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The History Of Jazz - Part 3 - The Age Of Swing

If you are already a jazz aficionado you will already be aware of the following details so this article is aimed at those of you who are 'new to Jazz' or 'catching up'.

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The History Of Jazz - Part 3 - The Age Of Swing

The ‘Age Of Swing' was again largely a tale of two cities, this time, New York and Kansas City. The Big Apple became more and more the mecca for musicians from all over the USA and hence the capital of the jazz world (which it has remained more or less ever since).

There were hundreds of jazz orchestras all over America in the Thirties, the so called 'territory bands', many of which never recorded but sooner or later most of the best bands and musicians ended up in New York and it was there that most of the vital developments occurred.

By the early Thirties the major black bands were working out of New York i.e. Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Luis Russell and Cab Calloway to name a few and had become a sort of ‘first division’ of the jazz world gathering up most of the finest musicians in the country. These in turn set about inventing personal variations of the current idio, basically Louis Armstrong’s style adapted to their own instrument. It was a fiercely competitive world in which trumpeter would battle trumpeter, clarinettist would challenge clarinettist, and so on in the many after-hours clubs.

The object of the competition was to play higher or faster than the next guy, to improvise more inventively or display a more beautiful tone. The best jobs went to those with something different to offer. Hence the characteristic variety of ‘Swing Jazz’. On every instrument in this era it is possible to list half a dozen or more players, all more or less equally good and yet all offering a ‘distinctive sound’.
By the end of the decade, partly through this process of competition, the music itself had become faster, lighter and built increasingly around repeated short phrases riffs.

This was the ‘Small Group Swing Sound’ that became associated with the more intimate clubs in New York, many of which were on 52nd Street. It is the style characteristic of small bands like the John Kirby Orchestra and the Benny Goodman Sextet, the various little groups drawn from the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands and the recording sessions made under the names of Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson.

In the late Thirties and Forties, the New York jazz scene was enriched by a regional invasion from the South West, a huge swathe of land stretching down from the Great Plains into the Texas blues territory. This area had been full of musical activity since the Twenties although many of the South Western bands were not recorded well.  Music thrived, especially in Kansas City, a wide open unruly town where the clubs and bars never closed and musicians never lacked work.

The one common factor in Kansas City music was the blues. Texan and South Western tenor saxophonists like Herschel Evans, Buddy Tate, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and Budd Johnson had a natural way with them which northern musicians could seldom rival. Also they swung with an easy and flow that was freer and more insistent than jazz rhythm had ever been before.

Both characteristics were shown to perfection by the Count Basie Band when it descended upon New York in 1937. The Basie Rhythm Section had perfected a 4/4 beat which arguably swings as much as anything that has been heard before, or since. This was partly the result of the lightness and speed of the drummer Jo Jones, partly the tact of Basie himself in paring down the piano contribution to the bare essentials, (a style that was replicated in the future by Miles Davis), partly the unanimity of the bassist Walter Page and guitarist Freddie Greene in putting the ‘wheels’ under every beat.

Less is more’ was the lesson of Basie and Kansas City. In fact the whole band swung as never before on blues-based arrangements which were even more simple and more infectious than those of Fletcher Henderson.  Most of these were ‘heads’ made up collectively by the band. Many of the most important musicians of the next few years, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Charlie Christian came from the South West.

Meanwhile ‘Swing’ in another sense had conquered the world.  Armed with Fletcher Henderson's conception of the Big Band and many of Henderson's actual arrangements the white band led by Benny Goodman became a national sensation in 1935. In the next few years Big Band Swing became the dominant pop music of the world and the leading bandleaders i.e. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey were the stars of the day.

Most of them mixed more or less schmaltz with their jazz, certainly the aforementioned ones were capable of producing absolutely outstanding music from time to time, although perhaps only the finest black bands, Ellington and Basie in particular consistently turned out the ‘truly great jazz’, but the Big Band scenario was invaluable ‘training grounds’, both for listeners and musicians. It was in the Big Bands that generations of jazz musicians received their musical education.

The Big Band craze was over by the mid Forties but that was by no means the end of Swing Jazz. The Swing survivors were submerged by the fashions for ' Bop' and 'Cool Jazz' but re-emerged in the late Fifties with their music rechristened ‘Mainstream’.  At this stage men like Coleman Hawkins, Henry Red Allen and Pee Wee Russell did much of their finest work. Many Swing veterans like Buddy Tate and the trombonist Vic Dickenson were still playing superbly in the Seventies.

A few major figures still perform regularly today and over the years, they have been joined by a steady stream of recruits to the idiom including the cornetist Ruby Braff and tenor player Scott Hamilton.  In the Eighties a splendid 'Mainstream' band appeared in New York led by two musicians in their thirties, Dan Barrett and Howard Alden.

All in all the 'Age Of Swing' style has proved itself remarkably durable.

Next Time in Part 4 - Then Came Bebop 

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The History Of Jazz - Part 4 - Then Came Bebop

Bebop, the jazz insurrection of the Forties was the first jazz style to come along since Louis Armstrong that was in every respect new and different. It was almost as if the inventors of bop had sat down and said to themselves 'Is that how the older guys play?, well we're going to do it the other way round'.

The difference between Bop and Swing is often seen as an harmonic question, a switch from diatonic to chromatic harmony, but there were other changes just as fundamental, notably a quickening of the pulse of jazz.

Bop players loved quicksilver runs and were fond of doubling the tempo even when they were playing ballads. Much of the most characteristic bop however was played at an astonishing, unprecedented pace. 'That horn ain't spos'd to sound that fast' the swing tenor saxophonist Ben Webster is said to have declared on first hearing of Charlie Parker's playing.

Bop musicians also did away with the polished instrumental tones of the swing era e.g. growls, smears and tonal effects were out. Dizzy Gillespie was an example, built on Roy Eldridge's phenomenal ability to play high and fast on the trumpet. In time he played higher and faster than his model, on the edge of what is technically possible on the trumpet, but he was not interested in the hot sizzle of Eldridge's vibrato and the stress in bop phrasing was often the reverse of swing-on weak beats, not strong ones.

Altogether strange harmonies, hell-for-leather speed, inverted phrasing, funny new instrumental tones, bop had an exotic sound to the conventional ear, hence the bandleader Cab Calloway's description of it as 'Chinese Music'.

Some of the older generation, like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young played with boppers but none could completely transfer to the style themselves. Bop was a watershed in jazz history.

The style was forged by the elite of younger black musicians, it was the music of a coterie, played in little clubs for people 'in the know'. Later on it acquired a following but it was never the dominant popular idiom of the Forties that was provided by singers like Frank Sinatra and the trappings of the bebop fans i.e. the dark glasses, berets and goatee beards (imitated from Gillespie) stressed that they were members of an esoteric inner circle.

You needed to be knowledgeable to appreciate this complex, fiercely compressed music. With bop, jazz not only split into separate camps, it also split off from the broad mass of popular music. It became an art, a highbrow affair.

In 1939 - 1941 the forerunners of bop liked to meet in two Harlem clubs, Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House with the leaders-to-be of the bop revolution, guitarist Charlie Christian, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist Thelonious Monk for whom live recordings exist of sessions at Minton's and other Harlem clubs in 1940 and 1941.

Who contributed what to bop? - The accent on the bass drum (the name bebop seems to have begun as an onomatopoeic way of describing a drum pattern).

Thelonious Monk put in a lot of harmonic ideas as did Gillespie himself, but Parker and Gillespie were seen as the leaders by other musicians.

Of the two Gillespie, the steadier character was the one who rapidly became a famous name, the public face of bop. With his mischievous humour, his beard and beret he had an image as recognizable as Armstrong's handkerchief and wonderful grin.

He conducted his career with the shrewdness and stamina of an Ellington or a Hampton ('Dizzy is like a fox' someone once said of him), but wonderful though Dizzy was, Charlie Parker was the improvising genius. It was Parker who demonstrated the potential of the style with overwhelming power, just like Armstrong had done for Swing.

The first full recording sessions by bop bands do not come until 1944 and 1945, by which time, especially in Parker's masterly tracks from the latter year, the music had been refined to perfection.

By then too a number of important new figures had arrived. In the brilliant, psychologically unstable pianist Bud Powell, the new music found its most influential keyboard performer. A young drummer, Max Roach applied the lessons of Kenny Clarke with more rhythmic freedom. J. J. Johnson attempted the difficult task of playing bop on the slide trombone. Milt Jackson did the same for the vibes. Two trumpeters, Fats Navarro and Miles Davis appeared with less fiery, more reflective ways of playing than Gillespie.

Over the next few years the key bop records were made. Among the most important were Parker's on 'Savoy' and 'Dial'. Gillespie endeavoured to translate bop into big-band terms, while Tadd Dameron (with Navarro on trumpet) and Thelonious Monk made a superb series of recordings which in different ways showed how the music could be moulded by the sensibility of a composer.

By the late Forties Bop had Swing on the run. Most of the younger generation of players were more or less marked by it and in time Bop became the basis of the modern jazz of the Fifties.

Since then Bop has had many rivals but in the early Nineties, a full half century after those young revolutionaries met at Minton's, it is still more likely than not that an up-and-coming musician will take Parker, Gillespie or Bud Powell for a role model.

Next Time in Part 5 - The Sound Of Cool Jazz ( click link )

* Also see :- Louis Armstrong Biography
* Also see :- Dave Brubeck Biography
* Also see :- John Hammond Biography
* Also see :- Nica de Koenigswarter Biography
* Also see :- 52nd Street
* Also see :- Tin Pan Alley

Wes George (former Webmaster with Sony Jazz UK)  
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