The Birth, Life, Death and Revival of Swing

By Samir Hussain

The recent Swing craze has brought with it a certain nostalgic air, largely fuelled by pleasant and carefree images of our grandparents' time stored in the minds of today's youth. However, the reality is that the time within which the Swing Era (1935-45) occurred was not one of peace and harmony, but rather one filled with racial tension, gender discrimination, adolescent unrest, poverty and war. Indeed, the Swing Era encompasses two of the world's most historical events of this century - the Great Depression (1929-1939) and World War II (1939-1945). Although Swing music does have a very happy and light mood to it, this is not to say that it is devoid of the heavy social, political and economic dynamics of the time. This paper will attempt to trace the beginnings of Swing, its ideology, its effects on American life, and causes of its downfall. It will also take a quick look at the current Swing revival.

The birth of Swing took place during the years of the Great Depression. While certain bands in the 1920s were already experimenting with the early sounds of Swing (Dance, 22), it is suggested that the "summer of 1929 began the journey toward the summer of 1935 and the official arrival of the Swing Era" (Hennessey, 123). Although one would assume that the formation of a big band would be rather difficult during this time of low wages and high unemployment, this was not the case, as there were many available musicians looking to work with new bandleaders (Barnet, 44). Nevertheless, although bands could be formed, economic factors were still of concern, as the bandleaders would often be strapped for cash. This was contributed to by several situations, two of the most important being the lack of disposable income of the populous, as well as the high costs of travelling, lodging and so on that were associated with performers taking to the road. Interestingly, for many groups, although being paid was important so that the musicians could support their families, high wages was not of primary concern so long as they felt that the music was good and the bandleader was being fair in how much he paid his musicians. Thus, "pride, potential, and most importantly, respect usually prevailed" (Simon, 5) over money matters.
At this point, then, there were a lot of big bands that had formed, and many began experimenting with the music to see where jazz could evolve. Starting in around 1931, Black bands, led by bandleaders such as Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, began developing the Swing style, which was established by 1933 (Hennessey, 133). These bands were responsible for changing the rhythm section from the tuba and banjo to the string bass and guitar, thus switching from a clumsy 2/4 to a steady 4/4 rhythm (Erenberg, 29). As well, such things as the advances in electric recording, and the increase of the band to 14 pieces (Hennessey, 136) contributed to the creation of Swing.
One of the most significant changes that occurred with the establishment of Swing was the role of the bandleader. This role went from one of being conductors to that of virtuoso bandleaders, who were known for their instrumental prowess (Pfeffer). Indeed, most big swing bands were formed around the bandleader and his instrument (Simon, 4), such as the trumpet, trombone, tenor, saxophone, piano or even the drums. Meanwhile, although the bandleader was likely the most important aspect of the new big bands, this is not to say that the sidemen were of little value. On the contrary, all the other members of the big band contributed a great deal, "especially in the swing bands, which depended upon them for so many solos" (Simon, 5). In many instances, a lot of these sidemen would achieve a level of proficiency high enough that they would split off from their original big band, and set off to start their own. Probably one of the most famous songs from the Swing Era would be Glenn Miller's "In the Mood". This piece was marked by the talent of Miller's sidemen, as Tex Benek and Al Klink were responsible for the series of tenor-sax passages (Simon, 11) which gave it its unique and easily identifiable sound. Thus, the bandleader and his sidemen would fit like hand-and-glove to the specific style that the big band would like to be associated with. For example, Benny Goodman was known for his hard-driving Swing, Glenn Miller for his commercial Swing, Count Basie for his simple and riff-filled Swing and Duke Ellington for his highly-developed Swing (Simon, 4).
Now that the fundamental groundwork for Swing had been laid out, it was simply up to the populace to embrace it. During the earlier part of the Depression, self-loathing sentimental music filled the airwaves. After years of this almost mournful music, people were in search of something that would lift their spirits.
The country, especially the kids, could envision happy, glistening daylight. Joy and excitement, the sort that can be expressed so ideally through swinging music and dancing, lay ahead. And Benny Goodman, the Pied Piper of Swing, had arrived to lead the way. (Simon, 27)

Although Benny Goodman was, without a doubt, the "Pied Piper" who would be bringing Swing to the masses, he did not accomplish this without some help. For example, Goodman's trademark song, "Sing, sing, sing", was actually originally composed by Louis Prima (Shea, 3), with a few minor changes in the musical notation; Prima would record the song in its original composition with Capitol Records in 1958 (Manning). As well, Fletcher Henderson wrote several arrangements for Benny Goodman's "Let's Dance" radio program, which helped "turn swing into a mass phenomenon equivalent to rock and roll" (Erenberg, 31). This reference to rock and roll is of particular interest as well when one considers the official beginning of the Swing Era. Similar to how Rockabilly became a national commercialised phenomenon following Elvis Presley's first prime-time national television appearance on Jackie Gleason's Stage Show in January of 1956 (Morrison, 66), the beginning of the large-scale acceptance of Swing was marked by Benny Goodman's appearance at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935 (Hennessey, 133).
The attraction of Swing by its young followers stemmed from the fact that it gave them "powerful visions of personal freedom and generational solidarity, defined a mass youth style around music, dance and fashion, and conveyed hopeful visions of the future" (Erenberg, 250). Indeed, the popularity of Swing among the younger generations was largely due to its ability to make them dance, like they had never done before. The characteristic dances of the time, such as the Charleston, Jitterbug, Lindy Hop, Shag, and Shim Sham (Sugarman), combined with the soaring music of the big bands would lift the people, filling them with an overwhelming feeling of well-being (Simon, 13). Interestingly, although Swing is as well known for its dancing as the music itself, bandleaders, such as Benny Goodman, felt that many dancers actually disrupted the band and took away from both the artistic and musical quality of the songs (Graham). Nevertheless, the skill and athletic prowess necessary for Swing dancing did not go unnoticed. A doctor from the American Flying Services even credited Swing music for its "salutary impact on the reflexes and conditioning of young fliers" (Stowe, 147). As such, the dancing tied to Swing would remain as intricately linked to its music as dances such as the Mash Potato, the Twist and Breakdancing would to theirs.
Swing's ideology was one of central importance if one is to understand why it gained such immense popularity. As well, understanding its ideology is also pertinent if one is to understand its effects on race-relations, gender issues, and adolescents’ attitudes. Quite simply, Swing involved a "belief in American exceptionalism, in ethnic pluralism and democratic equality [which] was ideally suited to the collective needs of a nation battling Fascism" (Stowe, 143). As well, through its egalitarian dancing, "swing was a public, democratic art that helped ease the gender and social tension of the era" (Erenberg, 251). In other words, by having partner dancing where both members were on the same footing, Swing was echoing the message of gender equality linked to the first wave of feminism (i.e. the suffragette movement) which had invaded the country in the earlier part of the century. The ideology of Swing proved to be so strong that by 1940 most Americans and even many foreigners attributed Swing to being "America's most distinctive contribution to the world's musical culture" (Stowe, 142). The true beauty of Swing was not in the fact that it had a noble purpose, but rather that people from all walks of life were accepting it. Whether they were men or women, young or old, Black or White, "every portion of society found some form of Swing favourable for their dancing or listening" (Pfeffer). This surely helped Swing's mission of "tolerance, mutual respect [and] even affection" (Stowe, 245) between peoples, as the large number of disciples of Swing would be allowed to preach the values of Swing to others.
The ideological stance of Swing music was primarily put to the test during World War II. At the beginning, it looked like Swing was actually accomplishing its mission of easing tensions between Blacks and Whites, as well as allowing for better understanding in more liberal gender roles and giving adolescents more freedom than their parents had enjoyed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that "music would help 'promote tolerance of minority groups in our midst' " (Stowe, 143). Indeed, even Malcolm X felt that racial barriers were often overlooked at dances when White bands such as Charlie Barnet's would play and drive the Black dancers wild (Barnet, 90). The Black nation, then, had a two-fold purpose for fighting in the war. One was the obvious purpose of defeating and taking Hitler out of power. The second was that Hitler's downfall would severely question the segregation and second-class citizenship that Black people found themselves in back home (Erenberg, 251). Swing would usher in a new era in race relations, "one in which culture and race could be imagined as distinct and separate" (Stowe, 245). The interesting aspect of Swing, then, was that it was a pioneering force in all areas of life insofar as race relations go. Whether it be baseball or television, "Swing was more racially and ethnically mixed than any other arena of American life" (Erenberg, 250). For example, bands lead by Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson were some representative of groups that had members from both races. As well, certain Black bandleaders, such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie, were given the chance to obtain national fame for the first time in Black musicians' history (Erenberg, 250).
Meanwhile overseas, in the Nazi state of Germany, the power of Swing’s global influence could be seen. Early on in the Nazi regime, around the time Hitler was appointed as Chancellor in 1933, "jazz was barred as an 'ugly squeaking of instruments offensive to our ears' " (Kris and Speier, 55). During the years previous to World War II, the radio waves in Germany were of great importance in spreading Nazi propaganda to its citizens. After a certain point, though, the propaganda-filled airwaves were said to be tiring to the ears of the German people. As such, the Reich's appointed minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, decreed that radio, used strictly for entertainment purposes, would be allowed. However, "although light entertainment was acceptable, jazz remained the antithesis of the Reich" (Bergmeier and Lotz, 144), likely due to the racial tolerance that Swing sought. By the time the Second World War came around, though, the German polity was willing to change their stance on popular music, such as Swing, in the hope of using it as a means to spread their ideas and philosophies to foreign countries through radio waves. In essence, then, Swing was being used as bait to get listeners tuning into its foreign-language broadcasts (Bergmeier and Lotz, 136), which contained highly propagandised lyrics. The feeling was that using such music would appeal to the listeners in Britain and even overseas, to those in America. Indeed, "propaganda broadcasts beamed at enemy or neutral countries was a coarsely satirical and viciously anti-Semitic rendering of [old songs]" (Bergmeier and Lotz, 148). For example, the martial hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers" was recorded, with changed lyrics and in a Swing tempo, as the "British Soldier's Song". Now, the propagandised lyrics involved such lines as "You must die for Poland, pay your debt of thanks to your benefactors: International banks!" and "[Go] forward to the slaughter for the Hebrews' gain" (Bergmeier and Lotz, 293), which painted the Jews, with immense viciousness, in an obviously unfavourable light.
The most prolific big band sending out propaganda songs over the airwaves (although not the one just mentioned) was the Lutz Templin Orchestra. It adopted the more Americanised name of Charlie and his Orchestra (which was fronted by Karl 'Charlie' Schwedler) for better acceptance in foreign countries (Bergmeier and Lotz, 149). Many of the titles put out by Charlie and his Orchestra were remakes of popular American or British Swing songs. If not, they would try to emulate the big names of Swing, with the resulting songs mimicking the joyous Swing music that the Dorsey Brothers, Harry James, Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman (Bergmeier and Lotz, 157) were playing in the United States. Perhaps, the largest irony surrounding the propaganda department's use of Swing, a music despised by the Nazis, was that it was being put out by Charlie and his Orchestra, which was composed of half-Jews, homosexuals, and Communists (Bergmeier and Lotz, 160). Thus, the very device being used to spread propaganda about racism and intolerance, was itself composed of the things the propaganda was trying to suppress!
The end of the Swing Era was marked by two main components. The first largely had to do with the direct effects of the war itself, while the second involved the failure of Swing's ideology to accomplish what it set out to do. The war itself had a tremendous impact on Swing, as towards the middle and end of the Second World War, jazz (and Swing in particular) was "quite suddenly shattered, never to come together again in quite the same way" (Shuller, 846). One of the causes of this was quite directly linked to the war in that members of the big bands were being forced to serve their country in the battle against Hitler and Fascism. Whether they be bandleaders or sidemen, big bands were losing many musicians to the draft (Barnet, 116). However, other consequences of the war also had negative impacts on Swing. For example, there were gas shortages, the government levied a 20% amusement tax and imposed a midnight curfew (Simon, 31). These all dissuaded people from going out, as transportation, disposable income and time constraints all became a concern. As well, the 1942 recording strike hurt the big bands and allowed solo singers, who sang sentimental music, to gain more popularity (Simon, 32). The presence of television in more and more homes was also a prime deterrent from going out. Finally, within the big bands themselves, either the band leaders got tired of offering sub-par music, or the few good big bands remaining became spoiled and competitive (Simon, 31). Thus, a large number of the "fans who had gone wild over the powerhouse music of the big swing bands became keener to listen to small jazz-orientated groups" (Chilton, 69).
Perhaps the largest cause of the fall of Swing was found in its very own ideology. Although Swing's ideology was surely noble, perhaps it was too idealistic for its time. Race-relations were likely better than in the past, but they never reached the level of acceptance that Swing sought. Similarly, on various other levels of society (e.g. gender issues, its influence on adolescents), Swing fell short of achieving its goals. All of these internal ideological conflicts proved to be Swing's own undoing.
The problems tied to the rising tensions in race-relations could be seen everywhere. For example, even big names like Cab Calloway were still having trouble using trains to get from one gig to another. This brought about the "hypocrisy of asking blacks to fight for [a] liberty they did not enjoy at home" (Stowe, 160), which began to fuel the fires in an escalating tension between Whites and Blacks. Many Black people also came to realise that even though there was progress made in that Swing allowed the mixing of Whites and Blacks in some groups, as well as having some Black performers escalate to celebrity status, all too often, Blacks were still underpaid and overplayed. As such, many of the 1960s radicals would define Swing as the "historical enemy of authentic black music" (Stowe, 244).
The year of 1943 was quite significant because of the Zoot Suit Riots that occurred in Los Angeles, and similar outbreaks which happened in the capital of Swing, New York City. The White fear of people having inter-racial sex as well as racial tensions between White sailors and Mexican American youths were the two main sources for the Zoot Suit Riots:
Mexican American youths were aggressively displaying themselves, battling for power and rights to women on the street … They wove a rebellious subculture around hot music and a clothing style [e.g. zoot suits] that mocked the restrictions of wartime sacrifice [which] only added to the anger of the sailors … The zoot suiters stood for the rapacious, unpatriotic darker males who would then grab their [the sailors'] women and overturn the social order. (Erenberg, 206)

This was echoed in the Cherry Poppin' Daddies recent big hit, "Zoot Suit Riot", which has lyrics like "Who's that whispering in the trees // It's two sailors and they're on leave // Pipes and chains and swinging hands…You had best stay away // When the pushers come to shove", which quite plainly deal with the notion of the angry sailors looking for a confrontation with the Mexican American youths. As well, it goes on to say "Now you sailors know // Where your women come for love", in which the singer seems to switch roles, and is now looking through the eyes of the Mexican American youths, talking about the romances they had with White women. References are also made to hot music and jitterbugging, which are expressions used when speaking of Swing. In New York City, meanwhile, the same thing was happening with Black people wearing zoot suits, and riots broke out there too, except this time it was between the White and Black communities. Quite simply, then, Swing was no longer the music of choice among the masses (Deffaa, 4). In the Black community, bebop would emerge, in the mid-forties, as the more popular form of jazz among Blacks, helping lead the Black movement, where Swing had failed. Similar to the "fundamentally contradictory nature of rock and roll…[which has] its various forms of empowerment and pleasure and its equally various forms of repression" (James, 82), Swing also ended up embodying a duality in its nature (e.g. setting out to quell racial tensions, but inadvertently starting new ones), which contributed to its downfall.
On the topic of gender issues, although it was hoped that aspects of Swing such as the dancing would rush in a new era of more egalitarianism, this was not the case. That is, although Black men were allowed to fight for their freedom on both fronts (i.e., that against Germany, and that within the country), "the war also revealed a significant blind spot in the Swing ideology … [in that] women did not benefit from the militant spirit of inclusion" (Stowe, 144). Consequently, women believing in equality started tuning themselves out from the music played by the big bands, as it was not succeeding in advancing women’s rights as it had intended.
Meanwhile, insofar as the American youths were concerned, "Swing provoked ambivalent reactions among the arbiters of mainstream American life [against the youth]" (Stowe, 146), as Swing was felt to be the cause of the rise in juvenile delinquency. The sexual type of dancing, the late hours, the inter-racial mixing, working women and absent fathers, were reasons enough for the powers-that-be to call a close on 'jook joints' and to ban jukeboxes (Stowe, 146). Thus, although Swing had sought to bring about simple joy and fun into the lives of the younger generation, it ended up getting them reprimanded for embracing it.
The contributions to the demise of Swing both directly due to the war and also from the internal conflict of its ideology overshadow other factors that might have been involved. For example, some critics felt that Swing was a music that did not change as jazz was supposed to; it remained too static. Swing was even accused of impeding jazz's evolutionary tendencies. For this reason, Swing was "destined to die of its own internal inertia" (Shuller, 846). Regardless of the cause, or several causes, Swing would not last as America's music. Indeed, in 1946, a dozen years "after Benny Goodman blew the first signs of life into the big band bubble, that bubble burst with a concerted bang" (Simon, 32). Within a span of a few weeks, eight of America's most famous big bands (headed by such names as: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, Harry James, Jack Teagarden, Benny Carter, Ina Ray Hutton, Woody Herman) called it quits (Simon, 32).
The current Swing revival, although really coming into its own of late, showed signs of life when people got interested in big bands in the early-80s (Simon, 561) and with the revitalisation of Swing dancing from the mid to late-80s (Deffaa, 7). One of the main reasons why people seem to be getting so involved with this latest Swing movement is tied to the similarities the youths of today share with those of the original Swing Era. In this day and age, youths and adolescents "inhabit an especially grim world that does not like them, does not want them, and (as they see it) has nothing to offer them" (Howe and Strauss, 331). In a similar vein, "during the early 1930's, young people … felt conflicted about the dreams they were expected to fulfil (Erenberg, 17). They, too, lived in a time when there was great uncertainty around them, especially with the Depression and the looming Second World War. The current decade's youth, meanwhile, "defined nineties rock with an angry metal/punk and rap, which reflected their fears, frustration, desperation and hopes" (Szatmary, 274). Perhaps, now, though, these very same youths have become tired of the bad reputation attributed to them by their elders and annoyed with the desolate, depressing music they have been listening to. As a result, the nineties' rock group's "three-chord guitarists and their musical immaturity don't appeal [to the youths] anymore" (Simon, 563). The reason Swing is so attractive to the youth is likely because of the joyous alternative it offers "to a generation that came of age during the AIDS crisis" (Pfeffer) and one which has been told that it will not amount to anything by the older generations (Howe and Strauss, 321). As a consequence, teens and young adults from all walks of life are flocking to the Swing clubs. Whether they are grunge kids, Wall Street traders or college students (Pfeffer), these people in their twenties and thirties are enjoying the sounds of the 1940's, but they are "listening with pierced ears (not to mention noses, eyebrows and navels) that suggest they have also absorbed the culture and music of the 90's" (Eig, 58).
James Anchor, a guitarist with the Royal Crown Revue, said that "jazz lost the party atmosphere it started out in, and [by playing Swing music] we're trying to bring back that intensity of having a good time" (Eig, 63). Indeed, this search to finding a good time can be seen by the resurgence of many relics of an older era, such as wing-tipped shoes, three-piece suits, martinis, and cigars (Graham). Perhaps one of the most important remnants of the original Swing Era, which the youth of today seem to be trying to re-create, then, is the resurgence of partner dancing, which hasn't been seen since Chubby Checker killed it off with "The Twist" in the early 1960s (Pfeffer). The fact that Swing dancing is both a return to elegance, as well as being "more fun than anything else you can do with so many clothes on" (Eig, 53) encapsulates this generation's love for Swing. The importance attributed to dancing in Swing's current revival can easily be seen by the strong rivalry found between the dance of the East Coast (which is considered purer and faster) and that of the West Coast (which is considered sultrier and slower), which are constantly in competition with one another (Pfeffer). Surely, without the dancing as a main attraction, Swing would likely not have received the cult status that it has acquired in its revival.
Comparisons of the two eras of Swing on a more musical level also yield some interesting results. The original Swing Era involved "jazz and pop music [converging] to a degree that had never happened before" (Deffaa, 3), while the current revival is characterised by a "fusion of old jazz and the modern rock band" (Graham). Similarly, while the youths of the original Swing Era would often have roots in jazz, the people enjoying Swing now "are influenced not just by jazz, but also by punk, ska, rockabilly and a lot of testosterone" (Eig, 58). This can be further explained by the fact that certain Swing revival groups, such as the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, incorporate the "sassy side of the big band era with the energy of punk and the good vibes of ska" (Sugarman). Some of the technical changes that have occurred in Swing music involve the replacement of the clarinet by the tenor sax, the use of the drummer for solos (no longer used only to keep time), the presence of vocalists, and a smaller band due to the advances in amplification technology (Graham). In all likelihood, these types of changes were all necessary for Swing to have been embraced as it has. Brian Setzer, a large proponent in Swing's revival, finds that too many bands are trying to play it exactly as it was played originally (Enright, 22). He says that by changing things, such as adding a guitar to the front of the big band, the whole Swing revival will be a little different from the way it sounded back then. Another way in which the music is changing, is that it has become faster. Interestingly, such pieces as Tommy Dorsey's "Opus One", which were not as well-accepted in the original Swing Era because of its almost frantic nature (Pfeffer), might be a pioneering force for such bands as Big Bad VooDoo Daddy, the Flying Neutrinos, the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Flipped Fedoras, "with their modern, updated and somewhat faster paced take on big-band era music" (Pfeffer). Finally, one of the most famous songs of the current revival, which underwent significant changes when re-done by Setzer, was Louis Prima's "Jump, Jive an' Wail". It has been made famous, once again, thanks to the GAP commercial, which has been credited with bringing Swing to the masses (Enright, 26) and validating the revival (Sugarman). By substituting chords, adding modulations, using a guitar solo, incorporating an a cappella part and using a slap bass (Enright, 24), Setzer was able to add some new life into Prima's song.

The original Swing Era was marked by great racial, gender and age-induced tensions. Although it was established as an instrument that would alleviate the woes of American society, it unfortunately inadvertently ended up complicating things further, by heightening racial barriers, placing a greater wedge between men and women and forcing young people in a position where they would be scorned. Even though Swing's history and lifetime was marked with trials and tribulations, it nevertheless played a huge positive role in American life for a while, being "transformed into a galvanising symbol of national purpose" (Stowe, 142). Indeed, its sphere of influence was so large across the globe that even the Nazi regime used Swing as a means of spreading their propaganda to neutral or enemy states. Now, however, with the Swing revival in full force, we can perhaps see how the vision of the forefathers of Swing has been realised: Swing clubs, such as the Cat Club in New York City, "have got to be the most thoroughly integrated - in terms of age, race and social status - scene [in today's nightlife]" (Deffaa, 8). Although it has taken over 60 years, Swing can now exist in a time when the social harmony it set out to achieve - on racial, gender and generational levels - is present and flourishing.


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