MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

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The Swing Era (1930s and 40s)
This is Part II of our New Orleans-Style and Swing Era unit.

Part I covered the the New Orleans Style (1900-1930).

Assignment #51 will ask you thirteen questions about both parts. Link opens in a new tab.

As we get into the 1930s jazz starts to evolve into a more slick and commercial product. It will eventually become mainstream popular music, played in all of the dancehalls, in movies, on the radio, and in the jukeboxes.

Stylistic changes in the swing era

Let's dive right in and watch a simulated performance by the Duke Ellington orchestra. This is the popular tune "Take the A Train" as filmed for a Hollywood movie ("Reveille with Beverly," 1943.)

The original 1941 recording: YouTube Spotify Apple Music

There are a lot of differences we see here!

This is a big band, a group of about 16 musicians with a charismatic leader (in this case, Duke Ellington on piano.) The band tends to be organized into sections.

The reed section plays a variety of saxophones, from the relatively small alto sax to the larger tenor and baritone saxes. They can usually switch to clarinet or even flute when needed.

The brass section play trumpets and trombones...

...and the rhythm section play chords, bass line, and percussion. Ellington's rhythm section is typical, with guitar, piano, double bass, and drums.

In general, this music is very organized. The days of everybody improvising simultaneously in a giant, chaotic mass of sound have been banished, and instead the various section have things all planned out. A lot of this music was written down like Classical music, though bands would still develop ideas orally as well.

The sections tend to interact in interesting ways. In "A Train," the saxophones carry the melody most of the time, while the brass play little punctuating chords and backup riffs. However, the brass are featured in a few loud transitional passages (at 1:05-1:11 and 2:36-2:48).

Finally, Swing music tends to have a bouncy and danceable beat. The bass and drums tend to emphasize all four beats in the measure, which keeps things moving, and everything the horns play is carefully engineered to be rhythmically propulsive.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

Now let us backtrack a bit and look at the career of Duke Ellington. Ellington is a pianist, composer, and big-band leader who is one the most important figures in American music. He is distinctive for his particularly creative and "artistic" approach to jazz which pushed the medium in new directions.

He was born in Washington, DC and led his first band at the age of 18. In the 1920s he moved to New York City and became the in-house bandleader for the Cotton Club, a prestigious venue that presented Black entertainers to a mostly-white audience.

Mood Indigo [1930]

"Mood Indigo" is an early example of Duke's unusual sensibility. This is a slow composition that is designed to be as relaxed and soothing as possible. Ellington chooses his instruments carefully in order to get interesting timbres.

The original 1930 recording: Spotify Apple Music

In this video we see how the main tune is played by two trombones and an alto clarinet. The trombones are using "plunger mutes" to change their sound.

Then, we get a very mellow clarinet solo and a trumpet solo by Wade Cook, who is using a cup mute to create a soft and "fuzzy" sound. All of this works together to create a unique vibe.

Ko-ko [1940]

There is no fun video for this one, but I'll include it simply because it is my favorite Ellington composition. :) Ko-ko is the kind of atmospheric music Duke was creating for the Cotton Club review. At first it seems very dark and ominous, but as the reeds come in it starts to swing. The whole track gradually builds and builds in intensity, leading to a big climax where the brass are playing loud.

Track Links: Spotify Apple Music

The Story of Take the A Train [1939]

We've already listened to one of the best-known Ellington titles at the top of this web page. However, "Take the A Train" is not composed by Ellington - it was written by a young gay man from Pittsburgh named Billy Strayhorn.

Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967)

Ellington used some assistants to help him out with composition and arranging. These guys became more important than ever around 1940, when the music publishing agency ASCAP clashed with radio broadcasters over royalty payments, and Ellington could only perform compositions represented by competing agency BMI. Strayhorn and Duke's son Mercer Ellington provided most of the material for the Duke Ellington band during this period.

The story behind "Take the A Train" is that it was inspired by Strayhorn and Ellington's first meeting in New York. Ellington gave Strayhorn instructions for how to get to his apartment on 157th St. and St. Nicholas Ave. in Manhattan. As we heard in the film clip, the song is basically just transit directions set to music! (What the song doesn't mention is that you could also take the 1. Maybe Ellington was trying to keep it simple for his out-of-town colleague.)

Strayhorn wrote "A Train" for Ellington in 1939, and during the ASCAP strike it became the band's new theme song.

Benny Goodman (1909-1986) and the Popularization of Swing

We've already seen how bandleaders like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were active in big cities like Chicago and New York during the 20s and 30s. However, it wasn't until 1935-6 that jazz "broke through" to a mainstream audience and became America's most popular kind of music. This was largely due to the virtually overnight success of clarinetist Benny Goodman.

I've got a clip from Ken Burns Jazz that shows us all of this.

Track Links: Benny Goodman, "Sing Sing Sing" 1937
Spotify Apple Music

Now, clearly we have some kind of "Elvis effect" going on here, in which a white musician does something that Black musicians were already doing and finds instant success. To Goodman's credit, however, he realized that he was in an unusual situation, and he began performing with some of the first integrated groups in jazz history.

Here is film of Goodman and his drummer, Gene Krupa, playing with pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton in 1937.

A few more bandleaders

By now we've established that Swing was popular music, on all of the jukeboxes and so forth. My grandparents loved it. :)

Let's briefly look at two more bands who you've probably heard of before.

Glenn Miller (1904-1944)

Trombonist Glenn Miller was undoubtedly the poppiest figure of the Swing era, with a string of best-selling records from 1938-42. "In the Mood" remains an iconic swing track:

Track links: Spotify Apple Music

Count Basie (1904-1982)

Meanwhile, Kansas City-based musician Count Basie emerged as a sort of "alternative" figure for people who thought that Swing was getting too commercial. His hard-driving, blues-based compositions appealed to jazz purists.

Here is some Basie footage from 1950 that shows off these aspects of his sound nicely.

Track links: Basie Boogie (live in 1944): YouTube Spotify Apple Music


Part I: The New Orleans Style (1900-1930)

Assignment #51 asks you umpteen questions.

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