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Boyd Raeburn was born in Faith, South Dakota, and became one of the greatest and least-known of jazz bandleaders during the 1940s. To modern ears his music sounds completely acceptable, not much more difficult to comprehend than the music of such better known leaders as Stan Kenton or Dizzy Gillespie, but without the support of a major record label or radio sponsor his band floundered for years, often going bankrupt only to reappear a few months later with new personnel.
Like the contemporaneous band of clarinetist Woody Herman, the Raeburn orchestra evolved from its simpler, more commercial beginnings to far more advanced and complex charts during the union-imposed recording ban that took effect in October 1942 and lasted about a year and a half. The “new” Raeburn band debuted at the Arcadia Ballroom in November 1942 with arrangements by two African-American writers from Earl Hines’ band, Budd Johnson and Jerry Valentine. The band was a big hit in Chicago but when Raeburn decided to tour after nine months, most of the Chicago-based musicians refused to go with him. He was forced to build a new band to open at the Roosevelt Hotel in Washington, D.C., and was lucky enough to find such outstanding musicians as trumpeters Emmett Carls, Sonny Dunham, Marky Markowitz and Sonny Berman, trombonists Earl Swope and Tommy Pederson (who later played with Spike Jones’ City Slickers), alto saxist Johnny Bothwell, and drummer Don Lamond. Raeburn was also lucky to find an outstanding new arranger, Eddie Finckel, who wrote a sizable new book for the band. Among Finckel’s arrangements were “March of the Boyds,” “Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet,” “Little Boyd Blue,” “Boyd Meets Stravinsky,” and an outstanding chart of Dizzy Gillespie’s first major composition, “A Night in Tunisia”.
Raeburn’s band made a big critical splash in New York. Billy Eckstine, whose own bebop big band also suffered from the recording ban, was ecstatic about it, helping Raeburn play a week at the all-black Apollo Theater. Eckstine exhorted the audience to pay attention to what the band was playing. During one of their New York gigs at the Commodore Hotel, their late-night broadcast was heard by trumpeter Roy Eldridge who rushed down and sat in night after night, for free, until the band’s manager simply hired him. (He stayed for two months.) But bad luck dogged Raeburn throughout his career. Finckel left in 1945 to become chief arranger for Gene Krupa’s big band, Sonny Berman and Earl Swope jumped to the high-profile band of Woody Herman, and then as later, no major label wanted to record him because his arrangements were considered “too weird” for dancers. Nevertheless, Raeburn did record 12 sides for the small Guild label in 1945, including performances of “March of the Boyds” and “A Night in Tunisia” on which trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie sat in. These records were later sold to, and reissued by, Albert Marx’s Musicraft label.
After Finckel’s departure, Raeburn discovered the even more advanced George Handy. Handy created the bulk of the book for which Raeburn is now remembered: “Who Started Love?”, “Temptation,” “Tonsilectomy (ibid),” “Over the Rainbow”, “Body and Soul”, “Yerxa”, and the band’s new theme song, “Dalvatore Sally.” Handy left to work in Hollywood on film scores, but again Raeburn was lucky, hiring such arrangers as Ralph Flanagan (later the leader of a band that played pale imitations of Glenn Miller arrangements) and Johnny Richards. Handy himself, bored with Hollywood, also returned for a brief stay.
Raeburn’s bands kept failing and rebuilding throughout the 1940s. Between October 1945 and November 1946 he recorded his best discs (in terms of both performance and sound quality) for drummer Ben Pollack’s tiny Jewel label. These records, too, had little or no distribution. After one of his several bankruptcies the band was infused with cash thanks to a very generous donation from famed bandleader Duke Ellington, himself an avid fan of Raeburn. The Raeburn band made their last records, four sides featuring vocalist Ginny Powell (who had become Mrs. Raeburn in 1945), for Nesuhi Ertegun’s fledgling Atlantic label in August, 1947. Despite several attempts at trying to score pop hits for a mass market (“Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet,” “Rip Van Winkle,” and “How High the Moon” with Powell among them), the Raeburn band consistently failed to find any mass-marketing niche. It finally folded for good in the fall of 1949.
During the 1950s Raeburn was lured to Columbia Records by producers Mitch Miller and Teo Macero to make three albums for the label, but as usual in most of his projects during this period, Miller insisted on the band playing more “commercial.” The result was a series of albums that pleased no one. They were too undistinguished to appeal to either pop record buyers or Raeburn’s former jazz fans who were bitterly disappointed by them. Raeburn died in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1966. Most biographies claim his cause of death as simply a heart attack, but Raeburn expert and researcher Jack McKinney claims that the heart attack was the result of “prolonged agony after an accident in Texas that left him overturned and trapped in his car for twenty-four hours.”
It is still somewhat unclear why Boyd Raeburn and his magnificent orchestra failed to find a higher niche during a period when the far more dissonant and abrasive arrangements of Stan Kenton were being hailed by jazz lovers nationwide. The best answer seems to be that Raeburn was not a particularly strong or interesting presence as a leader. Short of build, he was not particularly imposing onstage and although he played tenor and baritone saxophone, he only played them occasionally in ensembles with the sax section and never soloed in front of the band. In an era when audiences had come to expect leaders who played instruments as soloists, Raeburn disappointed. Nonetheless, it is a mystery why labels like RCA Victor or Decca did not hire him to compete with Herman on Columbia or Kenton on Capitol. Fortunately for posterity, there are a number of outstanding airchecks and V-Discs of the Raeburn band in its prime to supplement the commercial recordings, and these have managed to sustain and enlarge the audience of those who appreciate the band’s greatness.
His living family includes Merla McKinney of Kansas, his half-sister and his children William Boyd Raeburn Moore of Chicago, a son from his first marriage to Lorraine V. Anderson, a vocalist in his band in the 1930/early 40s; Susan, a therapist and author of Oakland, California; and Bruce Boyd Raeburn of New Orleans, who is the curator of the William Ransom Hogan Archive of New Orleans Jazz at the Tulane University in New Orleans.