Jazz Became the Cornerstone of Popular Culture during the Swing Era: Discursive Essay

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Swing music (1935-1945) marked a shift in jazz from improvisation to notated music and larger ensembles known as 'big bands.' Because of the size of the ensembles, which were made up of several horns, reed instruments, and percussion, swing required simplified written arrangements. Swing was typically more repetitious, and pop-friendly than other forms of jazz. Swing music is the closest jazz has ever come to being America's most popular music. There are a lot of controversial topics to discuss when trying to understand the swing movement in jazz. The swing movement was a very pivotal point in the history of jazz because everything that people were used to was being changed and music was being revolutionized. Swing is now and then viewed as an incomplete weakening of the jazz convention since it composed performers into bigger groups (generally 12 to 16 players) and expected them to play a far higher standard of composed music than had been deemed the perfect form of music and character of jazz for the time being. The swing era additionally improved decency in jazz, moving performances into the assembly halls of America. Jazz, the music that until this time had been related to “the houses of ill-repute of New Orleans and the Prohibition-time gin plants of Chicago”, was now seen as an honorable form of music. Many artists made significant developments in jazz and also brought about new styles of events and dance during this shift in the style of music. This new type of music took a large step into the modernization of the music industry.

The expression 'Big Band', alluding to Jazz, is obscure however prominent. The term for the most part alludes to the swing time beginning around 1935, however, there was no other type of music being created in 1935. “Big Bands” had developed originally from the blues and jazz of New Orleans, Chicago, and Kansas City. Early Jazz was created in New Orleans where Buddy Bolden, King Oliver (a cornet player revered by Louis Armstrong), and others performed this type of music when the new century rolled over. Many artists and groups from New Orleans performed on steamboats in Mississippi which lead to being a big contributor to the spread of this music and sound. In 1917, the world of music saw the early chronicles of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. These recordings showed white artists playing the tunes and game plans of dark artists. In spite of the way that they hadn't designed anything, their accounts sold over a million duplicates and acquainted jazz with the entirety of America and the world. During the 1920s the music of jazz started to develop into greater band designs joining components of jazz, dark spirituals, blues, and European music. Duke Ellington, Ben Pollack, Don Redman, and Fletcher Henderson were a portion of the more prevalent early 'big band' groups. These gatherings supported youthful stars and future bandleaders like Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Red Allen, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter, and John Kirby. Not many people understand how “big bands” were extremely successful in the swing era of jazz. According to Leonard Wyeth, “The Big Band era is generally regarded as having occurred between 1935 and 1945. It was the only time in American musical history that the popularity of jazz eclipsed all other forms of music. To many, the appearance of Benny Goodman and his Big Band at the Palomar in Los Angeles in August of 1935 was the start of the Swing Era” (Wyeth, Leonard). During this time period, the United States of America was still under the influence of depression. There was little to no work around the country and the industry of music was scarce. Non-essential musicians were completely out of business and the supply of money was very low. Yet, as America left the Depression, people in general needed melodic diversion; the big band time was about to take off drastically. This harmonized with an inclination, in jazz circles, that the bigger the better. The height of the swing era was between the years 1935 to 1940, and many jazz bandleaders saw an increase in success and revenue. Not only did the big band era during the swing movement in jazz help the United States of America get out of the depression but it also increased the flow of money and promoted society to go out. Swing groups became an enormous business during this time. According to Martin Chilton if you found the right melody you could have a million-dollar hit, “Tommy Dorsey (trombone and trumpet) had a string of hits, including ‘Marie’ in 1937, while brother Jimmy (trumpet and clarinet) had his own runaway winners, including ‘Amapola’” (Chilton, Martin). The big band era also brought jazz into new scenes, for example, Carnegie Hall. Carnegie Hall was known as a place for classical music that now had been invaded by the new jazz music. This turned society to a new style of music and events associated with it which was a big producer of revenue. As you can see, the big band era movement during the swing era was an extreme success and single-handedly revolutionized society by increasing economics and public morale towards the end of the depression.

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The swing movement in jazz caused the creation of many things that not only raised morale/spirits in the United States of America but helped to promote this type of music and have it become famous across the country. Things such as new dance moves, the jukebox, and the increase of the radio used in households which were developed through/during the swing movement had major contributions to history. There was an increase in the number of radio stations across the country which in turn needed more recordings. According to Leonard Wyeth, “In a strange convergence of politics and technology, radio became a household appliance in the 1930s. By 1935, the number of homes with radios was estimated at 23 million. That created an audience of approximately 91 million. It became known as the “Golden Age of Radio” with shows like “The Shadow,” “Amos & Andy,” “Tarzan,” “Fibber McGee And Molly,” and “The Lone Ranger” (Wyeth, Leonard). With the increasing number of radios came the increased amount of society that became fans of this music. With more fans came more live performances and events for this music. With more events and performances came new styles of dance. Furthermore, dance halls across the United States of America were the hotbeds of new dance moves because of the music being produced by big bands in jazz. Prominent dance moves such as the jitterbug and jive were created and seen in dance halls everywhere. Jake Fuller states, “In the late 1930s and through the 1940s, the terms Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, Lindy, and Swing were used interchangeably by the news media to describe the same style of dancing taking place on the streets, in the night clubs, in contests, and in the movies” (Fuller, Jake). The jukebox was a pivotal creation for the music industry because it had swing-era songs playing in many scenes across the country and promoted the public, especially college kids, to dance, sing, and fall in love with this type of music. This in turn somewhat promoted the diversion of African-American and white cultures during this time. Because of the Great Depression and segregation African-Americans were in a very bad situation regarding society and employment. Lee Sustar states, “The Great Depression of the 1930s was catastrophic for all workers. But as usual, Blacks suffered worse, pushed out of unskilled jobs previously scorned by whites before the depression. Blacks faced unemployment of 50 percent or more, compared with about 30 percent for whites” (Sustar, Lee). The insurgence of these pieces of technology and events helped employ African-Americans and increase morale. The radio became increasingly more important in the household scene of America and the creation of the jukebox not only helped musicians have their songs heard around the world, which increased the flow of money for the economy and the music industry but raised the spirits of those affected by the crippling depression.

To analyze every single prominent musician during the swing movement would be a tall task but some of the most successful and impactful artists of this movement are Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Coleman Hawkins. Benny Goodman, an astonishing clarinet player, was extremely pronoun during this time period. Goodman is perhaps the most important figure of the Swing Era. He is indisputably one of the most important figures in jazz. Goodman’s song “Sing, Sing, Sing” was a cornerstone of the swing era and was a combination of musical innovation and pure bliss in the style of swing. According to Michael Verity Goodman was a very pivotal piece in the success of the swing movement, “Credited with popularizing the music of black musicians, such as Henderson, among white audiences, Goodman is considered instrumental in the bolstering of swing music. He is also considered one of the best jazz clarinetists of all time” (Verity, Michael). Like a lot of American cultural trends, swing music crossed ethnic and racial lines consistently. White, dark, and Latin performers blended styles and music from one another constantly. Benny Goodman, for instance, a son of Jewish foreigners, got known as 'the King of Swing.' The title had more to do with his business achievement and possibly because the fact that he was white more than his melodic creations. Be that as it may, Goodman earned the favor of white and dark artists the same because when he integrated his band in 1936. Although this would appear to be normal in today’s music industry, during the 1930s it was unimaginative as well as politically dangerous. Goodman broke barriers and created music that wasn’t necessarily extraordinary to other products of this time but in the business, aspect was very successful. Duke Ellington was an American composer, pianist, and leader of a jazz orchestra, which he led from 1923 until his death over a career spanning more than six decades. Michael Verity states, “Considered one of the most important composers in American music, Duke Ellington rose to fame during the swing era by performing weekly at New York’s Cotton Club. He led his band through decades of recording and performing, and his compositions and arrangements, which were written with his loyal band members in mind, experimented with harmonic and formal devices that are studied to this day. Many pieces in his repertoire are now considered jazz standards” (Verity, Michael). Ellington relied on and heavily on believed in the soul that is put behind his music and music in general. Through all of the racial hardship African-American artists of this time faced, Ellington was able to remain successful traveling to different locations to display his talents and music. Even though, as previously stated, the music industry was going through a period of economic hardship, the entertainment business somehow survived these hardships. Ellington’s band appeared on Broadway and had even gone to Hollywood to make a motion picture. Ellington’s band was having difficulties performing in the south and places of harsh segregation laws which didn’t allow African-Americans in places with white people. Songs by Ellington such as “Concerto for Cootie,” his fast-tempo showpieces “Cotton Tail” and “Ko-Ko,” and the uniquely structured, compressed panoramas “Main Stem” and “Harlem Air Shaft”—in which successions of soloists are accompanied by diverse ensemble colors, helped revolutionized the swing era. Coleman Hawkins was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. One of the first prominent jazz musicians of this instrument, Joachim E. Berendt stated, 'there were some tenor players before him, but the instrument was not an acknowledged jazz horn'. Hawkins’ song “Body and Soul” is considered to be one of the most controversial improvisations by any artist in jazz history. This song was a very important piece to the history of the swing era because it has been analyzed and used by many other artists and critics. Hawkins’ achievements lasted for a long time even throughout the creation of the bebop and future styles of jazz. Many musicians tried to match the harmonic ingenuity and virtuosity of his tone. Michael Verity says, “With his unique, raspy tone combined with his command of harmonically detailed improvisation, Coleman Hawkins became the preeminent tenor, and saxophonist, during the swing era. He developed his style while a member of Fletcher Henderson’s big band. Later, he toured the world as a soloist” (Verity, Michael). Hawkins faced many racial segregations like Ellington but still proved to be one of the most successful jazz artists in history, especially for his contributions to the swing era. There are countless artists that made significant contributions, and achievements and blossomed through the innovation of the swing era but none more than Ellington, Hawkins, and Goodman.

When looking at singular movements throughout the history of jazz, there are many. The most prominent of all of these movements was the swing era. This movement brought about new styles of music and dance, famous artists and songs, and political and societal norms/impacts. In any case, it was the primary jazz movement that demonstrated industrial fertility because of its creations and the artists that were formed by it. The swing era saw many barriers broken in regards to racism and segregation but also helped fuel the morale needed to end the depression during this time period for good. There were many positive economic impacts to this movement and had lasting contributions throughout the history of time such as the jukebox, household radio, and live broadcasts for music. As the great Duke Ellington said, “By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.” Jazz was and will always be something that brings out a better more, lively version of yourself and the swing era definitely did so.

Works Cited

  1. Chilton, Martin. 'Swing, Swing, Swing: A History of Big Band Jazz.' 19 April 2019. Discovermusic.com. 9 December 2019.
  2. Fuller, Jake. 'Swing History.' 30 November 2019. Centralhome.com. 9 December 2019.
  3. Sustar, Lee. 'Blacks and the Great Depression.' 28 June 2012. Socialistworker.org. 9 December 2019.
  4. Szwed, John. Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz. 2000.
  5. Verity, Michael. '10 Important Swing Era Jazz Musicians.' 15 August 2017. Liveabout.com. 9 December 2019.
  6. 'What is Swing Music?' 27 March 2019. Liveabout.com. 9 December 2019.
  7. Wars, Between The. 'The Swing Era.' n.d. Gmu.com. 9 December 2019.
  8. Wyeth, Leonard. 'Big Bands and the Swing Era.' 2008. AcousticMusic.org. 9 December 2019.
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