Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index

Part 120 - Remembering Bill Finegan
Story filed June 19, 2008

When master big band arranger Bill Finegan died at the age of 91 on June 4th, many jazz fans had forgotten that he had directed the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra in an unusual concert of his inventive and pioneering arrangements for the 1950s Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. The concert in November of 1991 at the Tri-C Metro Campus Auditorium was the first time Finegan had conducted any other band playing the arrangements of the revolutionary orchestra he co-directed with Eddie Sauter.

Before that concert, Finegan told me he had some second thoughts. "Before I got here," he said, "I thought ‘I don’t think I want to do this any more. I did it for years with the band, but after hearing the way these fellows play – and they’re such marvelous players and work so hard on these charts – yes, I would like to do some more if I could find guys like this to play it."

The concert by the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, performing the unusual and difficult big band arrangements of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, was a big success, attracting a surprisingly large crowd to hear the well-played interesting concert music.

It was not the first time Finegan had appeared in Cleveland. In 1954, he led the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra at a Cathedral Latin High School prom, and a year later, he and partner Sauter led their band at Severance Hall. With the Cleveland Orchestra, the two ensembles performed a piece called "Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra."

The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was one of the most unusual in big band history. It featured the arrangements of Sauter, who had arranged for Benny Goodman, and Finegan, who had arranged such charts as "Little Brown Jug" for Glenn Miller. The frequently-whimsical arrangements included a full woodwind section, a harp, a full symphonic percussion section, tubas, and even toy trumpets and kazoos.

On their original recordings, Sauter and Finegan used some of the best jazz players available – trumpeters Bobby Nichols, Nick Travis and Doc Severinsen; trombonists Bill Harris and Kai Winding; drummer Don Lomond; pianist Ralph Burns (sometimes playing a keyboard glockenspiel); and bassists Milt Hinton and George Duvivier.

Finegan said, "We started recording these things in New York with never an intention of going out on the road with it and playing in person. We hoped to just make records. I think we were dreaming."

The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was formed in 1952 when the big band era had virtually ended. Most of the big ballrooms where Miller, Goodman and all the others of the swing era had played, had closed. The leaders of the new orchestra had no intention of making it a dance band. But Willard Alexander, who had made a career out of booking dance bands into dance halls, persuaded Sauter and Finegan to take their very popular concert band out on the road. "The first summer we went out," recalled Finegan, "we worked our way to Chicago and played mostly amusement park ballrooms. The audiences weren’t too ready to listen to concert material. They wanted dance music so we quickly wrote some charts of things people could dance to."

When the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra played for the prom at Cathedral Latin High School in Cleveland, some of the alumni recalled they didn’t know what to make of the unusual band. "They’d look at the band," said Finegan, "and they’d see a tuba and a harp, they’d see the percussion section, they’d hear a xylophone and they’d say, ‘How can you dance to that?!’ They were used to the brass and saxophones of the old dance bands."

The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was making some amazingly musical records and only grudgingly took the band out to play dance dates. Finegan admitted, "We had a reputation of not playing dance music and people would make snide remarks about it. One night, somebody hollered up, ‘Hey, when are you gonna play something we can dance to?’ One of our trombone players (Sonny Russo) hollered back, ‘When are you gonna dance something we can play to?’ It was quite appropriate I thought."

The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was different from the old swing era bands in another way. Sauter had arranged for Goodman, who was known for firing musicians at the drop of a note, and Finegan arranged for Miller, who ruled his highly-disciplined and popular band with an iron hand. "The bandleaders of the ‘30s and ‘40s in most cases were autocrats," said Finegan, "and they had absolute control over the band and ran the band like a tight ship. We had seen how that worked with musicians and never liked the idea. When Eddie and I started the band, we decided that would be the last thing in the world we would do. So we treated them with dignity and we had great players and we weren’t doing anybody a favor to treat them with dignity, it was just the right way to do things. So we ended up with a very happy family. The band was really unique in that respect."

Finegan also said he and Sauter resisted efforts by RCA Victor to make more commercial records. "They never knew what to make of us because nobody could put a label on it. We were often asked, ‘What is it?’ And we would simply say, ‘It’s music,’ you know. Do you have to label everything you hear? They say, ‘Is it jazz?’ Well, we’d say, ‘Well sure, there’s some jazz there.’ We had some great jazz players in our band. And some people would say, ‘The band doesn’t swing.’ We’d say, ‘You haven’t listened to it.’ Every single thing we played was not a swing piece like Count Basie or Duke Ellington or Woody Herman, but there’s swing in it; there’s jazz in it. It has many elements. So we never tried ourselves to put a label on it. It’s just music."

That music of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, some of the most unusual ever produced by a big band, continued for only six years, until 1958, and was not performed by any other band until Finegan came to Cleveland in 1991 to direct a concert by the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra.

CLICK HERE for a 40 second excerpt from Mosbrook’s interview with Finegan.

Copyright 2008 Joe Mosbrook

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