Jazz – An Imprecise Précis – the Dixieland and Swing era

In my last article, I explored the Ragtime and the Classic Jazz eras (Sundays 12:00noon on FineMusic Sydney).  I left that era realising how traditions of one era became the foundation of the next, but that the transition was gradual and ephemeral.  In this article, I try to see where Dixieland and Swing styles originated.  You can listen to the Swing era on FineMusic Swing Sessions (Mondays at 12:00noon).

“Dixieland” refers to southern jazz, from the “Old South”. Specifically, it refers to the Mason-Dixon Line of 1767, which morally and socially divided colonial America between the Northern free states and the Southern slave states.  In 1917, the Original Dixieland Jass Band was the first to have their music labelled as Dixieland, but the term did not stick.  The music was essentially traditional Classic Jazz out of New Orleans, and the genre only emerged with its revival in the mid-1940s.  For many black Americans, it is no term of endearment, as it became associated with the staccatic playing of all-white groups, not the harmonic energetic music of Afro-Americans.  Dixieland was characterised as a soloist (often trumpet) playing the melody, with other instruments harmonically improvising around that melody, based over a two-beat rhythm. The string bass also took the place of the tuba, with guitar replacing the banjo.

Louis Armstrong is often identified with Dixieland. Armstrong’s influence on jazz was creating the role of the solo performance, and rose from the New Orleans style after he moved to Kansas City.  That’s not to diminish the quality and imagination of Armstrong’s contribution, which was of course legendary.  What a trumpeter!

For Dixieland music, listen to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Dixie Jazz Band One-Step”, Cab Calloway’s “The Jumpin’ Jive”, Fats Waller’s “Honey Suckle Rose”.  And then there is Louis Armstrong’s “When The Saints Go Marching In” and “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque”(written by Armstrong’s wife Lil Hardin), Ted Lewis’s “I’ve Found A New Baby” and Muggsy Spanier’s “Relaxin’ At The Touro”.

In contrast, Swing is book-ended by the Great Depression and the Second World War.  Swing is synonymous with dance.  The Depression had led to the collapse of the record industry, with audiences staying at home. The radio emerged as core entertainment, in some 90% of American homes. 

People would have at-home dance parties, dancing to the radio. NBC broadcast Let’s Dance coast-to-coast in 1934 featuring the Benny Goodman orchestra. And Swing was born. Benny Goodman took his orchestra on a national tour to much acclaim.  Dance halls and ballrooms opened across America. But the war put an end to dancing, with all the men called into service, and no-one to dance with.

Swing was the pop music of the period, largely from the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley.  This Manhattan area on West 28thStreet was the home of many music publishers.  Significant musicians included Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael. Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson became the dominant influence.

The tunes were happy dance music, moving into 4:4 time; not toe-tapping, just whole body swinging. It was simple, clear harmonic melodies, and a strong beat.  At that time, dance was one hand clasped with a partner and the other on waste and shoulder. There were two elements to Swing, ‘hot numbers’ for the rhythmic excitement of lindy-hopping and jitter-bugging, and ballads for the gentle cuddling of the foxtrot on the dance floor.

Swing was the era of Glen Miller’s “In The Mood”, Artie Shaw’s “Begin The Beguine”, Tommy Dorsey’s “Marie”, Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home”, Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump”, Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing”, Duke Ellington’s “Take The A Train” & “Cotton Tail”, Louis Armstrong’s “Mack The Knife”, Ella Fitzgerald & Count Basie’s “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”, and The Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”.

Interestingly, Ellington was uncomfortable with Swing, preferring more contemplative and imaginative elements for listening rather than jitter-bugging, being quoted as saying “Jazz is music. Swing is business.”

Bibliography: “Dixieland”-Wikipedia.org; “Tin Pan Alley Pop”-AllMusic.com; “Swing Set”-AllAboutJazz.com;  “The Swing Era”-SwingEraMusic.com; “Swing Music Explained”-TheJazzPianoSite.com; “10 Important Swing Era Jazz Musicians”-LiveAbout.com.

Keith Pettigrew, presenter of Emergent Jazz


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