Hal Kemp

James Hal Kemp (March 27, 1904 – December 21, 1940) was a jazz alto saxophonist, clarinetist, bandleader, composer, and arranger.

He was born in Marion, Alabama, and died in Madera, California, following an auto accident.

The band recorded for English Columbia and Perfect/Pathé Records in 1924-5.

This first group toured Europe in the summer of 1924 under the sponsorship of popular bandleader Paul Specht.

Kemp returned to UNC in 1925 and put together a new edition of the Carolina Club Orchestra, featuring classmates and future stars John Scott Trotter, Saxie Dowell, and Skinnay Ennis.

In 1926, he was a member of the charter class of the Alpha Rho chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity, installed on the Carolina campus in February of that year.

In 1927 Kemp turned leadership of the Carolina Club Orchestra over to fellow UNC student Kay Kyser and turned professional.

He and Kyser remained close friends for the remainder of Kemp’s short life.

Hal’s band was based in New York City, and included Trotter, Dowell, and Ennis, and a few years later trumpeters Bunny Berigan and Jack Purvis joined the group.

One of the main reasons for the band’s success was arranger John Scott Trotter.

Singer Skinnay Ennis had difficulty sustaining notes, so Trotter came up with the idea of filling in these gaps with muted trumpets playing staccato triplets. This gave the band a unique sound, which Johnny Mercer jokingly referred to as sounding like a “typewriter”.

The saxes often played very complex extremely difficult passages, which won them the praise of fellow musicians.

Vocalists with the band during the 1930s included Ennis, Dowell, Bob Allen, Deane Janis, Maxine Gray, Judy Starr, Nan Wynn, and Janet Blair.

Later, the band moved into the Blackhawk Restaurant, located on S. Wabash in the Loop, and it was there that Kemp’s name really took off.

Their biggest break, however, came when Otto Roth booked them at his Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago in 1932.

A long engagement here ensured radio play over the WGN and Mutual Networks, quickly establishing them as a top drawer dance band attraction.

They were only able to break their contract with the Blackhawk’s management to cash in on this new-found fame when Kemp discovered Kay Kyser, whose band replaced him.

After being at the Blackhawk for almost a year and having phenomenal success, they closed there on September 16, 1933.

They made a short tour arranged by MCA (and even got to have two weeks’ vacation) before returning to the Blackhawk for the fall and winter.

Kemp insisted that he would go home to North Carolina and “take off his shoes and sit.”

The same working pattern was repeated again, only when the band departed the Blackhawk in April 1934, they were away for more than three months.

Engagements at premier venues followed, including the Waldorf-Astoria, Pennsylvania, the Drake and the Palmer House, while a series of sponsored radio spots, including the Chesterfield Program, The Quaker Oats Program, and The Gulf Gas Program, secured national exposure.

Their records too, released on RCA – Victor at this time, were selling in large quantities.

The Cocoanut Grove (Los Angeles) and the Mark Hopkins Hotel (San Francisco) were booked for the band as their Californian debut.

While commuting between those two venues Kemp was involved in an automobile accident caused by a heavy morning fog. He died in hospital two days later on 21 December 1940.

The band played the Mark Hopkins’ engagement without him, with vocalist Bob Allen eventually taking over as the leader. He then turned over that responsibility to Art Jarrett.