JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company

RUNNING TIME, 3:07

When you talk about the Swing Era, you're really talking about two different kinds of things. The term Swing Era is really referring to the business revolution that happened in the music industry, and in this case you could really pin it down to a particular moment. August of 1935, that's the point when the Benny Goodman Orchestra broke through and proved to everybody that white, middle-class young people would respond to music that previously had been understood to be African American music. Once you proved that, that helped to jump-start an industry that had been seriously weakened by the Depression.

It's an interesting overlap that happens there; people have always enjoyed black music, but they have difficulty with the reality of black people actually performing it. It's again part of the minstrel show that everybody was listening to black music, but they [themselves], because of the fact that at the time the minstrel show was starting, black people were enslaved – they were understood to be inferior people or perhaps even an inferior species of some sort, that they had to come up with a peculiar way of understanding how that could fit together with the music they created. That's where all the stereotypes in the minstrel show come from, in essence, as a way of explaining that. So having a white band performing this music was an important mental step people had to take in order to be able to absorb this kind of, this new sound that was happening.

And it's not just a sound, it's also dance music, which means that they also had to learn how to do the kinds of dances that were originally done in places like the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, but now, by 1935, 1936, are being done by middle-class kids in Iowa, wherever they happen to encounter this stuff. As soon as that happened, it was something that worked well for both white musicians and black musicians because it brought that kind of music into the overall business framework that had been developing during the Depression: a more centralized one, one that uses technology, that says for a given band you are going to use popular tunes that are written by the best songwriters, you're going to have them licensed by the best publishing houses, you're going to be broadcast over a national radio network, and then you're going to be sent on a skillfully organized tour around the country so that everybody can listen to you and everybody can make a lot of money out of it. All of this stuff really begins to gather momentum, and it's on the basis of that that you get the phenomenon that's known as the Swing Era, which really doesn't last more than ten years – 1935 to the end of the Second World War.