The Swing Bookby Degen Pener
Ten years ago a revival of swing took place, originating in San Francisco, snowballing into today's international resurgence. This book presents the complete history of swing music and dancing, then and now.
- Little, Brown and Company
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Read an Excerpt
" Chapter 1
The Golden Era of Swing
Trying to define the term swing is as difficult as attempting to do an air step at your first dance class. Even the great Louis Armstrong was silent on the subject. "They asked him, 'What is swing?' and he thought for a while and said, 'If you don't know, don't mess with it,'" recalls jazz legend Lionel Hampton, who first played with Armstrong back in 1930. Another swing innovator, Benny Goodman, the so-called King of Swing, admitted that describing the music left him just as flummoxed. Swing, he once said, "is as difficult to explain as the Mona Lisa's smile or the nutty hats women wear-but just as stimulating. It remains something you take 5,000 words to explain then leaves you wondering what it is." Now, more than fifty years after the movement first started, swing is more of a muddled concept than ever. Does swing equal jazz? Is swing the same as big band music? Is swing exclusively a dance music? And is there any such thing as pure swing? Contrary to many people's assumptions, the most accurate answer to each of those questions is no.
In true technical terms, swing isn't a particular type of music at all. It's a way of playing music, the manner in which a beat moves, something you can hear and feel and, best of all, do. As bandleader Artie Shaw has said, "Swing is a verb, not an adjective. . . . All jazz music swings. It has to. If it doesn't swing, it's nothing." Unlike the finality expressed in a pounding rock beat, each pulse of truly swinging music contains in it an open, joyous space of possibility, even if the song is a hard-luck blues tune. "Jazz or swing-it's all the same as long as it has that beat," Ella Fitzgerald once said. "Just about any kind of music can swing," says Johnny Coppola, a trumpeter once in the bands of swingers Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton. "A good marching band can swing. Bach played right can swing."
Now let's swing this all up a bit. Swing, of course, is hardly just a musical concept. It was also a sweeping, complex movement that enchanted and entertained America during two of the country's periods of greatest trial, the Depression and World War II. Looked at historically, swing was jazz music played by big bands primarily for dancing. At its peak in the late thirties, it was a readily identifiable kind of music, with such glorious standards as Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump," Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train," and Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" coming as close as possible to a pure concept of swing. It was at once some of the hottest, most amazing jazz ever created and also the first time, and in many ways the last, that jazz was embraced by a mass audience. At the heart of it was the close relationship between the music and the dancing. This wasn't music played in a concert hall to be passively appreciated. Every night, from coast to coast, thousands of deliriously transported couples swung and jitterbugged and swayed the evening away.
The phenomenon of swing took on a deeper meaning as well. Swing was as important for its cultural resonance as it was for its musical achievement. In a time of brutal racism, swing was a model, if never perfect in practice, of harmony and equality between black and white musicians. To some observers, it was the melting pot in action; to others, it was America's singular contribution to world culture. While it soared to artistic heights, it also remained profoundly populist. The average Jack and Jill felt included in its expansive energy. The Lindy Hop, the dance that went hand in partner's hand with the music, was proclaimed an American folk dance. A product of the New Deal years, it was even seen as a model of the pluralistic democratic ideas of the decade. When America went to war, the already strong symbolism of swing became magnified; it came to be seen as representative of the best things the country had to offer. For the boys overseas, it was a major force in defining what they were fighting for.
So how did a bunch of three-minute songs end up with so much cultural weight attached to them? To find out, you need to start at the beginning. The roots of swing go all the way back to the birth of jazz.
Stirring the Pot in New Orleans
Although early innovator Jelly Roll Morton once claimed to have created jazz, no one person can take credit for inventing this music. But one city, New Orleans, does deserve that distinction. During the 1800s, this overheated city on the Mississippi was by all accounts a sort of mosh pit of cultures, from French and Spanish to African and Caribbean to English and Irish. And in the midst of this modern-day Babel, the city's black population began to forge a new language that would unite two great musical traditions. At the time, the sounds of Africa and of Europe couldn't have seemed more antithetical. But the child of the two-at first a bastard in the eyes of white America, but later, during the swing era, a favorite son-would grow up to be many times the sum of its parts.
According to Ted Gioia's insightful History of Jazz, African music, though itself varied, is built on a number of shared characteristics, all of which would shape jazz and in turn swing. These include call-and-response patterns, in which a leader sings or plays a line and is answered back by the group; the playing of instruments in a style that resembles the sound of human voices; emphasis on improvisation; and most important, an astonishing array of complex rhythm patterns that were often layered one on top of another. To this mix were added strong European elements. Blacks in America began composing and writing down music that had only been played by ear. They began fitting their music into the Western form of the short popular song and taking inspiration from the rich melodic heritage of Europe.
How these two forms of music actually came together in nineteenth-century New Orleans isn't documented. There are no written and certainly no recorded examples of their creations. What is known is that New Orleans, unlike the rest of America, took a much more tolerant attitude toward African music. In most other places, it wasn't allowed to be played at all, but in pre-Civil War New Orleans slaves regularly held dances in the city's Congo Square. These were "an actual transfer of totally African ritual," writes Gioia, "to the native soil of the New World."
When Congo Square met Giuseppe Verdi (New Orleans had the first opera house in America), the results were potent. As Lionel Hampton concludes, "The plantation bosses would bring musicians over to perform from England and France, and the slaves would listen to what they played from outside the window. They changed it from the opera. When you hear a famous song like 'High Society,' it's a good copy of Rigoletto. Black workers heard these songs and they were putting it in swing time. And it came from the plantations up through the streets of New Orleans to the cafés of New Orleans."
By the turn of the century, jazz-even if it wasn't yet called jazz-had coalesced into a distinct sound in the Big Easy. Inventing outside of musical academies, the small New Orleans combos celebrated freedom of expression and spontaneous creativity. Taking a cue from the new and closely related music of ragtime, the rhythm of jazz became "ragged" or syncopated, giving emphasis to beats that were not traditionally stressed. Even the way that such early jazz musicians as Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory, King Oliver, Nick LaRocca, and Jelly Roll Morton played their instruments was original. They put an emotionalism and edge into the very sound of the notes themselves. Classical European musicians had generally attempted to produce the purest tones possible with their instruments. Instead, as musician Richard Hadlock remembered, New Orleans clarinetist and sax giant Sidney Bechet exhorted him to play one note in as many ways as he could. Bechet, according to Hadlock, told him to "growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. Thats how you express your feelings in this music. It's like talking."
In turn, jazz inspired people to sing differently. Like instruments, voices also began to sound more like they were talking. Instead of vocalizing right on the beat, singers got hep to the new rhythmic devices of jazz and started to play around with how they phrased lyrics.
And then there was the blues. Developing around the same time as jazz and reaching an early popular peak in the twenties with such singers as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, this powerful music exerted an immeasurable influence on jazz. Named for the music's blue notes, which don't fit into the more precise European conceptions of do-re-mi, the blues contributed its wonderfully nuanced tone and distinctive attitude of strength in the face of adversity to jazz. Meanwhile, jazz provided a new avenue for the blues, working it into more complex and up-tempo arrangements. These myriad influences and developments first came to national attention after 1917, when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a group of white musicians, made the first jazz recording. They were soon followed by influential records from the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band, which introduced the man who would effect a cataclysmic change in jazz, Louis Armstrong. (For more detailed biographical information on Armstrong and other major jazz artists whose names are in bold print, see chapter 4.)
The Solo Steps Forward
Before Armstrong, the New Orleans bands were small groups that sought to hone a collective sound. As Ted Gioia writes, "The New Orleans pioneers created a music in which the group was primary, in which each instrument was expected to play a certain role, not assert its independence." But as anyone who's ever heard Armstrong knows, keeping a lid on this individual would have been impossible. With his hugely resonant warm voice, clarion trumpet calls, and larger-than-life personality, Armstrong was poised to dominate the American musical landscape as perhaps the most important singer and musician of the twentieth century.
While he was never a major bandleader, Armstrong was yet the true father of swing music. After leaving New Orleans for Chicago in 1922-his journey was part of a great migration of musicians and blacks in general who left the South for better job opportunities in the North-Armstrong began to assert a new role for jazz musicians. On a series of legendary recordings begun in 1925 with groups known as the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, he overthrew the ensemble ethos of New Orleans by blowing and improvising the hottest solos ever. These records, considered the most historically significant in jazz, show Armstrong at his most wildly inventive. On such songs as "Potato Head Blues" and "Wild Man Blues" he broke free of jazz conventions, letting loose a panoply of new melodies and rhythmic ideas. But his genius wasn't only at creating breathtakingly elaborate riffs. There was logic and strength and structure behind his every flight. On one song, "Heebie Jeebies," recorded in 1926, Armstrong scats for the first time on record, giving to voice the same improvisational space enjoyed by a musical instrument.
None of this is to say that Armstrong was the only one making the solo supreme. Such jazz greats as cornetist Bix Biederbecke, clarinetists Frank Teschemacher and Pee Wee Russell, and trombonist Jack Teagarden were also working magic in Chicago at the same time. But Armstrong's influence on swing would prove the most decisive. Every solo you'll ever hear, on anything from Benny Goodman to Count Basie to Louis Jordan, owes a debt to the man that music writer Albert Murray has called the Prometheus of jazz.
Once the solo had come into its own, all that needed to happen was for it to find a home. The final step in the birth of swing was the creation of the big band.
The Bigger, Better Band
Fletcher Henderson, the man credited with putting together the first swing big band, got his first gig in 1923 at a spot in New York called the Club Alabam, and within a year he had hired Armstrong. While the New Orleans trumpeter wasn't a favorite of Henderson's, Armstrong and his already magnificent solo skills had a profound effect on others in the band, most notably saxophonist Coleman Hawkins (who would turn the then-lowly sax into a star player) and arranger Don Redman. Where Redman excelled was in adapting the call-and-response of jazz to a full orchestra. He would set entire sections against each other, a regiment of reeds giving a shout-out and a platoon of brass answering back. The band music became richer, denser, and more textured, a sea of sound that was no mere backdrop for the new hot solo. Redman, living in New York, was also attuned to the popular music of the Big Apple, bringing in more influences from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley than had previously been present in jazz. (However, it should be noted that recent scholarship is challenging Henderson's primacy in this area. Richard Sudhalter in his 1999 book Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz 1915-1945 argues that the Henderson band was only one of a number of bands effecting these changes during the twenties. White bands such as those of Jean Goldkette, which included Bix Biederbecke as a soloist, and Ben Pollack, which had Benny Goodman, were evolving in similar ways.)
Whoever deserves the most honor, one thing is clear: the melding of the improvised solo with the richly orchestrated dance band was the key to making swing happen. And not only did the sound surpass anything that had come before it but also the new swing bands began to be seen as a representation of the country's political ideals. Hot soloists within big bands: here was an artistic model for individual freedom of expression within the context of a larger group. As Goodman once said, swing "has the spirit of American democracy in it."
The Swing of Harlem
While this late-twenties jazz sounded like what we now recognize as swing, it still wasn't called swing. It was jazz, plain and simple. In fact, the swing era itself had yet to be ushered in. During the early thirties, before swing reached its mass mainstream level, it flourished in smaller pockets around the country while the so-called sweeter and less musically challenging bands like those of Guy Lombardo and Wayne King were tops nationwide. Important bands keeping the flame of hot jazz alive included the Earl Hines Orchestra in Chicago; the Casa Loma Orchestra, a collective of white musicians that built a following on college campuses; and Kansas City's Bennie Moten band (Count Basie's early home), which recorded the seminal tune "Moten Swing" in 1932.
But the hardest-swinging jazz bands were concentrated in one place above all others. Harlem at this time was a hothouse of creative activity and musical one-upmanship. Chick Webb held court at the Savoy, where he first introduced Ella Fitzgerald to the world as a professional singer. His competition included the outrageous Cab Calloway and the powerful ensembles of Jimmie Lunceford and McKinney's Cotton Pickers, featuring the arrangements of Don Redman. In tandem with the intellectual and literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, jazz in Harlem was evolving fast and furiously. This was where the showy piano playing known as Harlem stride had flowered in the early twenties, with innovators such as James P. Johnson and the larger-than-life Fats Waller creating a bridge from the more jagged ragtime piano into the more fluid keyboard style of swing. It was a place of rent parties (music shindigs held near the end of the month to help pay the rent), all-night cutting contests (in which musicians would go at it for hours trying to top each other), and the achievement of a new level of sophistication both in the music and in the presentation of jazz.
No one put jazz in a tuxedo, both literally and figuratively, quite like Duke Ellington. Urbane, brilliant, the poet laureate of swing, Ellington rose to prominence after securing a long-term gig at the segregated Cotton Club in 1927. "Black people entertained at the Cotton Club, but you could not go into the Cotton Club. It was in the heart of Harlem and we couldn't go in," says Lindy Hop pioneer Norma Miller. At the club, however, Ellington was one part of an amazing floor show, complete with tap dancing, burlesque-style dancing (one move was called the Harlem River Quiver), and vaudeville numbers. Ellington's exotic music-known as "jungle music" at the time-fit perfectly into the high-energy environment. But in addition to honing his skills as a great entertainer, Ellington was also creating some of his most enduring classics, songs like "Creole Love Call," "Black and Tan Fantasy," "Mood Indigo," "Sophisticated Lady," "Solitude," and "In a Sentimental Mood," which reached the soul through new and unexpected ways. In these early days, Ellington began creating jazz that could be appreciated as high art. Oh, and he also created a little number during this period called "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." The movement never had an anthem that said it so well.
The Birth of the Lindy Hop
In addition to the Cotton Club, Harlem in the early thirties was literally crawling with raging night spots. There was the Apollo, with its hard-fought amateur contests; Minton's, an after-hours joint; and Connie's Inn, where Waller first staged his famous Hot Chocolates show featuring the song "Ain't Misbehavin'." But no place compared to the one and only Savoy Ballroom. What was said of New York City was doubly true at the Savoy: if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere.
Opened on March 12, 1926, and situated just a block from the Cotton Club, the Savoy will go down in history for making the Lindy Hop the most famous, cherished, wildest, and enjoyable dance in America. Those who were there at the time still get deliriously misty remembering it. What was the Savoy like? Enormous and elegant, it took up an entire city block on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets in Harlem. There were two bandstands set up, so when the house band took a break, a visiting orchestra was ready to start blowing-that way the dancing never let up. Decorated in gold and blue with multicolored spotlights, it had an enormous 50-by-250-foot hardwood dance floor that had to be replaced every three years because of sheer wear and tear. Significantly, it was also perhaps the first integrated dance hall in the country. "The Savoy was practically half white and half black," recalls premier Savoy Lindy Hopper Frankie Manning. "The only thing they wanted to do at the Savoy was dance. They didn't care what color you were, all they wanted to know was, 'Can you dance?'"
The Lindy, of course, wasn't discovered at the Savoy. It was danced throughout Harlem in the twenties and soon began spreading around the country-despite overwrought concerns that the dance was too sexual. But fueled by the sounds of the Savoy's fast and furious Chick Webb band, the dancers there engaged in all-out competitions that pushed the Lindy to ever greater heights of creativity and energy. The dance developed out of several other popular dances, such as the Charleston, the two-step, and the Texas Tommy. The Lindy's innovation, however, was the swingout, or breakaway, in which dance partners would temporarily drop arm contact and create their own moves. The breakaway gave the dancers as much room to improvise as the musicians now had. No other previous dance had provided such space for personal expression. And early Lindy fanatics at the Savoy took the new style and ran with it. Led by such dancers as Shorty George Snowden, Big Bea, Leroy "Stretch" Jones, Little Bea, and George "Twistmouth" Ganaway, they began both refining and pushing the limits of the Lindy. The five-foot two-inch Snowden invented a bent-knee, low-to-the-ground move that became so famous that Count Basie immortalized it in the song "Shorty George." Jones created the twist steps for followers as the alternative to the Lindy's back step. And the dance began to take on its characteristic African-American style. Loose in the legs and knees, the Lindy Hoppers flowed across the floor with an unstoppable horizontal momentum.
It was also at the Savoy that the dance was christened, in fittingly improvised fashion. Not long after Charles Lindbergh completed his inspiring solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927-making the once formidable distance seem just a hop over the ocean in the popular imagination-a reporter at the ballroom asked Snowden what he was doing. Not having a name for the dance yet, Snowden made one up, dubbing it "the Lindy Hop." One reason the name stuck was that a new generation of dancers was on the rise. This younger group, soon to be dubbed Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, would take their brand of Lindy out of the Savoy and around the world.
The youngsters, who took over as the club's premier dancers in the early thirties, drew their inspiration, and a fair share of moves, from the older innovators. "We copied what we saw them do," recalls Norma Miller, who started her dancing career at the Savoy. Miller was one of a group, reaching eighty people at its peak, who were scouted, hand-picked and pushed to excel by Herbert White, known as Whitey for the streak in his hair. A former bouncer at the Savoy, White started choosing the best dancers he saw on the floor-the pros congregated in a part of the club called the Cat's Corner-and forming them into a troupe. Today the names of these swing-dance pioneers-Frankie Manning, Willamae and Billy Ricker, Naomi Wallace, Leon James, Al Minns, and Norma Miller, among others-are repeated from dancer to dancer with awed reverence. But back then, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers were just a bunch of kids out to make their names, have a ball, and simply see what they had in 'em. "Those were the beginning days of the Lindy Hop, everything that was created was new. There were no rules. We made it up. The only rule was: If it looks good, do it. If it don't, throw it out," says Manning. (For the story of Manning's rediscovery by swing revivalists, see chapter 2.)
Back in the thirties, Manning was the chief choreographer of the group, and the smoothest cat at the Savoy. "When he's just standing still, Frankie is swinging. He doesn't have to do one thing with his muscles and you know he's feeling it," says jazz singer Ann Hampton Callaway, star of the new musical The Original Broadway Swing. But Frankie's contribution involved much more than just standing around. He was the first to choreograph ensemble Lindy numbers. And sometime around 1936 he made his lasting mark on the dance, creating the aerial, the move that turned the Lindy Hop into a showstopper. Never before had anyone thought to throw his partner in the air, twirl her around, and catch her again. And on top of that do it all in time to the music as a true dance step. "The idea came to me because of a famous step that Shorty Snowden and his partner Big Bea used to do," recalls Manning. "Now, she was six feet tall and she would take Shorty on her back and walk off the stage, and it always tore the house up. So I got the idea that I wanted to make a step out of it, not just a lift. I went to my partner Frieda Washington and told her. And she said, 'I ain't picking you up on my back. Forget that!' And I said, 'That's not what I want. What I want to do is pick you up on my back, and not just for you to lay there, but to roll over and come down in front of me. We'll do it to the music. Just picture this: something you've never seen, you don't know how to do, your partner doesn't know how to do it either.' She said, 'Yeah, OK.'"
With Manning leading the way, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers brought the dance and their wildly distinctive way of doing it to an ever expanding and thoroughly wowed public. White, according to Norma Miller, "wanted to be the man to make the Lindy Hop a famous and accepted art form." The first step on the road to the Lindy's greatness began in 1935 when White entered his dancers in New York's first annual Harvest Moon Championship, a city-wide competition that put the Lindy side by side with such traditional dances as the fox trot, rhumba, waltz, and tango. "It was the biggest dance contest ever held in America and of course it was important to us," wrote Miller in her memoir, Swingin' at the Savoy. "It was the first time the Lindy Hop was in a dance competition. It was the only black entry in the contest and we were very proud of that." The Savoy dancers took first, second, and third prizes in the Lindy section. "When we got up on the dance floor, we kicked ass and it became such a popular dance it couldn't be denied," recalled Miller. From there, Whitey's troupe traveled around the world, touring Europe and South America, performing at the New York World's Fair and on Broadway, at the Cotton Club and the Moulin Rouge. They even met the queen of England. Most important, they were in movies, an important record of the dance that would live to inspire a new generation of dancers in the eighties and nineties. Even to this day, people say that the troupe's performance in the film Hellzapoppin' has never been topped.
In 1943 the Lindy was honored by its own cover story in Life magazine, which called it "a true national folk dance." But if Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, and the rest of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers had ever been given the full acknowledgment they deserve for helping make that happen, they'd be as famous today as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Unfortunately, at the spot where the Savoy once stood (it closed in 1958), there's not even a plaque mentioning the wellspring of dancing genius that was unleashed there.
The Arrival of the Swing Era
While you wouldn't know it from all the activity in Harlem in the early thirties, jazz enthusiasts at the time were terribly worried that the music was in decline. With the Depression gripping the nation, record sales fell from precrash totals of 104 million a year to just 6 million 78s sold in 1932. According to David Erenberg's incisive Swingin' the Dream, sales of record players plummeted 90 percent after 1929. The cash-strapped public also began to feel that the music itself was perhaps too decadent during such a period of nationwide want. As one critic wrote at the time, "The public was in no mood for the reckless promptings of jazz." In late 1934 Fletcher Henderson went bankrupt. Saxophonist Sidney Bechet opened a dry-cleaning establishment to help ride out the dry spell. It was sweet crooners like Bing Crosby who ruled the airwaves.
As the country's economic prospects began to rise under the policies of the New Deal, though, the stage was set for swing's breakthrough into the mainstream of America. And the man who would bring it to mass popularity was Benny Goodman.
In some ways, Goodman was an unlikely man for the role. He wasn't a showman. He looked like a square. As portrayed in The Benny Goodman Story by Steve Allen, he was always fumbling for words. But even before his rise to fame, Goodman played the clarinet with a passionate excitement and clear brightness that marked him as a one-of-a-kind talent. Born to a poor Jewish family in Chicago, and developing an early love of jazz, Goodman toured with the prominent Ben Pollack band during the late 1920s. But despite some early success after moving to New York, by 1933 he was reduced to one low-paying radio gig. According to Erenberg, Goodman no longer saw a "future for jazz and contemplated forming a society orchestra." What drew Goodman back to playing real jazz? Credit the influence of his good friend and supporter John Hammond, an Upper East Side political leftist who was the most influential behind-the-scenes man in swing. In addition to promoting the careers of Count Basie, Billie Holiday, saxophonist Benny Carter, and Lionel Hampton, among others, Hammond pushed Goodman to work with black musicians and singers, a step that helped reinvigorate the clarinetist. Beginning in 1933 Goodman recorded with Bessie Smith (it was her last studio session), Holiday (it was her first), and pianist Teddy Wilson, who would soon join Goodman's path-breaking trio, the first high-profile integrated group in jazz. Said Goodman singer Helen Ward of these early years: "They were playing a brand of music nobody else had attempted with a white band at that time."
Goodman's break came when he was hired in 1934 to be one of three house bands on the NBC Saturday-night radio show Let's Dance. The steady paycheck allowed him to purchase scores of hot arrangements by Fletcher Henderson; the show exposed him to a nationwide audience. While the radio program was heard late at night on the East Coast, listeners in California heard Goodman's band swinging like crazy during peak evening hours. But Goodman himself wasn't aware of this and, in fact, didn't see his fortunes improving much. Let's Dance was canceled after just one season. Goodman then set out on a national tour that was at first nowhere near a smash. At a gig in Michigan, only thirty people showed up. In Denver the manager of the local ballroom threatened to cancel their contract after the first night.
When the Benny Goodman Orchestra arrived in California, however, it was a different story. On August 21, 1935, Goodman and his exemplary sidemen, including drummer Gene Krupa and trumpeter Bunny Berrigan, wrote the book on overnight success. Opening at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, the band started by playing its safer, sweet material. When that failed to excite the crowd, Goodman decided, as he later wrote in his autobiography, The Kingdom of Swing, "The hell with it, if we're going to sink we may as well go down swinging." The band pulled out its most charged Harlem-style arrangements and let themselves go, improvising and blowing with a passion. The dancers, many of whom had been turned on to hotter swing music by listening to the Let's Dance show, went wild beyond expectation. (Californians would later be the ones responsible for reviving swing too-see the next chapter.) The next day, the engagement at the Palomar was the talk of the music world. The entertainment paper Variety soon began a column called "Swing Stuff." And Goodman started calling his orchestra a swing band. At the tender age of twenty-six, Goodman could rightfully lay claim to the title the King of Swing.
The Glory Days
Goodman's triumph in California was the catalyst for a revolution in music and dance in America. During the late thirties, hundreds of new swing bands formed all across the country. In response to the demand, at least five of Goodman's own sidemen-Krupa, Berrigan, Wilson, Lionel Hampton, and Harry James-were able to go out and start their own orchestras. Established bands such as those led by Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Jimmie Lunceford, and Charlie Barnet rode the groundswell of enthusiasm, while Bing's brother Bob Crosby; Woody Herman, with his hit song "Woodchopper's Ball"; and Artie Shaw, with "Begin the Beguine," became household names. Swing fans eagerly awaited each issue of Downbeat and Metronome magazines to see how their favorite band rated in the latest readers poll, or which star soloist had been snatched up by another band. As pianist Ralph Burns put it, "If you were a jazz musician playing with Woody Herman, you were almost like a movie star." Ellington, as quoted in David W. Stowe's Swing Changes, noticed a huge increase in attention from fans. "Audiences, today, invariably crowd around the bandstand, eager to grasp every solo note and orchestral trick." Enormous new ballrooms were constructed across the country-breathtaking dance palaces like the Hollywood Palladium that could hold thousands of couples. The bandleaders even had the audacity to start a practice known as swinging the classics. Tommy Dorsey jazzed up Rimsky-Korsakov's "Song of India," while Maxine Sullivan had a hit with a tweaked version of the Scottish folk tune "Loch Lomond." Opponents argued that Ravel, Strauss, Mozart, and Debussy were rolling in their graves from receiving similar treatment.
Swing was boffo business. According to Stowe, the recording industry, which had grossed just $2.5 million in 1932, was hauling in $36 million by 1939. Bands fought for lucrative hotel contracts, a slice of the exploding jukebox market, the attention of bookers who controlled national tours, and commercially sponsored radio programs. The relatively new radio business, in fact, was one of the most important factors in promoting swing. Fans would listen to live recordings from such famous ballrooms as the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York and the Meadowbrook Club in New Jersey. Even Hollywood fell hard for swing, producing scores of movies featuring bandleaders (see "Swing on Film" in the appendix for a list of great swing flicks). How popular was swing? One Saturday in March 1937, the Goodman orchestra played at 8:30 a.m. before the showing of a movie at the Paramount Theater in New York. According to awestruck accounts, hundreds of kids showed up before sunrise to wait in line. Three thousand swingers in all turned out, many of them jumping out of their seats and dancing in the aisles during the performance. Suddenly jazz was being played everywhere, from the big city to the small town, all under the guise of a new name, swing. As blues popularizer W. C. Handy, writer of "St. Louis Blues," once said: "Swing is the latest term for ragtime, jazz, and blues. You white folks just have a new word for our old-fashioned hot music."
More than just popular music, swing became an entire lifestyle. Indeed, it was considered the first real youth culture in American entertainment, the beginning of a series of musical uprisings that would continue from rock in the fifties through grunge in the nineties. "It was like when the Beatles came along. The kids were listening to what they considered their music and theirs alone," says trumpeter Tommy Smith, who played with bandleader Ray Anthony. Swing had its own slang, popularized by Calloway in his Hepster's Dictionary, and its own styles of dress-just think of the bobby-soxers and zoot-suiters. (For more on swing's fashion and lingo, see chapter 6.) What really propelled swing, however, was jitterbugging, the new name that the Lindy Hop acquired as it was embraced by an increasing number of white dancers. Back in the thirties, the jitterbug could scare the establishment just as much as Elvis's pelvis did two decades later. Newspaper accounts used words such as frenzy, pandemonium, and ecstasy to describe the phenomenon. And one psychologist ominously warned of the "dangerously hypnotic influence of swing, cunningly devised to a tempo faster than seventy-two bars to the minute-faster than the human pulse." In 1938 the swing era even had its own Woodstock, a swing jamboree in Chicago featuring Jimmy Dorsey and Earl Hines that drew 100,000 fans. It was described by the Chicago Daily Times as "the most hysterical orgy of joyous emotions by multitudes ever witnessed on the American continent." But let the observers make their pronouncements. For the dancers themselves, there was an unparalleled connection being made between themselves and their fave bands. "Really, as a musician you did it as much for the dancing as you did for the music," said Count Basie singer Joe Williams in Norma Miller's Swingin' at the Savoy. "All of that was together at one time, it was one great communication . . .; the dancers inspired the musicians and vice versa."
Swing also began to be taken much more seriously as an art form. In the twenties Paul Whiteman, the leader of one of the most popular dance bands, attempted to put jazz on the same level as European classical music, labeling his endeavor "symphonic jazz." Yet even in the thirties, jazz was considered a more lowly form of music. "In those days people thought if you were playing jazz, you were stepping down," Artie Shaw told writer Fred Hall in Dialogues in Swing. But the pioneers of swing demanded to be accepted on their own terms. And the pinnacle of this push occurred on January 16, 1938, when Goodman's orchestra made a landmark appearance at Carnegie Hall. On that historic night, tension was high. The band members were a bit overawed by the grand symphony space and got off to a tepid start. But soon they began to play in the same way they would let loose in the most informal dance hall. Drummer Gene Krupa beat the drums like a dervish, his hair flying, sweat dripping. Members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras made guest appearances. And Goodman's integrated quartet played the most well-received numbers of the night, with Lionel Hampton's rhythmic masterpieces on the vibraphones thrilling the crowd. By the time the band went into its closing number, "Sing, Sing, Sing," the crowd was crying out and applauding in a state of near delirium. It was an epochal success. "Carnegie Hall was always known as the holy of the holiest," recalls Hampton. "No jazz had ever come near there."
That concert was only the first half of what was easily the most magical night ever witnessed in swing. As soon as the Carnegie Hall show ended, members of the Goodman band raced uptown to Harlem to catch another singular event. Count Basie, the newcomer from Kansas City, was taking on Chick Webb, the king of the Savoy, in a battle of the bands. Basie's sound represented a new approach to swing. Injecting the blues of the Southwest into the big band format and perfecting a propulsive four-beats-to-the-bar rhythm that moved the music along like never before, Basie represented a challenge to the sounds of Harlem. Compared with the complex arranagements of bands like Webb's, Basie's songs were stripped to their essential elements, touching the simple beating heart as much as the head. The crowd-which included Ellington; vibraphonist Red Norvo and his wife, singer Mildred Bailey; and Goodman-was relishing the face-off. If that wasn't enough, Ella Fitzgerald, Webb's singer, and Billie Holiday, Basie's vocalist, also squared off against each other that night. According to electrified accounts of the evening, the bands blew so hard at each other, it seemed as if the walls of the Savoy were about to fall down. While battles of the bands weren't actually judged competitions, the audience would often clearly clap more for one orchestra than another. But the crowd's reactions to Webb and Basie were so close that the debate over who had triumphed lasted long after the night was over.
Despite these scenes of black and white musicians playing and socializing together at the Savoy and Carnegie Hall, there were still serious inequities that even the most famous African-American bandleaders suffered because of their color. White bands enjoyed a number of advantages, getting lucrative hotel bookings and radio shows that few black bands could nail down. If a white group and a black group recorded the same song, as with Goodman's and Basie's versions of "One O'Clock Jump," the white band's version stood a much greater chance of being a hit. And without long-term hotel contracts, black bands were forced to take endless tours made up mostly of one-night gigs. Traveling, especially in the South, was often a series of painful humiliations and difficulties. Black musicians couldn't stay at most hotels, even the ones at which they were performing. In some cities they sometimes couldn't even find a restaurant that would serve them. Cab Calloway was beaten in Kansas City when he tried to enter the Pla-Mor Ballroom, where his friend Lionel Hampton was playing. In another unconscionable incident, a theater manager in Detroit forced Billie Holiday to wear greasepaint onstage during an appearance of the Count Basie Orchestra. His reason? He worried that the light-skinned Holiday might look white under the stage lighting and that the audience would be offended. As Holiday once said about the racism she encountered as an entertainer, "You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation."
In other ways, however, the swing movement was a model of pluralism and racial equality. Many bands, arguing that they wanted to play the best music possible, fought for integration. In addition to Goodman's quartet, other breakthroughs included white bandleader Artie Shaw's hiring of Billie Holiday, and black trumpeter Roy Eldridge's addition to Gene Krupa's orchestra. A number of black bands, including those of Lucky Millinder and Earl Hines, began to include white members as well. "The arts led the way in breaking down the discrimination against our people," says Norma Miller. "It was the arts that opened the door for black people to go through." The sentiment expressed at the time was that song (and also dance at places like the Savoy) was a common meeting ground. "Audiences don't draw color lines when they're listening to music," said Goodman pianist Teddy Wilson. (Women, on the other hand, were pointedly not given equal status in the swing world. While most bands had female singers, few orchestras, white or black, would consider hiring anything but male instrumentalists.)
Was it this newfound harmony that fueled the success of swing? The late thirties, a moment when cross-fertilization between black and white musicians was at its greatest peak, is often considered the high point of the swing era. Duke Ellington was moving into a period of enormously inspired activity. Spurred by the arrival of composer Billy Strayhorn, bassist Jimmy Blanton, and saxophonist Ben Webster to the band, Ellington began creating such classics as "Take the 'A' Train" and "Cotton Tail." The integrated nightclub Café Society opened in 1938 in Greenwich Village. The boogie-woogie piano style of Kansas City caught on as a national craze. From Basie to Goodman, from Lunceford to Barnet, swing brought together blacks and whites as never before. It was a golden age in American music. As James Lincoln Collier wrote in his biography, Benny Goodman and the Swing Era, "Swing was better-more sophisticated, more genuinely musical-than virtually any popular music before or since." No wonder that today, when pop music is dumbed down to such desultory levels, the swing era is drawing us back.
The Rise and Fall of Swing
During World War II, swing became even more popular than ever, but did it still really swing? That's the question that arises with the arrival of Glenn Miller in jazz. Miller was the most famous bandleader of the early forties. On a mainstream level, his songs, including "In the Mood" and "Pennsylvania 6-5000," are still the most well-remembered tunes of the swing era. But Miller's rise to prominence signaled a new development in swing. His music, more catchy than ambitious, got further and further away from its roots in jazz and its ties to African-Americans. While swing's lyrics had previously reflected the urban experience, Miller's subject matter now tended toward nostalgic images of small-town America. The "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" didn't stop in Harlem.
As Americans fought the war, however, Miller's music took on a deep meaning for both civilians and soldiers. In 1942 Miller gave up his money-making orchestra, enlisted in the army, and started his own military band. A model patriot, he boosted morale playing for the troops throughout Europe. Swing, in general, began to be seen as a representation of the values that America was defending. As President Franklin Roosevelt said at the time, music could "inspire a fervor for the spiritual values in our way of life and . . . strengthen democracy." Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth (both of whom married bandleaders, Harry James and Artie Shaw, respectively) and swing singer Lena Horne became the most popular pinups. The Andrews Sisters had a hit with "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." After the Nazis labeled jazz "nigger-jew" music, swing (as later depicted in the movie Swing Kids) became an anti-Fascist symbol. During the war, as American soldiers moved into England, they turned Europeans on to the music as never before. However, the war years also added a new conservatism to swing. The boys overseas generally wanted to hear the songs that they already knew from home, not new tunes. When Miller died in an airplane crash in 1944, he was justly hailed as a hero. But many saw his music as the harbinger of things to come. "I think that band was like the beginning of the end. It was a mechanized version of what they called jazz music," said Artie Shaw in Dialogues in Swing.
Soon after the end of the war, and seemingly out of nowhere, the swing business started to collapse. By late 1946 Woody Herman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Carter, and Les Brown had all disbanded their orchestras. Soon after, Cab Calloway, Charlie Barnet, and Artie Shaw called it quits too. The Basie band held on until 1950. But an era had clearly passed. Trumpeter Johnny Coppola recalls playing a late-forties date with bandleader Stan Kenton in Oakland. "The crowds weren't there," he says. "Kenton was in shock. He looked around and said, 'Where is everybody?' They were home watching TV."
Actually, television was just one of many reasons that the big bands fell by the wayside. A 30 percent cabaret tax instituted in 1944 raised the price of going out. GIs returning from the war, once the young fans of swing, were older and looking to start families. The war effort had also put a major strain on the bands. They were hampered from touring by the rationing of gasoline and rubber, while losing huge numbers of musicians to conscription. "The war took all the men out of there," says Norma Miller. The manufacture of jukeboxes was temporarily stopped, and the production of records was cut 30 percent. Meanwhile, a standoff between the American Federation of Musicians union and the music industry, which created a ban on recordings by orchestras, crippled swing as well. Begun in late 1942, the union strike lasted more than a year. While some big bands held on after the war, their cultural dominance had ended.
Despite the effect of all these social changes, however, music was simply evolving on its own, the way it always does, decade after decade. In jazz, in the forties, a New Orleans Dixieland revival took off. This interest in earlier jazz was itself a roots revival, reflecting a feeling that swing had become empty and inauthentic. At the same time, bop, many of whose proponents had been swing band players (the foremost being Dizzy Gillespie), ushered in an exciting new sound that, unfortunately, with its emphasis on dissonance and its relative lack of melody, wasn't danceable. "When I came out of the army we got a gig working with Dizzy Gillespie's band and afterward I said, 'Dizzy what is this stuff? What the f--- is that?' I did not understand that music at all. So this is one thing that killed swing," recalls Frankie Manning.
Just as jazz and dance split apart, so did jazz and popular music. Vocalists, not orchestras, began to dominate the charts. Previously, during the height of the big band era, singers had been no more important than musicians. Often they felt like mere accessories. "The bandleader never wanted to be outshone by anybody. So most of the male vocalists had to stand there, ramrod stiff, sing a chorus, go sit down, get up, sing the last chorus, and sit down again," recalls Frankie Laine, one of the biggest new solo singers of the late forties and early fifties. Peggy Lee, Patti Page, Nat King Cole, and others benefited from the change, but the one man to kick it all off was Frank Sinatra. After quitting Tommy Dorsey's band and creating a sensation at New York's Paramount Theater in the early forties, Sinatra made the momentous decision to strike out on his own. "One could see the writing on the wall: the focus now was going to be on an individual instead of on 16 men," said jazz singer Mel Tormé in Dialogues in Swing. In a huge reversal, the band was now mere backup to the singer. While many of these singers still performed music that swung, they were more likely to be doing it at a lounge than in a dance hall. Jazz still enjoyed periods of popular upswing-among the most famous were Ellington's 1956 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival and Ella Fitzgerald's songbook recordings. A handful of bands, such as those of Count Basie and Les Brown, enjoyed success too. But according to David W. Stowe's Swing Changes, "None of these ensembles . . . sought to connect with the dancers swing had reached."
While the big bands were effectively over, however, swing wasn't totally in eclipse. Driven by the influence of Count Basie's fast-moving blues sound, a new musical form grew out of swing. You could catch a glimpse of it in 1942 when Illinois Jacquet honked and wailed his way through his sax solo on the Lionel Hampton tune "Flying Home." By the end of the forties, it even had its own name, jump blues, a powerful, hard-rocking mix of jazz arrangements and solos with the deep soul of the blues. The saxes blasted and the horns wailed like never before. The singers shouted the lyrics, and a strong backbeat pushed the music. Jump blues was firmly rooted in swing. Jump blues' most famous artist, Louis Jordan, who sold millions of records after the war, had been a saxophonist with Chick Webb. The trumpeter Louis Prima had written "Sing, Sing, Sing" for Goodman. And singer Wynonie Harris had performed for Lucky Millinder's swing band. "Whether you are stompin' or you're jumpin' or you're swingin' . . ., you're talking about the same type of beat, the same type of groove, and the same type of tempo," says Albert Murray in the documentary Bluesland. But Jordan-whose smash hits included "Caldonia" and "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie"-led the way in paring down the size of the orchestras, finding a big sound with his new seven-piece combo.
Jordan was a decisive catalyst in the creation of both rock 'n' roll and R&B. Back in the day, promoters began using the terms swing and rock fairly interchangeably to describe jump blues bands like Jordan's. Recalls Claude Trenier, leader of the jump band the Treniers, who sang with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra: "We went to the Blue Note in Chicago and the owner said what kind of music was that and we said we're just having fun. It's swinging. But he put on the marquee 'The rock and rollin' Treniers.' They just changed the name." Once the rock era exploded in the mid-fifties, Jordan's influence was still pervasive. Rock legend Chuck Berry has said, "I identify myself with Louis Jordan more than any other artist." "He was everything," James Brown once said, as quoted in John Chilton's Jordan biography Let the Good Times Roll. And while rocker Bill Haley never acknowledged Jordan's influence on his music, Jordan himself claimed, "When Bill Haley came along in 1953 he was doing the same shuffle boogie I was." Indeed, in the last few years there's been a major reevaluation of rock's pioneers afoot. It's clear that as much as Haley and even Elvis were rocking, they were swinging too. Adds bandleader Bill Elliott, "What people forget is that all through the fifties, even though there was rock and roll, the dancing was still essentially swing dancing." By now, everyone knows the story of how white musicians and record labels repackaged black R&B and created rock in the fifties. But it's possible to trace a line from rock back to R&B and even further back to swing. And that's exactly the path that today's neoswingers took to find their musical roots.
Copyright (c) 1999 by Degen Pener"
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