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Swing Bands
Chapter Outline

This chapter addresses the growth of jazz-oriented large dance orchestras, tracing the development of musical style and exploring the social and economic context for the national dance craze known as the Swing Era. We examine the changes in the music business caused by the Depression, and discuss the musical elements that went into the new swing style. We look at the economic and psychological "shift" that resulted in mass white enthusiasm for black dance-band music. Special attention is given to Benny Goodman, who exemplified these changes and brought jazz both into the popular mainstream and into a closer relationship to art music. We also encounter other swing bands, such as those of Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Jimmie Lunceford, Cab Calloway, and Chick Webb.

  1. During the 1930s, jazz was called swing. The features of swing include:
    1. Played by big bands made of instrumental sections of reeds, brass, and rhythm
    2. Derived from music of the 1920s
    3. Retained rhythmic contrast, bluesy phrasing, and balance between improvisation and composition
    4. Commercial
    5. Homophonic textures, bluesy riffs, clearly defined melodies, dance grooves
  2. The Depression
    1. Swing was bounded by two events. The first was the Great Depression, which started in 1929 and deepened into the 1930s. Swing, like other popular culture forms, acted as a counterstatement to the deep anxiety caused by the Depression. But swing also demanded action in the form of exuberant and partly improvised dance. Moreover, it was teenagers' music, perhaps the first of its kind.
  3. World War II
    1. This was the second major event. After four years of fighting and devoting the nation's manpower and production capabilities to the war, the country demilitarized, and as servicemen and women returned home, the dancing culture flared, and with it the economic basis for swing.
    2. During the war, swing was very popular. For many it symbolized the strengths of American democracy: it was participatory, informal, and built community.
  4. Swing and Race
    1. African Americans, as usual, lined up to volunteer to fight. But, again as usual, the armed forces were segregated and, except for a few exceptions, African Americans were trained in segregated camps with white officers and restricted to menial labor. Racism was in the air. The Japanese were characterized as "yellow." Accordingly, black newspapers called for a "Double V" campaign-victory abroad and victory over racial prejudice at home.
    2. Swing played both sides of the race card. On the one hand it was a symbol of black culture: its dance steps were developed by black teenagers; its call-and-response, riff-based performance practices mimicked black church music; and it boosted the careers of some black bandleaders. On the other hand, whites didn't know the black origins of the music, the dance, or the language ("jive" ) that went with it; black bands had to tour the Jim Crow South; and some black musicians felt the music had been stolen from them.
  5. Swing and Economics
    1. The Depression almost destroyed the record industry, along with the availability of free music on the radio. Familiar companies went bankrupt or were bought out. By the mid-1930s, things were beginning to look up due to the popularity of the jukebox and price reductions by a few of the surviving recording companies, Decca plus two firms owned by radio networks (Columbia by CBS; Victor by NBC). These were the three majors.
    2. Industry concentration also occurred in the radio business, Hollywood movies, and Tin Pan Alley. All of these intersected: pop music depended on radio and movies often premiered songs. Stars moved from radio to Hollywood and back.
    3. Jazz, then, was part of a popular entertainment network whose products were shared by the nation. Some saw this homogenization as a loss, similar to fascism, or at the very least demeaned through commercialism. In this context, big-band music can be thought of as pop with occasional jazz interpolations.
    4. On the other hand, commercialism made this jazz possible in that it attracted many musicians from all over, and as competition increased, so did the musical standards in terms of technical reading ability.
  6. Voices
    1. For a good example of racism during the Swing Era, read the quote by trumpeter Roy Eldridge in the text.
  7. Swing and Dance
    1. Swing was characterized by a four-beat foundation, perfect for dancing. Although not new, it was firmly established by the early 1930s.
    2. The Savoy
      1. Swing dance came out of Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. A block long, luxurious, and charging a modest entrance fee, one could hear two bands a night there and enjoy them in a mixed ethnic and social environment.
      2. Social dancing at the Savoy was communal and intense. Thousands packed the huge dance floor, with the best dancers doing their best moves right next to the bandstand and often rehearsing in the afternoons at the Savoy. In both cases, communication between dancers and musicians on issues of tempo and groove was typical.
      3. The new dance style was called the Lindy Hop. It was more African-lower to the ground, more flexibility in the hips and knees. It also allowed for improvisation during the breakaway. As the dance grew more athletic, "air steps" started to be used. White commentators were amazed.
    3. The Rhythm Section
      1. To accommodate the new groove, the tuba made way for the string bass, which was now easily recordable with the invention of electrical recording technology. The string bass has a more percussive quality than the tuba, adding to the excitement of the music to match the Lindy Hop's energy. And it could play a steady four-to-the-bar beat throughout an entire performance.
    4. The guitar took over from the banjo. Again, because of electrical recording technology, the raucous loud sound of the banjo was no longer necessary to cut through the sound of the band. The guitar added a more subtle and secure sound to the music.
  8. Arranging
    1. Louis Armstrong's influence led many arrangers, like Benny Carter, to create elaborate solo lines for an entire section-soli-that were harmonized in block chords, and to creatively orchestrate and harmonize their arrangements. At the same time, simpler, orally derived arrangements, or "head" arrangements, were also popular.
  9. Henderson
    1. Fletcher Henderson, the most prolific black recording artist of the day, used both written and head arrangements. He had a stable of very good arrangers-his brother Horace, Carter, and Redman-but most of his hits were head arrangements of older tunes such as "Sugar Foot Stomp" ( derived from "Dippermouth Blues" ) and Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter Stomp."
    2. Eventually, after he started to arrange for the band, Henderson notated these arrangements. His arranging style was characterized by short, memorable riffs typically in call-and-response fashion. He often transformed the melody into short burst of notes. He left lots of room for solos, for which he wrote either held-chord or riffs backgrounds. His arrangements also featured driving, riff-based climactic choruses.
    3. "Blue Lou"
      1. Earlier recordings of the Henderson band never lived up to their live performances. But by 1936, when this was recorded, they were a much better recording ensemble.
      2. This piece was written by saxophonist Edgar Sampson and arranged by Horace Henderson. It oriented toward soloists Roy Eldridge on trumpet and saxophonist Chu Berry, who use the simple, two-note figure of opening melody to good effect in their respective solos.
      3. The recording starts in a relaxed, two-beat rhythm but the four-four swing rhythm eventually takes over. The first chorus introduces the melody, which is deformed by the last chorus. It modulates to another key near the end, perhaps reflecting the need to be flexible in performing for dancers.
  10. Breakthrough
    1. Through the 1930s, the music industry was divided by race. Although there were exceptions, musicians, venues, and audiences followed this pattern either by segregating the venue on a particular night or reserving performances for either blacks or whites, although black bands could play for white audiences and vice versa.
    2. Economically, segregation worked in favor of whites. The highest-paying venues usually hired white bands, and Jim Crow laws in the South kept black bands on their toes. Because of racial stereotyping, black bands specialized in "hot" dance music. But they also had to be versatile in order to survive. They had to be great readers, able to perform all kinds of danced styles. The major black bands, such as Duke Ellington's and Cab Calloway's, were able to remain viable during the Depression.
    3. There is a long history of white musicians listening carefully to black musicians and thereby learning how to play jazz. Many white musicians learned how to play "legit" and then copied whatever jazz they could find. But playing jazz made them outsiders to the community. Their "day gig" was generally to play in commercial ensembles like radio orchestras so that they could play jazz at night. This all changed with Benny Goodman.
  11. Benny Goodman (1909-1986)
    1. Goodman grew up very poor in Chicago but found he could escape a life of menial labor through music. He studied with Chicago Symphony clarinetist Franz Schoep while listening to Chicago jazz. He modeled his playing on both white (Leon Rappolo) and black (Jimmie Noone) players. By the 1920s he had played with Ben Pollack's band as a good player leaning toward jazz.
    2. Goodman wanted to lead a band that bridged jazz and the commercial world of music. Mildred Bailey suggested he hire some black arrangers, many of whom were out of work due to the Depression. He hired some of the best: Benny Carter, Edgar Sampson, and Fletcher Henderson. In 1935 the band was featured as the "hot" orchestra on the radio program Let's Dance. They went on a national tour that summer to a dismal response until they played the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, where they were an immediate hit, probably due to the fact that their late-night radio broadcasts were aired at prime time in California. White teenagers launched the Swing Era.
    3. The band applied jazz arrangements to current pop songs. Arrangements usually started with a clear rendition of the melody, but in later choruses the tune turned into swing. Goodman was viewed as someone who could take black music and use it in such a way that whites could dance to this liberating and exciting sound.
    4. Goodman brought dance music into the mainstream. "Sweet" bands were considered corny. But Goodman could play both "hot" and "sweet," and he programmed his music to match the tastes of a broad audience. His band played a successful concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938, cementing their respectability.
    5. Teenagers adopted black dance ("jitterbugs") and slang ("jive"). They lined up for concerts and danced in the aisles. This shocked their parents (as it was probably meant to do). Goodman could satisfy jitterbugs while at the same time make jazz acceptable.
  12. Small-Group Swing
    1. Goodman launched a number of small groups that emphasized the soloist, renewing an interest in improvisation. Some of them were interracial.
    2. Goodman met pianist Teddy Wilson (1912-1986) on his way back to Chicago from California. He jammed with Wilson and was impressed with his polished, inventive improvisations. He was also dismayed by the possibility of forming a mixed-race trio with his white drummer, Gene Krupa, and African American Wilson.
    3. The trio recording sold well so, rather than putting Wilson in the big band, Goodman brought him on as a special guest. This "band-within-a-band" concept soon caught on with other bandleaders.
    4. In 1936, Goodman added vibraphonist Lionel Hampton (1908-2002) to form a quartet. Hampton saw himself as an entertainer as well as a musician. He later formed his own band and took part in early R and B. The extraverted Hampton and Krupa contrasted with the shy Goodman and Wilson.
    5. "Dinah"
      1. A thirty-two-bar, AABA pop song composed in 1925, it became a standard. It has the feeling of a jam session about it. Goodman starts by playing the melody but then plays a busy bridge. Hampton uses riff figures and complicated harmonic substitutions.
      2. Krupa starts interacting rhythmically while Goodman improvises. Wilson adds a brief solo. By the end, the three are playing polyphonically. Other recordings show them ending on riffs. This is a very polished style with no mistakes and a very relaxed feeling.
  13. John Hammond (1919-1987) and Other Jazz Enthusiasts
    1. Hammond was a longtime music entrepreneur and activist. He was important in many musical careers and styles, including boogie-woogie, Kansas City jazz, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.
    2. He was born into a wealthy New York family. He was attracted to the black music of Harlem from an early age. After graduating from Yale, he became a jazz reporter, and eventually, a record producer.
    3. His two passions were a hatred of racial injustice and a love of black folk music and jazz. Because of the first passion, he was involved in left-wing causes. The second passion led him to believe that black music was better than white music.
    4. At first Hammond's two interests did not fit together, but in response to the rise of fascism, a broad coalition of left-wing forces was formed. Known as the Popular Front, its members viewed folk music as the voice of the common man (previously, the Communist Party saw jazz as a product of capitalism).
    5. As a leftist, Hammond was unusual. He decided to work within the capitalist system. He joined Columbia Records and scouted out new talent, which, one way or another, he recorded.. However, some black musicians, such as Ellington, resented his aristocratic insistence.
  14. Early Jazz Fans
    1. Hammond was one jazz enthusiast among many. A growing legion of jazz record collectors started searching for old recordings. This led to the first jazz reissues, which preserved the jazz of the 1920s. Some collectors noted the discographical details of each recording they found. This led to the beginnings of jazz discography, the science of jazz record classification. They also formed "Hot Clubs" in the towns across the United States. New magazines such as Downbeat and Metronome were formed to meet the reading needs of these fans.
    2. Fans applauded the mainstream acceptance of jazz but were wary of "commercialism," even though it was the commercial success of jazz that fostered the "anticommercialism" of the fans.
  15. Major Swing Bands
    1. As the dance business boomed, so did the proliferation of dance bands, often from within the ranks of established ensembles such as Benny Goodman's.
  16. Artie Shaw (1920-2004)
    1. Shaw was Goodman's chief rival, having come from the same kind of background, studied clarinet, and learned from the great African American musicians of Chicago. He also listened to European composers such as Stravinsky and Debussy.
    2. He led a double life: one as a jazz musician playing with Harlem musicians such as Willie "The Lion" Smith, and one as a member of the CBS staff orchestra playing commercial music.
    3. Never expecting to make much out of his music, he nevertheless had a huge hit in 1938 with "Begin the Beguine." He became a major celebrity, which he felt got in the way of the music. He particularly detested jitterbugs. He dissolved his band several time before retiring from music in 1954.
    4. "Star Dust"
      1. Shaw was a skilled improviser. He sometimes played raucous music, but at other times, he played music that tried to bridge the jazz and classical worlds. In 1936 he wrote a piece for clarinet and string quartet and in 1940 he added a nine-piece string section to his band, which was well used by arranger Lennie Hayton.
      2. "Star Dust" comes from this period and provides a new sound for a swing band. It focuses on the melody rather than the dance-evoking, riff-based arrangements of many bands from that period. All of the solos are restrained.
  17. Jimmie Lunceford (1902-1947)
    1. Lunceford did not fit the bandleader mold: he was not a star performer; although he learned to play a number of instruments, he did not play in the band; and he was university educated and a high school music teacher before he started the band.
    2. Like many African American educators, he saw music as a means of social and economic uplift. He organized his students into this first band, the Chickasaw Syncopators. He augmented his band with friends from Fisk University. The band got its first big break in 1934, when they were asked to play at the Cotton club. They recorded for Decca Records and toured the United States.
    3. Lunceford was a strict disciplinarian in terms of music, appearance, and behavior. While putting on a show, the performers played hard-driving swing music as well as humorous novelties.
    4. A black band such as Lunceford's had to tour continually. By 1942, many of the musicians had had enough and the best soloists quit.
    5. "Annie Laurie"
      1. This piece was arranged by one of Lunceford's top arrangers, Sy Oliver, a trumpeter who joined the band in 1933. This piece is far from a typical swing tune. Originally a nineteenth-century tune that became a favorite of Scottish soldiers by the mid-nineteenth century, Oliver turns it into a lively swing tune, recorded live here.
  18. Glen Miller (1904-1944)
    1. Probably the most popular band leader of the 1940s, Miller had no intentions of forming a jazz band. He aimed for the white American middle class. Born in the Midwest, he developed a liking for jazzy dance music. During the 1920s, he was both an arranger and a soloist, working at various times with Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, and Ray Noble.
    2. In 1938 he started his own band, which played clear melodies in a smooth, danceable rhythm with a distinctive sound. He created this sound by combining the saxophone section with a clarinet. He also added vocals to some of his arrangements. This combination resulted in a great number of hits during the 1940s.
    3. Miller also worked with the armed services. His 1942 Glen Miller Army Air Force Band, a large ensemble that included strings and brass, featured an eclectic mixture of music. In 1944 Miller disappeared over the English Channel.
  19. Cab Calloway (1907-1944)
    1. To whites, Calloway represented an entrée into African American cultural life; to blacks he represented the hope that a man with talent and ambition could rise to the top.
    2. He grew up in Baltimore. He studied classical singing but sang jazz at night. In the 1920s he met Armstrong, from whom he learned about scat singing. His band, the Alabamians, played New York's Savoy Ballroom but were viewed as corny. In 1930, he took over a swinging band from Kansas City, the Missourians. It was this band that was asked to replace Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club.
    3. Here, he joined up with songwriter Harold Arlen and lyricist Ted Koehler to create a number of pieces that depicted imaginary Harlem scenes. Calloway's exuberant personality and scat singing added excitement to the songs.
    4. He was a very good singer with a broad range. He was also a good businessman, hiring the best musicians he could find. His band toured the South, evoking often-hostile reactions to their New York hipness. But at least they traveled in style, on their own Pullman car.
    5. By the 1930s Calloway started to focus on jazz. He hired the best jazz musicians, including a young Dizzy Gillespie. The quality of the music, including some of Gillespie's first arrangements, was always high and there were plentiful opportunities to solo. Calloway also played the role of Sportin' Life in the 1950 production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Finally, he appeared in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers.
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