Jan Savitt (born Jacob Savetnick in Shumsk, Russia, September 4, 1913, died October 4, 1948 Sacramento, California) was an American bandleader, musical arranger, and violinist.
The birth date of violinist, vocalist, arranger, and bandleader Jan Savitt is in dispute; although his birthday is officially listed as September 4, 1913, Savitt could have been born as early as 1907. When he was around 5 years old, Savitt was given a violin as a present by his father (who had purportedly been a drummer in Czar Nicholas II's Imperial Regiment Band). He took lessons and was playing violin with the Civic Symphony Club Orchestra in Philadelphia by the time he was in high school in 1919 (the same year that his father legally changed the family's surname to Savitt.
In the fall of 1924, Savitt applied for admission and received a full scholarship to The Curtis Institute of Music. For the first four years, he studied under violinist Carl Flesch, including a summer spent with him in Germany in 1927. Savitt also received instruction from other renowned musicians, namely Arthur Rodzinski, Richard Hartzer, and Fritz Reiner. So talented was Savitt that Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra, personally offered him a position in the Orchestra's second violin section. He accepted, becoming the group's youngest member, up to that point. Eventually, Savitt advanced to the second position in the section, which was composed of 18 musicians.
Savitt left The Curtis Institute in mid-1930 (and officially received his Bachelor's Degree in Violin at a ceremony in 1935).
In 1932, he formed his own ensemble, The Savitt String Quartet, which broadcast twice-weekly on the 50,000-watt Philadelphia radio station WCAU. Savitt resigned from the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934, to accept the position of Music Director at WCAU and form a house orchestra. A cursory examination of the band's itineraries from 1936-38 shows stops at the Arcadia Restaurant in Philadelphia; the Steel Pier and Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City; and two tours of Charlie Shribman's New England ballroom circuit. The band had to have a uniform and, rather than the old tuxedos, Savitt decided that they would use full dress and top hat, hence the name 'Top Hatters.'
Savitt also signed his first recording contract, with Variety Records, and cut a total of 8 sides in February and March of '37, including one called Shuffle Rhythm, which, ironically, was not released at the time. Shuffle rhythm would become one of the Savitt band's most infectious and familiar devices. In November 1937, the band switched to Bluebird Records, making a total of 42 sides for them during the following twelve months, including originals like Futuristic Shuffle and pop tunes such as You Go to My Head.
Jan Savitt recorded his version of Erskine Hawkins' "Tuxedo Junction" not quite two weeks before Glenn Miller waxed the version that went on to become a million-seller and a Top Ten hit in 1940. Savitt's version is taken at a much quicker tempo that Miller's, and while Miller's arrangement invokes images of a lazy train depot on a hot summer's day, Savitt approaches the tune as a hot swing number.
1939-40 saw the band score some popular records, with a new contract at Decca. Their signature song was "Quaker City Jazz," and they had a big hit with "720 in the Books." Savitt's band included vocalist George Tunnell, who used the name Bon Bon, and was one of the first black singers or instrumentalists to work with a white band. His other vocalists were Carlotta Dale, Allan DeWitt, Joe Martin, and Gloria DeHaven. His band names include Jan Savitt & His Top Hatters, the Jan Savitt String Orchestra and Jan Savitt & His Orchestra.
During 1940, the band worked around New York City. Savitt was one of the comparatively few white bands which played the Savoy Ballroom there, appearing in a Sunday matinee performance on March 10th. Savitt's band opened at the Strand Theatre in New York City on April 9, 1943, with singer Ethel Waters sharing the bill. Savitt also toured with Frank Sinatra twice, once in 1943 and again in 1945. Besides theatres, Savitt and his mid-'40s band continued broadcast, record, and even appeared in several grade-B motion pictures.
Noted orchestra leaders Buddy Rogers, Jan Savitt of KYW and Tommy Dorsey (L-R)
Savitt suffered from acute hypertension and tragedy struck on October 2, 1948, while he was en route to a performance at Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento, California. His orchestra played the job without him, and, two days later, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage in a nearby hospital. Sinatra served as one of the pallbearers at his funeral. (Info mainly edited from Big Band Library)
Here's "Song Of The Volga Boatmen" from a Vitaphone musical short (1945) called Jan Savitt And His band.