Ambassador of Jazz to the Roaring Twenties: Gus Arnheim

The 1920s, smack-dab between a world war and a great depression, witnessed a flourishing cultural and artistic renaissance in America. The 1920s was a period of massive growth and innovation in music, witnessing the first electrical recordings, the explosion of jazz music, the proliferation of record players, the birth of radio. Among the notable figures of that era, Gus Arnheim and his orchestra stood out as pioneers of a new and vibrant sound. Renowned for their distinctive style, Arnheim and his ensemble made significant contributions to the development of jazz and hotel dance music. Here we explore the life, achievements, and influence of Gus Arnheim, highlighting his impact on the music scene during the Roaring Twenties and beyond.

Gus Arnheim was born in 1897 in Philadelphia, and as a young boy displayed an early affinity for music. He began his career as a pianist and organist, working in various venues throughout his teenage years and at one point was accompanist to vaudevillian singer Sophie Tucker. In the early 1920s, Arnheim moved to California, where he soon found his true calling as a bandleader. Arriving on the west coast, Arnheim played piano for bandleader Abe Lyman starting in 1923, leaving to start his own group in 1927.

With a keen ear for melodies and a passion for innovation, he assembled a talented group of musicians to form his orchestra. Arnheim was known for a unique and sophisticated style. The band’s music blended elements of early jazz, so-called ‘hotel music’, and ballroom dance genres, creating a harmonious fusion that captivated audiences nationwide. Arnheim’s arrangements were characterized by smooth melodies, rich harmonies, and intricate instrumental interplay. His orchestra often incorporated strings, adding a touch of elegance to their sound.

During the ‘20s, Gus Arnheim achieved great popularity, becoming a staple in the vibrant nightlife of Hollywood. His band’s residency at the Coconut Grove nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles from 1928 to 1932 became legendary. Arnheim’s sophisticated arrangements and the orchestra’s seamless performances attracted a wide audience, including movie celebrities and socialites of the time.

Arnheim’s orchestra played a crucial role in the development of jazz and dance music. They became renowned for their danceable rhythms, which perfectly complemented the lively atmosphere of the era. Arnheim also helped popularize the concept of the “sweet band,” a softer and more romantic style of jazz, which contrasted with the brassy, energetic sounds of the big band era. Many aspiring musicians drew inspiration from Arnheim’s orchestra, including notable figures such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, who went on to achieve great success in their own right. Crosby, along with fellow Paul Whiteman Orchestra veterans Harry Barris and Al Rinker, worked for Arnheim in 1930 and 1931.

Other notable performers with Arnheim’s band included tenor saxophonist Fred MacMurray (who became a film and television star in the ’40s and ’50s), violinist/vocalist Russ Columbo, future popular singer Buddy Clark, and future bandleader Stan Kenton who played piano with Arnheim starting in 1937. In addition, bandleader Jimmie Grier was staff arranger and played lead alto saxophone and clarinet in Arnheim’s band from its founding in 1928. Between 1939 and 1944, crooner Andy Russell played the drums and sang with Arnheim- who was the one who suggested Russell sing bilingually in English and Spanish, leading to Russell’s first million-selling record “Bésame Mucho”.

Arnheim’s contributions to the film industry were significant. Arnheim’s orchestra made at least three film short subjects for Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone Corporation in 1928 and 1929. He and his orchestra appeared in several full-length feature films, including “Syncopation” (1929) and “Hollywood Revue” (1929), spreading their unique sound to a wider audience. Their performances helped solidify the connection between music and the silver screen, shaping the future of film scoring.

Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Arnheim orchestra continued making records and public appearances until health concerns caused the bandleader to begin reducing his performance schedule.

Gus Arnheim passed from a heart attack in Los Angeles on January 19, 1955.

The music of Gus Arnheim is regularly featured on Swing Street Radio.

Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Paul Whiteman’s plumber.