As the great Swing Era of the 1930’s and 1940’s fades further into history, we look around and realize that there aren’t too many people still alive anymore who can say they were active participants in that musically vibrant era. There’s a small handful of bandleaders left—Artie Shaw, Benny Carter, Lionel Hampton, Orrin Tucker—who are all now in their 90’s, but most likely will be gone by the next decade. Their presence on this earth provides us with a unique window to our past, and should be fully explored before they, too, pass on to their otherworldly gig.

One aspect of that exploration is a rediscovery of their music, and one such endeavor is the work of the swing revivalist band Mora’s Modern Rhythmists, based in Los Angeles. Formed in 1994 by pianist Dean Mora, the band utilizes period arrangements and record transcriptions of the original Jazz- and Swing-Era charts, concentrating on the Hot Jazz and early Swing periods of 1927-1937. They are active in the local club scene, and have performed in many historical venues, including the Hollywood Palladium, the Orpheum Theatre, the Wiltern Theatre, and the Hollywood Roosevelt and Biltmore hotels.

Through their efforts to resurrect these gems from the past, the band has met a number of the original participants from that era, two of which have become friends of the band. Although not as well known as those mentioned above, they contributed greatly to the musical landscape of early 20th Century America. These two gentleman are arranger/composer Spud Murphy, and dancer/comedian/songwriter Leonard Reed.

Leonard Reed’s life seems to have been packed with more achievements than many of us, put together, have had. Reed, 95 in January 2002, began his career in vaudeville in the early 1920’s as a tap dancer (click on image). With partner Willie Bryant, Leonard played all the major theatres in the United States doing comedy and dance routines. It was in 1927, that the dance, the “Shim Sham Shimmy,” was invented by the pair, and to this day remains an institution among tap dancers. During the 1930’s, Leonard branched out to become a producer of numerous stage shows at famous venues, including the Cotton Club in New York City, as well as Harlem’s Apollo Theatre and Chicago’s Grand Terrace Cafe.

During the 1940’s Leonard became the show business manager for famed boxer Joe Louis, and embarked on a coast-to-coast tour of the country. The following decade, Reed was an A&R Rep for several record companies, producing for such performers as Marvin Gaye, Mel Carter, and Rose Hardaway, and is credited for discovering and launching the career of Dinah Washington.

Reed is also credited for breaking the color barrier in the PGA back in 1951, seemingly by accident. Golf officials in San Diego mistakenly thought that Reed—who is black, but with a light-skin complexion—was a Caucasian, and issued him a PGA card. Reed seized upon this opportunity, and soon opened the door for more blacks to join the PGA.

Leonard Reed is still active, staying busy producing, making personal appearances, and conducting tap dance master classes, showing new audiences his famous “Shim Sham Shimmy.” He also wrote a number of songs that were recorded by various artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb, and Lionel Hampton. Several of these songs have been recorded by Mora’s Modern Rhythmists, including his 1935 tune, “A Viper’s Moan,” as well as his 1932 hit, “It’s Over Because We’re Through,” with Leonard himself singing the vocals.

The other gentleman that Mora’s band is focusing their attention on is arranger Spud Murphy. Murphy, 93, began his career playing saxophone in dance bands in the Midwest during the mid-1920s, eventually moving to New York City in 1933. There his skills as an arranger were discovered, and soon he found himself arranging for a number of top bands, including those of Freddie Martin, Joe Haymes, and Glen Gray & the Casa Loma Orchestra. However, it was his association with Benny Goodman, beginning in 1934, that assured Murphy a place in Swing history. He, along with fellow arranger Fletcher Henderson, wrote dozens of fast-hitting arrangements that soon propelled Goodman into stardom, and helped to usher in the Swing Era.

Soon Murphy was in high demand for his services. He wrote hundreds of stock arrangements of popular tunes that are still being played in big bands today. He was also a big band leader himself, fronting an ensemble from 1938 to 1941, which showcased his many compositions and arrangements. Murphy also became a staff composer at Columbia Pictures in the late 1930’s (he had moved to Los Angeles by then), and orchestrated the scores for a number of their films. In the late 1940’s Murphy devised his own compositional theory system called the Equal Interval System; his students through the years included Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Bennie Maupin, and Gerald Wiggins.

Dean Mora met Murphy in 1998, and the two became friends. Spud is a frequent visitor to the Modern Rhythmists’ performances, particularly at The Derby nightclub in Hollywood, where the band holds court once a month. One evening in 1999, the band played a 1935 Murphy stock arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Bird of Paradise.” After the show, Spud commented that he had never heard that chart before. As he explained, back during his days of writing stock arrangements for the publishing houses in New York City, he would take his stack of new arrangements and walk over to the Taft Hotel where George Hall and his Orchestra played for the lunch crowd. Spud would give George his charts, and the orchestra would then sight-read the arrangement, giving Spud a chance to hear them for the first time and to make the necessary corrections before submitting them to the publisher. Somehow, “Bird of Paradise” never made it to the Taft Hotel, and Spud forgot about that chart for approximately 64 years—until he walked into the Derby that night in 1999 and heard it being played by Mora’s Modern Rhythmists.

 

Spud holds Mora’s Modern Rhythmists in high regard for their faithful renditions to his scores, and has given Dean Mora his blessing to initiate a CD project that will exclusively feature his arrangements, surveying his work all the way back to his first recorded arrangement, “I Got Worry” (1928), through to his own big band’s recordings. This project should be completed in mid-2002, hopefully in time for Spud’s 94th birthday.


Click to hear short excerpts from their CD Mr. Rhythmist Goes to Town
Georgia Jubilee [896 K]
Smoke Rings [1.2 mg]
Sweet Sue (Just You) [1.4 mg]

Please visit Mora’s Modern Rhythmists’ website at:
http://www.morasmodern.com
or email Dean at:
deanmora@morasmodern.com

Mora's Modern Rhythmists
P.O. Box 8291
Universal City, CA 91618-8291 USA

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