1. Early Development
Robert Frederick Graettinger was born in Ontario, California, October 31, 1923. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Rupert Graettinger, were long-time residents of Ontario, Mr. Graettinger being managing editor of the local newspaper, the Dally Report. Robert had one brother, John, approximately two years his elder, and no sisters.
Graettinger’s youth can only be described as a “normal.” His family was “at least middle class if not higher”2 economically, and he seems to have developed according to the conventions traditionally associated with that designation. He attended Central and Edison elementary schools in Ontario, acquiring a keen interest in football as early as the third grade. Max Cramer, a childhood friend, recalls that, in those early days, Graettinger was “somewhat shy and reticent, yet belonging in the way of young societies to a certain group of well-respected youngsters.”3 He has a further recollection (though “hazy”) that the Graettinger family was active socially, and even describes Robert as belonging to the “cotillion-type crowd.” At some point, Graettinger acquired a nickname, “Buss” (pron. būs), the exact derivation of which is obscure, though his mother (now Mrs. A.D. Mitchell, Ontario, California) does recall that the origination was with John.4 The sobriquet did not follow Graettinger into adult life.
Graettinger’s public education was completed at Ontario Junior High School (1935-37) and Chaffey Union High School, Ontario (1937-41). Although his interest in football compelled him to be a member of the junior high team, musical interests were emerging, and this new venture was to dominate his activities throughout high school.
The exact origins of Robert Graettinger’s musicianship are unclear. Max Cramer does not recall Mr. and Mrs. Graettinger or John as being musical, thus it may be assumed that Bob’s preliminary introduction to music was the result of some casual influence, perhaps of a peer-group nature. Cramer does recall that the elder Graettingers encouraged Bob’s talent, once identified. It is probable that his musical indoctrination began relatively late, as Cramer does not recall him participating in any formal junior high school ensembles, though Mrs. Mitchell does identify this period as the beginning of his musical interests.
There is no doubt that the foundation for Bob Graettinger’s full musical maturity was formed during his high school years, and was a result of the training and experience he received in his high school music program. In the late 1930’s, Chaffey Union High School had an outstanding music department, the high attainments of which were due principally to the efforts of its director, Murray Owen. In addition to providing thorough ensemble training, Owen encouraged his students to study privately with established Los Angeles-based musicians, and Graettinger soon began studying the saxophone with a well-known Hollywood teacher, Mickey Gillette. This is the earliest formal instruction that Max Cramer recalls.
Concerning Chaffey’s ensembles, there were the usual concert and marching bands (of which Graettinger was a member, though Cramer notes that, even at that early date, the music seemed incongruous to Graettinger’s musical personality), symphony and training orchestras, but also a dance band (standard instrumentation) and a “theatre orchestra.” In regard to the latter, another friend from. youth, Ernest Farmer, explains:
This…group had a “Kostelanetz” orientation and was used to accompany musicals and variety shows. In addition, it did two featured concerts each year, and most of the charts were done by kids in the group including myself, Graettinger, Morris Crawford [presently a professional bassoonist, Los Angeles], Harriet Barnard [now Mrs. Morris Crawford, copyist/orchestrator, Los Angeles]…,Murray Owen, and a Hollywood pro, Bob Lee…
This was a lab situation in the best sense. None of us had any formal theory or orchestration up to that point. Owen and Lee would help us if we had a technical problem, but for the most part we wrote and copied our own arrangements.5
Both Farmer and Max Cramer recall an early Graettinger arrangement for the theatre orchestra, a “symphonic jazz” arrangement of Temptation that featured Graettinger on alto sax (“A bolero treatment with lots of timpani”6). Cramer recalls Murray Owen as referring to Graettinger’s talents as those of a genius.
High school was also the period for Graettinger’s first experiences as a professional musician. Initially, there was a short-lived aggregation led by a drummer, Walter Stewart (presently an Ontario city councilman). There were the usual summer resort jobs, including one at Yellowstone Park (summer of 1940), and at Idyllwild, in the San Jacinto Mountains (summer of 1941). The group for the latter engagement was a combo led by a saxophonist, Bill Henry (alias for William Neidlinger). Max Cramer was the trumpeter, and he recalls that each member of the band had an extra-musical daytime job, Graettinger’s being that of bellboy. Cramer’s further recollection that the two youths spent much time “contemplating girls” and “drinking [their] fill every night” would indicate a progression of the maturation process described earlier as “normal.” He also recalls, however, that, by this time, Graettinger had turned away from anything athletic as being “distasteful.”
The most significant professional experience of Graettinger’s youth was undoubtedly his tenure with the Shelly Swan Orchestra, originating during his sophomore year in high school. Though Swan, a drummer, was the titular head of the group (he financed the library and equipment, secured engagements, etc.), the actual musical directors were Bob Graettinger and Max Cramer, both of whom rehearsed. the band, while Graettinger alone was the arranger. In contrast to his mature years. Graettinger was a quite prolific writer at this time, and Swan’s book, originally comprised mostly of “stock” arrangements eventually consisted almost exclusively of Graettinger-penned originals and arrangements. He also occasionally provided record copies, and Cramer vividly recalls a transcription of Jimmie Lunceford’s Margie, the well-known Trummy Young vocal of 1938. It is not surprising that Cramer should recall that particular record copy, as he emphasized that it was the Lunceford style that the Swan organization tried to emulate.
A rare opportunity, in the form of a recording proffered by Max Cramer, is available to examine first-hand the Swan/Graettinger elements in general, and to observe such details as the true extent of the Lunceford influence. The tape is of a recording session made by the Swan organization at a professional studio in Hollywood during the spring of 1941. There are two tunes. Hoagy Carmichael’s Rockin’ Chair, and Isham Jones’s On the Alamo, both Graettinger arranged. Each is a different tempo (medium-slow and fast, respectively), offering diverse samples for examination.
On the Alamo
The style of the music is pure Swing Era stock, of both the slow dance tempo and faster jazz-oriented varieties. The harmonic vocabulary is standard, “four-note” chords (added sixths, dominant sevenths, diminished sevenths, etc.) being the norm, with occasional extensions (ninths, thirteenths), and infrequent alterations. The chord progressions, though generally predictable, are of interest, because they reveal that Graettinger, technically a novice, nevertheless had acquired the substitute chord techniques of parallelism, neighbor chords, and passing diminished sevenths, all being used skillfully. The principal melodic embellishment is that of interpolated eighth notes.
The Swan instrumentation is four saxophones (two altos, two tenors), three trumpets, one trombone, and three rhythm, and is standard, except for the single trombone. The rhythm section displays the customary Swing Era “chunk-chunk” mannerism, a result of the “boom-chop” piano, four-to-the-bar bass drum, and generally unfluid bass line.
Concerning the arrangements themselves, Alamo is much more successful than Rockin’ Chair, perhaps a reflection of the traditional arranger’s axiom that ballads are more difficult to write than fast tunes. The absence of the automatic energizer of a fast pulse, and the simple matter of more musical time to consume presented Graettinger with the same problems that confront any arranger, though he probably handled them better than most with similar experience. While the second of the two choruses of Rockin’ Chair contains several moments of interest, the first (a trumpet solo) is mostly undistinguished. Particularly weak is the background, consisting totally of the most obvious type, that is, simple, sustained chords, in this instance in the saxes and trombone. This type of background is of interest only to the extent that the chords themselves (voicings, progressions, etc.) are of interest, and Graettinger’s have a dreary sameness about them, seeming totally in “block” position, probably keyboard-derived. A similarity of harmonic rhythm contributes to the problem, as does the careless treatment of the uppermost voice of the sustained chords (i.e., first alto sax), Graettinger falling to realize that this voice is automatically of melodic importance. An overuse of the aforementioned technique of parallelism further contributes to the weakness.
The second chorus, consisting mostly of a sax soli and ensemble passages, is much more successful, particularly the soli. Consuming the first half of the chorus, the soli opens with eight measures that are around-the-melody, and closes with eight that are freer. The melodic voice (i.e., first alto) is quite interesting, being rhythmically active, through-composed., and covering a fairly wide range. The accompanying harmony (i.e., lower saxes) is likewise effective, being quite fluid and displaying none of the weaknesses of the first chorus background harmony.
Other points of interest include:
- A surprising modulation at the end of the bridge, second chorus, from E♭ major to G major, by means of parallelism.
- The use of unexpected. phrase lengths and “dovetailing” (i.e., overlapping phrases) at the end of both choruses, the first overlapping with an interlude, the second with the coda.
- An interesting rhythmic effect in the interlude in which the saxes and brass share a similar rhythmic/harmonic pattern, displaced one-half beat, temporarily obscuring the meter.
Example 1 Rockin’ Chair, interlude (excerpt)
(transcribed by Robert Morgan)
It should be noted that Graettinger, surprisingly, employs a wrong chord change during the first three measures of Rockin’ Chair, using | I / / / | IV / / / | I / / / / |, instead of the appropriate | I / / / | V7/IV / / / | IV / / / / |. An additional weakness is the coda, the material of which seems inappropriate, and which ends on an inevitable tonic “major-minor” 9(13) chord.
The moments of interest in Alamo are more numerous and include:
- Another effective sax soli, having the function of first presenting the tune, and occupying the first sixteen measures of the opening chorus. It is entirely around-the-melody, and displays all the positive traits mentioned. in relation to the previous soli.
- Another interesting interlude (end of the first of the three choruses), with unexpected phrase lengths, and an interesting tonal device whereby the key of the “out” chorus (F major) is briefly foreshadowed amidst the basic E♭.
- An effective sax background passage (albeit seemingly a direct “steal” from Benny Goodman), second eight measures of second chorus, trumpet solo.
- A very effective “out” chorus, featuring rhythmic ensemble passages, unison saxes, and the trumpets, the latter in both foreground and background roles. The quick ending on a tonic major 9 chord is effective, and is quite correct in its brevity.
Of unusual interest in Alamo is the fact that Graettinger uses the whole-tone scale quite visibly at several places (introduction, interlude, some phrase endings). It could be surmised. that this is a faint reference to Duke Ellington’s (actually Billy Strayhorn’s) Take the A Train, which contains references to the whole-tone scale. Also, both tunes share the same chord progressions for the first eight measures, though the second chord (V9 /V, mm. 3-4) contains a flatted fifth in A Train, and an unaltered fifth in Alamo. Max Cramer mentioned that Ellington, in addition to Lunceford, was an early idol, and it is conceivable that Graettinger included a subtle homage. The fact that the first recording of A Train was released during the same general time period as Swan’s recording would perhaps support this notion.
Concerning Lunceford influences, these are indeed discernable, though not in abundance. The most obvious is the use of consecutive off-beat eighth notes (also, significantly, a trait of the early Stan Kenton band), prominent here in both tunes, but especially in Rockin’ Chair. Other similarities include the predominance of the sax section, and the relatively sparse use of ensemble, favoring instead solos (both ad-lib and around-the-melody) and section work (both background and soli functions). There are several obvious dissimilarities, including the almost total absence of any dynamic or timbral contrast, significant traits of both Lunceford and Ellington. The dynamic level of the Swan recording is a constant mf, and the colors are all quite predictable (no mutes or woodwinds are employed). Also missing is anything resembling the familiar Lunceford “two-beat,” as well as any element of the important Lunceford ingredient of humor.
Of quite unusual interest is the fact that this recording presents an example of Graettinger the saxophonist, as this ability was ultimately to yield to writing. However, his playing on the Swan recording is quite impressive, especially considering his youth. Both as a section leader and soloist, he is assertive, and displays a great deal of style. His brief solo appearance on Alamo demonstrates that he could not only “play the changes,” but was already concerned with more musical details, such as phrase shape, and dynamic and tone variation. One would assume influences of the alto soloists of both Ellington and Lunceford, the latter’s Willie Smith being definitely confirmed by Ernest Farmer.7
In summary, it is clear that Robert Graettinger was thoroughly conversant with the musical skills of the generation preceding that to which he would make his most significant contributions. Like most artists whose works eventually emerge as meaningful expressions of a unique voice, Graettinger first acquired the ability to speak convincingly in the prevailing language, before attempting to find a new voice of his own.
The Shelly Swan band was quite active during Graettinger’s last years in high school, and also for a brief period thereafter. Both Graettinger and Max Cramer graduated in 1941, and the band slowly dissolved as the individual members graduated and embarked on their various pursuits.