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  • Writer's pictureDonné Restom

The Big Band Bang: Swing died because it exploded

In the beginning there was chaos. Organised chaos, but a condensed hive of activity nonetheless. In the beginning there were lots of really big things travelling at furious paces within tiny spaces. In the beginning great masses surrounded stars and demanded they shine ever brighter. And so they did, until naturally, their brightness got too bright for this condensed hive and all exploded in a great big BOP! Bop! The bubble burst and riding on a wild wave outward from the centre, with Dizzying speed and tremulous flight, a new universe was created.

How Would You Like To Swing On A Star?

Let's begin in the very middle. Jazz in the Swing Era was “not art music but dance music”. Benny Goodman’s orchestra, inspired by the integrational leadership of John Hammond is successfully breaking the racial segregation lines. The 1938 concert, From Spirituals To Swing, held in Carnegie Hall, is used as an example of social protest and a cry for jazz to be recognised as an American national music. Duke Ellington is rapidly moving away from traditional popular song forms and into a more experimental form of Thematic Composition, however his band is kept on the road constantly despite the rising monetary costs. On a political level, in the face of Swing music being used as a banner for Socialism, Ellington holds himself at odds to Hammond’s musical understanding, calling him “an ardent propagandist and champion of the ‘lost cause’”. Meanwhile, Kansas City’s Count Basie Big Band is flourishing under a wonderfully corrupt city hall brimming with liquor and gambling (“where leisure and whiskey flourished so too did jazz”), and the city itself is proving a hot pot for the roving territory bands. Musically, the Kansas City simpler melodic styles and blues based harmonies are allowing for the rhythm section to move past the traditional 2/4 feels and into the 4/4 that would later prove vital to bebop.

In many respects the Swing Era may have never left if it weren’t for two forces pulling the strings in the background: The Depression and (dare I mention it) The War. Despite vast headway made in the linking of cities and states in America through road and rail, the depression’s rising fuel prices began to force bands off the road. With the onset of World War II, train travel was also made difficult due to troops filling up carriages. Many bandleaders (such as Glenn Miller) disbanded in order to go to war and musical instrument production momentarily ceased while weapon making took priority.

Musically these forces had other implications. The music of the Swing Era carried with it vital political motivations. As Ken Burns notes, “Swing became the anthem of war-time America”. Not only did its hot tempos and march band roots help to inspire a sense of militancy, but its inter-racial quality held an implicit expression of freedom. Both blacks and whites could be motivated through Swing music to fight for this freedom. The use of the soloist within Swing music gave individuals an even greater sense of freedom, whilst on an ideological level “It is based on an individuality which is contrary to the very fundamentals of Nazism” – Earl Hines.

The Rise of An Individual: Dizzy and the Metaphorical Death of Swing.

Dizzy Gillespie joined the prestigious Cab Calloway Big Band in 1939. Cab’s band meant big business and after gaining much experience in the Latin styles of the Socarras band and already experimenting with new rhythms with Kenny Clarke in the Teddy Hill band, Dizzy was already on the road to forging his own individual style. “I found him different from every trumpet player that I had heard before. Every time he took a chorus it was something different. He did not stick to one particular thing, and the style changed completely.” (Alberto Socarras)

It is under the intense discipline of the popular Cab Calloway band that both the beginnings of a revolutionary playing style and non-conformist mentality become most apparent in Gillespie. On the bandstand Dizzy used his solo breaks to experiment with new ways of playing. As Milton Hinton remembers: “He had the ideas, but his chops weren’t always up to his ideas in those days. He was making an attempt at something…” Off the bandstand, much to the annoyance of Calloway, Dizzy was spending his Monday nights jamming at Minton’s, blowing out frustrations at the restrictions the popular bands placed upon him. This was the creational melting pot for what was to become bebop, with Dizzy as its musically recognised teacher.

"What we were doing at Minton’s was playing, seriously, creating a new dialogue among ourselves, blending our ideas into a new style of music. You only have so many notes, and what makes a style is how you get from one note to the other. We had some fundamental background training in European harmony and music theory superimposed on our own knowledge from Afro-American tradition. We invented our own way of getting from one place to the next… Our phrases were different. We phrased differently from the older guys. Perhaps the only real difference in our music was that we phrased differently. Musically, we were changing the way that we spoke, to reflect the way that we felt. New phrasing came in with the new accent. Our music had a new accent." (Dizzy Gillespie)

Dizzy left Calloway’s band after a misunderstanding led him to stab Cab in the leg. If he hadn’t been restrained he would have killed him. Cab’s white suit was covered in blood and when Dizzy returned it was to show Cab the first arrangement on bop that ever came about. And it blew Cab’s mind.

Pop Eats Itself: The Popularisation/Commercialisation of Swing and Rebellion.

Cab Calloway’s Big Band is just one example of how the commercial success of some big bands led to the desire for musicians to turn their energies to smaller ensembles and the jam session. In bands such as Calloway’s, instrumentalists found themselves pushed to the background as singers took centre stage, and for the majority of big bands lack of sufficient funds due to the depression caused almost all of them to stop, whilst young instrumentalists gave up ideas of leading big bands. Bands such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra epitomised the ultimate popularisation of Big Band Swing with an “increasingly formulaic sound”. As the big bands grew to monstrous proportions in order to keep musicians employed, so too did they get too big for their own survival. As much as they, like dying stars burnt themselves out, so too did new stars shoot outwards in the form of soloists. An individualism that began in the Swing Era flourished in the after-hours jam sessions of the early 1940’s.

The shift to the format and spirit of the jam session suggests any number of compelling dichotomies: between ponderous big bands and fleet, flexible combos, in which each individual voice is heard; between constricting written arrangements and free-flowing improvisation; between demeaning conventions of popular entertainment and a format free of associations with comedy or dance.

The Big Bop: A Bird Learns To Fly.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction and many would argue that the force with which the Swing Era struck outwardly was equal to the force with which a new player struck inwardly. Charlie Parker, as an individual epitomised the force of all the hundreds of people that created the Swing Era, and sucked it down into one person. Then blew it out his horn with a brilliance that could be described as terrifying.

“It was December 1939… I’d been getting bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used all the time, all the time, and I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes but I couldn’t play it. Well, that night, I was working over “Cherokee,” and, as I did, I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.” (Charlie Parker)

And BOP! A new universe was created.


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