnny Richards as his new arranger, Richards had not had time to create any new work by the orchestra’s debut, so Raeburn used arrangements by Handy and Finckel.
Raeburn ditched the strings soon after arriving in New York and had trouble finding a suitable harpist. The new orchestra recorded on Jewel and appeared on CBS radio. At the same time, Musicraft purchased and reissued Raeburn’s masters from Guild, which had since gone out of business. Raeburn, unhappy with their quality, unsuccessfully tried to prevent their release.
Raeburn’s new band struggled financially. Reports in mid-1947 suggested Pond was pulling out as backer, which Pond denied. “Walk out on an investment of $100,000? What do you think I am—crazy?” he told Down Beat. The band continued to lose momentum, however, and Raeburn began to lose interest. Finally, he disbanded in November 1947. He and Powell planned to sign with the Majestic label that month, where Powell was to sing with solo billing, backed by a new Raeburn orchestra. The deal fell through in December, though the couple had already recorded five masters by then, despite the fact that no contract had been signed. Majestic gave copies of the masters to Raeburn, and the couples’ agent, Willard Alexander, shopped them around to various labels. Atlantic Records, a new company at that time, eventually purchased them in April 1948 and later released them. Majestic’s masters were auctioned off in October of that year after the label went bankrupt.
Raeburn put together short-lived touring outfits in 1949 and early 1950 with Powell as vocalist. After working mostly as an arranger in the early 1950s, he returned to his roots in 1956 and formed a new dance orchestra. Powell again served as vocalist. Unsuccessful in resurrecting his career, he left the music business entirely in 1959 and moved to the Bahamas with his wife, where she passed away later that year. Boyd Raeburn died in 1966 after suffering a heart attack.
Leslie/Christy contracted scarlet fever right before the orchestra left for New York and had to remain in Chicago. ↩︎
Allyn was also known as David Allen. ↩︎
Bothwell and Hogan married after leaving Raeburn. ↩︎
Raeburn had a habit of throwing departing band members under the bus. When Bothwell left in 1945, Raeburn insulted his playing and publicly accused him of starting fights and stealing arrangements. ↩︎
Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.