Larry Elgart (1922-2017)

Larry Elgart, an alto saxophonist and enterprising and tireless big-band leader whose major success began at the very moment when nearly all other swing orchestras were arthritic relics and the word “band” typically referred to four guys with long hair playing electric instruments and a drum set, died on August 29. He was 95.


In the 1950s and ’60s, Elgart frequently teamed with his trumpet-playing brother, Les, on albums and in concert, drawing deserved comparisons to other Swing-era siblings including Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny and Harry Goodman, Bob and Bing Crosby, and Fletcher and Horace Henderson.


Despite Elgart’s rise at the tail end of the 1950s and into the ’60s and beyond, he created a signature sound that distinguished his commissioned arrangements and performances on all songs. Just as the best big bands of the 1940s had their own orchestral personalities—Glenn Miller with the clarinet in the top-note position in the reed section or Count Basie’s playful stomp style on piano—Elgart’s reeds played in a tippy-toe staccato. The result made the saxophones sound spry, like someone sneaking upstairs, shoes in hand, after being out late.

Larry’s brother, Les, also created a special sound for his own band, which combined society reeds with sassy trumpets and a broad, meaty trombone section. In the case of both bands, what made their arrangements so appealing was the tight dialogue between the sections, which seemed to finish each other’s musical sentences. Solos were often brief and typically belonged to the brothers. When they united on albums, one heard the best of both Elgart worlds—tap-dancing reeds supported by a loping swing undercurrent driven by the trombones and pecks by the trumpets.

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Both brothers earned a good living, so their albums together and apart could vary from captivating finger-snappers to easy listening and middle-of-the road seasoned liberally with schmaltz. While many jazz fans may have been lost along the way on the more commercial albums, it was impossible not to love the chattering sectional interplay and conversational approach to the instrumentation. When the Elgarts were on point, especially Larry, the music was positively addictive (Les died in 1995). The last time I posted on Larry Elgart was in May 2017 here.

To honor Larry Elgart, here are 10 clips illustrating his gift for engaging big band recordings and performances:

Here’s the Les and Larry Elgart dance band in action in 1965, with Larry’s stealthy reeds and Les’s languid wide-bodied brass section playing Skyliner, Cherokee, It’s De-Lovely and Begin the Beguine on Chicago’s WGN-TV…

Here’s Larry Elgart in 1995 playing Bye Bye Blues. Dig how tight the band was arranged, especially the reeds…

Here’s Honeysuckle Rose…

Here’s Larry Elgart’s After You’ve Gone

Here’s Let’s Turn It Off…

Here’s Let My People Swing

Here’s Let’s Turn It Off

Here’s This Heart of Mine

Here’s The Lady Is a Tramp in 1960, with a vocal by Carol Sloane! (known then as Carol Morvan)…

And here’s Frim Fram Sauce, one of my Elgart favorites…

Bonus: Here’s the old WNEW-AM theme arranged in the style of Les and Larry Elgart…

JazzWax tracks: You’ll find many of his best swinging albums reissued here.