A history of Jazz Music

by Piero Scaruffi
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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Jazz Music")

New York: The Swing Era

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

In New Orleans and Chicago, jazz had been synonymous with music for "speakeasy" and brothels. The first radio stations had boycotted it. Bigots had warned parents against the demonic effects of jazz on teenagers. Everything changed in june 1924, when a concert organized by the Paul Whiteman orchestra at a classical music venue, legitimized jazz to white America by performing both dixieland classics and the premiere of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Suddenly, jazz was not only respectable but even highbrow; and white. Trouble is that Whiteman had not performed jazz at all: he had performed the first easy-listening adaptation of jazz music. The public at large never heard of Fletcher Henderson, but everybody knew Whiteman's "jazz". Coincidentally or not, the "Cotton Club" became the hub of black entertainment for white folks in the years following that event. It had become "hip" to listen to jazz music. A few years later, another event contributed to make jazz extremely popular among whites: Al Jolson's performance in The Jazz singer (1927), the first "talking" movie. Never mind that Jolson was a minstrel (a white man who painted his face black) and sang sentimental ballads: he was almost the antithesis of the jazz singer. In 1930 George Gershwin completed the assimilation of jazz music by writing I Got Rhythm for a successful musical. Among the musicians who played in the pit orchestra of that Broadway show was a young clarinetist, Benny Goodman.


Until then, white New York musicians had been relatively peripheral to the gestation of jazz music. Other than importing dixieland bands from Chicago, New York had not developed a distinctive style of white jazz music. The first home-grown style of New York's white jazz was the invention of cornet player Ernest "Red" Nichols, who had emigrated to the city in 1923. He pioneered "chamber jazz" with his Five Pennies, a rotating cast of white virtuosi that initially featured Miff Mole on trombone and Jimmy Dorsey on alto sax and clarinet, but later, at different times, absorbed Glenn Miller and Jack Teagarden on trombones, Bud Freeman on tenor sax, Pee Wee Russell on clarinet, Eddie Condon on guitar, Gene Krupa on drums. Nichols' compositions were rare: Hurricane (september 1926), That's No Bargain (december 1926), Five Pennies (june 1927), I May Be Wrong (august 1929), They Didn't Believe Me (august 1929). He was much more interested in sculpting a "white" sound for jazz music, a sound that maintained little of jazz's exuberance and vitality, and instead focused on a more intellectual experience. This idea turned him into one of the most famous (and prolific) musicians of the time. His records sold tens of thousands of copies and influenced scores of white musicians, setting the stage for a bigger revolution.

The French-born bandleader Jean Goldkette organized a white band in Detroit devoted to dance-pop songs that in 1926 commanded Bix Beiderbecke on cornet, Frankie Trumbauer on saxophone, Steve Brown on bass, Eddie Lang on guitar, Joe Venuti on violin, Tommy Dorsey on trombone and Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet, as well as influential arranger Bill Challis. They were mostly absorbed by Paul Whiteman in 1927.


Paul Whiteman, a former violinist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, who organized a band in 1919 in San Francisco band and moved to New York in 1920, was the epitome of white musicians aping the new genre and trying to cash in on it, mixing pop vocalists such as Bing Crosby (1926) with white virtuoso instrumentalists such as cornet player Bix Beiderbecke (1927), saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer (1927), violinist Joe Venuti (1929), guitarist Eddie Lang (1929), trombonist Jack Teagarden (1933), cornet player Red Nichols, trombonist Tommy Dorsey. Whiteman copied from fellow San Francisco bandleader Art Hickman the idea of adding a saxophone section to the traditional brass section. He also used (from 1919) Hickman's pianist Ferde Grofe to embellish his pop hits: trumpeter Henry Busse's Wang Wang Blues (september 1920), John Schonberger's Whispering (august 1920), that sold over a million copies, Irving Berlin's My Mammy (march 1921), Busse's Hot Lips (june 1922), that included a quote from Rachmaninov, Julian Robledo's Three O'Clock In The Morning (august 1922), that sold almost two million copies, Vincent Rose's Linger Awhile (november 1923), Leon Jessel's Parade of the Wooden Soldiers (january 1923), Willard Robison's Peaceful Valley (september 1925). Whiteman was not a complete rip-off, as he commissioned George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1924), which he premiered with much fanfare (thus legitimizing jazz as a form of highbrow music), the concert made jazz acceptable and credible to the white establishment, and prompted Grofe to compose eclectic pieces that were more reminiscent of classical music than of jazz music in terms of tonal variety and dynamic range (notably the Grand Canyon Suite (april 1932). Whether because he was running out of inspiration or because he felt confident enough to parody his own work, Grofe' began to interpolate classical music in pop tunes. Thus his arrangement of George Gershwin's The Man I Love (may 1928) quoted Wagner and Gus Kahn's Nobody's Sweetheart (october 1929) quoted Stravinsky. As usual with stars that sold millions of records, everything that Whiteman "invented" was considered relevant and everything that he did not invent was considered irrelevant. Whatever (dubious) merits his orchestra had, they were due to Grofe and to the jazz soloists. Despite the very poor average quality of his music, Whiteman's influence was enormous, and not only on white America. For a while, Whiteman (who was as jazz as Al Jolson was black) was marketed to white America as the epitome of jazz music, and therefore ranks as one of the great swindles of the record industry. In reality, he slowed down the progress in jazz music and almost single-handedly destroyed it. Not much of what he recorded, and certainly not Gershwin's (rather mediocre) piece, was worthy of the repertory of so many humble jazz contemporaries.


In 1934 Chicago white clarinetist Benny Goodman, who had moved to New York in 1928, formed the big band (three saxophones, three trumpets, two trombones, and four rhythm instruments) that was to define the swing era, the epitome being Benny Carter's Take My Word (august 1934) for four saxophones. National success came from 1935 when Goodman refined his rhythm section, built around white drummer Gene Krupa, and employed Fletcher Henderson to arrange the second-rate material (notably Jelly Roll Morton's King Porter Stomp). The band was promoted for six months by a radio program, "Let's Dance", and then a concert at the "Palomar Ballroom" in Los Angeles was broadcast live causing mass hysteria. For several years it continued to be a major attraction on the radio (the new program, "The Camel Caravan," was broadcast in prime time), and in 1938 was given the honor of a concert at New York's "Carnegie Hall". Its audience was mainly made of white teenagers, who perceived the Goodman Orchestra as a social revolution and attended its performances in a state of screaming frenzy. Among the hits were Will Hudson's ballad Moonglow (june 1934), Irving Berlin's Blue Skies (january 1935), Vincent Youmans' Sometimes I'm Happy (july 1935), Edgar Sampson's Stompin At The Savoy (january 1936), Irving Berlin's This Year's Kisses (january 1937), trumpeter Ziggy Elman's And the Angels Sing (january 1938), and especially two "hot" dance numbers arranged by trumpeter Jimmy Mundy, Elmer Schoebel's Bugle Call Rag (august 1934) and Louis Prima's Sing Sing Sing (january 1938), issued on two sides of a 12" record. But Goodman also continued to lead a second life as a soloist. The Benny Goodman Trio with black pianist Teddy Wilson, Krupa and himself on clarinet, that recorded Turner Layton's After You've Gone (july 1935) and Johnny Green's Body And Soul (july 1935), later expanded into a Quartet with the addition of black vibraphonist Lionel Hampton (the first virtuoso of an instrument that had just been invented), notably in Harry Akst's Dinah (august 1936), Harrington Gibbs' Runnin' Wild (february 1937), Vincent Rose's Avalon (june 1937) and Hampton's own Vibraphone Blues (august 1936), was possibly the first band to mix white and black musicians. It evolved into a Sextet with four white and two black musicians (Goodman on clarinet, Hampton on vibes, Henderson on piano, Charlie Christian on guitar plus bass and drums) that became a launching pad for Christian's solos, as in Hampton's Flying Home (august 1939), Art Hickman's Rose Room (august 1939), Seven Come Eleven (december 1939), Shivers (december 1939), Air Mail Special (june 1940), Six Appeal (june 1940), Breakfast Feud (december 1940), Wholly Cats (january 1941). These smaller entities were more artistically successful (albeit less commercially successful) than the big band. In 1940 Goodman reorganized the big band with Charlie Christian on the electric guitar and (the following year) Mel "Powell" Epstein on piano and Sid Catlett on drums. Powell contributed elegant detours and highbrow compositions such as Mission To Moscow (composed in 1941). Quite the opposite in attitude and style, southerner Christian stole the show in Solo Flight (1941), his guitar concerto. Together with bass and drums Powell and Christian created a kind of daring and unpredictable rhythm section that had never been heard before. And the hits, such as Benny Rides Again (november 1940) and Darn That Dream (debuted in november 1939), were now composed and arranged by Eddie Sauter, a far more competent musician than the average jazz arranger, who tried to blend classical and jazz music in pieces such as Concerto For Jazz Band And Orchestra and Focus (july 1961) for Stan Getz and a string orchestra. TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


Pennsylvania's white trombonist Tommy Dorsey (1905), who had already led a band with his clarinetist brother Jimmy Dorsey, formed a band in 1935 that delivered an even blander form of swing ballads for the white audience, for example with Joe Burke's On Treasure Island (september 1935), George Bassman's I'm Getting Sentimental Over You (october 1935), the instrumental that established his smooth style (with a trombone sound borrowed from Miff Mole's), Irving Berlin's Marie (january 1937), with vocalist Jack Leonard pioneering a sort of call-and-response with the band, and Ruth Lowe's I'll Never Smile Again (april 1940), showcasing the young Frank Sinatra, although it helped establish a new genre when it covered Pinetop Smith's Boogie-Woogie (september 1938) and shifted towards more swinging rhythms after it hired arranger Sy Oliver, for example with Well Get It (march 1942), and drummer Bernard "Buddy" Rich (1939-42), the most famous of white jazz drummers.


In 1936 white clarinetist Artie "Shaw" Arshawsky organized an octet consisting of a string quartet, a rhythm section, and his clarinet. This chamber orchestra performed his Interlude in B-flat (may 1936), one of the most innovative pieces of white jazz, and Streamline (december 1936). his full-scale orchestra became more famous for pop ballads such as Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine (july 1938), but Shaw continued to compose adventurous music such as Hold Your Hats (april 1937), Back Bay Shuffle (july 1938), Nightmare (september 1938), Concerto for Clarinet (december 1940).


Glenn Miller's was the least "jazz" of all these white big bands, but also the most successful, famous for such ballads as Frankie Carle's Sunrise Serenade (november 1938), Miller's own Moonlight Serenade (may 1939), and a spirited version of Joe Garland's In the Mood (august 1939). Miller had pioneered his arrangements for clarinet and four saxophones (as well as his knack for quoting from classical and folk music) while arranging music for Ray Noble's easy-listening orchestra. Tenor saxophonist Timothy "Tex" Beneke was a staple of the band from inception (1937) till the end (1942).


Benny Goodman's drummer Gene Krupa, who had pioneered the extended drum solo, formed his own orchestra in 1938, initially offering adventurous performances such as Wire Brush Stomp (june 1938), Nagasaki (july 1938), with virtuoso scat singing by Leo Watson, Drummin' Man (november 1940) and Bolero at the Savoy (october 1941); but after the war led a schizophrenic life, torn between increasingly trivial pop material and pioneering bebop arrangements.

Swing bands shared the stage with Latin bands that played the rhumba, the tango, the mambo, the samba, the cha-cha, etc. Inevitably rhythmic elements of Latin music were introduced into swing bands.

This was also the era when jazz spread to Europe. Several USA jazzmen traveled or stayed in Europe between the world wars: Sidney Bechet (1925-29), Noble Sissle (1927-33), Duke Ellington (1933), Louis Armstrong (1932-34), Coleman Hawkins (1934-39), Benny Carter (1935-38).


By far the most creative of the white jazzmen of the swing era was New York pianist Raymond Scott (real name Harry Warnow), whose Quintette (actually a sextet) specialized in quirky tunes with odd time signatures set to a frantic swing pace such as Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxicabs Upon Meeting with a Fare (march 1935), The Toy Trumpet (february 1937), Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals (april 1937), Powerhouse (february 1937), Twilight in Turkey (february 1937), Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner (april 1937), Minuet in Jazz (february 1937), Egyptian Barn Dance (april 1938), The Penguin (december 1937), Happy Farmer (april 1938), Girl with the Light Blue Hair (1939), New Year's Eve in a Haunted House (july 1939), Peter Tambourine (1939), Siberian Sleighride (may 1939), Tobacco Auctioneer (april 1939), Boy Scout in Switzerland (june 1939), Bumpy Weather (june 1939). Starting in 1941, Carl Stalling used snippets of Scott's tunes for countless episodes of cartoons, making Raymond Scott a household name in the business of cartoon soundtracks. Raymond Scott had already moved on, founding (1946) "Manhattan Research", the world's first electronic music studio, for which he invented several electro-mechanical devices: the "Orchestra Machine" (1946), the "Talking Alarm Clock" (1946), the "Karloff" (1948), a generator of sound-effects (basically, a proto-sampler), "Automatic Scanning Radio" (1950), an "indexing and selector device" (1953) for tape recorders (a proto-sequencer), the "Clavivox" (1956), a keyboard theremin in collaboration with the young Robert Moog, the "Videola" (1957), for synchronizing music and moving pictures, the "Circle Machine" (1958), the "Electronium" (1959), which was a proto-synthesizers, the "Rhythm Synthesizer" (1960) the oddly-named "Bandito the Bongo Artist", which was a proto drum-machine, etc. While very active in devising ever more creative ways of composing, he actually composed very little with those devices. The only non-jazz recording he made was the 3-LP electronic album Soothing Sounds for Baby (1962), that he conceived as children's music, but, de facto, a predecessor of both ambient and minimalist music.


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TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.