Music to My Ears

Swing, Swing, Swing

I was about 15 and home sick for the day. Today that kid could convince his mom he’s sick and she’ll go off to work after checking his pulse. But in 1969 nobody’s mom worked. She was there for the duration, your personal physician and guard. I had faked sick about two weeks earlier, so Mom had her suspicions. Luckily after puking on her slippers I was good to go. Even I couldn’t fake that shit.

In those days until 6AM there was nothing on the tube but a test pattern that featured a weird Indian head and some cryptic numbers and arrows that we now know were messages from the Masons. Then there were stale news updates, droning weather guys, a sports dude with a bad toup, and unwatchable soaps. You read, dozed, and read some more with frequent doses of castor oil until 11AM when Perry Mason came on. Perry was the oasis, but if your mom caught you leering at Della’s butt as she sashayed out of Perry’s office you were going to school. Had to be careful.

After the Land Of The Game Shows the local TV station had a feature film show that started about 2PM. This was where the thirsty populace was thrilled to the classics, like Tarzan and the Ant Men, or Shirley Temple Meets Tarzan and the Ant Men. On this particular day, a miracle was broadcast named Orchestra Wives.

In 1942 20th Century Fox released Orchestra Wives starring the actual Glenn Miller Band as part of the usual ‘let’s get the kids into the theatres’ pap crap. You know. Like A Hard Day’s Night and Purple Rain. I had been turned onto Miller the year before but that album was the soundtrack for The Glenn Miller Story, and as great as that film was it was still Henry Mancini conducting the NBC orchestra. Orchestra Wives was a silly story but featured the actual band. Mom heard the music (her generation’s version of rebellion) and took her smoke break from chores after she heard this come on.

Mom complained how Tex Beneke was a hick, but I was 15 and had stopped listening to drivel like this when she told me her favorite song was Winchester Cathedral. OK, I might have stopped listening to her before that, but you get the idea.

Here was Glenn and the band, the actual band. Except for Cesar Romero on piano and Jackie Gleason on bass for theatrical reasons, this was Glenn and the boyz. Enraptured I was. The actual Modernaires on vocals. Wow.

Mom sat with me through the rest of the movie, chain smoking Pall Malls with a sick kid. Boy, those were the days.

When Louis Armstrong was asked on the Bing Crosby radio show what swing was, he said, “Ah, swing, well, we used to call it syncopation — then they called it ragtime, then blues — then jazz. Now, it’s swing. Ha! Ha! White folks, yo’all sho is a mess.”

Satchmo could say stuff like that then before a guy like Trump would deport the little geezer. How is it possible we’re actually regressing? But. I digress. Sorry.

If asked the great Louie would tell you that you cannot talk about the birth of swing without talking about Chick Webb.

Chick Webb was born in 1905 and very early on was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis. A family doctor (may God bless you sir) recommended Chick take up the drums to ‘loosen up his bones’. Hey. Beats leeches and bleeding. Chick would never get taller than 5 feet and was hampered by this spinal crud his whole life. But man, those drums.

Chick was 17 when he moved to NY City and by 21 had his own band. It was Chick in 1926 that guys like Benny Goodman and Bob Wills were listening to, and hearing that back beat, that rhythm that was no longer on the 2 and 4 or even 1 and 3. It was every beat. And it, well, swung.

Webb made, and I mean made the transition from Dixieland to swing. Guys like a young Gene Krupa would crowd to the front of the bandstand to see how this hunch-backed little guy could do what he could.

What this hunch-backed little guy was doing was inventing Swing.

By the early 30’s Benny Goodman had heard what Webb was doing and developed a love for the style and took it into his heart and into millions of others. Goodman was more of a classically trained musician, but one of my favorite examples of a guy who chucked the symphony for what made him smile. You can watch videos of him playing, and see that smile around the reed. I know guys that could play clarinet and swear on a box of Twinkies you can’t grin like that and play those gorgeous runs. Of course, those same guys argue the earth used to be round, but now it’s flat again. Clarinet players.

Certainly Goodman could take the idiom and be more successful because he was white. But he still worked it, and it wasn’t easy. No band has it easy any time. Except maybe The Monkees.   I can’t imagine the road in the 30’s with a bus full of 25 dirtbag musicians. Peoria indeed. But Goodman wasn’t daunted by the usual band problems. He had to have a band that was perfect. And if that meant adding black players because they were the best at what they did, then that’s what we’re gonna do.

In 1938 Goodman and his band played Carnegie Hall, a venue that would scare the crap out of anyone, and Benny was right there. Billed as kind of a publicity stunt, the show was titled The Birth of the Blues with the Goodman orchestra. Goodman had by then incorporated black musicians, notably Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. The recordings of the Goodman quartet from that concert with Krupa, Wilson, and Hampton are some of the most exciting listens in jazz. But typically of Benny, he wasn’t as concerned with the acceptance of an integrated band as much as how the silver spoon set would react to his music.

Goodman had nothing to worry about. That concert. Krupa with that beat. Harry James. Arrangements by Fletch Henderson. Had to get Fletch’s name in here somewhere! You’d have to be dead from the waist down to not slip into this coma, this jazz, this burst of energy that still crackles on the recording today.

To take us back around, check this next clip. It’s also from Orchestra Wives, but a ballad. I add it here because the swing beat even in a sappy love song still swings.. lightly, like a cat in a hammock on a soft autumn afternoon.

By the way. That is a young Harry Morgan there, about to get dumped for a trumpet player. Trumpet players.