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The Swing Era

The music Americans call jazz has many origins and many forms. Music historians have a difficult time fixing the origins of musical styles with any precision. Many American musicians, no matter what their backgrounds, have had "big ears"--they have tended to listen to many forms of music and adapted them freely. One form of American music, emerging in the years just before World War One, became known as "dixieland." Associated primarily with New Orleans, and the many towns along the Mississippi river as far North as Iowa, this music derived from ragtime and marching bands. Typically, it involved group improvisation and a loose, freewheeling, "swinging" style. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and all-white group, gave the music its name in the popular markets. But music historians have long known that the ODJB borrowed heavily from African American musical forms. Louis Armstrong and Bix Biederbecke became most famous playing in this mode of dixieland jazz.

By the late twenties, musicians had begun modifying the forms of "jazz." In the 1930s a new form of jazz had emerged, called "swing." Swing music was characterized by very large bands, fixed, usually written arrangements, and solos by individual musicians in turn instead of group improvisation. Swing bands typically used an upright or double bass instead of the tuba which had often characterized dixieland, and played repeated "riffs" to give the music its propulsive rhythmic force. Swing appears to have emerged from an adaptation of the commercially successful but bland, neo-jazz played by show and dance orchestras like Paul Whiteman's. In the hands of brilliant arrangers like Fletcher Henderson, however, swing combined harmonic sophistication with danceable rhythms and compelling individual improvisations.

Swing bands ranged from "Kansas City" style groups like Count Basie's, which emphasized a very bluesy, intensely riff oriented style, to New York based bands like Duke Ellington's or Glenn Miller's which experimented with a more orchestral range of colors. For many students of American music, "big band" swing represents a pinnacle of American musical form, combining harmonic sophistication, improvisational brilliance, and danceable accessibility. Others have criticized swing as overly commercial, regimented, and mechanical.

Whatever its aesthetic merits, swing music characterized the popular culture of the 1930s. The music played constantly on records and on radio, and reached virtually every city in America through swing bands' incessant touring. Historians have seen in "the swing era" not just music but culture, a distinctive, generational culture of swing jazz with its own dances, clothing styles, and most notably, slang. By the 1940s there were several "dictionaries of jive" available to explain the special language of swing. Much of this slang grew from drug subculture; much of it seems to have had little to do with musicians, who often disliked it. But it made its way across the nation. In the 1930s Lavada Durst, one of the first African American disk jockeys in Texas, called himself "Dr. Hepcat." Here, in an interview conducted by The Discovery Channel in 1995, he recreates the patter that made him locally famous. Listen to Dr. Hepcat, then take the "hipster's quiz" included here to test your knowledge of one of the swing era's most distinctive expressions.

Take the Hepcat quiz! (you need the "shockwave" plug-in for the quiz to work)

Equally distinctive, jitterbug dancing also characterized swing culture. Jitterbugging apparently originated in Harlem as a variation on the "lindy hop." It placed a high emphasis on physicality and improvisation, and like swing itself it put set moves and repeated gestures in tension with moments of spectacular individual improvisation. Jitterbuggers, with their "breakouts" and "aerial moves" became as much a part of the show as the bands themselves. As rock and roll did in the fifties, swing culture seemed to offer a youthful alternative to the stultifying conventions and restrictions of middle class life. By the eve of World War Two, swing culture had culminated as well in the "zoot suit," an exaggerated, parodic form of dress favored by Mexican and African American youth.

Like much of American popular culture, swing crossed ethnic and racial lines freely. White, black and Latin musicians borrowed from each other constantly. But what did this sort of interchange mean? Benny Goodman, for example, a child of Jewish immigrants, became known as "the King of Swing." The title had more to do with his commercial success--and perhaps the fact that he was white--than his musical productions. But Goodman earned the respect of white and black musicians alike when he integrated his band in 1936. Though this seems unexceptional today, in the 1930s it was not only innovative but politically explosive. To make his 1944 film Jammin the Blues, the photographer Gjon Mili had to get special permission from the studio to include white guitarist Barney Kessel in his band. The studio first attempted to stain Kessel's arms, hands, and face with "berry juice," so he would look darker, then finally relented after Mili agreed to film Kessel only in shadows. In the final film, Kessel looked much darker than the African American Lester Young. The singer Billy Holliday was once forced to darken her face with greasepaint by a white club owner who feared she looked "too white" to be on the stage with black men. Despite such idiocies, swing music brought both white and black audiences and musicians together in new ways.

But swing's capacity to unite hardly overcame entrenched racism.A selection from Downbeat, the leading magazine of jazz in the 1930s, demonstrates clearly how powerful racial divisions were even among the music's fans. In this piece the magazine's editors attempt to stay neutral as they ask various bandleaders what they think about integrated bands.Their answers were far more "mixed" than their bands.

Others saw swing, and jazz, as the key to building a better America. John Hammond dominated the jazz community as a critic and promoter in the 1930s and 40s. As a producer for Columbia Records, he "discovered" such artists as Bill Broonzy, Sidney Bechet, Albert Ammons, Count Basie, Billy Holliday, and Woody Guthrie. Late in his career, he helped Bob Dylan and rock singer Bruce Springsteen get their start. He worked against racial prejudice consistently, though he subscribed to a troubling form of racism himself, insisting that African American musicians were always better and more "authentic." An assessment of this important figure by a contemporary, the jazz critic Otis Ferguson, is included here.

Hammond's leftist politics made him suspect to the FBI, while his inherited wealth, Ivy League accent and autocratic ways led some musicians to describe him as "the big bringdown." He exerted a near dictatorial control over recording for a time, and his career shows how even the best intentioned cultural brokers can become enmeshed in the contradictions of American racial politics. It also raises the question of how American popular culture, its music, its slang, its fashions and interracila borrowings, changes American politics.

By the mid forties swing had begun to decline in popularity. Younger musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, chafing against its more restrictive commercial aspects, began making a more harmonically challenging music that the press dubbed "bebop." Bebop, or "bop" severed jazz from its connections to dance and cast it further into the realm of "art music." The big bands' economics made them hard to sustain, and increasingly the popular dance market was captured by "jump" or "rhythm and blues" acts like Louis Jordan, Joe Turner, saxophonist King Porter, or vocal teams like the Ravens. These acts themselves led directly to rock and roll in the decades that followed.

Historian David Stowe, in his book Swing Changes, argues for swing as an important cultural force, an instrument of social change. Imperfect, hedged in by systematic inequalities, swing music and culture nevertheless built bridges between black, white and Hispanic listeners. American popular culture, famously, is far more pluralistic, more diverse, more tolerant and more dynamic than American legal or political culture. Our politics has failed to live up to our taste in top-forty music. In the 1950s and sixties, African Americans were able to overturn legal segregation and the denial of voting rights. Most of this change can be linked to formal political campaigns against segregation and the formation of grassroots organizations. How much can be laid at the feet of the swing bands?