Captain Swing

Eric Hobsbawm

  • The Duke Ellington Reader edited by Mark Tucker
    Oxford, 536 pp, £19.95, February 1994, ISBN 0 19 505410 5
  • Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America by David Stowe
    Harvard, 299 pp, £19.95, October 1994, ISBN 0 674 85825 5

In the élite minority arts of the 20th century, the US component is one of many, and by no means the most important. On the other hand, it penetrates, indeed dominates, the popular culture of the globe with the single exception of sport, which still echoes the British hegemony over the 19th-century era of bourgeoisie and the first Industrial Revolution, via tennis, golf and, above all, association football. So it is not surprising that what are generally accepted as the major North American contributions to the high culture of our century are rooted in popular and – the US being what it is – commercial entertainment: films and the music shaped by jazz.

There is a notable difference between Hollywood and Forty-Second Street, however, Hollywood, like Henry Ford, conquered the world by mass production: in this instance, of dreams. Its fundamental concern was with the greatest happiness of the greatest number, as measured by box-office returns. The musical analogue of Hollywood has, of course, been profoundly imbued with the influence of black music, and never more so than since the rise of rock and roll in the mid-Fifties. Indeed, since the days of ragtime the popular music business could not have existed without this continuous infusion. The jazz which was discovered as a heavyweight art in the late Twenties by little groups of impassioned aficionados, was to be found only in the medium of commercial musical entertainment.

Its greatest figure, who has been properly honoured in the 536 pages of Mark Tucker’s Duke Ellington Reader, a ‘source-book of writings on Ellington’, lived and died as a travelling band-leader. It was not that he had to – in his later years he subsidised his band out of his royalties – but that he could not conceive of creating his music except in this specific ambiance. Nevertheless, jazz was a minority art, practised by a minority and appealing to a public much smaller than the public for classical music. In the early days of its reception, the main problem for enthusiasts was to discover the few needles of ‘hot’ jazz in the enormous haystack of vaguely rhythmic dance music, to find ways of defining what distinguished the real stuff from the surrounding sweet or syncopated dross, and to defend it against philistines who would not see the difference.

The nature of the milieu in which the extraordinary art of blues and jazz was incubated is by now fairly well known, thanks to a large and increasingly scholarly literature. There has even been a little work done on the nature of the public, though (in the USA) it tends to be inflamed by national amour propre. For it is harder for North American than for European writers to accept that a cultural glory of the USA was first taken seriously elsewhere. According to Tucker, it was in the early Thirties that Ellington enjoyed ‘the beginnings of critical attention (mostly from abroad)’. We can see one of his earliest champions trying in 1933 to make him acceptable to the readers of Fortune by citing his recent triumphs in Europe, ‘which is more critical and discriminating about all kinds of music than the US’ – though, one must add, not more knowledgeable.

For a few years, from the mid-Thirties to the mid-Forties, ‘hot’ jazz, under the trade-name ‘swing’, and through the medium of the big band became the main – or at least a main – idiom of commercial popular music. After that it returned to a musically more ambitious but numerically more restricted ghetto. Chronologically, swing more or less coincided with the era of Franklin Roosevelt. Others have hinted at or speculated about the links between the political and cultural histories of the USA during this period, but David Stowe, who teaches American Thought and Language at Michigan State University, is, to my knowledge, the first writer to have attempted a systematic history of the relationship between jazz and New Deal America.

The most immediate impact of Roosevelt’s America on jazz came through the political Left, ranging from New Deal enthusiasts for a democratic people’s culture to the Communist Party, which took jazz to its bosom from 1935 on. (The trotskisant intellectuals of New York appear to have shown no interest in the music, though its greatest champion once signed a letter of protest in New Masses with Edmund Wilson, Meyer Schapiro and the Trillings, whom it if difficult to envisage tapping their feet to Count Basie.) The contribution of the Left was not only to discover talent, though nobody else took a serious interest in obscure – and, more important, non-commercial – Southern blues singers. Music-business bookers like Moe Gale, the (white) owner of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, could be as perceptive in judging future talent, when it came their way, as John Hammond, the greatest of the talent scouts of the decade, though they ranged less widely. What the Left did was – deliberately and successfully – to bring black music out of the ghetto by mobilising that curious combination of radical Jews and well-heeled liberal Wasps, the New York establishment.

John Hammond Jr (1910-87), to whom Stowe (rightly) devotes more space than to anyone else with the exception of Ellington, typified this combination. A Vanderbilt, Hammond was an almost absurdly typical Ivy League product and (in his last years) a devoted member of the Century, New York’s quintessential establishment club. At the same time he was an impassioned and lifelong militant for the cause of racial equality, and therefore for years close to the Communists. Though never in the Party – even the FBI satisfied itself of this after years of investigation – he was nevertheless (if I may quote my own memories of him) much more than the generic New Deal ‘progressive’ to which Stowe tries to reduce him.

Hammond’s record as a discoverer and developer of talent from 1933 to his death was unparalleled. It rested not only on astonishing knowledge and judgment, but on his ability to mobilise the three crucial components of New York – and therefore national – success: personal relations, a metropolitan public priding itself on the New Yorker combination of liberalism and sophistication, and a show-business community secure in the exploitation of this market. Hollywood was to collapse before McCarthyism; Broadway swayed, but remained standing. The New Yorker has remained steadily loyal to jazz since the Thirties, and The Duke Ellington Reader is worth its price simply for Richard Boyer’s magnificent profile of the great man (‘The Hot Bach’), which first appeared there in 1944. It is safe to say that, at that time, in no American city outside New York would nightclubs like Café Society, militantly devoted to the social mixing and music-making of black and white, managed by the brother of a Comintern agent (and partly financed by Hammond), have become the toast of the town.

The point, however, is that success in New York was more than purely local, since the city was to radio and records, which were the foundations of success in popular music, what Hollywood was to films. Benny Goodman became the ‘King of Swing’ not only because Hammond talked this gifted man, then a disenchanted studio musician, into forming a band; Goodman took on a top-class black ex-bandleader as his arranger, devised a jazz sound rather than playing routine commercial dance-music and, not least, mixed black musicians with white ones. Thanks to Hammond’s contacts, he recorded, and got the engagements which implied radio broadcasts syndicated across the country. As every jazz-lover knows, when a discouraged band arrived in California after a cross-country tour in 1935, it found itself already famous among the university students who had listened to the late-night Eastern broadcasts of ‘Let’s Dance’, which reached the Pacific in prime time. Through Columbia Records, MCA and the radio networks, the New York Left nationalised swing.

This minority initiative was crucial, since there is no evidence that either the public for popular dance music or the jazz musicians changed much – though the hard core of jazz enthusiasts grew substantially. The public (and especially the adolescent or student young, whose economic potential the pop industry discovered through swing) simply found themselves exposed to, and enjoying, a new sound. The multiplying rival bands criss-crossed the country for their own benefit and that of the record industry, whose sales rose with the bands’ popularity, largely thanks to the new vogue for jukeboxes which, in 1940, consumed almost half of all the records produced. Record sales soared from 10 million at the bottom of the Depression to 130 million in 1941 – which was the industry’s best year since 1921.

As for the musicians, they remained exactly the same horn-blowing, piano-playing or rhythm-generating pros as before. To what extent they were affected by the political convictions of the time, and those of their patrons, is difficult to establish, though we may take it that the black artists shared the mass conversion of their race to FDR’s Democratic Party, which was also the home of working-class ethnics and those Jews who did not stand further to the left. Politics was not a subject about which people whose life was music thought very much. For black artists, the savage and pervasive racial discrimination was a deeply resented fact of life, but almost certainly most of them doubted whether politics could do much about it.

Black intellectuals, on the other hand, were markedly politicised, and attracted by the Communists’ genuine passion for racial integration and the promotion of black culture. (The Daily Worker issued a three-column apology for the ‘errors’ of a purist music critic who had written an insufficiently respectful review of a black swing concert at Carnegie Hall.) Even Ellington, who showed no fondness of the white party-liners – there was notorious friction between him and Hammond – supported various red-tinged causes so frequently that he attracted the attention of the FBI, a fact noted by Stowe, who has looked at their files, but unmentioned in Tucker’s Reader. The trumpeter Rex Stewart claimed to have read Marx and Spengler, but most jazz-players at that time did not see themselves as intellectuals.

It is not excluded that musicians who played the dances at Camp Unity, a Communist Party retreat in the red section of the Borscht Belt, may have improvised on an idea or two between sets; although what most of them remembered – it was then virtually unknown – was the public encouragement of inter-racial sex. (Nevertheless, the tradition of apartheid was so strong that older musicians like Sidney Bechet forbade his sidemen to fraternise with white women even at Camp Unity, for fear that it might cost him his engagement.) ‘I think they were trying to prove how equalitarian they were,’ thought the admittedly unusual Dizzy Gillespie, who actually took out a Party card, probably not only, as he later claimed, because it would get him more gigs. Count Basie was more typical. He recorded a politically charged satire on Southern poverty and racism with reluctance, out of obligation to his discoverer Hammond, who pressed it on him.

What the jazz of the Roosevelt era owed to the Left has long been known. While Stowe’s account brings much that is unfamiliar, it brings little that is unexpected. His attempt to establish more general relations between swing and the ethos of New Deal America is more novel. It is based partly on a perceptive analysis of the Chicago-based Downbeat (founded in 1934), Middle America’s rather than New York’s take on the swing phenomenon. Into the inconsistent jumble of this journal’s contents he reads a ‘swing ideology’ which ‘expressed reverence for such cherished American ideas as liberty, democracy, tolerance and equality, while holding firmly to the conviction that the experience of swing was both sign and engine of a fundamentally rational and ever-improving American society’. Its conviction was anti-racist, or rather a belief that ‘there are no colour lines in music’; it expressed doubts about integrated big bands, and did not exclude a self-righteous belief in American superiority, and hostility to ‘un-American ideals’, pursued by ‘groups of unassimilated peoples here ... breeding hates among themselves and disrespect for American institutions’ – i.e. Nazis and Communists. Moreover, as Stowe notes in passing, the ‘swing ideology’ had little room for women. Whatever its characteristics, Roosevelt was shrewd enough to appeal to it: Eleanor went to a gospel performance at Café Society and invited the singers to the White House, while their son, Franklin Jr, ‘listened raptly’ to the (integrated) Benny Goodman quartet in Boston.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Stowe’s book is what he has to say on swing music in the war. Unlike the First World War, as observers persistently complained, the Second produced no universally popular war songs and certainly no marching songs. Explanations differed but the fact was not disputed. Tin Pan Alley produced patriotic numbers, but nobody took them up. What Stowe suggests is that ‘in this war, morale was best protected not by creating the kind of national pride associated with patriotic songs but by appealing to an exclusive and privatised notion of aesthetic experience.’ The United States ‘was unable to command’ unselfish obligation to the state. Private obligations ‘to buddies, to family, American womanhood, the American Way of Life’ took its place.

There is something in this. One doubts whether the British or Soviet war could have produced a novel like Heller’s Catch-22. Yet this cannot be the whole explanation, for the songs which appealed to other armies – ‘Lili Marlene’ is the obvious case in point – also had little to do with patriotism or the public sphere. Could it not be that the enormous success of the great swing bands blanked out what most native white and working-class Americans really wanted to hear – namely, the sentimental and deeply personal songs of what came to be called ‘country music’ when it emerged as a major sector of the pop industry after 1950? Glenn Miller’s band was the public face of popular culture in the war, but swing was not designed for the private face, except perhaps, eventually, through the vocalists generated by the big bands (Frank Sinatra, for example) who were to survive their collapse as they switched to sentiment. Unfortunately, however, Stowe does not enquire into the other branches of pop music until after the war, when swing’s dramatic decline began.

The suddenness of that decline in 1946-7 is clear. Attendances dropped sharply, thus causing economic havoc among big bands, always expensive but with costs swollen by years of unbroken expansion and wartime inflation. In the winter of 1946-7, Goodman, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, Harry James, Jack Teagarden and Benny Carter dissolved their bands. The big band was never to recover. Even the ‘sweet’ bands, traditional rivals to swing, suffered from a decline in public dancing.

There is no adequate explanation – at least the book has none – of this sudden collapse, which entailed the return of jazz to its ghetto. The future of pop music, when it took its lasting post-war shape in the Fifties, would rest on the branches hitherto neglected by the national entertainment industry: country music and, above all, rhythm and blues (rock and roll), which, as it happens, contained an even larger dose of black musical influence than swing. The jazz component which survived swing – bebop – had no interest in winning a large public; was, indeed, designed to antagonise it. Hammond did not like the new avant garde. After a fallow period, he returned to discovering and promoting talent – Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen – but unlike the history of jazz in the Thirties, that of popular music since rock hardly needs to refer to him. The old lefties, out-of-sorts with bebop, concentrated on what for most of them had always been the music of their heart, folksinging.

At this point Stowe’s attempt to link the fortunes of swing with the New Deal breaks down. It is all very well to draw a parallel with the fragmentation of ‘the Roosevelt coalition of workers, urban ethnics, African-Americans, farmers and intellectuals’, which broke up in 1948, but whereas a political or quasi-political mechanism for the rise of swing can be proposed, no such mechanism is suggested for its decline. It would be surprising if there were no connection between swing’s collapse and the end of the New Deal era, but one needs to show how and why. This is the weakest part of an interesting book. Perhaps the real mystery is not why swing fell, but why, as a writer in Downbeat pointed out in 1949, in the Thirties the general public (assisted, it must be said, by the popular music industry) accepted the musical preferences of jazz musicians and their essentially adolescent and student constituency.

Amid the ruins only one monument was left standing – even Count Basie had briefly reduced his band to a small group. Ellington had been there before swing. Though the phrase ‘It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing’ was his, he never belonged to the swing fashion. He even refused to accept the exclusive label of ‘jazz’ for his music. He was there after swing, almost certainly the greatest figure in 20th-century American music. All his admirers will want to own The Duke Ellington Reader, admirably selected and edited by a professor of music at Columbia University.