American Big Band Jazz
Big Bands Rose To Prominence Playing Swing Music
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Dancing And Listening To Swing

Growing up in the '30s and '40s was like putting together one of the jigsaw puzzles that lay half-finished on wobbly-legged card tables in a million American living rooms. On rainy Sunday afternoons we worked to complete Rembrandt's Night Watch in all its 1,000piece glory, or an Olde English Hunting Scene. Collectively we were also assembling, with bits of our lives, an even grander super puzzle with a bewildering variety of pieces: bread lines, banana splits, rationing coupons; DC-3s, trolley cars, Model A Fords; Mickey Mouse, Albert Einstein, Lili Marlene; Count Basie, Eddy Duchin, Glenn Miller; Scarlett O'Hara, Dale Carnegie, Li'l Abner; jukeboxes, nylons, bubble gum, K-rations, gardenias, bombsights, saddle shoes; love and hate, life and death.

Who were we, the young of the Swing Era, the joiners of this giant jigsaw? We had names like Allen Ginsberg, John F. Kennedy, Jesse Owens, Bill Mauldin, Frank Sinatra, Oona O'Neill, Mary McCarthy, Eartha Kitt, Gloria Vanderbilt, Jackie Robinson, Norman Mailer. Malcolm Little would be better known someday as Malcolm X. Thomas Lanier Williams would become Tennessee. Whizzer White would move up to "Mr. Justice White." Grace Kelly would be addressed as "Your Highness," Richard Nixon as "Mr. President."

Previously, American emphasis had been on imported English country dancing and the French contredanse and cotillion. In 1889, however, the American bandmaster John Philip Sousa’s “Washington Post March” gave birth to the two-step, with a quick marching step with skips. Ragtime, with roots in black American music, emerged in the late 1890s. With its lively, syncopated rhythms, it gave rise (1911–15) to a popular craze for dances imitating animals, such as the turkey trot (in which syncopated arm gestures simulated wing movements, and the feet moved with one step to each beat), the grizzly bear, and the bunny hug. Also popular during this time were the tango, and the maxixe. The radical changes in dance styles mirrored the changes in society—automobiles and airplanes, radios and telephones, woman suffrage, the rise of labor unions, the writings of Sigmund Freud, the Russian Revolution of 1905. The dances of the teens and ’20s, such as the charleston with its kicks, swinging arms, mobile torsos, and blaring rhythms, reflected a euphoric sense of prosperity and freedom. The Jazz Age of the 1920s was brought to an end with the stock-market crash in 1929. In the 1930s swing emerged as the new musical sound, played by big bands led by musicians such as Benny Goodman and others. Wanting respite from the Great Depression, Americans eagerly watched movie extravaganzas by the dance director Busby Berkeley (1895–1976) as well as the movies of the dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (1911–95). To swing music, teenagers danced the jitterbug, an outgrowth of the 1927 lindy. The fox-trot, a fast, trotting dance from about 1913, came back in a slower, smoother version. In 1939 at the World’s Fair a samba orchestra played at the Brazilian pavilion. Soon, popular culture was swept with a rage for South American dances such as the rumba, mambo, cha-cha, and conga line. The forms and sensual hip movements of these Latin dances became popular at a time when American women were gaining increased freedom, working in factories, and managing homes and businesses while the men were fighting in the war during the 1940s.

The dancing spread uncontrollably, even into the theaters where the big bands played. When Benny Goodman or Harry James was at the Paramount in New York, the kids would start swarming out of the Times Square subways at 4 a.m., their eyes aglow in the morning gloom, ready for the 10 a.m. first show. Zoot-suited boys-green pork-pie hats, yellow coats, pants that seemed to shrink in at the ankles and watch chains that looped down to their knees - lined up at the box office with bobby sox girls. At ten o'clock, the first 4,000 of them squeezed into the theater. Those doomed to wait for succeeding shows pushed and shoved. Once a policeman, pinned against a door jamb, got two ribs fractured.

Inside, the first-show audience patiently endured the movie. Then ushers moved to the edge of the orchestra pit and turned to face the audience, on guard. The curtain rose and there stood the hero of the day - Harry James, say-trumpet to his lips. As the first notes rose higher and higher, the kids swayed to the music, moaned, pulsed and throbbed. They clenched their hands and seethed in their seats. Unable or unwilling to sit still, they jitterbugged in the aisles, shagged in the balconies and boxes and stayed for show after show.

Lans Lamont recalls, "It was all there. Within eight blocks were the Capitol, Roxy, Loew's, Paramount and Strand theaters. You had your pick of the big bands: James, Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet and Gene Krupa. If you were lucky enough to get in, you lived in the theater for days on end. Nothing today can recapture that pause when the film had ended, the last chords of the organ had reverberated through the theater and then it came: Goodman's clarinet lilting Let's Dance or Charlie Barnet's saxophone shouting out Cherokee. You sat bolt upright, nudging your schoolmate and unconsciously beginning to pound your feet in rhythm. The stage lights burst aglow and out of the pit rose this marvelous ark filled with 16 or 20 men, their gleaming golden instruments flashing in the spotlights that bathed the whole scene. There was hardly time to catch your breath - the band was already pulsating with life, the front sax section filling the hall with sweet notes, the brass setting your ears afire, Buddy Rich or Jo Jones flailing their snares, tom-toms and cymbals, a row of trombonists executing precision drill, Charlie Shavers or Cootie Williams piercing the rafters with a pure paroxysm of trumpet joy."

Everywhere from theater aisles to living-room floors sprinkled with sugar to reduce friction, white youngsters were doing the black-inspired dances of the day, while black youngsters were adding even greater inspiration to the original conceptions. One of the best places to see this phenomenon in action was Harlem's marvelous Savoy Ballroom, which ran from 140th to 141st Street on Lenox Avenue. A great marble stairway led to a vast room with space for tables and chairs and 10,000 square feet for dancing. Colored spotlights played intermittently on the dancers. A well-stocked ice-cream soda fountain offered chocolate-nut sundaes, banana splits and floats. Mostly what it sold was gingerale setups into which the customers poured their own portable potables while listening to Ella Fitzgerald's effortless singing and Chick Webb driving hard ahead on his snare and bass drums and flicking his sticks over the cymbals. The night Chick's band "battled" Benny Goodman's, 4,000 people crowded into the Savoy and even more (some say 25,000) gathered outside.

The kind of dancing was "choreographed swing music," wrote the late Marshall Stearns and Jean Stearns in Jazz Dance. Younger dancers like Al Niinns, Joe Daniels, Russel Williams and Pepsi Bethel produced the Back Flip, the Over the Head and the Snatch. Girls flew through the air as if shot from cannons. Musicians and dancers stimulated each other. "Great dancers make you swing," Duke Ellington once said, and Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden both have said they preferred to play for dancers.

The Savoy's floor was something special. "That floor was built to vibrate," trombonist Dicky Wells recalls in his book, The Night People, "but I didn't know it. I was standing by the bandstand and it started to vibrate, that floor was loaded so. I came out of there and didn't find out about it being a sprung floor until a year later. Yeah, I vibrated on out the door!" At the Savoy the real jitterbugs danced five nights a week to music provided by two alternating bands. The music never stopped. At the end of an evening even the dancers' shoes would be sopping wet.

The dancers rested on Wednesday and Friday nights, which were reserved for private social affairs at the Savoy. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays they came early because the admission price rose at 6 p.m. from 30 cents to 60 cents and rose again at 8 to 85 cents. Monday was Ladies Night and Thursday was Kitchen Mechanics Night, when maids and cooks had the night off. The crowds were thin then, and the relatively open dance floor was great for practice.

On Saturdays the middle-aged white squares showed up to watch the dancers. On Saturday afternoons the dancers sent their best clothes out to be pressed for Sunday night. In their second-best suits they gathered in front of the Savoy, wisecracking and waiting for manager Charles Buchanan to rush out and offer to pay them to go in and dance for the people.

Most of the men who set the land to dancing and listening to swing started as boys consumed with a desire to make music. Arranger Larry Wagner, who wrote No Name Jive for Glen Gray's Casa Loma Orchestra, says, "I learned trumpet by myself from a hook. I'd practice all day. You've got to be greedy to practice to be an instrumentallst. Musicians are a strange and jealous lot," the Casa Loma Band's Glen Gray once said. "If the saxophonist gets more opportunities to show off than does the trumpeter, that's the beginning of a feud."

Two sidemen might get along musically but not otherwise, or vice versa. A New Yorker Hotel audience was once astonished to see a clarinetist and a trumpeter fly at each other's throats, accusing each other of having loused up the set. Sidemen were adept at sabotage. Buddy Rich kept playing little drum riffs during tender moments in Frank Sinatra's ballads, even after Frank reportedly punched his nose. But years later Frankie helped finance Buddy's new band.

A few musicians, mostly bandleaders, developed hobbies outside music. Harry James played baseball fanatically. Guy Lombardo raced speedboats and Frank Trumbauer and Orville Knapp flew airplanes for sport. Jack Teagarden tinkered with cars and Tex Beneke with ham radios. But most musicians found it hard to develop interests outside the band. In the opening weeks of 1940, Glenn Miller's men played two daily sessions totaling five hours of music (six on weekends) in the Cafe Rouge of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. They also played three radio programs weekly, each preceded by a long rehearsal, plus four, and sometimes five, shows daily at the Paramount Theater, and in their spare time recorded nearly 30 sides of 78-rpm records.

In the 1950s the quietly sensuous movements of the Latin dances became the provocative hip rolls of the singer Elvis Presley, whose first major record was released in 1956. Also in the mid-1950s, rock and roll became a national phenomenon when Bill Haley and His Comets were featured in the film Rock Around the Clock, and the television show “American Bandstand” began its telecasts of dancing teenagers. American society underwent fundamental upheavals during this period and the following decade with the civil rights movement, protests against the war in Vietnam, and such events as the famous music festival held near Woodstock, N.Y., in 1969. In 1960 the rock musician Chubby Checker (1941–    ) ushered in the twist, which was performed with gyrating hips and torso and a body attitude that seemed to express “doing your own thing.” The dances of the 1960s—such as the fish, the hitchhiker, the frug, and the jerk—were free and individualistic. People danced in large masses, both sexes with long hair, all dancing by themselves and inventing as they went along. Several contradictory trends appeared in the 1970s and ’80s. Couple dancing, enhanced by the individuality of the 1960s, returned in the 1970s with the hustle and other elaborately choreographed dances performed to disco music, a simple form of rock with strong dance rhythms. Alongside the disco movement, which dominated the 1970s and ’80s, the more outrageous punk rock movement brought in its wake slam dancing, which involved leaping, jumping, and sometimes physical attack, and in the mid-1980s the acrobatic solo dance form known as break dancing. At the same time, in an impulse to nostalgia, the big-band sound was revived with fox-trots, waltzes, and jitterbugs.

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