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Published on Jun 2, 2009
Hal Kemp led the most popular and the most musical sweet band of the mid-1930s. With muted trumpets and full clarinet tones, its distinct sound earned it a large and dedicated following. Always the friendly, Southern gentleman, Kemp was well-liked by everyone and treated his musicians well. Bandmembers often referred to Kemp's orchestra as a ''fraternity.''
Kemp studied piano, trumpet, alto sax, and clarinet as a youth. He worked local movie theaters as a teen and formed his own orchestra in high school. In 1922 he entered the University of North Carolina, where he was highly involved in extracurricular activities, belonging to two fraternities, the drama club, the glee club, and the school band and orchestra. He also formed his own campus jazz group, the Carolina Club Orchestra. The band recorded for Okeh Records and toured Europe during summers. He also formed a smaller seven-man combo which featured future stars John Scott Trotter, Saxie Dowell, and Skinnay Ennis.
In 1927 Kemp turned leadership of the Carolina Club Orchestra over to fellow UNC student Kay Kyser and formed a professional jazz orchestra of his own, which included Trotter, Dowell, and Ennis. The early orchestra also featured, at various times, trumpeters Bunny Berigan and Jack Purvis. Based in New York, the group often toured Europe. Though it never achieved commercial success it did include among its fans Fred Waring, who gave the band financial and spiritual support, and Prince George of England, who would later become King George VI.
In 1932 Kemp's orchestra settled at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago for an extended stay. Kemp fiddled with the group's sound, and it eventually emerged as a sweet orchestra. The new sound proved popular with the crowds, and Kemp was ready to take the band back on the road in 1934. Owing to his contract, however, he first had to find a replacement orchestra for the Blackhawk. He knew former college friend Kay Kyser was struggling with an orchestra of his own and recommended Kyser for the job. Kyser happily accepted the offer, which included radio time, and Kemp was free to leave. Travelling back to New York the band captured the ears of audiences everywhere with its new sound. No other band of the day played as smoothly and as sensuously as did Kemp's, and unlike other sweet orchestras it also featured interesting musical arrangements.