It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing: Big Band Jazz, Swing and Duke Ellington

If there are musical gods, Duke Ellington was one of them. In the period from the end of the First to the end of the Second Wars, one form of music predominated, a form of jazz known as Swing, and whilst it could centre around smaller ensembles such as Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five of Hot Seven, it found its natural home in the big bands that it’s increasing commercial success made possible. In contemporary eyes, or even ears, the undisputed King of Jazz in the ‘twenties was Paul Whiteman. Whiteman took a black music which was based around improvisation, and arranged it. He gave many of the most popular musicians of the era their breakthroughs. For example, his 1928 hit, From Monday On, featured the great Bix Beiderbecke and the young Bing Crosby.

So influential was he at his peak, that in 1924 it was the Paul Whiteman Orchestra that gave the world premiere to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Whiteman’s style would cross the Atlantic, spawning imitators in Britain and beyond (more of which anon).

By the end of the ‘twenties, an new form of big band jazz was emerging, mixing the arranged with the improvised solo. It started originally in the likes of Harlem in New York and was regarded as a specifically black phenomena: in the language of the time, ‘race music’. The bands that emerged made big stars of their leaders by the late ‘thirties. If one of the greats was The Duke, another was The Count. Count Basie’s style had an ease and grace to it, but it still swung.

Duke Ellington and Count Basie were black. When Paul Whiteman wanted to employ black musicians in the ‘twenties (as he later would, playing with Billie Holiday, for example), his management persuaded him that it was impossible: it would make it impossible for him to pay in the segregated South.

Benny Goodman was the son of Jewish immigrants, a clarinetist and, in 1935, the man who gave birth to what became known as the Swing era. Goodman’s hard swinging sound, in part a consequence of his brilliantly propulsive drummer Gene Krupa, made him a huge star. He would use that stardom to transform jazz. In the first place, he gave the soloists real space to breathe. Secondly, took it into the concert hall. Fortunately, his groundbreaking 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, the first jazz gig of its kind, was recorded. If you don’t get this, give up on jazz.

Goodman broke new ground in another way. He employed black musicians. So successful was he, he had no need to play the South. He hired the likes of Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton; Count Basie and Lester Young had guest slots in the Carnegie Hall gig. In many ways that gig marked both Swing’s high point, and the beginning of its end.

Commercially, most successful band of them all was Glenn Miller, whose smooth easy swinging sound echoed around the Tilbrook house when I grew up (it was my dad who introduced me Benny Goodman, too).

Goodman’s sound pointed more to the future of jazz, the hard swing of be-bop, but that jazz would take the music firmly out of the dance hall. In truth, popular tastes changed, and the depredations of war along with a musicians’ strike saw singers who had been made by the big bands go solo: the age of the crooner had come.

Great musicians remain great. Take Ellington, whose sophistication and inventiveness were without equal.

The Duke, above all, inspired many of the great jazz musicians of the new era, such as Charlie Mingus and Miles Davis. Or, another great of the new generation, John Coltrane, who made this beautiful recording of an Ellington standard with the great man himself in 1962.

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