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Welcome to Music of The Big Band Era—page 2

The rise of swing

The raucous behavior of the roaring twenties went out with prohibition and the Depression. By the mid thirties, pop culture had lapsed into a way of life that was simpler, sweeter, gentler, and quieter. America had buckled down to hard work and hard times; it was now showing a side that seemed more in keeping with what eventually became known as the between-the-wars years.

As the 1930s kicked into gear, America had become a milder, more innocent place to live. Now a new, sweeter kind of music was needed. In popular music, this meant that to be acceptable a tune had to be even-tempered and melodious. But where was this new kind of music to come from? It couldn't be a European import; as far as pop music was concerned, European music was for snobs. Besides, America had gone isolationist; European music just didn't fill the bill.

It seems that art always finds a way. This time, jazz and Dixieland stepped up to the rostrum and saved the day. Jazz and Dixieland obliged America by inventing a new and typically American art formSwing!

Swing, also called Big Band music, was (and is) a popular style of 1930s jazz. Often arranged for a large dance band, Swing is marked by a smoother beat and more flowing phrasing than Dixieland and it has less complex harmonies and rhythms than modern jazz.

The name Swing is a reflection of the fact that the Swing style of music has a strong rhythmic element that excites dancers and listeners to move in time to jazz music. Songs are written to be played fast, as in a jitterbug, or slow, as in a romantic ballad. A fast song can be followed by a slow one, and songs can change mood quickly. For reasons like these, Swing appeals especially to teenagers, who like to kick up their heels one moment and cuddle the next. Swing is a natural for the teenage dance floor.

Swing bands were also called Big Bands. They took this name because they tended to have more musicians than did jazz or Dixie bands. More musicians on the bandstand meant more instruments, and more instruments meant a smoother sound and more rhythmic possibilities, which was the style the Big Bands favored.

It may seem strange that jazz and Dixieland could gave birth to Swing when the genres are so different; in some ways, they were unlikely sources. Jazz and Dixie tend to be loud and fast, Swing is often slow and mellow; jazz and Dixie are usually played by a handful of musicians, Swing by a larger ensemble. Why did one give rise to the other? Who knows? Just as there are musical differences, there are musical similarities. Perhaps jazz and Dixie musicians turned to Swing because America wanted something new and would pay for it; perhaps they needed a more sedate lifestyle.

Whatever the reasons for the Swing revolution, the new music gave the teenagers what they wanted and teens loved them. But teenagers didn't have the money it took to keep Big Bands afloat; living on the entertainment circuit cost hefty room and board. Many Swing bands fought to prove to adults that what they had was worthy of their attention. Most lived from hand to mouth and many foundered. Even some of the best bands struggled, including a few greats that became famous just before and during the war years.

In the waning years of the decade, radio stepped in and saved the day. Just in the nick of time, radio gave the Big Bands the audience they needed just when they needed it. Broadcasting gave bands a way to distribute their music to the public without traveling from pillar to post; it reduced their expenses. The bands gave radio the entertainment it wanted to fill time between commercial messages.

Adults began to pay attention, to tune in, and to enjoy. They were sick and tired of the Depression; they wanted to dance again and have a little fun. What better way to enjoy themselves than to see and hear the bands they'd heard and likedon the radio. The bands began to tour. One-night stands became engagements in fancy hotels and ballrooms. The rest is history.

As usual, the kids were ahead of everyone else.

the heyday

By the early days of 1941, it had seemed to some pundits that the Big Bands were at their peak; the bands were sure to peter out when the kids who had kept Swing going tired of it and graduated to greener pastures. But the Big Band story was far from told. WWII came in like a thunderstorm and changed everything, just as it had changed almost everything else.

After the War started for the U.S. in the final month of 1941, many bands were quickly formed from draftee and enlistee musicians. Glen Miller, certainly one of the most popular and successful band leaders among them, formed Glen Miller's Army Air Force Band, one of the best. Their mission: boost the morale of the fighting forces. They did that—in spades. They were dispatched to posts in the U.S. and they followed the troops overseas. They toured behind the lines and at the front.

The war ramped up through the desperate days of 1942. Big Bands in the military did their part to bolster sagging morale. Their live broadcasts were distributed to GIs via Armed Forces Radio and were rebroadcast to civilians. The bands cut free V-Discs for the GIs, special records not available to civilians, which reminded them of home.

Food and fuel shortages developed at home, bad news at the front. The more desperate the fighting became and the drearier and bleaker civilian life, the more factory workers and uniformed combatants yearned for escape. Jitterbugging to the sounds of the Big Bands intensified in USOs at home and abroad. Sexual promiscuity became a way to momentarily escape loneliness, isolation, the death of a loved one, or one's own dim chances for survival.

The turnaround started in '42 and '43. The new American music spread around the globe while America's armies and those of its allies advanced abroad. Songs were written to express new emotions and ideas, chronicle events, and annunciate universal hopes for a brighter future. The Big Band sound soon became known the world over, not just for its youthful and generic enthusiasm, but also for tenderness, humor, hope, and strength. Names like Glen Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Kay Kyser, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, became household words.

In 1944, GIs were jitterbugging to the sounds of these bands with English girls in London hotels. Bomber and fighter pilots would party one night and go down in flames over Germany the next. There were so many U.S. soldiers in England preparing for the invasion of Europe, British men complained that the occupying Americans were "over-payed, over-sexed, and over here." Finally, in mid-1944, the "soft life" of dating and dancing came to an end; these same GIs stormed the Normandy beaches and after months of intense fighting broke out of Normandy and occupied Paris.

Not just combat; music at war was also serious business. In those days even a uniformed musician stationed behind the lines could courted danger; and some paid the highest price. The serious nature of what the bands were up to was driven home when Glen Miller's flew across the Channel to entertain the troops in France and he mysteriously and permanently vanished. To this day, no one knows where or how he disappeared. The best guess is that he died over water, victim of a snafu involving English bombs.

the decline

The Big Band sound went strong right up to the end of the war. But when peace finally came, conditions changed quickly. The bulk of the troops came home and were discharged, eager to resume normal life. Boy, were they were ready to make up for lost time! For them, that meant taking a big bite out of the golden apple, a bite they rightly believed they had earned. Now their minds shifted from war and Big Band music to what the war songs had promised were waiting for them when fighting was overthe girl they had left behind, a decent job, a home and kids, prosperity, the good life. Instead of parties and free sex, they wanted to settle down.

In spite of these shifts, interest in Big Band music continued through the late forties; but gradually it waned. Many GIs were so young when they went to war, their characters were forged in the excitement, danger, and abandon of war zones. Now things were different; they were survivors, they had a future. They returned home, grown men, the memories of dead comrades and starving civilians fresh in their minds. In some ways, the zoot suiters of the early 40s had been ahead of their time—life was not all romance and adventure; give the next guy a fair shake; wasn't a new, more liberal approach to life the order of the day?

These ex-warriors were the backbone of the land; young and vigorous and striving, they were far less limited in their viewpoint than their fathers and mothers had been. Service men and women returning home from WWII had learned lessons about life that had altered them forever. By stages, they led themselves, their families, and the nation into the relatively more liberal fifties. The Big Band sound of the 40s had been the right kind of music for its time; but now the war years were over and the Big Bands no longer seemed to fit. A new kind of music was needed, one that could speak to and for this new age.

the revival

Times may have changed with the late 40s and 50s but the Big Band sound remained the same. Big Band music didn't evolve with the times. How could it? It' was a pure musical form, a classic. If it had changed, it wouldn't be Big Band music anymore, would it? You might as well ask baroque music to change.

Although the sound lives on, even to this day, the bands went through hard times after the war. Once social attitudes and musical tastes changed, their stars began to fall; and once they fell, they fell fast. Social conditions were vastly different. It became difficult to find arrangers, singers, and instrumentalists who felt the music in their hearts and guts.

Big Band music is so characteristic of itselfso uniquein retrospect it should have appeared obvious to the bandleaders right from the get-go in the early 1940s that they were destined to fade fast once the unique conditions of the pre-war era disappeared. But it didn't. The Big Band gravy train went out with the steam locomotive and passenger railroads but the music had so much intrinsic worth it died hard. For a long while the bands carried on, aging, appealing mainly to older audiences, until the original band leaders retired or died and the original musicians were replaced by younger ones.

And still they persisted. Tex Benecke, who had taken over the reins of Glen Miller's band when Glen disappeared, continued in that capacity after the war. Tex and his Glen Miller Orchestra went on playing the same brilliant and fantastic (but tired) old hits for decades.

Other bands and band leaders held out too, although one-by-one they vanished. In the 80s there came a brief albeit faint resurgence of interest. A few surviving band leaders possessing sufficient vital energy to perform went on tour—Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Harry James, Benny Goodman. Herman's Herd and remnants from other bands could be seen for a while by small, appreciative audiences in restored theaters and in high school auditoriums. It was nostalgic; it was sad. Yet even that phase passed, along with all the others.

In the 90s, it became apparent to Americans that a vital era had been overlooked for over thirty years, an era that was now about to die. Something precious had slipped through America's collective fingers. Then Saving Private Ryan became a smash hit at the box office. On June 5th, 1994 a comparative handful of 50-year WWII D-Day veterans arrived at the American Cemetery near Omaha Beach, some for one last visit, to commemorate their hard-won beachhead and to cry, yet again, over their lost comrades and relatives. Many Americans back home watched the ceremonies on TV, saw the vets wipe away their tears, and heard the American and French presidents extol their heroism; they heard the French president proclaim his nation's eternal gratitude for their sacrifices.

The collection for a WWII War Memorial in Washington picked up momentum.

It was clear that most of the brave veterans of the Great War were dead and that soon all would be gone; something in the U.S. psyche was dying with them. And where were the old band leaders and their bands? they also were gone or passing away. Virtually all the chairs in those old, tired, retread bands were now occupied by replacements so young they were not alive when Glen Miller and the other greats held forth. The newcomers were competent musiciansthey could play the old tunes and follow the old arrangements well enoughbut how could they hope to recapture the spirit, the excitement, the fear, and the soul of those bygone days?

An irreplaceable resource, a priceless heritage, was lost forever. Never again would America or its music be the same. Never would the future be as much in doubt.

More about big bands

  • Visit the Swingmusic.net web site. It's packed with information about specific bands, vocalists, swing, and jazz. You'll also find photos, playlists, live streaming jazz radio programs, playlists, essays, reviews, a discography on disc, a forum, and lots more about Big Bands, Swing and jazz: click here.

more about the big band era

Explore the music and bands of the Big Band Era; consider what it means to be hep. Talk some jive talk and look at zoot suits from the 1940s. See other highlights of this feature on the pages that follow: click here.

—Page 1, 2, 3



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