A legacy to swing

Woody Hite Big Band cuts its first record

Almost 70 years after it was formed Ñ and 31 years after it was revived Ñ the Woody Hite Big Band is on the record.

Titled 'Sentimental Swing,' the CD was recorded live last Valentine's Day at the Portland Art Museum. It will be released at a Museum After Hours party at the museum Wednesday, Feb. 13.

'Ray Spurgeon wanted a legacy. In 60 years, he'd never been recorded,' says producer Richard Donin. Spurgeon Ñ who played alto saxophone with the original band before World War II Ñ was the band's musical director when he died in November. 'But he got to see it all before he passed away,' Donin adds.

The CD features guest vocalist Rebecca Kilgore, drummer Mel Brown, five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones, bass and piano.

The lively aggregation bounces through 20 classic tunes Ñ such as 'String of Pearls,' 'Take the 'A' Train,' 'Jumping at the Woodside,' 'Sentimental Journey' and 'That Old Black Magic' Ñ and you can expect to hear those and many others at the CD launch.

Bass player Woody Hite and his pianist brother, Don, started playing together in Portland in the 1930s as jazz progressed from Dixieland and big bands started filling the nation's ballrooms and airwaves. Influenced by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Count Basie, the Hite brothers gathered 10 other musicians and dived into swing.

Their breakthrough came in 1938 during a successful gig at Martin's Ballroom in Sherwood. Enough people drove out from Portland to hear them that the band found itself on the map with more work than it could handle.

Woody's band played summers at the coast, and fall and winter at the Uptown Ballroom at 21st Avenue and West Burnside Street. It also played up to four gigs a week at Portland high schools. But war brought the gigs to an end.

'The draft took everybody by May '42, and we disbanded,' says Don Hite, now 84. 'Woody moved to California in 1951, and I just played with small groups.'

The Woody Hite Big Band remained just a memory until 1971, when the Washington High School Class of '41 (class president was future Oregon Gov. Vic Atiyeh) was preparing its 30th reunion. The committee found Don Hite, Ray Spurgeon and trumpet player Bobby Baker and persuaded them to re-form the band.

Veteran Portland jazzman John Wendeborn learned of the reunion plans and wrote a story in the Oregonian.

The effect was dramatic, Hite says. 'I think they had 25 reservations when they started, but when word got out we were going to play, it went up to 250. We decided there must be a market.'

A stream of bookings followed, and the band was back in business, sometimes swelling to 19 members.

'The Washington Park summer series got the most notice,' Hite says. 'Woody came up every summer when we had gigs. We played to 16,000 people up there and went from doing one night to three. We were talking about four when the program ran out of money.'

Woody Hite died in November 1997, but the band continues under his name. Trumpet player Mark Gaulke took over the musical direction from Spurgeon after Spurgeon's death.

'The Woody Hite band is an important link to the past,' says Portland music critic and saxophone player Kyle O'Brien. 'It's music history that feels good. Never underestimate the power of a good melody. People from any generation can sing a Glenn Miller tune.'