Considered one of the greatest arrangers of the big band era, Van Alexander was also known for his ability to put together quality orchestras. Unfortunately for him, those two skills didn’t translate into success for his own band, which never really managed to get off the ground.
Alexander began his professional career as Al Feldman, selling two arrangements to Chick Webb for twenty dollars. Webb soon contracted him to write three arrangements a week, often for his up-and-coming young vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald, which culminated in the popular 1938 hit song “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a number Fitzgerald and Feldman co-wrote. The success of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” brought Feldman to the attention of RCA Victor recording chief Eli Oberstein, who encouraged him to form his own orchestra in late 1938. Oberstein also suggested that Feldman change his to name Van Alexander.
The orchestra made its first recordings for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label in early November 1938. Original vocalists were Shirley Brown and saxophonist Butch Stone, who sang novelty tunes. The numbers given Brown to record were arrangements Alexander had done for Fitzgerald. Brown was no Ella Fitzgerald however, and the tunes came off poorly. Jayne Dover had replaced Brown by the time the band entered the studio for the second time in late November. With new arrangements, it finally began to come into its own, capturing the reviewers’ ears. Critics found Alexander’s group a good band but not spectacular, noting that it had possibilities.
Phyllis Kenny had become female vocalist by mid-February 1939. In September, Oberstein formed a new recording company, United States Record, releasing Alexander from RCA Victor and signing him to Varsity, one of new firm’s imprints, where they were billed as “Van Alexander and His Swingtime Band.” In mid-1940, in addition to his own band, Alexander became conductor of the house orchestra at New York radio station WOR for the Mabel Todd-Maury Amsterdam Laugh and Swing Club broadcasts. As 1940 rolled on, Alexander began having trouble lining up bookings for his dance orchestra. He tried reducing its size to make it more economically palatable for theater owners, but it made no difference. Finally, in early October, he called it quits, deciding to focus on writing and arranging instead.
Working for Larry Clinton and others over the next few years, Alexander taught arranging on the side and continued on the Laugh and Swing Club until early 1941. That year, he also played piano with Doc Price’s jump quartet. Alexander led bands off and on for the rest of the decade. He left Price in June 1941 to form a new band to play summer locations and one-nighters, with Dover, who had changed her name to Jane Essex by that time, returning as female vocalist. Bob Preston was male vocalist. In early 1942 Alexander assembled a band for the Minoco soundie “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” with Kenny as female vocalist, singing with Lew Hearn. In mid-1942, Alexander put together a new twelve-piece outfit to compete in a battle of the bands with Muggsy Spanier’s orchestra in Hartford, Connecticut. Alexander’s unpolished band was no match for Spanier’s outstanding ensemble.
In early 1943, Alexander assembled a temporary band for Bob Crosby’s appearance at the Capitol Theater in New York. When Crosby’s four-week run was over, Alexander decided to keep the band going. It worked through the summer, playing theaters and ballrooms, with Betty Carr as vocalist. David Allen joined the band when it went into the Roseland in July, where it remained until September with a coast-to-coast broadcast over the NBC Blue Network.
Alexander left the music business in late 1943 to do “defense work.” He made a comeback in mid-1945, fronting a pick-up band for public park dance dates. Alexander focused on teaching as well as arranging for the rest of the 1940s, writing the 1946 book, First Arrangement, with its tagline “Any musician can arrange with this book!!!” Readers could send their arrangements to Alexander by mail and, for a fee, he would correct them.
In the late 1940s, Alexander became interested in be-bop and began to focus on smaller bands. In early 1946, he and Quig Quigley helped put together Bob Crosby’s new post-war band and then decided to form an eight-piece combo of their own. The group fell apart soon after. In 1947, Alexander wrote book for Butch Stone’s new small combo. The following year, MGM, for whom Stone recorded, asked Alexander to create a progressive big band for an album of songs. Called the Blue Rhythm Band, it included such musicians as Charlie Shavers, Lucky Thompson, Jimmy Rowles, Chuck Peterson, Don Lamond and Stan Getz. One side of the album featured be-bop while the other contained a swing jam. In 1949, Alexander wrote a book for musicians, The Be-Bop Style, in which he explained the intricacies of creating chords in progressive jazz.
Alexander worked with a variety of his own small combos in the late 1940s and early 1950s, recording with Rose Marie on Mercury in 1947 using a sextet. In 1952, he organized a new orchestra for Las Vegas, keeping the size of the band down to ten musicians. He explained to Down Beat magazine why he used small groups:
The day of the big band is over. The current trends call for smaller bands, both for reasons of economy and because the dancing public doesn’t want the complicated, loud, brassy arrangements of the big band era even though musicians like to write and play them. If we’re going to put the dance business back on its feet, we’re going to have to play for the public.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Alexander recorded several albums under his own name and also conducted for popular singers, including Doris Day, Andy Williams, and Dean Martin. He became a highly successful composer and arranger in the film and television industry, including eight years on Martin’s classic television program. Van Alexander passed away in 2015 at the age of 100.
Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.