JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


In the 1930s, jazz appears to be on the move again. How did its personalization transform jazz into the world's best-known popular music?

For a long time, musicians - white and black, in their segregated orchestras - were playing in bands that primarily existed for dancing. A lot of the bandleaders were total corn balls, they didn't have any particular feeling for jazz. They would like to have one or two jazz guys in the band who could improvise. But a lot of the jazz musicians in those bands had very little time to really blow, play the music that they wanted to play. They had to play through these awful waltzes and the kinds of numbers that, novelty numbers that the popular audience wanted.

Because of this, this is one of the main reasons - the jam session became hugely important to musicians in the 1930s. When they got off work, they'd get together at a club and they could really stretch out. A lot of those musicians thought it would never change. But there was one young guy, a clar[inetist] - now remember, we already had great swing orchestras but they weren't known to most of the country. Duke Ellington had been around for a decade at this point. Fletcher Henderson had been around for more than a decade. Chick Webb in Harlem, bands in Kansas City. But they had no real mainstream following. There was a brilliant young clarinetist from Chicago named Benny Goodman. Benny Goodman was a virtuoso by any standard. He was so good and so well-known among musicians that when he was still in his teens the Melrose Company put out a book of Benny Goodman clarinet exercises. Nobody had ever heard of Benny Goodman, except musicians. It gives you an indication. The only other musician they ever did that with was Armstrong, incidentally.

Um, Goodman comes to New York. He's immediately successful as a sideman; everybody wants him. He's such a great player. And he gets a gig as a bandleader on the Let's Dance dance show on NBC. At the same time, he gets a tour to take his band around the country. He has arrangements that are pure jazz by Fletcher Henderson's guys, by Chick Webb's guys. And he starts to come across the country. Well, every place he plays he fails. They don't want to hear these jazz arrangements; they want to hear the cornball stuff. But, during the whole tour he's broadcasting the Let's Dance program. Now here you have to understand the way the clock works here. This is an amazing story. Benny is broadcasting corny stuff at prime time in New York, but he also has to fill up a gap of say between 12 and 2 o'clock in the morning. And he's already played all the pop arrangements. So in those two hours, when nobody's listening, he starts to play the jazz things. Well this is going out live on the network. And 12 o'clock in New York is prime time in California. He doesn't know it, but he's growing a jazz audience on the West Coast.

So meanwhile the band is traveling cross-country. They finally get to Elitch's Gardens, a place in Denver, and they die. It is such a fiasco that his management says, "You know, maybe we should just give up. We've only got one more gig in California. Let's just call it a day." Because Kay Kyser, you know, the College of Musical Knowledge, the corniest band that ever existed, impossible to listen to today, was packed. You couldn't get in there. And nobody - Benny Goodman was literally playing for flies. And so he says, "All right, we have one more, let's just finish it up." So they go out to California, to the Palomar Ballroom. And Benny starts playing some of these pop tunes and the place is crowded with kids. And they're looking at him like, what is this? They're totally bored and they're just sort of staring. And finally Goodman has a moment, you know, a historic moment - he turns to the band and he basically says, "Screw this. If we're dead, let's at least go down playing our music: "King Porter's Stomp." The guys go, "Really? OK" - they pull out "King Porter's Stomp." They're not four bars into it that you hear, the place roars.

This is what the kids have been tuning in every night to and learning to dance to. The Swing Era was born that evening in 1935 because well-off white kids proved that it was commercially huge. Now the black [?] had been doing it but now everybody could ride on Benny Goodman's coat tails. It was ridiculous to call him the king of swing but that's what he was to most of America. And Goodman was a pretty good representative of that. He immediately is booked into the Congress Hotel in Chicago, a gig that went on for weeks. They wouldn't let him go. I mean you couldn't get, it was the hottest ticket in the Midwest. You could not get in there to hear him. His records went off the charts. But now, everybody's looking for it. Count Basie, who's already in his 30s, is working in a really pretty tough joint, the Reno House in Kansas City, a mob place. Suddenly, he's discovered. People hear him on radio broadcasts. John Hammond goes down there, puts a few more guys in the band, gets some new arrangements, brings him to New York. Benny Goodman, - uh, Count Basie is huge. Duke Ellington is suddenly rediscovered as the greatest of them all and he was. There's no question; everybody was influenced by Ellington. So suddenly, the whole world is crazy for swing.

Interestingly, if you look at most of what was written in the 1930s to early 1940s during this height of the Swing Band Era, when these bandleaders like Artie Shaw and Jimmy Lunceford - Gene Krupa. Huge celebrities, magazine covers, Hollywood cameos - I mean they are major, major stars. They hardly ever used the word jazz. For ten years, it's always swing. It's swing bands; it's hot swing and then there's Mickey-Mouse swing. There's the corny bands like Kay Kyser and Swing-and-Sway with Sammy Kaye and Guy Lombardo, that garbage. Which actually made more money for the most part than the hot stuff. But that's what they called it and for ten years, jazz and pop music became like that [he holds his hands together tightly].