Sunday, June 8, 2014

Ray Ventura (1908-1979) – piano player and band leader, Part 1

The Frenchman who combined Jazz with Entertainment

The Pre-War Years
by Georg Lankester

In my publications on famous European band leaders from the Thirties/Forties of last century, Ray Ventura should certainly be mentioned. Going deeply into the French jazz scene, I discovered how many important French and Belgian jazzmen joined his orchestra. He was a great organiser and always managed to engage the best musicians of his time.

Trip to New York; Le salon du "Paris"  Ray Ventura featured on bassax (1929) (source: Les Grands Orchestres de Music-Hall en France - Jacques Helian)

A fast career

Ray Ventura - usually called ‘Ray” - was born in Paris on April 10, 1908. He grew up in comfortable circumstances and already, as a youngster, showed interest in new music styles. In 1924 he discovered jazz music in the casino of Biarritz where he heard the band of Léo Poll. Being well-off he soon bought American jazz records as well as scores. By 1926 the enterprising boy, backed up by fellow students of his high school, founded a band called “The Collegians”, more or less in the style of Paul Whiteman and Jack Hylton. But also musicians such as Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington and their bands inspired him

The Collegians on board the ship to New York (1930) (source: Les Grands Orchestres de Music-Hall en France - Jacques Helian)

The next year Ray’s formation could be heard at the so-called ‘surprise parties’ which were frequently organised, particularly in the Parisian quarter “Passy”. These were lively sessions with guest players like Guy Paquinet, Gérard Léveque, Max Hugot, Max Ellroy and others. Gradually American musicians joined them, stimulated by the newly founded ‘Hot Club de France’ of which the organisers invited American stars to perform in Paris. Clarinettist/saxophonist Danny Polo was one of the first and many others would follow.

It should be stated that earlier, in 1928, “The Collegians” already made their first record for Columbia – those were followed by recordings for the record company Odéon. The line-up of those days included trumpet player Ray Binder and saxophonist Edouard-Stanton Foy. A few years later the band switched for their recordings to the Decca company and this cooperation would last till 1935. In 1929 Ray and his fellow musicians – without any contract – travelled to the States in order to promote their beloved music and to take advantage of the possibility to play for the radio. Once back in France Ray was absorbed in jazz entertainment and started to write and publish about it in the Grégor magazine. In those days Grégor was a successful band leader in Paris (NOTE his band included Stéphane Grappelli for some time).

Paul Misraki (source: Les Grands Orchestres de Music-Hall en France - Jacques Helian)

Around 1932 several new musicians came to join “The Collegians” such as trombone player André Couzard, violinist George Effrosse and piano player/composer Paul Misraki. But also the Arslanian brothers formed now part of Ray’s orchestra, of which Krikor acting as “Coco Aslan” would become quite known. However, difficult times arrived because of the economic crisis with lots of consequences.

Ray Ventura et ses Collegiens in Geneve (oktober 1931) (source: Les Grands Orchestres de Music-Hall en France - Jacques Helian)

Financial problems and a solution

Since most people could no longer afford to visit jazzclubs the musicians had less income. That’s why Ray had to look for a different audience. Stan Foy, who had been a member of the Jack Hylton orchestra, suggested that the Ray Ventura band should adopt the same approach. This opinion was not commonly shared. Was the Hylton band not too commercial? Ray hesitated, but at the same time he realised that a concession undoubtedly was the only solution to survive. So it was finally decided to use the French approach since this was now  not evident for the audience. So far the band had mainly produced some background music in cabarets next to its jazz repertoire.

Coco Aslan (source: Les Grands Orchestres de Music-Hall en France - Jacques Helian)

They now wanted to act as ‘eye catchers’ and bring their own show. Doing so a new sort of entertainment was born called “Jazz en scène” in which Coco Aslan played an important role as a showman and Paul Misraki composed new French songs.

(source: Les Grands Orchestres de Music-Hall en France - Jacques Helian)

Already in July 1930 the renewed orchestra of Ray Ventura made some recordings of French songs, very successfully. Later the band was invited to perform in the London “Palladium”. Even in ’33, when Hitler was about to seize power, they made a tour through Eastern Europa and Italy. And with saxophonist Noël Chiboust on board and a special repertoire managed by their communicative leader the formation balanced in an elegant way between jazz and show whereby the musicians became real stars.

l' Empire ( juni 1931) (source: Les Grands Orchestres de Music-Hall en France - Jacques Helian)

In February 1934 their posters could be seen in the Casino of Paris. But Ray’s band with several star soloists experienced that they were too expensive which fact resulted in serious financial problems. However, a solution was found by the exceptional creativity of Misraki.

He composed a song called “Tout va bien, Madame la marquise” and this song became a top hit in France so that Ray’s financial situation changed to the better.

The fact that the band was much more professional became evident in its presentation. The repertoire included now more French songs and sketches in order to entertain the audience. Next to domestic tours the band travelled to Belgium, Holland, England and even Spain. They participated in cabarets, radio broadcasts and films like e.g. “L’amour à la Américaine’(1932),”Feux de joie”(1938) and “Tourbillon de Paris”(1939). All these special performances made Ray a celebrity.

Ray Ventura et ses Collégiens in the film: Feux de joie (source: Les Grands Orchestres de Music-Hall en France - Jacques Helian)

Sometimes during the Thirties some fellow band leaders were invited such as Fred Adison and Jo Bouillon (the latter was Josephine Baker’s husband.). The shows of the orchestra included some acts which had to do with the threats of the war like e.g.’The band is going to strike’ (in those times  people and companies sometimes did strike against the occupiers).

Further excellent jazz musicians from France and Belgium joined the orchestra. In 1936 Gus Deloof, Philippe Brun, Alix Combelle, André Ekyan, Loulou Gasté (husband of singer Line Renaud), Louis Vola, Jerry Mengo, Josse Breyre and Guy Paquinet formed part of the Ventura band.

The successful leader even established his own publishing house, however, through the war he unfortunately had to end this activity.

(To be continued)


Ray Ventura

Ray Ventura (1908-1979) : pianist en orkestleider del 1 (nederlands)

Georg Lankester

One of the biggest French band leaders of the twentieth century was undoubtedly Ray Ventura, who in the thirties with his collégiens  scored hit after hit with his orchestra and made ​​a big show around each occurrence. In two parts Georg Lankester gives an account of his career. The Frenchman who combined jazz and entertainment in the thirties is set in the spotlight.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this page...I am watching a movie from the 50's that features Ray Ventura...and also Audrey Hepburn...