The WGJB lasted from the late Sixties (when they were a development of the Nine / Ten Greats of Jazz, sponsored by Dick Gibson) to 1978. In some ways, they were both a touring assemblage of gifted veteran players — I believe Robert Sage Wilber, known to his friends worldwide as Bob, is the sole survivor — and a versatile band that echoed the best of the Bob Crosby units, big and small. The WGJB came in for a good deal of sneering because of their hyperbolic title, which was Gibson’s idea, not the musicians’, but from the perspective of 2019, they were great, no questions asked. And they weren’t just a collection of soloists, each taking a turn playing jazz chestnuts (although JAZZ ME BLUES was often on the program); Haggart’s arrangements were splendid evocations of a Swing Era big band with plenty of room, and the WGJB brought its own down-home / Fifty-Second Street energy to current pop tunes (I remember their UP, UP, AND AWAY with delight). And they played the blues.
I remember them with substantial fondness, because the second jazz concert I went to (the first was Louis in 1967, which is starting at the apex) was held in Town Hall, with Gibson as host, probably in 1970, and it featured the WGJB — Vic Dickenson and Eddie Hubble on trombones — and a small group with Al and Zoot, possibly Joe Newman, where they performed THE RED DOOR and MOTORING ALONG, titles no one would forget, and Gibson told his anecdote of the white deer.
These two programs seem to have been sophisticated television offerings: multi-camera perspectives with a great deal of editing from one camera to the other, and beginnings and endings that suggest that these were not finished products. The absence of an audience — or their audible presence — on the first program seems odd, but I don’t mind the quiet. The WGJB could certainly add its own charging exuberance — hear the final ensemble of CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME — that few bands have matched.
The first program features co-leaders Yank Lawson, trumpet; Bob Haggart, string bass, arrangements; Billy Butterfield, trumpet; Bob Wilber, clarinet, soprano; Bud Freeman, tenor saxophone; Bennie Morton, trombone; Sonny Russo, trombone; Dick Wellstood, piano; Gus Johnson, drums; Maxine Sullivan, guest vocalist, and the songs performed are BLUES / MERCY, MERCY, MERCY / DOODLE DOO DOO / THE EEL (featuring its composer, Bud Freeman) / THAT’S A PLENTY (featuring Bob Wilber and Dick Wellstood) / A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY (featuring Maxine Sullivan) / THE LADY IS A TRAMP (Maxine) / SOUTH RAMPART STREET PARADE/ MY INSPIRATION (closing theme) //:
And here’s another forty-five minute program, presumably aired October 17 of the same year, with certain personnel changes — this time there’s an audience but the band is also dressed with great casualness: Ralph Sutton, piano; Al Klink, tenor saxophone; Peanuts Hucko, clarinet; Bobby Rosengarden, drums; George Masso and Sonny Russo, trombones; Lawson, Haggart, Butterfield, and Maxine, performing AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL / BASIN STREET BLUES (featuring Masso) / CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME (featuring Sutton) / BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME (featuring Lawson and Butterfield) / LIMEHOUSE BLUES (featuring Russo and Masso) / HARLEM BUTTERFLY / EV’RY TIME (featuring Maxine Sullivan) / ST. LOUIS BLUES / STAR DUST (featuring Klink) / RUNNIN’ WILD (featuring Hucko) / BIG NOISE FROM WINNETKA (featuring Haggart and Rosengarden) / SOUTH RAMPART STREET PARADE / MY INSPIRATION //:
The repertoire for the longer program is more familiar, with few surprises, but that band could roar as well as play pretty ballads and its own version of Thirties funk. What unexpected treasures these programs are.
May your happiness increase!