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Romancing and Dancing.
The Swing Era.

The start of Swing – As we learned, New Orleans Jazz started as an underground style of music.  This was often associated with the crime scene, African American music, and prohibition laws.  This style was controversial at first due to its affiliations with mobsters.  However, as time went on in the mid to late 20s, bands became more sophisticated and larger.  Technological advances were made with the increased popularity of the radio that was originally patented in 1896, and silent movies with orchestras and drummers who would make sound effects over movies were now replaced with soundtrack films by 1930.  It didn’t end there though.  There was another significant event that occurred in the late 20s.  This was the stock market crash in 1929.  As a result, we experienced a tremendous economic collapse known as The Great Depression.

This was a very difficult time for Americans.  Jobs were lost, there was an increase suicidal rate, homes went on foreclosure, and there were lines of people waiting for basic needs such as bread and milk.  Further, this wasn’t just momentary in the year 1929, but it adversely affected the following decade.  America was in a recession all throughout the 1930s.

As a result of all the economic turmoil, we saw a large proliferation in the popularity of music.  People turned to music as an outlet during the hardships they faced.  With the increased band sizes and music advancements made, music became increasingly popular.  These bandleaders’ primary intention of playing music was for three reasons: 1. To make people feel happy.  2. To make people dance.  3. An emphasis on the people.  These were extremely critical in a time of despair for so many families across the United States.  

This new phenomenon became known as swing music.  Swing music started around 1929 and went until 1946.  It was considered a mainstream/pop style of music between 15-20 years.  It typically involved 17-18 musicians.  The sections were divided up into a horn section having multiple trumpeters, trombonists, and saxophonists.  It also generally had a 4 piece rhythmic section, including the upright bassist who replaced the tuba player, a pianist, a drummer, and a singer often called a crooner.

Key characteristics of swing music – although New Orleans jazz and swing are considered jazz styles, there are some fundamental differences.  Let’s explore some of these: 

  1. The band size of swing bands was much larger than the New Orleans bands.

  2. The music went from a 2 beat marching feel (played in New Orleans) to a 4 beat feel felt on the bass (played in swing jazz)

  3. The music became more arranged than improvised.  As we learned with New Orleans jazz, polyphony and improvisation were key elements.  Because swing was all about the people and making them dance, the music was composed and arranged.  Any improvisational parts were done in particular sections by individual instrumentalists.  

  4. The music became widely accepted, attracting white and black populations, whereas New Orleans was very rooted in the African-American demographic.

  5. Target market to mass market.  Think of a product that is targeted specifically to a particular demographic.  For example, playing an instrument is a target market directed only toward those who aspire to learn an instrument. Coca Cola is an example of a mass market.  You will find this in restaurants, sports venue, vending machines, grocery stores, etc.  Big Band music became highly mass marketed and was considered pop/mainstream music.  A key figure to the development of this was Benny Goodman.  We will learn more about him in our next class. 

The Impact of Swing Music – Despite economic difficulty during the recession, swing made a significant impact.  Couples would attend dance halls on Friday evenings to dance and romance to the swing music played.  Concert halls of hundreds and thousands of people would sell out.  Further, if people were unable to attend a concert or dance hall, the radio became a prevalent tool in almost every U.S. household by the 1930s.  In 1935, Benny Goodman was the first musician to impact the radio.  Families would tune in to hear his band once a week in the evenings.  Many other greats followed this.

Many prominent singers got their start playing in big bands.  Frank Sinatra started off with the Harry James Band in the late 30s and then played with the Tommy Dorsey Band before he developed a 50 year successful solo career where 3 stars were dedicated to him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!  Doris Day got her start with the Les Brown Band.  At this time, she was known for the classic song, “Sentimental Journey”, which became the theme song to the end of WWII in 1945.  Although her life was shortened, Billie Holiday started her career singing with Count Basie and Artie Shaw before developing a very successful solo career.  Finally, drumming icon Gene Krupa got his start with the Benny Goodman Band in the mid-30s before developing an illustrious music career who appeared on around 20 motion picture films!

The Decline of Swing Music

While big band started to spread in European bands in the late 30s, by the early 40s, many big band artists were enlisted in WWII.  This prevented them from producing music.  Further, we witnessed the tragic loss of Glen Miller who’s plane disappeared on his way to France to perform for troops in 1941.  We also saw the focal point of music change from instrumentation to singing.  The singer started to become the focus of a band.  Frank Sinatra was instrumental in the start of this when he played with Tommy Dorsey.  As a result of these changes, swing music was on the decline right at the end of WWII.  Some of the only well known musicians who maintained playing this style were Duke Ellington and Count Basie.  However, they also made adaptations to their styles to appeal to the new era of the 40s.


Instrumentation to Swing Music

In a common big band set up involving 17 musicians, you had 5 saxophonists.  These included 2 alto sax players, 2 tenor sax players, and 1 baritone sax player.  You also had 4 trumpeters and 4 trombonists.  One of the key inventions of the 20th century used in big band was the hybrid invention.  This was a jazz phone brass instrument shaped like a saxophone and played with a trumpet like mouthpiece.  The crooner was the male singer in the band, while the female was called the “Songstress”.  The tuba player was replaced by the bass player for the rhythm section.  Although the electric bass was not invented yet, the bassist would use an upright bass to convey the 4 beat feel.  The drummer would often play 4 on the flour in unison with the bassist to create a solid/infectious dance feel beat.  The guitar replaced the banjo because it had the capacity to have greater harmonic complexity.  While guitar solos are common during bridge sections of contemporary rock music, it’s important to note that this was primarily a time keeper during the big band era.  Musicians like Django Reinhardt were instrumental at bringing guitar at the forefront of soloing.  The piano was another key instrument used.  Pianists would often play an ostinato type of rhythm with the left hand, while the right hand would play embellished melodies.  The drum set grew from the New Orleans jazz era.  Toms were introduced, additional Chinese cymbals were introduced, and the hi-hat was the key instrument introduced.  This was invented in 1930 and became the primary time keeper for the drummer.  The drummer would keep time on the snare in New Orleans music influenced by the march sound, but then played the time on the hi-hat to convey the big band sound.  New Orleans drummers would choke the cymbal to keep time.  However, this was cumbersome for drummers since it involved both hands.  As a result, they created a snow shoe cymbal where you can get that same effect and saved the physicality of the hands moving back and forth.  

Harmony – swing style used simple chords and had a clear homophonic texture.  You may remember the key characteristic of New Orleans was polyphonic, but big band was mainly homophonic.

Melody – the melodies of swing were simple and retainable.  In other words, they were easy to remember.

Rhythm – There was a strong dance groove and backbeat used in swing music.  

Key Influences of Swing Big Band Music

Duke Ellington – was born in 1899.  He was a bandleader, arranger, and pianist.  His well known work included, “Take the ‘A Train”.  Considered to be the most significant composure of the era, Duke Ellington brought tremendous awareness of big band music to New York where he would play regularly at The Cotton Club in Harlem New York.

Benny Goodman – born in 1909, Benny Goodman was considered the “King of Swing”.  He was a clarinetist who was responsible commercializing and popularizing jazz music in the mid-30s during its peak.  Known for his innovations of playing with bebop artists and bringing in new technology to the big band sound, Goodman was also instrumental in diffusing racial segregation by hiring African-American musicians to play in his band.  One of his most popular works is “Sing, Sing, Sing” recorded in 1937.

Billie Holiday – born in 1915, Billie Holiday was embroiled with a difficult upbringing.  However, music was her outlet and she became one of the most profound female singers of this era.  She got her big band start playing with The Count Basie Band and Artie Shaw Band.  Her time in the big band era was influential, but short.  Because of her innovative and individualized singing style, Holiday developed a successful solo career in blues and traditional pop music.

Glenn Miller – born in 1904, Glenn Miller was an arranger, bandleader, composer, and trombonist.  Miller also attributed to the height and commercialization of big band.  One of his most popular works includes, “In the Mood” and “Moonlight Serenade”, which are still widely known today.  Miller was the best selling artist from 1939-1942.  He got his start playing with The Dorsey Brothers before starting his own band in 1937.  His style was considered a smooth kind of style that was highly commercialized during this era.

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