By February 5, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Individuality: a lost art, part 2

The Count Basie Orchestra about 1938.

The Count Basie Orchestra about 1938.

We mentioned in our last post that individual style, wherein a musician’s general sound is so unique and recognizable as to be unmistakably his alone, is a dead commodity in modern American music. We went on to say that one of the most fruitful periods and environments for this sort of individuality was that transitional period between the last days of Swing as popular music and the early days of modern jazz. Generally, we’re talking about the period from the very late 1930’s until the end of World War II. A couple of factors were at work to create an environment that encouraged this sort of individuality. First, jazz musicians were, by the late 1930’s, making their bread and butter by playing Swing in big bands. So were plenty of non-jazz musicians. By 1940, almost every band in America, regardless of style, was playing some form of Swing music. Contrary to what some historians will tell you, Swing was not a new form of jazz. Swing was a new form of pop music that owed its sound to jazz in varying degrees, depending on who was playing it.

“Swing”, as a verb, was a rhythmic idea first perfected by Louis Armstrong in the mid-1920’s. That’s one reason he’s cited here and elsewhere as such a giant figure in American music. The metric revolution he started was so unique, and became so pervasive, that it’s difficult to find a more influential 20th century musician, regardless of genre or location. To “swing” meant, generally, to move beyond the simpler rhythm of early jazz, that had itself been a reaction to the even simpler syncopated rhythm of ragtime. In Armstrong’s hands, it meant that a soloist existed rhythmically less “within” the context, or bar lines, of a performance, and more “above” them. The term “float” was often applied to the way Armstrong ignored the explicit quarter note and implicit eighth note beats of the material of that era by working around, rather than on, the beat.

Armstrong’s band mates and peers, some of the best jazz players of that era, were confounded for a time. The first challenge in moving past his innovations was making an entire orchestra “swing” with a unified, yet appropriately “loose” sort of rhythm. Because the nuances in swing meter are so subtle compared to the primitive rhythm of the European tradition, no arranger could notate it, and the least jazz-savvy musicians couldn’t understand it even when it was demonstrated to them. Armstrong’s late 1920’s records, for instance, find him swinging his ass off while the band chugs along in an older style. The difference is jarring when one first hears it, and it must have had a similar effect on Armstrong’s contemporaries.

In typically fast-evolving fashion, however, the best jazz musicians caught up with Armstrong by the early 1930’s, and by mid-decade were moving past his concepts. Full grasp of these rhythms eluded most white, non-jazz players for years, but by the late 1930’s, even the least jazz-oriented bands could “swing” with at least some authority. The degree to which individuals and ensembles understood the nuances of swing was, and is, what separates mundane dance music from great jazz. There are, of course, many places in between.

By 1937, white big bands like Benny Goodman’s were playing fairly hard-swinging, African-American influenced jazz as dance music, and the press began calling this new—to them—music by a new name, “Swing”. Goodman’s musicians all had jazz backgrounds, so one can call a good portion of what they played “jazz” as well as “Swing”. The soloists improvised, the rhythm was a fairly accurate recreation of that of somewhat earlier black bands, and their general intent was to play challenging music. The fact that they suddenly found themselves the biggest pop sensation in America was coincidental, however happy an accident it may have been for them.

Thus, the music now had “swing”, a verb with a lower case “s” referring to jazz rhythm, and “Swing”, with an upper case “s”, referring to this new, popular dance music. The two were often, unfortunately, wholly unrelated. Most white bands, for instance, played Swing with very little in the way of either real jazz rhythm or any sort of jazz intent. Solos, if their were any, were seldom improvised, and it was all a very watered-down, whitened-up version of any sort of really swinging music. The large number of musicians, and the emphasis on ensemble playing, meant that individual, improvised solos were at a premium in even those big bands that played jazz, like Count Basie’s. So, in some ways, the rise of Swing, and the constraints of a large orchestra couldn’t have been less conducive to individual initiative. Interestingly, however, the opposite ended up being true when jazz players were involved. Recalling Basie’s band reveals why that might have been.

Basie’s orchestra, from its first commercial recordings in 1937, featured two tenor saxophonists, as did almost every other sax section in every other Swing band. Basie however, coming from a jazz background, allowed a bit more soloing in his band than his more commercially-inclined rivals, and his two tenor players became the “go to” players on almost every song. Along with trumpeter Buck Clayton, the tenors of Lester Young and Herschel Evans were the featured solo voices, and given their limited space, what had already been very personal styles were encouraged to become even more distinguishable. The uninitiated may be unfamiliar with their individual sounds, but even a novice can hear just how different they were on first listening to them. Young, of course, was the ultimate individualist, and revolutionized jazz in fundamental ways, so he would have flourished musically in any environment. Clayton and Evans, on the other hand, seemed to find the big band terrain one that actually helped, rather than hindered, their individuality.

As Basie’s band showed, the only sure-fire way to stand out from the band in an orchestral context was to do something “new” and “different”. Only the best players could pull it off, of course, but in a strange way, soon every good, jazz-tinged big band had recognizable soloists. Goodman had Harry James and Gene Krupa, Duke Ellington had Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Cootie Williams, and every other band that played at least some jazz suddenly needed a singular-sounding featured player. That need didn’t last long among the most popular bands, and styles and markets changed quickly to eliminate any emphasis on soloists—especially those playing anything like jazz—but for a brief moment, even a typical white American teenager knew who the key players were in the most famous dance bands.

Of course, jazz musicians, playing in small clubs, or for themselves at jam sessions, had always valued individuality. From its earliest days, however, jazz had never been a milieu in which one could earn a living. Even the best players, with very few exceptions, had to work in commercially-oriented bands and venues in order to eat. The coming of Swing, unfortunately, drove real jazz further out of the mainstream, and only the luckiest members of jazz-heavy orchestras like those we’ve mentioned could hope to hone their jazz skills while making a living. While the rise of soloists as popular icons was encouraging for a time, it was a short-lived fad, and the beneficiaries were few. The exception was the proliferation of “after hours” music venues in that era, a phenomenon we’ll discuss next time.

Posted in: Jazz, Rants

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