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

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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

* 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 Sony Jazz webmaster)
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