By Degen Pener
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Copyright © 1999 by Degen Pener
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First eBook Edition: June 2009
The marquee of the elegant Savoy Ballroom, also known as the "Home of Happy Feet." (ARCHIVE PHOTOS)
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 and only form of jazz to be 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 deeper meanings 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 all the way at the beginning. The roots of swing go back to the very 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. That's 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 deserves to be called 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.
Duke Ellington mixes it up with Lionel Hampton.
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.
- On Sale
- Jun 27, 2009
- Page Count
- 256 pages
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