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Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America.

David W. Stowe has taken on the vast and vexed task of synthesizing more narrowly-focused work by many others, much of it published since 1990, with the findings of his own archival work in the files of Down Beat, Metronome, and other periodicals, in the files of the FBI, and in a plethora of recently published reminiscences of jazz musicians; and not only these, for his broad sociological project required that he digest quantities of information and opinion on, at least, the Depression, World War II, the technologies and businesses of radio and sound-recording, "popular culture," in addition to - above all - race-relations, since Swing consisted in an amalgamation of, so to speak, "black" and "white" musical practices, "white" in the continuing efflorescence of the American popular song (of which he has, however, nothing to say). He shows how the music was construed and used by people over a wide spectrum of talents, conditions, needs, and ambitions.

We have here, then, a critical synoptic social history of 15 eventful American years, centered on perhaps their most characteristic phenomenon, and a most impressive achievement it is. The author, I fear, may come across as someone who actually lived through the period itself, writing for contemporaries, such is his easy mastery of the argot and of a host of always obscure proper names.

One might substitute for his stylized chapter-headings the generic: 1. Definitions, 2. Politics, 3. Business and Industry, 4. War: opportunities and disasters, 5. Aftermath, 6. Reverberations. This blended chronological and topical scheme will have made hard work for the author, who has carried it through much to the advantage of his readers. Chapter 3, "The Incorporation of Swing," the longest by 6 to 18 pages, forms the heart of the book, although one of its sub-themes, white racism (sometimes, more fairly, simply routine bilking of the ignorant and defenseless) pervades the whole.

I qualify to write this review solely because I started to read Down Beat in 1935 at age 14 ("memorize!", as some of my school-mates exclaimed) and continued through some 20 years while attending to the "remote" broadcasts of early radio, listening to records and to the few traveling bands that visited Great Falls, Montana, then many more in large cities, playing in and writing for Swing bands, these activities coming to involve me closely with many of the people mentioned in the book; it pleases me to report that Stowe has got practically everything I remember exactly right. Moreover, he has written straight-forward, flawless - if necessarily bland - prose, articulating his chapters with the skill of a novelist.

The data are presented without advertent clues as to how one might feel about them, even those concerning racial outrages and the curiosities of The Director of the FBI. Indeed, Stowe takes such pains to present "both sides" that an inattentive reader might occasionally end up unsure of the significance of what has just been said. Stowe will have chosen each inclusion from among countless alternatives; who could define a perfect balance?

Despite the data assembled in Chapter 3, nothing further is done with a problem that today looks even more threatening than its component white racism alone, I mean of course the obligation of capitalism, from its modest incarnations in fanzine journalists to the grand maneuvers of arbitrageurs and currency-speculators, to seize, control, exploit, and destroy any kind of talented endeavor in any communal sensuous domain. Chapter 3 offers a paradigm. But the more developed argument, always implicit, is, ineluctably, that our cancer, white racism, was attacked by valiant, imaginative, energetic people like John Hammond, Norman Granz, and others, was held in remission to some extent in the exigency of global war, but lost little of its virulence. The last paragraph and the last end-note emphasize this in Stowe's characteristic temperate way.

Stowe picks up "hyperbole and self-contradiction," not always self-evident or explained, in quoted remarks of musicians but still seems too trusting. Reliance on printed reports and interviews leaves one constrained to recount and compare what certain observers, whether perceptive, qualified, prepared, articulate, biased, "other-directed," or not, succeeded in getting into print.

Some issues could have been clarified and vivified by a now far from difficult definition of "Swing" expounding "big-band jazz" (to which Stowe has by no means confined himself), for this would have introduced the factor of musical giftedness as manifested in improvisation, opening up psychological means of explaining the curiosity, excitement, camaraderie, and resentment described. But historically, no doubt, the quoted gibberish of Virgil Thomson (no "musicologist," he) deserves precedence.

The most striking disproportion lies in the extended treatment of bebop, which results from Stowe's difficulty in maintaining his focus; unwilling to use musical vocabulary, he leaves an impression of confusion, shifting between, say, Kay Kayser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge and Art Tatum or Nat Cole, who never played - wouldn't and shouldn't have - in a big band. Bebop received the worst press of all, but not because its technical apparatus was nearly as abstruse as Stowe thinks it was, its early written features easier to imitate for a self-taught arranger than any standard hymn.

Bebop falls into our period, since the New Deal ended decisively only with Truman's catastrophical Federal loyalty program of March, 1947, but it doesn't fall comfortably under the rubric "big-band" or "Swing." Dizzy Gillespie's is the only bebop (better it should have been called "Bird'n Diz") big band to which Stowe gives considerable attention, and one can't conceive of Swing without dancing and recognizable popular songs. Bebop was more pervasively improvised than any other jazz. It's potential as partially-written concert music was adumbrated by the magnificent big band fronted by Billy Eckstine from 1944 to 1947 but realized by the Modern Jazz Quartet after 1952.

The tragedy outlined in Swing Changes had profound mitigations that could find no place in a study confined to the most conspicuous events and their non-aesthetic significance. Every sizable city had its local swing bands and at least a few players equal to most of those on the road. Even the State of Montana could, at least once, collect a superlative big band from among small-town saloon musicians. Many local players arranged for such bands. A valid improvising style didn't depend upon the virtuosity of a Charley Parker or a Harry James, and lack of a perfect ear could be compensated for somewhat by study and practice. Members of such bands, and aspirants still in high school, must have bought most of the Down Beats and Metronomes sold, as well as most of the records - at least eventually, for nickels or dimes, as they came out of the juke-boxes. Their former members found each other in hundreds of anonymous military bands and played the music they loved at enlisted-men's dances, though not at the Officers' Club.

Such activity had very little to do with commerce, hence with publicity, and didn't entail slave-driven exhaustion or the deprivations of constant travel. It must have been engendered by pre-rationalized radio, which brought countless hours of the very best (and un-best) bands into hamlets and hovels no matter how isolated. Has another generation enjoyed such ecstacy?

Sidney Finkelstein deserved a place among the critics. The mentions of Adorno, "cultural relativism," and "essentialism," along with the excursion into "gender," stike me as chic.

Harvard University Press has delivered a splendid edition at high speed, using a typeface in keeping with Stowe's description of ballrooms in which Swing was danced to. I have noticed a few oversights: "S.C." Handy; Bach's "E-minor" Mass; a letter missing at the bottom of p. 233; a superfluous letter at the top of p. 235. The well-chosen photographs are not all familiar, and the end-notes, with citations as late as 1993, locating substantial material in out-of-the-way places, may prove a treasure-trove for Americanists.

ROBERT CROWLEY Professor of Music Chichester, England
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Author:Crowley, Robert
Publication:International Journal of Comparative Sociology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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