On June 12, 1983: The Incomparable Mal Hallett
Bandleader Mal Hallett was born in Boston, or at least I believe he was. I’ve seen other dates in 1893, and in 1896, but June 12 seems most credible. And he was born in South Boston, unless it was in Roxbury. We know he grew up in Roxbury, and attended Roxbury Memorial High School.
Hallett, a violinist, led a pioneering dance band in the 1920s and a powerful swing band in the 1930s, but he merits only a brief mention in the big band history books.
The northeast was the most lucrative dance band market in the country in the 1920s, and Hallett’s band was a major draw from Maine to New Jersey, and from Boston to western Pennsylvania. In 1928, he earned $60,000, an unheard-of sum for a band that played only dance halls. And Hallett had more than a good band. He had a great manager in Charlie Shribman, and he understood the fine art of public relations. He was the “Incomparable” Mal Hallett.
Hallett was badly injured in a fall in 1930, and he never played violin again. He was a baton-waver for the rest of his career. Between the accident and the convalescence, he was off the scene for two years, and he lost his band and his recording contracts. But he roared back in 1932 with a band that included Frankie Carle, Jack Jenney, Gene Krupa, and Toots Mondello. It was a swing band in the days before anyone called them that.
Musicians came and went, but as long as his right-hand man, chief arranger Frank Ryerson, anchored the trumpet section, the band played what Metronome’s George Simon called “uninhibited swing.” (Ryerson left in 1938.) And with Teddy Grace and then Irene Daye from 1934 to 1938, Hallet’s band had top-notch vocalists.
Hallett kept a credible dance band afloat during the war years, but it got harder in the late forties, and by 1950 his band was strictly a weekend affair. Students from the New England Conservatory often filled it out. Sometimes rather than put a band together for an engagement, Hallett would rent one, with its book but minus its leader, and call it his orchestra for the night.
He was 59 when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1952, his glory days long past. There were no tributes in the Boston papers. There were barely obituary notices. You’d think a guy who bested Duke Ellington in a battle of music would merit more than that.
Here’s music that Hallett recorded in the late 1920s. It was not released at the time, possibly because it was “too much jazz.” Hallett’s record company wanted music that was light and polite and fit for a hotel dining room. Hallett’s guys, like Toots and Vic Mondello, Brad Gowans, and Andy Russo, weren’t interested in dining room music, they wanted to play. And here on “Wang Wang Blues” they did.