Jan Garber

Photo of Jan Garber

Known as the “Idol of the Air Lanes,” bandleader Jan Garber had a long career that spanned more than fifty years. Most remembered for his hot jazz outfit of the 1920s and his sweet band of the 1930s, Garber made a hard pivot to swing in 1942, spending the next three years trying to compete with the best bands in the country. Unable to achieve the same level of success as his previous orchestra, however, he returned to sweet dance music in 1945, which he continued to make until the early 1970s.

Garber studied music at the Combs Conservatory in Philadelphia and was a member of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra before receiving his draft notice in WWI. While stationed at an Army training camp in Alabama, he was asked to form a marching band. He soon became fascinated with popular music, and upon his discharge he decided to abandon his classical career in favor of a job with bandleader/contractor Meyer Davis.

Early Orchestras

Garber was quickly made leader of one of the Davis orchestras. He proved himself a crowd pleaser and in 1920 left to form his own hot jazz outfit. In 1921, he joined his orchestra with that of Milton Davis. Taking the new name Garber-Davis Orchestra, the group became very popular in the South. In 1924, Davis found himself in trouble when a jealous husband threatened his life. He sold out his half of the orchestra to Garber and headed north.

In 1932, influenced by Guy Lombardo, Garber decided to switch gears and play sweet dance music. He fired all the members of his present band except one and bought out the Freddie Large Orchestra, a Canadian outfit. Large became Garber’s lead saxophonist, a position he kept, except during Garber’s 1942-45 flirtation with swing, until his death in 1968.

The new group became quite successful, touring the country and appearing on the Burns and Allen radio program. Lee Bennett was male vocalist from 1933 to 1936. He was replaced by Russ Brown, who left in 1938 when Bennett returned. Bennett left again by 1942, with Brown filling his spot a second time. Fritz Heilbron, often just identified as “Fritz,” sang novelty tunes from 1934 to 1942. Lew Palmer sang from 1933 to 1938, and Tony Allen vocalized in 1937. Garber used female vocalists but only recorded with one, Virginia Hamilton in 1933. Other female vocalists included Dorothy Corday, Phyllis Kenny in 1939, and Alberta Moorehead in 1942. Jack Swift and Johnny Drake sang in August 1942.

Garber changed record labels almost yearly. From 1933 to 1935, he recorded on Victor, signing with Decca in 1935. In 1937, he moved to Brunswick, and in 1939, he was on Vocalion. The band recorded on Variety in 1939, Okeh in 1941, and Hit in 1942.

Swing Band Years and Beyond

In late 1942, Garber decided to switch gears again. He disbanded his dance orchestra and formed a swing outfit. The new group featured young musicians, with Gray Rains writing arrangements. He didn’t completely abandon sugary music, however, retaining enough of it in his book to keep his band commercial. Swift remained as male vocalist, with Helen Englert as female singer. Saxophonist Bill Kleeb handled novelty tunes.

In January 1943, Garber attempted to lure former Glenn Miller vocalist Ray Eberle away from Gene Krupa, but the singer and the bandleader had a fight during their first rehearsal, and the deal fell through. Neither would talk about the details. When asked by Down Beat magazine, Garber simply went “into a pantomime act of a guy slightly the worse for wear for one or two too many.” Kirk Wood ended up with the spot instead, with Swift still on the vocal team as well.

In mid-1943, Garber doubled down on his decision to play swing, revamping his band and telling Down Beat that he was planning to take on the “big boys.” Bob Davis had become Garber’s male vocalist by that period. Davis was often backed by a quintet. Liz Tilton, younger sister of Martha, joined the band in July 1943, replacing Englert. Kay Foster was the band’s vocalist in September 1943, though in what capacity Tilton was gone is unknown. Foster may have simply been filling in, as Tilton was soon back and remained with the band until July 1944. Gwen Davies then took Tilton’s place, staying only a short while, leaving by September. The new band first recorded on Hit in 1944, switching to Feature later that year. It made two sides on ARA in 1945.

Though it had a nice sound, Garber’s swing band never achieved the popularity of his older group, and in September 1945 he formed a new dance orchestra. Vocalists in 1946 were, first, Tommy Traynor and June Arthur and then Ernie Mathias and Kitty Martin. Garber also used a vocal group called simply the Foursome. The band recorded on Black & White in 1946 and Capitol in 1947.

During the 1950s, Garber’s orchestra appeared regularly in Las Vegas and played the Southern horse show circuit. They continued to record actively through the 1960s. Garber retired from show business in 1971 and settled in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he had real estate holdings. His daughter, Janis, led the orchestra until 1973, when it disbanded. It was later reformed. Jan Garber passed away in 1977.


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Night Club Reviews: Edgewater Beach Hotel, Beach Walk, Chicago.” Billboard 20 Jun. 1942: 12.
  3. “On the Stand: Jan Garber.” Billboard 27 Jun. 1942: 20.
  4. “Tri-Cities Rear Canaries for Name Bands.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1942: 15.
  5. “Vaudeville Reviews: Colonial, Dayton. O.” Billboard 22 Aug. 1942: 16.
  6. “On the Stand: Jan Garber.” Billboard 5 Dec. 1942: 22.
  7. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 30 Jan. 1943: 23.
  8. “What Happened to Jan And Ray Shouldn't of.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1943: 6.
  9. Holly, Hal. “Los Angeles Band Briefs.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1943: 7.
  10. “Vaudeville Reviews: Orpheum, Los Angeles.” Billboard 3 Apr. 1943: 14.
  11. “On the Stand: Jan Garber.” Billboard 25 Sep. 1943: 14.
  12. Patterson, Pat. “On The Beam.” Mason City Globe-Gazette [Mason City, Iowa] 30 Sep. 1943: 2.
  13. “I'm After the Big Boys!—Garber.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1943: 4.
  14. “On the Stand: Jan Garber.” Billboard 27 Nov. 1943: 15.
  15. “Garber Band On Road Tour.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1944: 1.
  16. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 25 Mar. 1944: 26.
  17. “Liz Tilton Back With Jan Garber.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1944: 1.
  18. “Music Grapevine.” Billboard 8 Jul. 1944: 19.
  19. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Sep. 1944: 5.
  20. Ehrlich, Evelyn. “Here's News Capsule of Music World for 1945.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1946: 3.