Saturday, September 19, 2009

Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Count Basie: Swing Music Part One

Swing music came into prominence during the Great Depression, and became the most popular jazz form in the 20th Century. It's impact as the major popular musical art form spanned just a little over a decade. To me, Swing represents the High Renaissance of band music in America.    It had a major impact on racial culture as well, as the first integrated dance halls in the United States were in New York City's Harlem section in  the mid-1930's. This was made possible by the  popularity of Swing . 

 When many white fans of this driving form of music think of Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw when they think of Swing, the music grew out of the African-American bands of the 1920's. The most important swing pioneer was  Fletcher Henderson.  Henderson was a bandleader in the early 1920's and was also a genius at arrangements.  HIs popularity with his own band grew in part from his great talent with bringing major jazz stars like Louis Armstrong to New York City to play in his orchestra.  Here's a sample of Fletcher's band:

Henderson's had to abandon his own big band due to the hardships of the Depression and the loss of top talent to other orchestras. In 1931, he became an arranger for other bands.      In 1934, he sold many of his arrangements to Benny Goodman (1906-1984), who was doing a radio dance band show called "Let's Dance" in New York.  The next year Goodman "broke through" in a big way, thanks to a ground-breaking moment at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in August 1935, that is one of the most famous in Swing Music history. 

From the official Benny Goodman website: 

Then Benny heard that NBC was looking for three bands to rotate on a new Saturday night broadcast to be called "Let's Dance," a phrase that has been associated with the Goodman band ever since. One band on the show was to be sweet, one Latin, and the third hot. The Goodman band was hot enough to get the job, but not hot enough to satisfy Benny. He brought in Gene Krupa on drums. Fletcher Henderson began writing the arrangements - arrangements that still sound fresh more than a half century later. And the band rehearsed endlessly to achieve the precise tempos, section playing and phrasing that ushered in a new era in American music. There was only one word that could describe this band's style adequately: Swing.

After six months of broadcasting coast to coast the band was ready for a cross-country tour. The band was ready but the country was not. The tour was a disaster until its last date in August, 1935, at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. The only plausible explanation for what happened there is that "Let's Dance" was aired three hours earlier on the west coast than in the east. The kids in Los Angeles had been listening, and thousands of them turned out to hear the band in person at the Palomar. They hadn't even come to dance; instead they crowded around the bandstand just to listen. It was a new kind of music with a new kind of audience, and their meeting at the Palomar made national headlines.

 ...with a high-energy swing sound that set him and his musicians apart from the "sweet bands" that had previously been favored by white audiences.  
The video below features the Count Basie Band doing his own variation on the new sound.  Basie's Kansas City sound was the next major  break-out band, starting in 1938 with the success of "Oone O'Clock Jump".   Here's the Count doing  his first major hit in a 1950 performance.


  1. Swing music was my favourite to sing, having done a bit of jazz with a friend's band during our uni days. It was great fun and my voice adapted well.


  2. Did I spot Krupa on the drums? A friend of mine plays along with his recordings. Some of those old bands had a great sound.

    Thank you for loading those, Doug.

  3. Of all popular music forms Swing is one with which I have had the least connection. Quintessentially American, Swing represents to me the Prohibition era, the beginning of US cultural exports on a global scale and the arrival of Pax Americana. Whilst this became a popular art-form in Europe in the post-war period, the post-Glenn Miller era during the late 40s and early 50s, when bands like the The Dutch College Swing Band became big hits, it was a symptom of Bretton Woods, the Marshall Plan and the Americanisation of the record business and popular culture. I am old enough to remember Swing music on the radio when I was a kid and the music of my own generation was I think a reaction to that big band sound and the big buck globalised entertainment that dominated the newly invented leisure industry (and in many ways still does) . I can therefore appreciate it as genre and a historical movement, but one with which I have very little personal identification with myself. Thanks for posting your own views of this era in American music Doug and a snapshot of its impact between the wars. The whole purpose of blogging is I think to share such insights and interests and broaden our perspective on things we haven't previously given much thought to.

  4. I always imagined how fun it would be to sing some of these great tunes. How fun it is to know this music has found a permanent niche in our culture. Thanks Red.

  5. Glad you spotted Gene Krupa, Cassandra, because I forgot to mention that both Harry James and Krupa left the Benny Goodman Band a couple years after this performance (from Warner Bros. "Hollywood Hotel", 1937) was shot to form their own respective bands.

    I imagine your friend has to have a first class and "wicked" sense of rhythm to keep up the Krupa recordings. He and Chic Webb were the best in the business back then.

  6. Coming from a major jazz guy, Jim, I appreciate that.

  7. I'm glad you let your feelings be known on the Swing phenomenon in time, AA! This year I will put off sending you that 4-CD collection of "Glenn Miller and His All- Dollar Power Band : Live from Bretton Woods".

    I have several copies of this collection, given me--and millions of other Americans-- by the State Department Cultural Hegemony Bureau (CHB). We are instructed to ship these to foreign friends and win them over to Pax Americana with some "jitterbugging jive". It's not been easy to unload this stuff in the past eight years, but I have to think of the tax advantages ;-)

    Thanks for reminding me that pop culture comes with cultural baggage and cannot be separated from economic power when it comes out of the USA. In my case Swing appreciation I present here was a broadening of my perspective as a young person, and it helped give a slightly more individual identity from my other friends. I didn't consider at the time how much Swing had, like rock and roll, led to a needed counter-reaction. To me it was buried treasure. I will explore this more personally in a couple days when I do the second leg of this blog.

  8. You give me way more credit than will ever be due my friend. Thank you all the same.

  9. Ah, I thought it was Krupa. Yes, my friend is pretty good and has he own recording studio set up in a garage. He kind of fits in with Krupa rather than plays the exact same way. That guy is really fast and actually looks out of it when he's playing.
    My friend also plays along with the Stan Kenton band. He only likes the earlier recordings.
    I was watching "It Happened in Sun Valley" the other day and Benny Goodmans band was in it.

    Those big bands were really something.

  10. LOL thanks Doug but I've already got it, I think. It really is the music of the 'over sexed and over here' generation that were my parents, for them it was rebellious from whatever passed for popular entertainment before. The music was fast and frantically paced and led to dances being banned from dance halls, as the young women being flung into the air by their partners showed their stocking tops and underwear. Jazz continued to be popular in the UK... unsurprisingly. Pablo in Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf is a jazz musician in Germany of that era and an archetype that I particularly admired in my youth. When we start talking the Magic Theatre we are not a million miles away from buried treasures I think.

  11. Superb stuff. So much passion and life wrapped around every note. ..


  12. "Out of it" is good way to describe Krupa's style, Cassandra. What energy! He 's like a heavy metal drummer set down four decades earlier. He had a bit of problem with drugs sadly, but recordings like "Drum Boogie" are plain awesome.

    I like a lot of Stan Kenton's work, too ("Artistry in Rhythm", "The Peanut Vendor") --his most famous of course was the more sedate but sexy "Girl From Ipenema" with Brazil's Gilberto Joao.

    One of the best things about those older musicals would've been the chance to see a major big band on the big screen. Without television around, this was the closest fans got to see their favorite players and singers.

  13. A problem over here in the USA as well, AA, a land of puritans and blue-noses that rivaled staid Britain for decorum as a way of life.

    It wasn't until I saw some of those feature films about World War II in homeland Britain (like John Schlesinger's "Yanks") and read "Allies" by John Eisenhower (The General's son) that I realized how 'invaded' the British must have felt between 1942--45 with all the American troops and air men arriving en masse in small communities.

    Here's a bit more on Swing's impact in America.

  14. I think that's a key to it, Frank. There was a passion to that music that wasn't in mainstream music before. It had that romance and great tempo that made people forget their problems for a while.

  15. Having watched a video of Krupa one can see how he needed those drugs. Maybe to start with they gave him the energy levels he had to cope with. His style of playing easily travelled down the ages, judging by my friend, who is 34 and totally admires Krupa. He also admires the bass player in the same Goodman band, but I don't know his name.

    When my friend plays Kenton's music, the walls seem to shake. Fortunately his neighbours are some way off. That must have been a huge band! I didn't know he played "Girl from Ipenema".

    Yes, the old movies keep all the bands alive and so much more for us to enjoy.

    I remember the first time I saw the splendid, "Alexander Nevsky" it could have been lost to us forever, but was somehow preserved. Wonderful to have been able to get a copy so well restored.

  16. How great that musicians can still inspire thanks to recordings, films, etc. The big bands are amazing to me as well for their sheer size.

    They went out of style after World War II, with a lot of the Big Band leaders going toward octets and quintets for touring purposes. Some groups like Louis Armstrong's All-Stars managed to tour into the Fifties, but bebop cool jazz captured more of the audiences until "rock and roll" brought the next big social revolution.

    Groups like the modern Brian Setzer Orchestra and the Squirrel Nut Zippers bring back some of that energy with the modern "dirty boogie" sound. I believe Setzer was formally with The Stray Cats.

    I love it when classic films can be restored. So much is lost, but I won' get started there. I don't think I've seen a quality print of "Alexander Nevsky", Cassandra, just o.k. ones on television. I did see a restoration of "The Blue Angel" with Marlena Dietrich and Emil Jennings put out by Kino Video. Seeing a great print made all the difference!

    German cinema before Hitler had incredible technical expertise---most of those experts fled for Hollywood and recreated American films for the better, but it was quite a struggle for most of the emigrants.

    Goodman's brother, Harry, played bass with the BG Band in the 1930's before starting his own band. I doubt that's who your friend might be thinking of, however.

  17. Of course Doug, thanks for pointing that out....and thanks for posting this clip as well. I had not really thought of Swing as the social glue that held some sections of American society together in the face of adversity that also broke down social barriers. I suppose those cultural references didn't occur to me because by the time I came along Swing sort of represented the staid Sunday evening BBC light entertainment station and a new musical revolution had begun by that time. I do think that the stripped down guitar, bass and drum rock band was a reaction to big bands as well as a statement about amplification and electronic wizardry. The acoustic folk scene was the final reduction perhaps but that tipped the balance and slick Chicago Blues smuggled the brass section back into the club scene. So I wonder what new cultural delights await us from the depths of the unfolding economic depression, every cloud has a silver lining Doug. Thanks for the heads up on this one.

  18. Yes, I think cronology is everything in music appreciation, AA. There's always a more toward the mannerist approach to copying what's come before--like the reincarnation of the Big Band Sound, which reached its nadir in Lawrence Welk and other bands that slowed the tempo to the point of petrification. I don't the Be Bop ever caught on quite as well mainstream as mush as great talents like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, deserved. But rock and roll and folk music did and that brought some of he original blues sound back into vouge, thinking of early Elvis especially, but also the R & B sound with Muddy Waters and, of course, Bo Diddley and later Little Richard, for example. So many branches and cross fertilizations it would take a music critic to do it justice.

    I have no idea what's going to come next but I think your analysis is on the mark. Thanks AA.