25th Anniversary of Big Band Spotlight with Karl Gerhke

Last Updated by Heather Benson on

SDPB's Karl Gerhke is the host of Jazz Nightly. But he's also been bringing you the swinging sounds of the Big Band Era every week on Big Band Spotlight for 25 years.  Lori Walsh sat down with him to discuss the history of the show.  You can listen to the conversation in its entirety here.

Lori Walsh:

Welcome back to In The Moment, I'm Lori Walsh. SDPB's Karl Gerhke is the host of Jazz Nightly, but he's also been bringing you the swinging sounds of the Big Band Era every week on Big Band Spotlight on SDPB Radio, for 25 years. Wow, Karl! Just wow!

Karl Gerhke:

Wow. Yeah, it's hard to believe, it's a quarter century, nearly half my life.

Lori Walsh:

This week you can tune into SDPB Radio for the first of a two-part 25th Anniversary Big Band Spotlight. Karl's with me here in the studio in Vermillion. Hey, thanks for stopping by.

Karl Gerhke:

Well thanks for letting me stop by and talk about my favorite subject.

Lori Walsh:

I know, we should say Sunday nights, 9:00 Central, 8:00 Mountain.

Karl Gerhke:


Lori Walsh:

And I tell you what, when you're driving across the state, and you're coming home on a Sunday night, that is such a gift. So thank you for 25 years of this.

Karl Gerhke:

I'm privileged to be able to do this for 25 years, never imagined that I'd be doing this 25 years later when I started doing it back in January of 1993.

Lori Walsh:

Tell me how it got started.

Karl Gerhke:

Well it got started because there was already a Big Band Spotlight. It was hosted by, I believe, Larry Miller, who was on the executive staff here at South Dakota Public Broadcasting. And he left, and Larry Rohr, was the Director of Radio, and Michele Van Manon who was the Program Director at the time, knew of my love of this music. And said, "Do you want to do this show?" And I said, "Yes, certainly." I was the Arts Advocate at the time, and this was a show that, then, it ran Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday's, half hour after Martin Bush's Bookshop. And then when I left for Minnesota, a few later, and I spent 15 years in Minnesota, Larry Rohr said, "Do you want to keep doing the show?" And I said, "Yeah, I'd love to keep doing the show." And it eventually became an hour, which is, ... I guess it's been an hour for most of the life of the program. When I was in Minnesota for 15 years, and then I came back here, and continued to do Big Band Spotlight, and now host of Jazz Nightly.

Lori Walsh:

How did your love of this music get started, because it goes back even further than 1993.

Karl Gerhke:

Yes, it goes back well before I was even born. But oddly enough, this was the music of my youth. When I was a kid, my Dad had a few big band records, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and that sort of thing. And scratched them all, and played them quite a bit. But what I really remember, when this kind of all came together, was in Salina, Kansas, at a Chinese restaurant. Yeah, why not. My Dad is from Salina, Kansas. We're visiting Grandma, and we're at the Chinese restaurant, and there was a console stereo playing these records. I asked my mom and said, "What is that?" And she said, "Well that's Glenn Miller." Glenn Miller, huh. And for some reason, I would have been, what, 8 years old, or something like that. I decided that Glenn Miller was my favorite.

And around the same time, a neighborhood friend of mine was moving, and I must have said something to him, that Glenn Miller was my favorite because their parents were clearing stuff out, and they gave me a Glenn Miller record. And I played this Glenn Miller record over and over and over again, so then, yeah, Glenn Miller was my favorite. And then that just piqued my curiosity about other big bands. And the Brookings Public Library had Benny Goodman records, and big band collections, and books. So I go to the library, and read books about big band music, and it just kind of grew from there. And then I'd go to collect, ... I'd go rummage sales and find big band records, or there'd be things that would be re-released and I'd get, ... I'd ask them for my birthday, and I'd get these records, and so I just, ... it just kind of grew from there.

Lori Walsh:

Wow, so much of the history of big band is tied up and interwoven with American history. Let's dive into a little bit of who these groups were, what were they doing, were they traveling around? Where do you want to start with even helping put this is into context for people who are saying, "What exactly is Big Band music?"

Karl Gerhke:

It's an interesting history. And I do cover it on, the first part of 1930 to 1940, and then the next week, 1940 to 1950, talking about, so we'll get into sort of the history. But really the big band started coming together around 1930. The format of the big band started coming together around 1930. And then you had 1935, Benny Goodman came along, and really launched the Big Band Era with an engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in L.A., with this music that just really, ... the youth of America loved this music. And it kind of grew from there. And Benny Goodman's music by the way, was built on, ... you know, it had already been around for about four or five years. The African American bands, the Black bands, had already been creating this music most notably, Fletcher Henderson. And Fletcher Henderson wrote the book for Benny Goodman, so that's really where that started.

And then once Benny Goodman got very popular, then other bands, other musicians said hey, I want to do that too. So then Artie Shaw came along, and Glenn Miller came along, and some of the guys who had played with Benny Goodman, like Harry James and Gene Krupa, then they launched their own bands. And meanwhile, you had the groups that had been around for a while, like Duke Ellington. They were part of the scene as well. And then you had Count Basie out of Kansas City. The bands just kind of exploded and really the peak of the Swing Era, 1937 to about 1942, and the Big Band Era continued until about 1946, when Benny Goodman and a lot of these guys broke up their bands and then they kind of limped around until 1950. And that was pretty much the end of the Big Band Era. And then Elvis came along, and that was it, that was the final nail in the coffin.

Lori Walsh:

Why did it start to decline? What contributes to the change?

Karl Gerhke:

There were a number of different reasons. World War II came along, and that changed the mood of the country and no longer were people that interested in hearing up-tempo, you know, in the mood, rift tunes. Then along came more of the romantic ballads, the yearning ballads. As the people left back home, the women left back home, yearn for their men that are across the sea, and they were missing their loved ones back home. So that became more of the popular music.

The singers started taking over before the singers were part of the Big Bands. They would get to, ... they would usually get to sing a chorus, but now, the singers kind of took over. Then you had World War II. A lot of the musicians in the bands were being drafted. Then it was hard for the bands to keep musicians, constant turnover. Then the music itself, Swing music itself, started getting a little stale. The formulas became kind of old hat, and so there was that, just the change in taste.

And then the more adventurous bands became more concert oriented. Instead of playing dance music, they were becoming more experimental and playing shifting tempos and weird harmonies, and things like that. And alienated half the audience because they would go, we want to dance, we want to dance, and then you had these, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, or Dizzy Gillespie playing these crazy sounds. And they're, "We can't dance to that." So that was part of the problem too, the music changed.

And then you also had, after the war, the young people that had been dancing to this music before, they were older now, and they wanted to settle down. They were raising families or going to school. And it was just a big cultural shift. And it had also became economically very difficult for bands after World War II, to travel across the country like they had been doing. It was just not economical anymore. So the economics just fell out of the whole, ... the way it had been going before where these bands would travel all over the country, now they couldn't do that anymore, just because you had 15, 16 or more people, that you were carting all over the country.

Lori Walsh:

It's a big paycheck.

Karl Gerhke:

A big paycheck.

Lori Walsh:

A tiny paycheck really is what it is, for each one of them.

Why do we need it today, still? What does it still have to say?

Karl Gerhke:

This old music?

Lori Walsh:

This old music.

Karl Gerhke:

Well it was a really amazing time in American music history. I think it was popular music at a supreme quality that has never been matched before. You had all these great musicians, great song writers, composers, and arrangers, so it's this slice of music history that is just amazing, I think. It's just amazing, beautiful music. I always love it when I hear from younger people, younger than me, people in their twenties, or their teens, that listen to the program and say, "Oh I just love that, can you recommend something?" And then they go out and explore it some more. It just keeps the music alive, it keeps it going.

I don't want to be stuck in the past either. But I think this is a tremendous period in music history, and I think also, this music lives on. These songs are still being played, sung, performed, to this very day.

Lori Walsh:

Still influencing young musicians as well, my daughter's in a jazz band. We heard In the Mood, she's played that. She's played some of the greats.

Karl Gerhke:

Yeah, and even though the Big Band Era died, it's not the pop music anymore, Big Bands continue, they're all over the country. And they're playing the old stuff, the old dance, ... you know there's still a Glenn Miller ghost band traveling the country playing the old music. And there's also contemporary bands playing contemporary Jazz and just exploring what you can do with this format of a big band. It's just never-ending what you can do with this music. And I think it'll last for a long time.

Lori Walsh:

What do you think now, when you hear Glenn Miller?

Karl Gerhke:

What do I think now when I hear Glenn Miller, it makes me smile because that's kind of where it started for me. And then you branch on beyond that, but still, I think that a lot of, the best of Glen Miller was pop perfection. Just think of the theme song, Moonlight Serenade. If I could go back in time, say 1940, and there's a Glenn Miller playing live, Moonlight Serenade, I think that would just have been an amazing experience. Because that's a song, ... you know, you hear it, an old, scratchy record, monophonic, not great sound, but if you'd heard that live, ... even the old records, still gives you goosebumps, still gives me goosebumps to hear that. Because there's nothing like it, that sound of those saxophones, it's just amazing.

Lori Walsh:

Doesn't get old.

Karl Gerhke:

Does not get old. I could listen to that song forever.

Lori Walsh:

25 years of Big Band Spotlight, still going strong. Karl Gerhke, thank you so much for it.

Karl Gerhke:

Thank you for letting me be here, talk about big bands. We could talk for hours and avoided tears, but-

Lori Walsh:

And you can ask Karl, almost literally everything. I've never been able to ask you a question that you didn't know the answer to about Jazz, or big bands. What are we going to hear on the Lassiter? Who is this?

Karl Gerhke:

This is Benny Goodman, Sing, Sing, Sing.

Lori Walsh:


Karl Gerhke:

Another one of the big hits.

Lori Walsh:

That's our show for today. We hope that it served you, thank you to all our guests and the SDPB crew. From all of us at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, I'm Lori Walsh. Thank you for listening.


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