Clarinetist and bandleader Jerry Wald is perhaps best remembered as Artie Shaw’s biggest fan. Wald was fascinated by Shaw’s late-1930s style, and he worked hard to imitate it. Though never a first-tier group, Wald’s early band proved successful enough to earn him a modest place in the history books, despite its lack of real talent or originality.
Wald learned clarinet at a young age and formed his first band while in high school. After graduating, he headed to California, where he played with a number of small combos, including one featuring Stan Kenton on piano. He returned to New York in early 1941, forming his first professional orchestra, which opened at Child’s Spanish Gardens and remained there for six months. The booking included a nightly CBS radio spot.
In late 1941, Wald signed with the GAC booking house and returned to California. He formed a new band from the Los Angeles City College orchestra and took them on a three-week road trip back to New York. The group opened at the Rosemont Ballroom in Brooklyn, but soon after the building burned down.
Depending on what story you believe, Wald’s band either lost everything in the fire or the only things that survived were Wald’s clarinet and the band’s arrangements. If you believe the former, then Wald put the group’s library back together again from memory. Either way, the orchestra soon earned another break when asked to fill in at the Roseland Ballroom. The gig ended up stretching to ten weeks.
The Roseland job led to a booking at the Hotel Lincoln in March 1942, which gave Wald exposure on both the CBS and Mutual radio networks. The band’s popularity was rising, and they signed with the Decca label in April. In October of that same year, they made a musical short for RKO-Pathe’s Jamboree series.
Early Personnel and Style
Wald’s love for Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine”-era style was unashamedly present in his early work. His clarinet echoed Shaw note for note, phrase for phrase. The band played Shaw tunes in the exact manner. Even when they performed numbers not in Shaw’s catalog, they sounded like Shaw. Wald wasn’t Shaw however, and his band wasn’t nearly the same caliber as Shaw’s famous outfit. While Wald and his men could do a good imitation of Shaw, they never approached the same level of talent or ability. Still, Wald’s sound was pleasant, and he built up a good following.
Wald himself, described as “small, dark and handsome,” wasn’t the most charismatic of frontmen. He never got intimate with the audience or tried to charm its female members, and his emcee work was stiff. He dressed smartly, however, and always smiled. Perhaps his most competent sideman was drummer Irv Cottler, who had been key in the sound of Larry Clinton’s recently disbanded orchestra. Cottler remained with Wald throughout the band’s existence. Wald was also one of the few bandleaders at the time who didn’t have to worry about losing his men to the draft. All thirteen of his musicians in October 1942 were 4F, as was he himself.
A reviewer gave the name of Wald’s vocalist during his first Roseland engagement in 1942 as Francis Fayne, though perhaps they meant Frances Wayne. Wayne, who later sang for Woody Herman and married Neal Hefti, was still an unknown at the time. Anita Boyer had joined the band by mid-1942, however, and was Wald’s most notable canary. She stayed until December, when Lillian Lane replaced her. Lane remained until May 1943. Betty Bonney then sang and stayed through at least November of that year. Ginnie Powell had replaced Bonney by December. Male vocalist Dick Merrick remained with Wald for many years, though he left for the McFarland Twins’ band in late 1942, returning to Wald in May 1943. Johnny Bond replaced him in the interim.
1944 saw a change in Wald’s style. By mid-year he had added a six-piece string section to his already fifteen-piece orchestra. Wald used strings in a novel way, having them play along even on jump numbers. Wald still lacked outstanding musicians though. Reviews from this era described the band as methodical.
In 1944, Wald changed his sound and added a six-piece string section to his orchestra. Powell served as female vocalist until she left in October of that year. By 1945, though, Wald was back to his old sound. Vocalists were Merrick, who sang ballads, and Kay Allen, who handled pop tunes. The pair of singers fell in love and later married.
Wald pushed for and got his release from Decca in February 1945, one of the first bandleaders to walk away from the label over complaints that the company had been taking more of an interest in vocal stars and not pushing band recordings. Wald quickly found a new home at Majestic. The move proved beneficial. Majestic took an active interest in promoting Wald’s records, with Wald dropping his string section and returning to pure jump music again.
1945 was perhaps Wald’s most successful year. His music was once again in the spotlight, and by this time as well Wald’s clarinet style had evolved so that he no longer sounded as if he were trying to imitate Shaw. His band of that period wasn’t loaded with outstanding sidemen, however those he had gave a good show, playing brassy and loud, often standing when in action.
Wald briefly had a major asset in Billie Rogers. The female trumpet player and vocalist, who had formerly played with Woody Herman and then led her own band, joined Wald in March 1945. Rogers’ husband, John Archer, also came along as part of the deal. Archer had managed Rogers’ band and took over management duties for Wald as well. One of the very few women to play in a male band, Rogers’ sensational trumpet playing and bluesy vocal style were highlights of Wald’s 1945 group. Rogers only stayed a few months however, leaving in October to front her own combo. Archer left as well.
Wald became the poster boy for payola in November 1945 when the Campbell-Loft-Porgie music publishing house sued him. According to the suit, Wald had borrowed several hundred dollars from the company, a common practice at the time, but had never attempted to pay it off. Bandleaders often took out “loans” from publishing houses with the understanding that it needen’t be paid back as long as the leader plugged the company’s songs. Wald never carried through on those expectations. The incident marked a turning point in the payola scandal, as previously no publishing house or bandleader had ever freely admitted to exchanging money for plugs.
In 1946, the band began a noticeable decline. Despite Wald making the cover of Billboard on April 6 of the year, reviews painted the orchestra’s shows as boring. April reviews panned vocalist Anne Russell, who had replaced Allen. Merrick left that month as well, replaced by Bill Raymond. Mary Nash also sang in 1946. Wald also complained that radio time was no longer effective in selling records. In the early part of the year, the group moved from Majestic to the Sonara label, and they starred in a Columbia musical short.
By late 1946, the writing was on the wall. The band business in general was in a slump, and many leaders had decided to turn in their batons. In November, Wald joined them. Announcing plans to create a sweet orchestra, he disbanded his jump group and let all his men go after completing a booking in Hollywood.
Wald quickly put together his new outfit, which made its debut at Ciro’s in Hollywood on January 24, 1947, having already signed with Columbia Pictures to appear in the film Broadway Baby. The new orchestra was a radical departure from his previous band, featuring a lush string section. The brass section consisted only of two trumpets and one french horn. Vocalist was Nick Delano. Jimmy Vanni had replaced him by June.
Wald’s sweet orchestra recorded for the Commodore label in late 1947, but it failed to click, despite appearing in two more films. The group’s sound was awkward, especially when it attempted to play tunes from Wald’s previous book. He finally ditched it and return to what he knew best, jazz, forming a bop orchestra in January 1949.
The new nineteen-piece band was again a radical concept. Wald designed the orchestra for concert, theater and jazz work. It would play no dance dates. The line-up included eight instruments in the brass section, five reeds, three standard rhythm and three Latin rhythm. They recorded on the Columbia label. This band too failed to catch on, and Wald finally folded it and settled in Hollywood, where he opened his own bistro, the Studio Club, at Sunset and Vine, situated opposite the Palladium Ballroom. The late-night establishment featured small combos and acted as a musician’s hangout.
Wald didn’t stay out of the band business for long however. In May 1950, he began rehearsing a new sixteen-piece orchestra to open the Hollywood location of Tommy Dorsey’s Casino Gardens ballroom on Memorial Day weekend. He remained in California through 1951. Carolyn Grey, ex-Woody Herman vocalist, joined the group in March 1951. In 1952, Chris Connors was female vocalist.
Wald finally closed his club and went on the road again in 1952, ending up back in New York, where his new sound was panned by reviewers. The group recorded for Decca in that year. In late 1953, Wald recorded for Lion.
Early 1954 found Wald switching gears yet again, this time forming a string combo. He later returned to fronting a full orchestra. In 1956 and 1958, he recorded for the Kapp label, and in early 1959 for Todd. In late 1959, he formed his own label, Waldork, to release his version of “The Creeper.” Wald’s last hurrah was in 1961, when his band was selected by CBS radio for a series of big band broadcasts from Atlantic City’s Steel Pier.
Jerry Wald passed away in 1973, age 55.
C-L-P hired an innocent-looking, young blonde woman to attend one of Wald’s shows at the Roseland Ballroom. She approached the stand while the band was playing and asked the bandleader if he was Jerry Wald. Much to his surprise, when he replied in the affirmative, thinking her a fan, she served him the subpoena. ↩︎
Vocalist Bill Raymond, unable to afford transportation back East after the band had been scrapped, filed a complaint with the California State Labor Department, wanting Wald to pay his travel expenses home as well as backpay for every day he had been stranded in the state. Wald’s management countered that Wald had made available $4000 to pay for his sidemen’s transportation but Raymond had refused. The vocalist indicated that he wanted to stay on the West Coast but later changed his mind. A hearing at the Labor Department accepted Wald’s offer to pay for Raymond’s transportation and rejected the singer’s claim for backpay. ↩︎