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Big Band Tour Pays Tribute to Dorsey Era

January 12, 1991|DIRK SUTRO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Big Band leader Jimmy Dorsey died in 1957, but his legacy survives through the many incarnations of his band.

The 1991 version plays San Diego this Sunday night at the San Diego Sports Arena as part of a coast-to-coast tour called the Big Band Jamboree. Special guests include Terry Gibbs on vibes, singer Fran Jeffries and the vocal group String of Pearls.

For sax and clarinet man Henry Cuesta, who conducts the band and re-creates Jimmy Dorsey's solos, this tour is a dream come true.

"I'm really honored to be a part of it," said Cuesta, who just joined the group. "The funny thing is, in October, I played a tribute to Benny Goodman in Pasadena, and now it's Jimmy Dorsey. You know, they used to room together when they first moved to New York in the late 1920s."

Until November, the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra was led by trumpeter Lee Castle, but when Castle died shortly before Thanksgiving, Los Angeles show producer Joe Graydon was left without a leader for a tour he had booked more than a year ago.

Graydon asked Cuesta to step in, and the tour opened last week in Bakersfield.

"The chemistry with Henry is excellent," Graydon said. "He's a musician's musician. We have a lot of younger musicians, and they admire and respect him.

"I figured Terry Gibbs (who has played with the bands of Buddy Rich, Benny Goodman and Woody Herman) would be an outstanding

attraction, and when I had a chance to get Henry, I envisioned them playing things together like Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton did, and they do, they get that old Goodman sound."

Alto sax and clarinet man Jimmy Dorsey and his brother, Tommy, a trombonist, led a variety of popular Big Bands, both together and on their own. Jimmy Dorsey's band first reached a national audience via the Kraft Music Hall radio series in the early 1930s.

Although Cuesta never played with Jimmy Dorsey, he has worked with other Big Band greats, including Benny Goodman. He also recorded four albums with Big Band leader Jack Teagarden's small band in the 1950s.

Cuesta met Dorsey once, shortly before his death.

"I was 14, and I was invited to a party a doctor was having in Texas. There was a jam session going on, and I was enthralled. Charlie Teagarden, Jack's brother, was on trumpet and there were a lot of other greats. The jam was going on, except for Dorsey, who was in a corner by himself. I kept going over, bugging him to join the jam, but finally he said, 'Hey kid, I don't feel well, I'm sick, don't ask me to play.' He died four or five years later."

Graydon said the audience for Big Band music consists primarily of people old enough to have heard the original greats, but Cuesta believes this tour is more than a nostalgia trip.

"This is anything but nostalgia," he said. "Look at the people we have. Terry Gibbs is as fresh as tomorrow, he's a dynamo. He's more contemporary--he came up after the Big Bands. This guy's a be-bopper. String of Pearls, they're all young kids. They did a Glen Miller tribute a few years ago with Jack Jones and Kay Starr and stole the show. Their arrangements are fantastic. They have put words to Big Band material."

As for the Dorsey band's arrangements, Cuesta promised the music will be authentic.

"These arrangements are note by note, the way they were recorded, except for the medley at the beginning, because we don't do whole tunes," he said.

For Cuesta, who was born in Corpus Christi, Tex., in 1931, the tour is a chance to relive some of the musical excitement he first felt as a child.

"By the time I was 4 or 5, I knew about Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glen Miller. All my life, I've been keeping up, reading about these people. But I didn't really have a chance to play with the giants until I got out of the Army in 1955 and eventually joined Jack Teagarden's band in 1959."

Big Band music runs through Cuesta's family--his older cousin, Ernie Caceres, played reeds with Glen Miller and even appeared with Miller's band in movies that helped hook Cuesta on the music.

Cuesta said his 11 years in Lawrence Welk's band, beginning in 1973, "put me on the map. They brought me down from my home in Toronto to L.A. to be on his show. I took over the chair that Pete Fountain left. I stayed with the band until Welk retired in 1983."

The 2 1/2-hour program this Sunday will highlight music by both Dorsey brothers.

The show opens with "Contrast," the Jimmy Dorsey band's anthem, and continues with a medley that might include tunes such as "Yours," "Tangerine," "Amapola," "I Understand" and "I Get Along Without You Very Well." Then Jeffries comes out to sing several songs, including a medley of music by Duke Ellington.

After a break, the show continues with the 1950s' Jimmy Dorsey hit "So Rare," one of his last recordings. Then String of Pearls joins the band for a half hour of Big Band vocal music.

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