Archive for the ‘Radio Open Source Conversations’ category

Swing 101 (As Taught By A Tyro!)

December 15, 2007

Hi there, Open Sourcers (and anyone else wandering by). This post continues a conversation begun on the Oliver Sacks thread at Radio Open Source. Bobby, Potter, and Chris are each likely and welcome to read this and to perhaps comment – but so can anyone else. Please take the following avalanche of words and suggestions not from a self-styled ‘authority’ (I promise you I ain’t) but instead from an untutored, barely jazz-literate neophyte enthusiast.

Before anything else, ya gotta understand that the Swing Era proper – the early 1930’s to the mid to late 40’s – preceded entirely the advent of the LP. There are no Abbey Roads or Exile On Main Streets. No seminal, opus-length, carefully chosen and sequenced blocks of songs that can effectively define a band or an artist, or that can define even one stylistic phase of an artist or band.
Swing was composed and arranged for performance with two factors in mind above all others: (1) the three minute limit of the 78rpm record side, and (2) the dancehalls within which Swing (the Big Band variety especially) was typically played live.
Swing songs are therefore (mostly): a) dance-like; and b) nowadays found on CD’s whose contemporary compilers each have their own artistic purposes or commercial agendas. You’ll find CD’s of gifted soloists or singers whose individual tracks come from not only an unpredictably wide range of recordings dates, but, and even more confusingly, from a diverse slate of bands. For example, I’ve got a Bunny Berigan compilation that begins with a 1935 Gene Gifford & his Orchestra side (“Nothin’ But The Blues”), then retreats a year to a 1934 Frankie Trumbauer & his Orchestra side, then resumes a truly chronological sequence throughout with multiple sides from Benny Goodman & his Orchestra, Tommy Dorsey & his Orchestra, and, yes, eventually, Bunny Berigan & his Orchestra (because soloists who became famous almost always earned a chance to front their own outfits). And that eclectic Berigan compilation is (believe it or not) one of the more logically arranged of the many compilations typically available. (I’ve an even more confusing Coleman Hawkins compilation.)

Sooo…my goal is to suggest a sampling of Swing songs that will appeal enough to ‘hook’ you (although a couple of Saturday nights with Amanda Wilde’s The Swing Years will surely do it better than can I). But the songs I want to suggest aren’t denizens of specific album environments like the Stones’ unsurpassed “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” – placed so perfectly between the ballad “Wild Horses” and the classic blues “You Got To Move” on Sticky Fingers, or like the final stunning rock suite on Abbey Road – which wouldn’t have nearly the same emotional impact were it heard independent from its album’s preceding songs. Instead – and problematically – the songs I want to recommend are each on DOZENS of different CD’s, each of which of is product of its own compiler’s agenda—and many of which suffer in relative sound quality. (Although some are much better than others, and I don’t know exactly why.)

After long consideration, my solution is to suggest a few different compilations for each of the artists/bands in this ‘Swing 101’ post, and to additionally suggest that you give the multi-disc sets more serious consideration than you might otherwise – even though you don’t yet know how much you might like Swing as a musical form. One advantage of the multi-disc sets is economy: if you count the songs per compilation and figure out the price/per song, the big sets nearly always give much more bang for the buck than the single-disc compilations – and often at a ridiculously appealing ratio. (But not always!) Plus, the big sets almost always offer a wider chronological (and therefore stylistic) range of a band/artist’s material than the single discs do. (But not always!)

Right. Now you know the “why’s” of the following suggestions…

Britain’s Proper Records does us neophytes a great service with their ‘Properboxes’ – 4 disc sets including lush explanatory booklets (each including an exacting discography). Originally I’d planned to simply suggest the following four Properboxes:
1. Duke Ellington
2. Billie Holiday
3. Benny Goodman
4. Count Basie
…but have decided to go further and a bit differently. Partly because, despite how cheaply you can get these, you might prefer single disc options instead – at least at first, before the Swing Bug’s bite incurably infects you. 😉

1. BG

Benny Goodman was the “King of Swing” and, unlike Paul Whiteman (who was crowned “King of Jazz” in the 1920’s when his band’s music barely qualified as jazz), BG deserved the title. He was the best clarinetist in jazz…and the leader of one of the great Swing orchestras. Goodman’s success in 1935 did a great deal to launch the big band era. – Scott Yanow, Swing, p.59

Thus Goodman – not Ellington – deserves first mention in any “Swing 101”. I think we can fairly say that Ellington precedes, inhabits, and follows the Swing Era in his personal stylistic evolutions; and that his genius infuses, encompasses, transcends, and eventually surpasses Swing. And we must also candidly admit that we can’t say the same of Benny Goodman (& I love BG). Goodman gamely attempted jazz’s initial post-Swing evolution – bebop – but didn’t really like it. He soon returned to his primary love, Swing, and remained true to it (and thus to himself and to his legacy) until his demise. This unwillingness to evolve seems to limit BG’s esteem in the opinions of many contemporary jazz aficionados (some of whom are more snobbish than they might care to admit), but such condescending judgments aren’t really fair, in my humble neophyte’s opinion.

Because Swing’s rise in popularity owes more to BG’s successes than to any others. This means, simultaneously, that the rise of popularity of jazz itself owes more to BG than many might realize: jazz became America’s popular music on the back of BG’s hot and tightly orchestrated performances of Fletcher Henderson’s fabulous arrangements – a popularization that Henderson’s African-American band could not have managed by themselves. It was BG’s 1935 white big band, not Ellington’s or Lunceford’s or Hines’s or Erskine Hawkins’s, that began the Swing craze which culminated by 1938 with a first-ever Carnegie Hall jazz concert (featuring, at Goodman’s insistence, black jazz greats onstage with his white big band). The 1935 Henderson-by-Goodman arrangements aired nationally on a radio program called Let’s Dance, and this CD – 1935 Let’s Dance Broadcasts – contains the best 63 minutes of that program’s surviving transcriptions.

The sound is less than perfect (despite what the generous reviewer says on that Amazon page), but, despite the pops and crackles, it’s plenty good enough – and the performances are nothing shy of goddamned great. From the get-go it rocks hard (or swings hot, to be more descriptively true to the era) with the instrumental “Hunkdola”, then introduces us to the fantastic Helen Ward – Swing’s most under-appreciated singer. I am not exaggerating in the least. She’s fricking outstanding—although her best songs on this CD come later, such as on the Broadway show-tune hit of that year, “She’s A Latin From Manhattan”, and shortly thereafter on the best version of “I’m Livin’ In A Great Big Way” that I’ve yet heard. The CD’s greatest moments come toward the end: “Right About Face” (the 18 year-old Miss Ward again) followed by a light and fun instrumental “Walk, Jenny, Walk”; then, after an unfortunately truncated Ward rendition of “Every Little Moment” and “I Was Lucky”, the best three in a row: the instrumentals “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “King Porter Stomp”, and then the powerful Ward again on “The Dixieland Band”.

That version of the 1920’s & 30’s standard “King Porter Stomp”, by the way, is the hottest, hardest-hitting of the dozens of versions I’ve heard in my nascent Swing-nut career. Concluding the fun is another hot instrumental, “Bugle Call Rag”, and with it a 1935 radio station chime that’s a simply perfect final touch. (All praise to the compiler.)

The customer review at Amazon (and not authored by me) says,
“This is a wonderful little pastiche from the beginning of the swing era. Benny and his bunch seem to romp and jump through these broadcast pick-ups with all the verve of cat on a hot tin roof… Indeed, this should be a part of any Benny Goodman collection and, for that matter, any collection of the early swing era.”
And boy do I ever agree. Plus, Helen Ward herself authored the CD’s liner notes! It’s a must-have. Period.

The national airing of those 1935 performances created a youthful fan-base for BG he was unaware of until his band played the Palomar Ballroom in California. For reasons unclear to me, he saved the hot Henderson arrangements until the engagement’s final set, and then…(drumroll…) the ecstatic kids nearly rioted. The following morning’s news-accounts birthed the national Swing craze. (Nothing breeds imitation like the sweet smell of money, so of course dozens of bands began to emulate BG and those Henderson-style performances.)

Still, it took another three years before Swing gained social acceptability (not unlike rock three decades later). The eventual acceptability came faster and was much more unambiguous than rock’s, however: BG earned a concert engagement at none other than the classical music stronghold Carnegie Hall. This set, The Legendary 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert (two discs), captures the event in its entirety. BG had become a big enough star to thumb his nose at the harsh racism that sought to keep African-American Swing segregated from that of the whites. BG may have had his faults, but racsim wasn’t one of them. Coleman Hawkins has famously related how, in 1920’s Chicago, the adolescent Benny brought the five-year’s-his-senior black saxophonist home to the Goodman’s for dinner; and BG had as early as 1935 begun to record with the great black Swing pianist Teddy Wilson (whose all-star small groups provided the backing music that made the rough-voiced but o-so-expressive Billie Holiday into Swing’s first bigtime diva). By ’36 BG had added Lionel Hampton to his small group lineup (making his trio into a quartet), but it wasn’t quite so socially acceptable to add such black jazz giants to his big band. Wilson, I’m told, did play with the 1936-7 BG Orchestra, but I’m not sure how visible he was allowed to be onstage—or perhaps his piano was set waaay off to one side—away from the white horn section.

Still…the 1938 Carnegie Hall date took this taboo-testing a step further: the Ellingtonians Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Cootie Williams, not to mention Lester Young, Count Basie, and others, were all invited to play as ‘guest soloists’ (as was the BG Quartet’s Lionel Hampton). Thus Goodman didn’t hog but instead shared the unique Carnegie spotlight with musicians who were otherwise excluded from such hallowed venues. (Ellington himself couldn’t play the place under his own Orchestra’s billing until ’43, I think—although I might be late by a year or two.)
And, as you might surmise from the constellation of participants, it’s a great concert. (Although Helen Ward had the previous year retired to marry, leaving the female vocals to the acceptable but much-less-than magnificent Martha Tilton.)

For a sampling of BG’s studio sides, you can go either of two ways. This – Sing, Sing, Sing – is a very affordable single disc “greatest hits” product. Or you can pay a couple more bucks for the Properbox listed above, and with it get a wider timespan (1931-1949 instead of 1935-1939), and 101 sides instead of 21. The Properbox doesn’t include any of the Trio, Quartet, and Sextet sides (including the great Charlie Christian on electric guitar), and not nearly enough Helen Ward songs—but as an intro to Big Band Swing, it’s awfully hard to beat. (You can’t beat a couple of the photos in the booklet either – one, on page 40 includes a visibly liquored-up Lana Turner; another on page 49, highlights a literally luminous Peggy Lee fronting the BG big band. Hubba, hubba, indeed…)

Lastly, if you want lots of songs for cheap and don’t care about liner notes, you can go for this: Benny Goodman Quadromania. The insert gives only the recording dates and personnel but no other information – but it’s a four disc set yielding 78 sides in a somewhat chronological order. (They’re actually pirated from other record companies – but the pirated discs are mostly out-of-print…which makes this a sleazy kind of ‘service’, I suppose, to us jazz neophytes who might otherwise never have the dough to pay for the out-of-print CD’s on the often very pricey second-hand market.)

Since BG owed so much to Fletcher Henderson, it’s only fair that I suggest him, too. Here’s his Quadromania, and here’s a single disc compilation that – annoyingly – goes by the same title as the Quadromania: Wrappin’ It Up

2. The Duke

Duke Ellington towers over the Swing era, yet he also stands completely apart from it. His achievements in four different areas are so enormous that there are few other who can even be compared to him… As an arranger, Ellington did not break the rules so much as work without them. He wrote for his individual players rather than for a generic horn section, and he constantly rearranged even his best known works, so they sounded different in each time period. — Scott Yanow, Swing, p.46

Ellington’s tenure and influence precedes, follows, and surpasses in its greatness the Swing Era proper – the early 30’s through the mid- to late 40’s. Chris’s suggestions are from Ellington’s post-Swing decades. Mine, conversely, will ignore his substantial and seminal pre-Swing and post-Swing efforts, and I simply CAN’T suggest any Ellington compilation with fewer discs than the Proper set’s four.
Ellington, on his Properbox’s disc 1: “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”. Ivie Anderson moans a hole into your heart. Magnificent! But it’s also VERY early – from 1932 – and therefore more a precursor of Swing than a typical representative of the form.
On disc 3: “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” – a three minute gem of melody and economical soloing and interplay by Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown and Barney Bigard.
Also on d.3: “In A Mellotone” – stands my hairs up every time. Get my toes a-tappin’ and my fingers to snappin’, too.
Disc 4 features the iconic Strayhorn gem “Take The ‘A’ Train” (Ellington’s orchestral theme song), but even more impressive (to me) is the relaxed yet effortlessly swingin’ “Just A-Settin’ And A-Rockin’” , sporting solos by Ben Webster, Ray Nance, Joe Nanton and Barney Bigard.
Note the flatly magnificent “Perdido”. What a glory of Swing. (It’s incomprehensible to me that the same species that has created concentration camps, waterboarding, “witch” burnings, ethnic holocausts, and global warming also created stunners like this tune and its melodic Ellingtonian siblings. Go figure.)

There’s an Ellington Quadromania too, although it offers many of the same sides as the Proper set. It does go further though, including most of Ellington’s 1950 LP (his first true LP, I think), Masterpieces by Ellington. Neither of the 4-disc sets offer enough of Duke’s great singer Ivie Anderson, but you can easily remedy that with this fine 2-disc set: Duke Ellington Presents Ivie Anderson.

I can’t move on from The Duke without mentioning one of Chris Lydon’s favorite albums, Ellington At Newport, 1956. Although it turns out that much of the ‘concert’ was a studio re-creation using only a solo or two of the original live performance, and that the wild, riotous applause was, uh, shall we say, enhanced with audiotape trickery, it’s still a fantastic Swing record. And one that many, many people care a great deal about, as the fifty customer reviews at Amazon attest! (Most CD’s there are lucky to earn a single review or two.)

3. Hamp
I’d originally thought it mandatory to include a Billie Holiday suggestion (like her Properbox linked above), but, on reflection, perhaps a Swing neophyte would appreciate her rough-voiced artistry more in a “Swing 102” level exploration. Instead I’ll recommend the beloved vibraphonist and energetic big band leader Lionel Hampton (who broke into ‘the big time’ with the Goodman Quartet).
Here’s his Properbox: The Lionel Hampton Story.
Here’s a nice 2-disc set: Flying Home
And a very cheap single disc (with the same title as the above double): Flying Home
“Flying Home” was a massive 1942 hit, and thereafter his big band’s theme song. The ’42 version features a legendary sax solo from Illinois Jacquet, who also made it his theme song when he launched his own band! It happens also to be one the finest songs of all jazz history. A real “killer-diller” (1940’s hipster lingo for hot, up-tempo numbers). Here’s what Scott Yanow writes about it:

The performance fit the style that Lionel Hampton was aiming for, extroverted excitement with honking tenors, screaming trumpets, basic chord changes, and one explosion after another. It also set the stage for rhythm and blues; in fact several saxophonists during the late 1940’s/early ’50’s would base a large part of their repertoire on “Flying Home”!
Swing, p.68

Which reminds me: I unstintingly recommend that Yanow book!

4. Mary Lou Williams
Finally (at long last!), here’s an affordable single-disc compilation of one of Swing’s lesser maestros: Andy Kirk & his 12 Clouds of Joy. Especially noteworthy and favorite: “Steppin’ Pretty” (1936), “In The Groove” (1937), “Twinklin’” , “Little Joe From Chicago”, “Toadie Toddle”, “Dunkin’ A Doughnut” & “Mary’s Idea” (all from 1938).
I suggest this band especially because its pianist was a woman, Mary Lou Williams, who was also the band’s arranger – and because in the sexist (not to mention racist) 30’s and 40’s, too few Swing women have had their efforts preserved for posterity. (Ina Ray Hutton’s Melodears and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm for example, are either unavailable to us or available only on rotten quality radio transcriptions – virtually unlistenable – yet revealing enough to demonstrate that the female Swing players were every bit as good as most of the era’s musical men.) Williams, much more so than her debonair but otherwise unremarkable bandleader Kirk (think Paul Goodloe of The Weather Channel, only handsomer), is very special, as her Wikipedia entry aptly attests: “Remarkable versatility and power, and probably the most influential woman in the history of jazz.”

Now then, if you’ve managed to make it this far: Swing 101 is finally over! (Thanks for letting me enthuse so endessly into your brain.)