The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street
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The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street is a musical variety radio program which began on the Blue Network in 1940. The magazine Radio Life described it as "one of radio's strangest offsprings... a wacky, strictly hep tongue-in-cheek burlesque of opera and symphony." The series made an unknown regular vocalist named Dinah Shore a national recording and radio star.
It was a weekly half-hour of jazz, played by leading practitioners of the day. The format was a dry satire of the stuffy symphonic and operatic broadcasts announced by the dignified Milton Cross. The Basin Street opening, intoned by announcer Jack McCarthy, usually went along these lines:
- Greetings, music lovers, and that includes you too, Toots. Once again you are tuned in on a concert by the no doubt world-renowned Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, whose members have consecrated their lives to the preservation of the music of the Three Bs: Barrelhouse, Boogie-Woogie, and the Blues. Present with us on this solemn occasion: Mademoiselle Dinah (Diva) Shore, who starts fires by rubbing two notes together; Maestro Paul Laval and his ten termite-proof woodwinds; Dr. Gino Hamilton, as our chairman and intermission commentator; and Dr. Henry Levine, with his Dixieland Little Symphony of eight men and no!
The society's low-key chairman, the witty Gene Hamilton (always introduced as "Dr. Gino Hamilton"), would then call the meeting to order, peppering his formal speech with slang: "There are those critics of the saxophone who say it is merely an unfortunate cross between a lovesick oboe and a slap-happy clarinet. To those critics we must say, 'Kindly step outside with us a moment' and 'Is there a doctor in the house?'" These off-center comments were actually scripted by Welbourn Kelley, but Hamilton's deadpan deliveries often made the musicians laugh out loud.
The program then delivered 30 minutes of blues and hot jazz, with Dr. Gino stepping in between numbers to deliver such comments as, "A Bostonian looks like he's smelling something. A New Yorker looks like he's found it."
Two resident bands provided the music. Henry Levine and His Dixieland Octet offered traditional "readings" of jazz standards such as "Farewell Blues," "St. Louis Blues," and "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street." Trumpeter Levine (born Harry Lewis in London, England in 1907), a former member of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, was quite familiar with these arrangements. Paul Laval and His Woodwindy Ten (which included some of Levine's personnel) played the same type of music on more symphonic instruments, demonstrating that such instruments as oboe, bassoon, and celeste were equally capable of producing hot jazz. In 1943 maestro Laval (born Joseph Usifer in Beacon, New York in 1908) changed his surname to "Lavalle" to avoid association with then-notorious war criminal Pierre Laval.
Each week "Dr. Gino" Hamilton would feature a notable guest from the jazz world, either a musicologist or a performer. Such celebrated soloists as Sidney Bechet, Bobby Hackett, Jelly Roll Morton, and Benny Carter sat in with Levine's band. On one occasion Hamilton introduced a W. C. Handy tune, adding that if Mr. Handy was listening from his home in New York, it was hoped he would approve. Handy was indeed listening, and the delighted Hamilton invited him to appear on the following week's broadcast. On another occasion, probably at the urging of Hackett, comedian Jackie Gleason showed up with a monologue about jazz musicians. Gleason was paid $350 for this appearance, which was so well received by listeners that he was invited back to the program.
Each show featured a "girl singer." Dinah Shore and then Lena Horne received recording contracts at RCA Victor records from their exposure on multiple Lower Basin Street appearances. Linda Keene replaced Horne in 1941. The job was taken in turn by Dixie Mason, Dodie O'Neill, Diane Courtney, and Kay Lorraine.
Each broadcast ended with the ritual of Levine's band playing "Basin Street Blues" in "the 'Farewell Symphony' arrangement" -- gradually, each musician would bow out of the song, until finally bassist Harry Patent was playing solo, "dolefully drubbing on his dog house."
The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street made its debut on February 11, 1940. During its first months on NBC it was a sustaining feature (meaning unsponsored) in a late-Sunday-afternoon (4:30 p.m. ET) time slot. It soon developed a loyal following, and on September 16, 1940 NBC began airing the show in prime time, on Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET.
Hamilton left the series in 1941 to become an NBC producer, and was replaced by announcer Jack McCarthy. McCarthy was replaced by the man the scripts were burlesquing: Milton Cross. The final broadcast was aired on October 8, 1944.
NBC returned the Society to its schedule on June 8, 1950, as a summer replacement for Judy Canova's program. Henry Levine was back with a revamped dixieland eight, including regulars Fletch Philburn on trombone, Harry Patent on bass, and Nat Levine on drums, and new pianist Frank Signorelli, with blues vocalist Martha Lou Harp. Each Saturday half-hour was presented before an enthusiastic studio audience. "Dr. Gino" Hamilton returned as host. The scripts, again written by Welbourn Kelley, had the same jazz slang couched in dignified language. British character actor Arthur Treacher, appearing as guest commentator, lent punctilio to the proceedings. Comedian Orson Bean became the new and final host of the series in 1952, for a 13-week run. Bean caught the spirit of the series completely, delivering Kelley's humorous scripts with his own New England accent and droll diction. He assumed the mantle of "Dr. Orson Bean," assuming a professorial tone for Kelley's prose, punctuating his remarks with exclamations, and muttering ad-libbed asides. NBC announcer Wayne Howell joined in the fun, introducing the Society's chairman as "Boston's half-baked Bean."
The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, featuring the Levine and Laval bands, recorded for RCA Victor. One side of each record was an instrumental by one of the bands, with opening remarks by Gene Hamilton; the other side generally featured a vocal, accompanied by the other band. These 78s from the 1940s were reissued on RCA LPs years later, spotlighting the contributions of Lena Horne and Dinah Shore but omitting most of the instrumentals and the spoken material. Music from the series has been reissued on CDs from Harlequin Records and Nostalgia Arts.
Henry Levine's 1956 album for RCA, Dixieland Jazz Band, was newly recorded with an uncredited studio band. The only reminder of his Lower Basin Street days was a re-recording of his "Bugle Call Rag" arrangement.
Films and television
The only existing visual record of The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street is the group of four Soundies films featuring Henry Levine's Dixieland band. These were filmed in New York in 1941; vocalist Linda Keene appears in three of them. NBC brought the Society to television for a single broadcast in 1952, featuring Henry Levine and hosted by Orson Bean. The half-hour was performed live and a kinescope is not currently known to exist.
- "Basin Street Back after Six Years". Mt. Vernon Register-News. Illinois, Mt. Vernon. Associated Press. June 22, 1950. p. 22.