The history of jazz has many fascinating footnotes, but few as intriguing as an event which took place 70 years ago, and which has been glossed over in most of the biographies and autobiographies of those involved.
The event was the opening of a unique musical – a jazz version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – at the end of November 1939. It starred jazz’s most important innovator, Louis Armstrong, as Bottom, and the vocalist Maxine Sullivan, who was enjoying popular success with her swing versions of Loch Lomond and other folk songs, as Titania.
Entitled Swingin’ the Dream, the show boasted musical supervision by clarinet king Benny Goodman, whose sextet was one of three bands playing in the production, and it had scenery based on Walt Disney cartoons (with Disney’s permission).
If the name of the show is familiar, it’s probably because its only legacy – and the only reason it is ever mentioned in sleeve notes and books – was the classic ballad, and jazz favourite, Darn That Dream, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Eddie DeLange. Reference books, the internet, and record notes yield little information about Swingin’ the Dream, and nothing comprehensive appears to have been written about it – undoubtedly because it was a huge flop, running only 13 performances.
There is some photographic evidence of the eccentricity of the whole affair, however. The superb 1987 documentary profile of Maxine Sullivan, Love to be in Love, showed two still photographs of Sullivan and Armstrong kitted out in togas and hamming it up for the camera. But neither is as amusing as the one that is included in the booklet of the Chronological Classics Louis Armstrong CD – of the trumpeter in ass attire.
Swingin’ the Dream had a predominantly black cast which, in addition to Armstrong and Sullivan, included Butterfly McQueen – who was about to find fame as the hysterical maid Prissy in Gone With the Wind, released in mid-December of that year – as Puck, and Dorothy Dandridge as a pixie.
Jimmy Van Heusen’s score borrowed themes from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the rehearsal pianist was no less important a jazz figure than the stride pianist James P Johnson. While Benny Goodman’s group was positioned in a box on one side of the stage, Don Voorhees conducted the pit band, and the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, a hot Chicago band which boasted such talent as guitarist Eddie Condon, clarinettist Pee Wee Russell and saxophonist Bud Freeman, was stationed in a box on the opposite side from Goodman’s outfit.
The project, the brainwave of a European producer called Erik Charell, was clearly viewed with much cynicism by many of the musicians involved – even before it opened. Eddie Condon, in his autobiography We Called it Music, devotes only half a page to the show which he portrays as an enormous waste of talent. It had, he says, ”a cast large enough to found a small city” and was a complete shambles. By opening night, the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra’s involvement had been cut to two numbers, leaving time for the musicians to go for a drink.
Condon says: ”I got into the white uniform I was forced to wear and went across the street to Dillon’s bar. By then I knew we were swinging a flop; it was the first time I had ever worn white to a funeral.” The reviews confirmed what Condon and his colleagues had suspected (Billboard described the show as ”an orgy of wasted talent”) and the band – convinced that they would soon be out of work – began scouting for other work.
Condon’s Scrapbook of Jazz includes a telegram, dated December 4, which he sent to a friend in Chicago. It says: ”Swingin’ the Dream not going over. Goodman leaves next week and although we are contracted until December 29 we could leave any time too.” However, before the Summa Cum Lauders could jump ship, it sank – without a trace. Having grossed a measly $12,000 in its first week, Swingin’ the Dream swung to a halt on December 9, leaving little in the way of evidence that it had ever existed…