Irving Mills’ relentless drive to promote the best jazz music

Journalist Bruce Fessier chronicled an amazing story in 1982, told by his friend Irving Mills. By this time, Mills had retired to a large house in South Palm Springs and would regale Fessier with stories from the golden age of jazz. After all, Mills had been there for some of the most important moments, or really, had worked tirelessly to make many of those moments happen.

For example, Mills wrote the lyrics to “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) in 1929, but as Fessier recorded it, Mills said it happened by accident. “‘I had an engagement in Chicago for a roadhouse cafe that opened in the summer, and before the opening he (Ellington) performed for six weeks in theaters. After six weeks, doing four shows a day , five on Sunday, they got very scenic. I noticed the dancers weren’t dancing well. It wasn’t Duke Ellington’s dance music. Shocked after his first viewing, Mills said he was ” went back to the locker room “and asked Ellington why he changed the music. Ellington said people liked him, but Mills told him to stop.” I said, ‘It doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t. ‘doesn’t have that swing,’ “he recalls. And he said,” You know, Irving, you’ve got a word in there. Let’s write it down. “

And write it down, they sure did. Mills added a few more lines and Ellington’s trumpeter Cootie Williams walked in with the music “Do-whacka-do-whacka-do-whacka-do”.

Born in the late 19th century in Ukraine and immigrated to the United States as a child, Mills had a spectacular, if not unlikely, career. His father was a milliner who died in 1905 when Mills was only 11, forcing him and his brother Jack into extremely insignificant jobs including busboy, wallpaper salesman, telephone operator, and “demonstrator of songs “to support the family.

By 1919 Irving and Jack Mills were in business together publishing music. Soon they were the kings of Tin Pan Alley, cultivating songwriters and then peddling those tunes to radio stations. Irving and Jack both discovered a number of top-notch songwriters like Sammy Fain, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy McHugh, and Dorothy Fields. (Carmichael and McHugh would also retreat to the wilderness.)

Cover of the long-running album of Jimmy an Heusen's compositions produced by Irving Mills.

But Mills also had a keen eye for performers and started or boosted the careers of Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Hoagy Carmichael, Lena Horne, and the Dorsey Brothers. More importantly, one evening in New York around 1925, Mills went to the Kentucky Club on West 49th between 7th and Broadway. A small group of six musicians from Washington, DC, led by Duke Ellington, performed there. According to tradition, Mills quickly signed Ellington, launching his career by managing to get the group booked at the Cotton Club and airing those shows on the radio.

Fessier noted that Mills has done more than almost anyone to promote black musicians and singers. He was one of the first to record black and white musicians together, using twelve white musicians and the Duke Ellington Orchestra for a recording of “St. Louis Blues”, and was powerful enough to force the music label to release the. disc despite their objections. He previously reserved all-white auditoriums for black artists. Fessier says one of the best things he thinks Mills ever did was hire a private Pullman car, with proper dining and sleeping quarters, to take the Ellington group across the southern states to to prevent them from having to endure the harsh segregation of restaurants and hotels. (Many of Ellington’s compositions are known to evoke train images.)

As was the practice at the time, many of Ellington’s most famous arias were also attributed to Mills, who was a proficient lyricist, including “Mood Indigo”, “(In My) Solitude” and “Sophisticated. Lady “.

Mills produced only one film, “Stormy Weather” in 1943 for 20th Century Fox with an all-black cast including Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller.

In addition to relentlessly promoting top talent, black and white, Mills was an innovator. He printed “small orchestrations” transcribed from a record, so that non-professional musicians could see how great improvised solos were constructed. And he conceived the concept of a group within a group, a rhythm section that could go into the studio without the whole orchestra and create cutting edge sounds.

Mills was constantly making records, arranging tracks, selling and merging companies, until he was the head of what would become Columbia Records. At the time of its last sale, the total song catalog was estimated at over 25,000, of which 1,500 were still producing royalties. By 1964, Mills was enjoying royalties of over $ 1 million a year, or around eleven million today, and the company had 20 music publishing subsidiaries as well as outlets in Britain, Brazil, in Canada, France, then West Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands and Spain.

After this spectacular career, Mills retired to Palm Springs, but was still busy creating. Fessier recalls: “I was at Irving’s one night in December 1981 when Hoagy Carmichael called. Irving had published Hoagy’s “Stardust” in 1929 after challenging his group of lyricists to find the right words for Hoagy’s beautiful melody. In the late 1970s, Irving said he couldn’t find the right jazz piano for the kind of cocktails he liked to throw. So he produced a series of 15 albums featuring the music of some of his favorite jazz and pop composers. He called them “Musical Cocktail Records” (a phrase he filed) featuring great pianists playing the music of Hoagy, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Van Heusen.

Fessier continues, “Irving went into business mode when Hoagy called, telling him he wanted to promote the record he made with him, starring Paul Smith. Irving didn’t get the answer he wanted and I asked him what Hoagy said. He said Hoagy’s reaction was, “Irving, are you still working? »« Indeed, he was. Good job if you can get it.

Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Thanks for the Memories column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to him at pshstracy@gmail.com.


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