SWING MUSIC HISTORY
At the turn of the last century, pop music was called "Rag Time". The main instrument was the piano. Just as today most houses have a home entertainment centre made up of television and video recorder or DVD player, back then most ordinary homes and all pubs had a piano in the front room. The sale of sheet music was big business. Ordinary poor people could afford to have a good sing-song around the piano, and this they would happily do with gusto, because that was the way people entertained themselves. Shyness in singing is a modern thing.
In New Orleans, "Jass" music developed, supposedly named after the jasmine perfume favoured by the local prostitutes. Mischievous little boys took puerile pleasure in obscuring the J, turning this into "ass" music, and after a while the spelling was changed to jazz. Though many of the first players were Negroes, jazz was multi-ethnic right from the start, although many bands were all-white or all-black. The first man to write it down (and a tremendous boaster who would claim to have invented jazz) was a half-white half-creole, called "Jelly Roll" Morton.
Many historians credit one man with inventing swing: Louis Armstrong. No one had sung or played the trumpet like this gravel-voiced man. He broke away from the strict rhythms of previous styles, and syncopated his way through his numbers. The new rhythmic style of music asked for a new dance to go with it, and in ballrooms around the world, though most famously in the Savoy Ballroom (now demolished) in Harlem, New York, swing dance developed. Swing dance was a fusion of European ballroom styles with 1920s jazz dances like the Charleston. Small wonder, then, that the Savoy Ballroom played so great a part, as it was for a while one of the only places in America where blacks and whites could dance together.
Jazz certainly played its part in racial integration, as musicians of various skin tones sought each other out to play together. The two greatest trumpeters of their age, Bix Beiderbeck and Louis Armstrong, were great fans of each other. They would hire room in a hotel for a few hours and go in together and jam, each encouraging the other to greater heights. Such were the laws on segregation of the time, however, that these two men never recorded a note together, and those legendary jamming sessions are lost to us now, because one man was paler than the other. Improvised duets were a new development.
Jazz did not become mainstream for some while. For a few years, it was not being published in America, although jazz records of American music were being pressed in Britain. It was a bit like the hip-hop of its time. It was often the music of the speakeasy - a thing created by the prohibition laws in America. There were 5,000 of these in Manhattan - 500 of them in Harlem, most famously The Cotton Club. Later, people like Paul Whiteman would orchestrate jazz for larger bands and record records that sold 250 times as many copies as Louis Armstrong. A giant of jazz to emerge in this period was "Duke" Ellington (so called because of his immaculate sartorial elegance). One thing he is credited with is being the first to play blues with an orchestra. In 1934 he toured Britain and was an enormous hit. Louis Armstrong too found that playing in Britain and Europe was wonderful for him, because nobody cared that he was black, and he could check into any hotel he wanted.
In 1939 a very talented clarinet player called Benny Goodman played an unprecedented three-hour concert on the radio. Soon after, there was a radio strike during which he went on tour. He was a depressing failure until he reached Los Angeles, where the audiences sat through all the waltzes he had been forced to play, and then went wild when he started playing swing. His big band made swing music mainstream, and suddenly big bands sprung up all over the place. Notable band leaders included Jimmy Lunceford, Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey, Chick Webb (A deformed dwarf drummer who ran a band at the Savoy), Ted Heath, Erskine Hawkins, Cab Calloway, Harry James, Lucky Millinder, Gene Krupa, Artie Shaw, Les Brown, Woody Herman, Charlie Barnet, Fats Waller, Lionel Hampton, and Count Basie.
In the 1930s, the National Socialists came to power in Germany, and disapproved of swing music. Though it was very popular, they considered it to be a degenerate art form. They made films of people dancing the "jitterbug" very badly, to make it look ridiculous, and like some strange fit-like state to be avoided by healthy people. Swing dances were banned, and censors tried to make sure that no swing music recordings were published in Germany. There were very few censors, however, and many thousands of tunes being published, so they didn't have time to check to them all, so a lot of swing music got published, even during the Second World War. A common trick was to change the name of a well-known swing number with an English name to something very German and traditional-sounding. The 1993 film Swing Kids is about German youths wanting to swing the night away in the Third Reich. Occupied countries like Holland and Belgium recorded swing throughout the war, again, despite the ban, often claiming it to be Hawaiian music, which wasn't banned.
Swing music turned out to be a useful propaganda tool. German radio stations did not broadcast swing music, but British ones did, and so many Germans tuned in to hear their favourite bands, and ended up listening to the British news items and announcements put between the songs. Realising that this was an effective technique, the Nazi authorities did a bizarre thing: they formed a swing band of their own to play either side of Nazi propaganda broadcasts, in the hope of getting British audiences to listen to them. Thus "Charlie and his Orchestra" was born (after the lead vocalist Charlie Schwedler). A ploy they used a lot was to play the first verse of a popular hit as normal, and then change the words of the later verses to get across their propaganda message. The sneering tone of the later verses was quite wearing to listen to, however, and these broadcasts probably had little effect.
In Britain today, a lot of older folk associate the big band era with one name: Glen Miller. Glen Miller joined the US army, and became a major, and was put in command of an army band. This band spent years in Britain, and toured the country playing many concerts. He developed a smooth polished style, with close harmony singing, and remains dear to many hearts this side of the Atlantic, after dying in an aeroplane accident in fog over the English Channel near the end of the war. Since so many people in Britain were taught to swing dance by American general infantrymen who had come over for the war, you may sometimes hear reference to "G.I. jive".
The biggest single problem for good relations between the visiting American forces and the ordinary British people they encountered, was segregation. British people were often shocked by the ill-treatment of the Negro soldiers, who might be bull-whipped by their military police for brawling, where their white counterparts were let off with a warning, and who were often sleeping under canvass when the other soldiers had proper houses. The black G.I.s were often great singers and dancers, and were much in demand for these skills. They also lacked the loud-mouthed pushiness and arrogance of many white Americans which rubbed a lot of British up the wrong way. One farmer was famously quoted saying that he liked the Americans a lot, except for the white ones they had brought with them. Much to the annoyance of the American military brass hats, Negro choirs were invited to perform in the most prestigious London venues like Saint Paul's Cathedral.
Swing music was genuine "pop" music, unlike today's "pop". Today, so-called "popular" music is listened to by a small minority of people - mainly early teen-agers. In the swing era, all ages and classes listened to swing. The peak of the era was the nineteen thirties and forties. During World War Two, Dizzy Gillesbie and Charlie Parker developed a new style of jazz that became known as Bee Bop (or be bop). Though Dizzy did put together a band designed to show that it was possible to dance to this new style, it really was not suited to dancing, and hard-core jazz fans split away from the popular music of the day, and jazz became less for dancing to, and more for listening, smoking, and growing beards to.
Swing didn't die, however. Big bands did die off, largely because of new taxes brought in that made big bands prohibitively expensive to run. In the Fifties and Sixties, a new version of popular swing developed, variously referred to as Lounge Swing, Vegas Swing, Rat Pack Swing etc. The new stars were mainly vocalists, like Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra. These had swing-era backgrounds. Frank Sinatra had sung with Tommy Dorsey, before becoming very famous.
Swing and jazz are broad terms, and many artists branched off to do their own thing. Part of swing and jazz was blues, and this developed into rhythm and blues. Another branch of swing became boogie-woogie, which then turned into rock and roll, which gave rise to a group called The Beatles who changed it into what we now know as pop.
Today, old jazz musicians talk of how "They" brought over The Beatles to America in the Sixties, in order to kill off jazz, as though there was some high-level conspiracy to oppose jazz. In this period, dances like "The Twist" came in, in which people did not dance with each other, but merely danced near each other, and gradually the skills of partner dancing were lost. For the first time, sales of sheet music were exceeded in worth by sales of records. Pianos in front rooms became a rarity, and record players and televisions common. People would no longer entertain themselves and each other, but instead pay for professionals to entertain them. In the Seventies, the great nadir of many things was reached, and in music and dance, disco reigned. Swing, it seemed, was dead.
Actually, the music was irrepressible, and continued to crop up in adverts, musicals, films, and was enjoyed by an ageing sector of the population at large. In the Eighties, people from Britain (Warren Heyes and the Jiving Lindyhoppers), Sweden (Lennart Westerlund and the Rhythm Hotshots), and the USA (Steve Mitchell) sought out elderly dancers in the USA who had been part of the development of the dance - most famously, Frankie Manning, who was working in a post office. He had been part of Whitey's dance troupe. Herbert White was a bouncer at the Savoy, and had formed his professional troupe in 1935. Frankie Manning is credited with dancing the first "aerial" - a move involving throwing the lady in the air. Frankie and others were persuaded to start teaching again, and the Lindy hop revival started. Frankie is about to turn 90 years old, and he now spends two-thirds of his year flying around the world to teach Lindy hop at various dance camps.
As the interest in the dance grew throughout the Eighties and Nineties, so too did interest in the music. Many "Neo-swing" bands sprung up. Some were revivalist in nature, like The Bill Elliot Swing Orchestra, which went to great trouble to copy the bands of yesteryear accurately, but others had a modern edge to them. These tended to have tattoos, rude lyrics, and a rock-and-roll influence particularly noticeable in the drumming. They also tended to have outrageous names. Neo-swing has peaked, but not died, and interest in swing in general is high. Swing music is used in many adverts, for the themes of many television shows (Room 101, Third Rock from the Sun), and films (A Life Less Ordinary, Monsters Inc., Chicago). Sinead O'Connor, Robbie Williams, all the Pop Idol finalists, Rod Stewart and many other successful rock and pop recording artists, have recorded albums of swing.