Swing that music
October 12, 2016
Fans of Swing Era music believe it to be as alive today as it was when it first burst upon the popular music scene, and there are many musicians around who are happy to prove them right. That this style is still so popular is quite remarkable when set against the thought that 21 August 2016 was the 81st anniversary of Benny Goodman’s breakthrough dance date at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. However you look at it, eight decades is a long time. Benny’s band that night was cheered by an unexpected and eager audience that had been growing in the Pacific time zone for months and in the course of the next couple of years their numbers doubled and redoubled first all across the country and eventually around the world.
Although only newly in the public’s consciousness, this new development in jazz that was labeled ‘swing’ had been heard before that night in 1935 because the style had been evolving since the late years of the previous decade. Bands leading the way included those of Jelly Roll Morton, Luis Russell, Fess Williams, Erskine Tate, and Chick Webb, with arrangers Don Redman, Edgar Sampson, and Fletcher Henderson among those importantly involved. From the late 1930s onward, Goodman’s benchmark style was built upon the work of arrangers such as Henderson and Jimmy Mundy. Playing their charts were skilled sidemen, among them trombonist Red Ballard, saxophonists Hymie Schertzer and Art Rollini, pianist Jess Stacy, bassist Harry Goodman (Benny’s brother), and guitarist Allan Reuss. Soloists appeared who were important in building the band’s fan base, although Goodman himself was always firmly in the spotlight. At the time of the Palomar date the band’s most exciting soloist was trumpeter Bunny Berigan, although he left the band a few weeks later. Changes brought in trumpeters Ziggy Elman and Harry James, tenor saxophonist Vido Musso, and, of significant importance to the band’s style and popular appeal, drummer Gene Krupa. His predecessors, Stan King and Sammy Weiss, were skilful dance band drummers and on earlier recordings do everything right. But on later dates Krupa adds that indefinable something that inspired the rest of the band, which in turn electrified audiences and helped make the band the popular powerhouse it was to become.
On 16 January 1938 the band appeared at Carnegie Hall, an occasion recorded (on a single overhead microphone) but not released until the early 1950s, by which time LPs had arrived. This album has never been out of circulation and as the years have passed reissues have benefited enormously from improvements to the sound quality. Not at all surprising is the fact that music from the Swing Era turns up often in films and on television, in dramas and documentaries. Of the music played on these occasions Benny Goodman’s is one of the most common; notably Sing, Sing, Sing the Louis Prima piece that became synonymous with Goodman and Krupa, thanks in large part to the climactic moments of the Carnegie Hall concert. Unfortunately, Benny did not care to share the spotlight with anyone else and Krupa’s personal popularity, which had grown steadily since the Palomar dance date, brought about his departure from the band a little over a year after the Carnegie Hall concert.
So has this music of a bygone age been forgotten? Not at all. Indeed, in some quarters it is just as alive now as it was then. The long ago departure of jazz from the dance floor and in to the concert hall has meant that one of the key qualities of swing style has been sometimes overlooked. This is the fact that most of the music was composed, arranged and played for dancing. It should not be at all surprising therefore that Goodman’s music has had a lasting appeal among dancers, an appeal that is still going strong today. Among the gatherings for fans of dance of this kind is Lindy Focus in Asheville, North Carolina, where musicians and dancers and teachers assemble for a lively festival. The musicians who have played at this venue include local resident and bandleader Michael Gamble, who leads The Rhythmic Serenaders, and Jonathan Stout, leader of the Lindy Focus All Star Orchestra.
Michael Gamble The Rhythmic Serenaders (Organic OR 16552)
On this highly entertaining album, Michael Gamble draws upon music linked to several key names from the Swing Era. For example, he presents Billie Holiday’s composition Fine And Mellow as well as other songs with which she is associated, including What A Night, What A Moon, What A Boy and Back In Your Own Back Yard. Then there are A Mellow Bit Of Rhythm, written by Mary Lou Williams for Andy Kirk’s Clouds Of Joy, Sweets, by Harry Edison for Count Basie’s band, a couple of songs played by Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five, Scottie and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, while Goodman is represented by way of songs recorded by his sextet and big band: I Never Knew, Seven Come Eleven and Pick-a-Rib. The Rhythm Serenaders assembled by bass player Michael are clarinetists and saxophonists Keenan McKenzie and Paul Consentino, trumpeters Gordon Au and Noah Hocker, trombonists Lucian Cobb and David Wilken, pianists Craig Gildner and James Posedel, guitarists Jonathan Stout and Brooks Prumo, and drummers Josh Collazo and Russ Wilson (who sings on two tracks), while vocalist Laura Windley appears on four tracks.
Throughout, there are fine solos from both Keenan and Paul and also by other members of the collective. These other soloists include James, Jonathan and Noah on Slidin’ And Glidin’, Seven Come Eleven (a theme originating with Charlie Christian) and Sweets, while Craig and Gordon are heard on I Never Knew. Gordon also solos on Fine And Mellow, providing an effective bluesy accompaniment to Laura’s introspective vocal. Everyone with a liking for the swinging music that captivated audiences way back when – and especially those who like to dance – will enjoy this album. And neatly completing the circle that embraces these eight-decades of swing, this recording session took place in Asheville’s Isis Music Hall, which first opened in 1937.
For more on Michael Gamble, contact Holly Cooper at Mouthpiece Music.
This album is available at the usual outlets, including Amazon.
Over the years there have been several books on Benny Goodman, notably D. Russell Connor’s bio-discography, BG On The Record, and his sequel, Benny Goodman: Wrappin’ It Up, as well as Benny Goodman and the Swing Era by James Lincoln Collier and Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman by Ross Firestone. There is also one in the Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz series, Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert by Catherine Tackley. My own book on Goodman is very brief – it was part of a series of monographs on key jazz figures – and it is long out of print (although still around on the Internet for pennies). I mention it only because it is especially dear to me as it is the only book of mine to be translated into Japanese. (I confess I skipped the proofreading stage.)