jazz arranger and composer PAUL VILLEPIGUE
B I O G R A P H Y page 6
Biography Part 1: Chanute to Chicago
Biography Part 2: East Coast
Feature Recording

Villepigue, Chicago, 1942




        Although the hoped-for deal with Jimmy Joy did not come through, Villepigue stayed on in Chicago and continued to write for Boyd Raeburn, as evidenced by trombonist Milt Bernhart’s account of one night in 1942 at the Band Box on Randolph Street:


I first encountered Paul Villepigue’s work in Chicago in 1942—I was 16 yrs old and subbing on the Boyd Raeburn Orch. (my first-ever exposure to the “Big Guys”). On my first night with Raeburn, an arrangement was brought in with Paul Villepigue’s name on it—a long-forgotten pop-tune of the period. It had “Tommy Dorsey Orch.” stamped on it, but I got the impression that Dorsey had rejected it. I thought the arrangement was thrilling—but at that point in life, everything was thrilling. I remember well that Vern Yocum, the bari. sax-player on the band, spoke in hushed tones of Villepigue. He literally worshipped him. Boyd had almost no library at that point, using mainly Basie stock arrangements (is that bad?), so this hand-copied arrangement was handled with great care. It was the first arrangement I ever played by a real professional arranger. How could I ever forget it?


(Milt Bernhart, post on Jazz West Coast

mailing list, August 31, 2000)


It is likely that Villepigue made ends meet by arranging for several bands in Chicago during his two years there, between 1941 and 1943. Certainly one band was the Chico Marx Orchestra, in reality led by Ben Pollack, who organized the band for piano player Chico when all the Marx Brothers put their moviemaking on hiatus during the war years. For a four-month engagement in Chicago, Pollack added some of the local talent, including Paul Villepigue and Vern Yocum. The two became fast friends through that connection, as well as their work with Raeburn, and later they would hook up again on the West Coast. Yocum’s wife, Louise, remembers the Chico Marx band:


My husband Vern and I met Paul in Chicago. Vern (playing saxophone and clarinet) and Paul were both with the Chico Marx Band in 1942. It was really

Ben Pollack’s band. Ben was the head, the business man, but Chico had name recognition and fronted the band at the piano. The Blackhawk Restaurant was the key place of the work they did with the Chico Marx Band. Bob Crosby had made that place famous earlier on. It was a nice place, a restaurant-nightclub, sort of old-fashioned with good seating capacity. You felt you were in a special place. Both Vern and Paul were happy to be playing there. I went sometimes and sat close to the bandstand. There was a young man, a teenager, who hung close to the bandstand, too. When the band took a break, he’d go up and sit at the drums. I got acquainted with him because he often sat at my table with me.

It was Mel Tormé.


(Louise Yocum, letter to Villepigue’s daughter Desne, July 2004)


Pollack recruited Tormé into the band. Villepigue and the young singer struck up an acquaintance that would reconnect them seven years later in Los Angeles to work together again. Likewise, Villepigue's friendship with the band's guitarist, Barney Kessel, would continue in later years on the West Coast. Kessel, who had joined the Chico Marx band in California, went on the road to New York and then to Chicago for the Blackhawk engagement:


I went to California and started playing there. I was there about two months in 1942, in the summer, and finally joined the first professional job I ever was with—that was a band that was funded by, and its musical director was Ben Pollack, who had the Chico Marx band, with Mel Tormé and Marty Napoleon in it.

George Wettling was in that. Marty Marsala. It was a very good band.

Excellent arrangements by Paul Villepigue. We had eight brass, six saxophones, and a vocal group, and it was tremendous. We played a lot of theaters—we did the Roxy here in New York. We played the Black Hawk restaurant for four months in Chicago, and when [Marx] did his numbers—his stage show—he would lead the band, we’d play with him.


(Barney Kessel, quoted in Ira Gitler, Swing to Bop: An Oral History of

the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s, Oxford University Press, 1985)


When Villepigue was on the road with Ike Ragon’s band in the summer of 1941, his wife, Maxine, temporarily assisted him as copyist of his charts, under his tutelage. Once they arrived in Chicago, however, Villepigue sought a professional copyist and found Vern Yocum, who was skilled in the art. Even though at first Villepigue was pulling down only $21 a week playing for Ragon, plus perhaps another $20 to $30 writing for Boyd Raeburn, Yocum’s work as copyist was a necessary expenditure:


Paul needed someone to copy his arrangements. Vern was very good at that.

He charged $3.00 or $4.00 for each. That was affordable for Paul. Money was

tight. . . .

          Paul and Maxine’s apartment soon became a gathering place. One that was used to socialize and talk music. We couldn’t afford to do much in the way of spending money, so musicians, when they were off work, would gather where someone had space. Those that were married brought their wives. . . .

          Maxine and Paul Villepigue were like one at that time—sweethearts and such a loving couple. They liked having company at their apartment. So soon it was, “Let’s go to Paul Villepigue’s and see what’s going on!” . . .

          Both Paul and Vern joined the Boyd Raeburn band. Musicians jumped on & off bands in those days. There was lots of fluctuation because the country was getting prepared for World War II. Musicians would hear through the grapevine which band was looking. . . . The Boyd Raeburn band wasn’t well known at that time but Vern and Paul felt the band played good stuff and they were able to do new things and experiment.


(Louise Yocum, letter to Villepigue’s daughter Desne, July 2004)


None of Villepigue’s charts from these early years, written for Ragon, Raeburn, Marx, or any others, have yet been found. While the Raeburn band was on the road in August 1944, a fire at Palisades Amusement Park, New Jersey, consumed most of the library of arrangements. Presumably, any Villepigue charts therein were lost in the flames.


If the course of Villepigue’s writing had begun to gain momentum during this Chicago period, it was derailed in late 1943 when he was inducted into the service. He was put to work in various Army Bands, stateside, to entertain the troops who hadn't yet shipped out or those coming home. While jazz continued to evolve in the cities, Villepigue was isolated and his career was stalled for nearly three years.

click photo to enlarge
Villepigue stationed at Camp Edwards, Massachusetts, February 1944 (ink smudge on original photo)