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Sounds of Hot Jazz Stay Warm : Harry James Band to Play at the Mission

July 18, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Art DePew says he "flipped" the first time he heard Harry James play; as a boy, he did everything he could to imitate the great jazz trumpeter. In the '60s, he became a James sideman, his dream come true. But DePew never dreamed he'd someday be front man for the Harry James Orchestra--and responsible for carrying on the James sound.

"Harry James had a luscious, saccharine quality when he played," says DePew, who will lead the 17-piece orchestra Saturday in the Mission San Juan Capistrano courtyard as part of the mission's "Music Under the Stars" series.

"He'd take a beautiful melody and put a blue note to it, with this nice vibrato . . . lushness and sweetness. He poured his heart out when he played a melody, really wore his heart on his sleeve. But Harry James had an exciting, driving, punchy style [as well]--he was a very, very good hot jazz player."

That's hot, not cool.

"Chet Baker is a cool player," DePew continues. "We don't play that way. They don't pay me to sound like Miles Davis, either. It would sound awfully dumb if I was playing with no vibrato, and slightly out of tune, like Davis and some of the be-boppers."

With vibrato, then, DePew and company will play such Harry James hit tunes as "You Made Me Love You," "One O'Clock Jump" and "By a Sleepy Lagoon."

DePew was born in West Palm Beach, Fla. His father, a minister who had been a missionary in Africa, allowed him to play with dance bands on Saturday nights as long as he played in the church orchestra on Sunday morning.

Following a three-year stint at the Juilliard School of Music in the 1940s, DePew toured briefly with the Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller orchestras, then settled down with the Harry James and Lawrence Welk orchestras, for four and eight years, respectively.

James died in 1983; for a time, there was no James band. Joe Graves, who also had been a James sideman, was the first trumpeter brought in to revive the James sound, but dental problems proved his undoing. DePew, a youthful 71 and a resident of the San Fernando Valley, is in his ninth year fronting the group.

He shuns the term ghost band, possibly coined by Woody Herman and referring to orchestras that persist in the absence of their original leaders. (Herman's own band, the Thundering Herd, surely qualifies.)

"The term is negative," DePew says. "But let's look at the band we have. At a recent show I asked, 'Would everybody who played with Harry James when he was alive please stand up.' Eight or nine of the guys stood up. So what is a ghost band?"

Good question. It might also be an apt description for a band whose heyday was the 1930s and '40s and that is now relatively invisible, and that may or may not survive beyond the next wave of nostalgia.

*

DePew is well aware of the big bands' obscurity: "If you listen to your radio, your ordinary AM, you'll look far and wide to find more than one or two stations playing what I call adult music. They're playing the least common denominator, the kids' music. We come from an era of complicated harmonies and counter-rhythms, of music much more mature in concept.

"When Elvis and the Beatles came along, they put the lid on that era. Big bands were still out there, but you couldn't hear them on the radio. A massive teeny-bopper market was setting commercial tastes. . . . The record companies signed as many rock 'n' roll artists as they could, and that left no room for big band jazz."

DePew hopes nostalgia isn't all that keeps the big bands alive.

"Certainly it's been a declining market," he allows. "The Harry James Orchestra hasn't had a hit record since 1945. . . . But there's good music, and there's the other kind.

"Good music is always good--Mozart and Beethoven are good no matter what happens commercially. The grosses a big band earns are not the same as some guy with a voice that turns your stomach at $50 a head plus parking. . . . Yet the Count Basie Orchestra, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, I've heard a long time they're coming back, and the fact is, they've always been here.

"The people who grew up with this music are now in their 60s and 70s," DePew notes. "But we played recently, and a whole gang of young people went wild--they'd never heard anything like this. They'd heard about it. . . . I think we have tremendous potential."

* What: The Harry James Orchestra.

* When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

* Where: The Mission San Juan Capistrano courtyard, 31522 Camino Capistrano.

* Whereabouts: Exit the San Diego (405) Freeway at Ortega Highway (74); go west. Turn right onto Camino Capistrano.

* Wherewithal: $5-$7.

* Where to call: (714) 248-2047.

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