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.

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