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


Was swing, at one point in American history or another, the most unifying music in America?

That's an interesting question.

Maybe I could rephrase it. Well, I mean that, in that - what you get at in the book, is you talk about how, you know, we're overseas and we're coming home and all of a sudden swing, as it's stated in the book, is the most unifying music in America, American history. And I'm wondering if it's American history to that point or could you say that -

No. I think we have to remember that the public's response to music has changed, uh, many ways during the course of the 20th and 21st century. Today, young people identify themselves by the music they listen to. I mean, you know, people will sit at the table at lunch in high school because they only listen to this and they won't talk to the people who listen to the square stuff or the goth stuff or whatever it is. When the recording industry began at the turn of the century, there was no such thing as prejudice. There was no hip and square. There was high art and low brow but in terms of records every record was a mystery until you played it because there was no radio plugging it. I mean hearing every new record was like, wow, what's this? John Phillip Sousa? Al Jolson, who's that? Let's hear this stuff. It was very thrilling to hear music in your home. We can't imagine it. It was just unbelievable. The way, you know, even I can remember how unbelievable it would have seemed 35 years ago that you could actually watch a movie on your computer or on your television. Unbelievable.

So for a long period - and this is why jazz developed in some ways as quickly as it did - this absence of prejudice. Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby - different parts of the globe, different parts of the United States, but they listened to everything. And you could hear that in their music - Armstrong loved opera. He quotes opera all the time in his early solos. He loved pop music; he liked Guy Lombardo. Bing Crosby liked everything. They liked country music. And they took. They were like - you know, Dexter Gordon said jazz is an octopus - they would take whatever they liked and put it into the mix. So jazz became this sort of quintessential - er American music. It finally reaches a sort of pinnacle, in terms of the mainstream, in the Swing Era when jazz unifies the whole country.

Now, there's some jazz that's really hot and exciting and there's some that's really corny. A lot of people would rather hear Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford, other people would rather hear Glenn Miller and, you know, sweet stuff. A lot of the bands, if you look at their discographies, every time Benny Goodman went into the recording studio or Artie Shaw, they'd make four sides. Two of them would be jazz instrumentals; two of them would be sort of corny vocals with whoever the chick or boy singer in the group was. But it didn't matter. That's a question of style. The fact is that everybody in the United States was listening to swing. Everybody in the United States was dancing. Everybody in the United States was going to the ballroom - this is something we can't imagine in today's economy. And the economy was much worse then. But they had ballrooms; they had these orchestras that were actually making money playing from one town to another.

Today you can't have a big band unless it's funded by a grant, you know, or part of some larger institution. This ended with World War II - after World War II. For one thing, you know, a lot of the returning servicemen - they thought they were nostalgic for the music that they'd been hearing on d-discs throughout the war but the world had changed and they had changed. And you couldn't go back. And suddenly arts were changing, becoming much more sexual, more sophisticated. Music was becoming more complicated, as for example, bebop. The dance cabaret tax had closed a lot of the ballrooms. People were starting to listen to music rather than respond to it in dance, which left room for rock and roll to come along and build up the dance audiences again.

So, by the early 1950s, you know, you've got people who only listen to the Top 40, which is what - Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como, Guy Mitchell - all of that kind of stuff. You have people who only listen to bebop - the beatniks, the hipsters, who want to live for Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell. You've got people who are nostalgic for the band sound, which is kept alive through the vocal records of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee and so forth - with big band accompaniment. And also on variety shows on television, which are still segregated. And it never comes - and then you have Elvis Presley. So it's interesting, and it's important to remember, that the biggest year of Elvis Presley's career is the biggest year of Frank Sinatra's career - it's 1956 - when Sinatra has a huge comeback and Elvis leaves the South behind and becomes the biggest thing in show business. But in that period, Elvis is the music for kids or teenagers; Sinatra is the music for their parents.

Now later those kids would grow up and love Elvis and maybe learn about Frank. But we never again had just one music. I think maybe the Beatles came close. There was period when the Beatles were sort of at the top, when everybody in the country knew who the Beatles were. But even that was a very brief moment. And after that it's mostly a series of discreet audiences, defining themselves by what kind of music they listen to.