From "The Crown Prince of Swing" by Gerald Astor Westchester Generations - November 1999
Swing is a form of music that grew out of jazz," explained Stan Rubin. "The beauty of big-band swing is that it combines musical structure with improvisation, the hallmark of jazz, but swing doesn't abandon the melody like some modern jazz."
Speaking with an unbridled passion, the acknowledged "crown prince of swing" - Stan declared, "I loved the swing era, the whole period with soldiers in uniform for a cause we supported, the atmosphere of innocence. People then knew musicians the way they knew baseball rosters. If I had been old enough at the time I would have skipped school to go to the Paramount Theatre in New York to see shows like Benny Goodman with Frank Sinatra."
As ruler of his particular kingdom, Stan has put his money where his mouth is: He invested $300,000 over many decades in a library of swing, a collection of the arrangements played by the likes of Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Harry James and a half-dozen others who swung America from the 1930s into the early 50s. And he continues to keep this brand of music on the menu, through live appearances by the Stan Rubin Orchestra.
Stan's route to his title began in New Rochelle where he first studied piano with his aunt, Rhoda, and then as a clarinet player at Daniel Webster elementary school. "We had a teacher, a wonderful man, Harry Haigh, who'd been on the road with big bands. He formed a swing band out of a bunch of precocious kids and by the time I was in the sixth grade I was playing the music of Goodman, Shaw, the Dorsey’s, all those orchestras everyone heard over the radio. "When you're an 11-year-old kid, if you love your instrument you have a idol and mine was Benny Goodman."
At a 1946 pro-football game in Yankee Stadium, where the Daniel Webster musicians performed during half time, Stan met his hero. "Benny was not a man who said much," Stan recalled of their brief encounter, "but his musicianship was so great that I loved him." Like most boys of that time, Stan preferred sports to music and put in many more hours on a basketball court than practicing his instrument. In his early teens, he lacked the height and endured the humiliation of being cut from the New Rochelle High junior varsity. He transferred to Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J.During his final two years there before college he said he grew tall enough to make the basketball team, and quickened his interest in learning and the opposite sex. He barely touched his clarinet, although he occasionally tooted a tenor sax in the Blair band.
The Princeton Days
As a member of the Class of 1955 at Princeton, Stan floundered in what was still a very preppie institution. "I thought I wasn't smart enough and that I'd flunk out. I felt anxiety all through my body every day of my first months at school. You were supposed to be such a big man, but you felt so little, and you knew nothing." His only release lay in the rediscovery of his clarinet and some informal jam sessions the first weeks at Princeton. "Even though it was considered 'out of it' I joined the marching band. Less than two months into his first semester, before a football game at Annapolis, MD, Stan and the Princeton band boarded a riverboat hired by the Baltimore Alumni Association. Someone suggested he sit in with an eight-piece combination society and Dixieland group. "I must have sounded good. Everybody came up to me and said how great it was and I guess that was when I really got hooked." To exploit his newfound celebrity Stan scoured the campus for a band. He discovered none existed and organized his own, recruiting a pianist, trombonist, drummer and guitar player.
"Dixieland was a very big thing in the early 1950s. I didn't know much about it. But I knew how to improvise." He bought a book of Dixieland-style music and started to learn tunes. They played over the campus radio station and after the coach dropped him from the freshman basketball squad, Stan committed himself to what he named "The Tigertown Five." Bookings blossomed as the leader enlisted friends from summer camp, high school and Blair Academy to obtain dates at colleges nationwide. By his sophomore year Stan was almost as well known on the Princeton campus as members of the football team. He had also mastered the scholastic demands, achieving high grades. He led The Tigertown Five to a gig in Bermuda, did a turn at the famous jazz joint Jimmy Ryan's and toured Europe, where Elsa Maxwell, the empress of expatriate society in Paris, sponsored them.
Off to Monaco
In his final two years of college Stan squeezed in a succession of appearances, brought his newly formed sextet to a Carnegie Hall concert, produced several records and wrote a senior thesis on Eugene O'Neill, typed by his mother who temporarily took up residence in a Princeton hotel. "The last two years I was never home on a weekend except for home football games, the junior prom and house parties." While preparing for final exams he was persuaded to play at a party for Manny Sacks, then-president of Victor records, and vice-president of NBC color television. Present was Grace Kelly, recent winner of an Academy Award for Country Girl. "We alternated sets with Prez Prado. So I had a half hour on, a half hour off. I decided I was going to dance with her."
To his surprise and delight she knew of him and they hit it off during their brief whirl about the floor. A few months later when he read of her imminent wedding to Prince Ranier and a rumor circulated that Louis Armstrong was to play for the guests, Stan wrote to ask if she would also consider his band. "It turned out he (Armstrong) wasn't hired. But she said, 'I'd love to have you. The Prince knows of you from when you played on the Riviera in the summer of '53.'" Stan postponed his entry into Fordham Law School in favor of the Monaco date. There was only one other Princetonian, Eddie Polcer, a cornet player in what was still The Tiger town Five, but the group garnered a huge amount of publicity as the only Americans to perform. During the stay in Monaco, Rubin's father, a lawyer who worked his way through school leading "Irving Rubin and His Moonlight Syncopaters" in the Borscht Belt, sat in at the piano for an impromptu party aboard Aristotle Onassis’s yacht.
The Dream, The Reality
Even before he achieved international fame from the Monaco wedding, Stan had begun to pursue his dream of big-band swing. He created a 17-piece orchestra after graduation and in 1956, George Hamid, another Princetonian, whose family owned the Atlantic City Steel Pier, hired Stan. "I bought Bob Friedlander's book of arrangements - Bob and I have now worked together for 45 years - and started to build my library." The first song was "Begin the Beguine" (a Cole Porter tune rendered by Artie Shaw), then "Moonlight Serenade" (Glenn Miller), "Opus 1" (Goodman), "Sing, Sing, Sing" (Goodman), "I Can't Get Started" (Bunny Berrigan), "Cherokee" (Charlie Barnet), "A-Train" (Duke Ellington), "One O’clock Jump" (Count Basie) and so forth.
Uncertain about his future, Stan completed his law studies even as he slowly built his repertoire of big-band swing and played clubs and parties. Now married, with three children, he saw musical tastes change and the harsh realities of economics hit the music business. For a while, he played debutante affairs. "I developed a 'Society Book' but that sort of work is musically uninspiring. There's no flexibility." He decided to become an entrepreneur and created a unique business, the College Entertainment Agency, which for 10 years supplied educational institutions with musical attractions. As he headed into his 40s, he rethought his career. After some soul searching in which he discarded the option of the legal profession, he determined to devote himself to the music he loved, big-band swing. He and Friedlander laboriously transcribed the music of the big bands, by listening to records over and over again, drafting the notes for each individual instrument, bar by bar, not an easy task when one had to boil down to 15 parts a Frank Sinatra-Nelson Riddle arrangement for 40 pieces. They now have some 800 on file plus another 500 standards for which they have created their own arrangements.
"My dream was to create the band, preserve the concept of music by virtue of note-for-note arrangements of the great classics and play in a large New York night club six nights a week with permanent band members who had steady jobs complete with benefits. The closest I came was the Red Parrot, from 1981 to 1988, which had a capacity of 2,500. They had a disc jockey but, Jim Merry, the owner, loved swing and we were there four nights a week, doing three, half-hour shows. It was the best job I ever had and I loved it. The kids came to hear the disk jockey and they stayed and listened to us."
The club eventually went bust but far more traumatic, doctors diagnosed Stan with a benign brain tumor. Surgery removed the threat to his life but also rendered him unable to play the clarinet. "I can't blow even a single note." Nevertheless, he persists in his efforts to preserve big-band swing. He has a vast library of swing, which he stores, in colored coded bags. A pink container holds female singers; Benny Goodman occupies a blue one, Harry James in a red. He has a Web site - www.stanrubinorchestra.com - with a CD, which introduces listeners to the music and also serves as an audition tape for anyone interested in contracting for a live show.
The Stan Rubin Orchestra appears every Thursday night at the Red Blazer, a club on 37th Street in Manhattan. Chris Byars, a sax man, stands in for Stan as a leader but 10 or 15 times a year Stan makes the scene, occasionally even singing. The band also performs at institutions like Brookdale Hospital, corporate parties and already is booked for the Knickerbocker Club Christmas Ball next year. Stan also plots to present a salute to the Paramount with his protégé, Dan Levinson, wielding the clarinet.
Stan relies on a floating pool of 30 to 40 freelancers, about half of whom are experienced in swing while the younger ones are still learning its intricacies. Stan insists that rather than donate his valuable library to an institution such as Princeton, he hopes to put it in the hands of someone who will continue to present live swing. The king is long dead, the domain may be threatened, but this is one crown prince who does not plan to abdicate.