Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

Swing and big bands (1930–1945)

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5. Swing and big bands (1930–1945).

If, in his 1924 Aeolian Hall concert, Paul Whiteman attempted to predict what type of jazz would prevail in the years to come, his crystal ball was cracked. It was not his polite and decorous symphonic jazz that captured the public imagination but rather the rhythmically charged hot jazz of black bands like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, McKinney's Cotton Pickers and Bennie Moten, and of white bands like the Casa Loma orchestra, that set the tempo for developments in the 1930s and 40s. Instead of displaying the hefty girth of Whiteman's 20-piece orchestra, these ensembles were sleeker, each numbering roughly a dozen players around 1930, usually comprising three trumpets, two trombones, three reeds (saxophone doubling on clarinet) and four in the rhythm section. By the early 1930s the tuba had been replaced by a string bass and the banjo by a guitar, yielding a leaner sound overall. Arrangers for these bands included Benny Carter, John Nesbitt, Eddie Durham, Don Redman, Horace and Fletcher Henderson and Gene Gifford, who discovered ways to translate the freedom and flexibility of improvising soloists into the parts they wrote. Sometimes they played the reeds off against the brass as in the final ‘shout’ chorus of Fletcher Henderson's New King Porter Stomp (1932, OK.), based on an antiphonal call-and-response figure reaching back to older black American musical forms like the work song and spiritual. They devised short repeated phrases (riffs) that could accompany solos or serve a primary melodic function, as in Casa Loma Stomp (1930, OK.) by the Casa Loma orchestra and the last chorus of Moten Swing (1932, Vic.) by the Bennie Moten orchestra. They lightened textures by cutting down on doubled parts and streamlining harmonies. Such features gave large-ensemble jazz speed and grace and made the rhythm buoyant, propulsive and infectious. The term for this rhythmic quality – borrowed from the vocabulary of black musicians – was Swing, and it soon became a noun synonymous with jazz and a rallying cry for a new generation of listeners, dancers and critics.

A figure who played a major role in popularizing swing in the mid-1930s was Benny Goodman. Like Whiteman earlier and Elvis Presley a few decades later, Goodman was a white musician who could successfully mediate between a black American musical tradition and the large base of white listeners making up the majority population in the USA. Wearing glasses and conservative suits – ‘looking like a high school science teacher’, according to one observer (Stowe, E1994, p.45) – Goodman appeared to be an ordinary, respectable white American. Musically he was anything but ordinary: a virtuoso clarinettist, a skilled improviser who could solo ‘hot’ on up tempo numbers and ‘sweet’ on ballads, and a disciplined bandleader who demanded excellence from his players. With these combined personal and musical attributes, he built a following through radio network programs (‘Let's Dance’, 1934–5 and ‘The Camel Caravan’, 1936–9), recordings made for the Victor label beginning in 1935 and live performances nationwide. Jazz historians have often used the date of one of these appearances (21 August 1935, when his orchestra broadcast live from the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles) to mark the beginning of the swing era, a period stretching into the mid-to-late 1940s when the large-ensemble jazz purveyed by Goodman and many other bandleaders reigned as the popular music of choice. Significantly, the pieces that galvanized listeners most during the Palomar performance were hot jazz numbers from Goodman's repertory that had been arranged by a black American musician, Fletcher Henderson.

In some ways Goodman practised a racial politics more inclusive than that of his predecessors, though he was not the first prominent white bandleader to perform music written by black Americans. (Paul Whiteman, for example, had commissioned arrangements from William Grant Still in the late 1920s.) Besides featuring the work of such black arrangers as Fletcher and Horace Henderson, Jimmy Mundy, Edgar Sampson and Mary Lou Williams, Goodman formed small groups that brought white musicians together on the bandstand and in the recording studio with such notable black players as Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian and Cootie Williams. During Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert (16 January 1938), members of his band jammed onstage with musicians from Count Basie's orchestra. Colour lines were also crossed when black musicians were hired as featured soloists with white bands, such as Billie Holiday with Artie Shaw (1938) and Roy Eldridge with Gene Krupa (1941–3). Despite these examples of integration, black musicians confronted widespread segregation and discrimination throughout the swing era. While they profited economically from the vogue for swing, an idiom they had largely invented in the late 1920s and early 30s, black musicians were unable to realize the level of commercial success and media visibility enjoyed by the bands of Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Harry James and Artie Shaw.

In the guise of swing, jazz became domesticated in the 1930s. Earlier, jazz had been associated with gin mills and smoky cabarets, illegal substances (alcohol and drugs) and illicit sex. Swing generally enjoyed a more wholesome reputation, although some preached of the dangers it posed to the morals of young people. This exuberant, extroverted music, performed by well-dressed ensembles and their clean-cut leaders, entered middle-class households through everyday appliances like the living-room Victrola and the kitchen radio. It reached a wider populace as musicians transported it from large urban centres into small towns and rural areas. Criss-crossing North America by bus, car and train, big bands played single night engagements in dance halls, ballrooms, theatres, hotels, night clubs, country clubs, military bases and outdoor pavilions. They attracted hordes of teenagers who came to hear the popular songs of the day and dance the jitterbug, lindy hop and Susie Q. The strenuous touring schedule of big bands was far from glamorous. Nevertheless, musicians who played in these ensembles could symbolize achievement and prove inspirational, as the writer Ralph Ellison recalled from his early years growing up in Oklahoma City (H1986, p.220):

And then Ellington and the great orchestra came to town; came with their uniforms, their sophistication, their skills; their golden horns, their flights of controlled and disciplined fantasy; came with their art, their special sound; came with Ivie Anderson and Ethel Waters singing and dazzling the eye with their high-brown beauty and with the richness and bright feminine flair of their costumes, their promising manners. They were news from the great wide world, an example and a goal.

In less densely populated areas of the USA, bands might be based in one location but travel regularly within a circumscribed area covering two or more states. These so-called territory bands were especially active in the midwestern and south-central USA. Among the better-known leaders of black territory bands were Don Albert and Alphonso Trent (based in Dallas), Troy Floyd (San Antonio), Jesse Stone (Dallas and Kansas City), Walter Page (Oklahoma City) and Bennie Moten and Andy Kirk (Kansas City, Missouri). Though territory bands enjoyed modest financial success and made relatively few recordings (with the exception of Moten and Kirk), they provided black musicians with important professional opportunities and fused together the vocal expressivity of the blues with the rhythmic verve of dance music and the electric spontaneity of improvised solos and ensemble riffs.

These latter stylistic traits became hallmarks of the Kansas City-based orchestra led by Count Basie beginning in 1935. Basie had earlier worked the southwest territory circuit with Walter Page's Blue Devils (1928–9) and Bennie Moten (1929–35). Forming his own band after Moten died, he drew upon the local blues-drenched and riff-oriented ensemble style to create a dynamic version of swing that gained national exposure by the late 1930s. His orchestra featured a rhythm section renowned for their smoothly interlocking parts and relaxed teamwork, reed and brass sections capable of explosive accents and muscular phrasing, gifted improvising soloists such as the saxophonist Lester Young, the trumpeter Buck Clayton and the trombonist Dicky Wells, and the warmly expressive vocals of Helen Humes and Jimmy Rushing. The heat and excitement generated by the Basie band comes across especially on recordings of live radio broadcasts from this period, but can also be heard on such studio issues as Doggin' Around (1938, Decca), Jumpin' at the Woodside (1938, Decca) and Lady, be good (1936, Voc.).

The big bands of the swing era were entertaining for both listeners and dancers and instructive for the musicians who played with them. Formal education in jazz was scarce before the 1950s; in particular, racial discrimination often blocked access to music conservatories for black musicians. Working and travelling with big bands, however, young musicians learned about blending and balancing within an ensemble, constructing terse, shapely solos, setting background riffs and coordinating with the rhythm section; older musicians offered technical tips and help in interpreting written arrangements. Players also learned the non-musical values of presentation and appearance, managing finances and maintaining disciplined habits. These groups, then, represented both self-contained social units as well as systems of apprenticeship. Most of the leading jazz instrumentalists who emerged in the 1940s and 50s had spent time in big bands.

Big bands also provided a training and proving ground for vocalists. Ensembles usually carried with them at least one solo singer; some had both male and female singers as well as small vocal groups, and these expanded the timbral palette of big bands as arrangers used harmonized voices to deliver melody lines as well as supply background harmonies. (The Boswell sisters had begun exploring this vocal jazz territory in the early 1930s.) Solo singers added glamorous presence as well as musical variety. In 1929 Paul Whiteman became one of the first major bandleaders to feature singers regularly with his ensemble, such as the soloist Mildred Bailey and a vocal trio, the Rhythm Boys (Bing Crosby, Harry Barris and Al Rinker). The practice became standard in the 1930s and 40s, with the roster of distinguished big band vocalists including Ivie Anderson with Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb, Billie Holiday with Count Basie and Artie Shaw, Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman, Anita O'Day with Gene Krupa, Frank Sinatra with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, and Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine with Earl Hines. The exposure and experience these singers received from big bands helped them launch successful solo careers: performing each night with 15-piece orchestras, they absorbed important lessons about rhythm and phrasing and learned how to use limited space (a 32-bar vocal chorus inserted in the middle of a three-minute instrumental arrangement) to maximum advantage. Singers were also presented as featured soloists who received accompanying support from big bands; a number of Fitzgerald's recordings with Webb's band, such as A-tisket, A-tasket (1938, Decca), Bei Mir bist du Schön (1938, Decca) and Undecided (1939, Decca), placed her at the centre of attention, dominating the arrangements.

For those aspiring to compose and arrange in the jazz idiom, big bands offered a ready-made performing outlet. New pieces were constantly needed, whether original works or fresh arrangements of older ones; many bands hired staff arrangers to fill the demand. Commercially published arrangements were also widely used, but it was the specials (distinctive arrangements owned by individual ensembles and often not circulated) that helped give bands a unique sound, setting them apart from the competition. Duke Ellington's orchestra was identified by its signature muted brass sonorities, its thick polyphonic textures and its high level of dissonance, all of which characterized such compositions as East St Louis Toodle-oo (1926, Voc.), Ko-Ko (1940, Vic.), and Blue Serge (1941, Vic.). Showmanship, novelty vocals and razor-sharp precision contributed to the musical persona of Jimmie Lunceford's orchestra, as did the polished, economical arrangements of his staff arranger, Sy Oliver. Artie Shaw's big band was distinguished by the leader's clarinet as well as the employment of a string section, effectively used by William Grant Still in his arrangement for Shaw of Frenesi (1940, Vic.).

Some composers approached writing for big bands not just as a practical assignment but as an opportunity for musical experimentation. Eddie Sauter stretched conventional harmonic practice in arrangements for Red Norvo and Benny Goodman, raising dissonance to a level higher than was customary in popular dance music. In this he was joined by Don Redman in Chant of the Weed (1931, Bruns.), Coleman Hawkins in Queer Notions (1933, Voc.), Jimmie Lunceford in Stratosphere (1935, Decca) and Claude Thornhill in Portrait of a Guinea Farm (1941, OK.). Efforts to stretch the length of big-band compositions beyond the usual three-minute limit of 78 r.p.m. recordings were made by Duke Ellington in Reminiscing in Tempo (1935, Bruns.) and Diminuendo in Blue/Crescendo in Blue (1937, Bruns.). Some composers (Ellington, Sauter, Artie Shaw and Mel Powell) invoked the classical concerto tradition when they wrote vehicles for soloists with big bands, though they did so without directly borrowing formal procedures and compositional techniques. Another example of swing-classical hybridity surfaced in arrangements for big bands of pieces from the concert-music repertory, as in Still's version of Edward MacDowell's A Deserted Plantation (1940, Vic.) for Artie Shaw's band.

By the late 1930s there were signs that jazz was gaining respect as a musical tradition in the USA. It began to be heard more often in Carnegie Hall (where James Reese Europe's Clef Club Orchestra had performed several times before 1920), from Goodman's first concert there in 1938 to John Hammond's ‘Spirituals to Swing’ evenings in 1938–9 and Ellington's annual series of programmes there starting in 1943. Winthrop Sargeant's Jazz, Hot and Hybrid (1938) treated the music as a subject fit for musicological inquiry, analysing rhythmic, melodic and harmonic features in close detail. Interest in reconstructing jazz history was evident in Frederic Ramsey jr and Charles Edward Smith's Jazzmen (New York, 1939/R), which explored the origins of jazz in late 19th-century New Orleans and traced the later evolution of hot jazz and blues in Chicago and New York.

Serious interest in jazz also developed in Europe during the 1930s. Such visiting American musicians as Armstrong, Ellington and Hawkins gave jazz lovers in England and on the Continent first-hand opportunities to hear major artists whose careers they had been following on recordings. Some European writers sought to define what they called ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ jazz and to distinguish it from the more commercialized forms offered up by Tin Pan Alley songwriters and white ‘sweet’ orchestras. This was the critical agenda set by the Belgian writer Robert Goffin in Aux frontières du jazz (Paris, 1932) and the Frenchman Hugues Panassié in Le Jazz Hot (Paris, 1934) and The Real Jazz (New York, 1942/R). Panassié's passion for traditional and hot jazz led him to help found the Hot Club de France in 1932 and edit its magazine Jazz Hot for a number of years. Another member of this group of French enthusiasts was Charles Delaunay, who published one of the first comprehensive reference guides to jazz recordings, Hot Discography (Paris, 1936), and started the French jazz record label Swing. Also affiliated with this group was the Quintette du Hot Club de France, featuring the guitarist Django Reinhardt and the violinist Stephane Grappelli. The recordings of this ensemble provided a showcase for the nimble technique and inventive soloing of Reinhardt and Grappelli and established the quintet as one of the first major jazz groups to emerge from Europe.

The vogue for swing and jazz was widespread in the late 1930s. In Holland the Ramblers (a big band formed in 1926) made recordings on its own and accompanied Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter. In England the BBC initiated the programme ‘Radio Rhythm Club’ (1940) that featured jazz on a regular basis. Political authorities in some nations (Germany and the Soviet Union) perceived jazz as a threat, branding it as unwholesome and decadent – ‘entartete Musik’, as the Nazis termed it – and attempted to put forward their own sanitized forms of popular dance music allegedly purged of unwanted ‘black’ and ‘Jewish’ characteristics. Despite this crackdown, in some cases resulting in the persecution of musicians, jazz continued to circulate in Nazi Germany and in the USSR under Stalin. As the historian S. Frederick Starr noted (E1983, p.175), ‘Jazz everywhere proved far easier to denounce than eradicate’.


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