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In this research paper I will explore the origins and attempt to construct a loose temporal graph of the musical phenomenon known commonly as “swing jazz”. From its roots and derivative styles, I hope to prove that the assimilation of the black or Afro-American jazz music into the mainstream white culture of the early 20th century was the cause of the sharp rise in the popularity of swing jazz. This boom of good will towards what could have only been known as black or “Negro” music was in itself a leap towards reconciliation between races, and I will explore the implications of this cultural merge. I will go over some of the innovations the more prominent and influential bandleaders, and attempt to discover what effect they had on popular culture. Finally, I will attempt to explain swing jazz’s eventual decline in popularity and its eventual Renaissance in the late 20th century as a form of counter-culture. At that point, I hope to have explored swing jazz and its implications in the global culture to the best of my ability.
To begin a brief history of swing’s beginnings would be difficult due to the very nature of cultural development. An attempt to delineate a beginning of swing would be like looking for the moment that saw the birth of the Ice Age or the Italian Renaissance. Therefore, in able to trace a natal path through history, we must necessarily speak in generalities. Generally, swing music began in the 1920’s with the advent of hot jazz bands playing music to which an audience member could dance. This form of jazz placed more emphasis on rhythm in a group, and focused a motion in the sound. This created an audible “swing” to the song’s pace. These hot and jazz songs began to appeal to the crowds seeking an illegal shot of bathtub gin at speakeasies across the country, as they were combinations of the strong black blues style and the more familiar European instrumental arrangement. At the Savoy in New York City, black jazzmen would help develop the formula for swing using Louis Armstrong’s musical innovations.
The history of swing takes a dip as the stock market crashed in 1929. As the economic conditions imposed upon the world tightened their grips on the wallets of dance hall patrons, the less they went to the clubs and the less music they bought. The Depression was hard on swing musicians, who depended on the optimism of the crowd to work their spell. Swing had the same power that blues had to dispel the blues themselves, but its style did not lend itself to bringing the listener back from the blues. Swing agitated, and drove people into frenzies, and when those people had to think about were their next meal was coming from, swing could not cheer them. During this period, jazz was made, but only in the style that was sure to bring in the maximum revenue. Sweet jazz, full of syrupy horns and sweeping string sections, combined pleasing melody with simplistic lyrics to obtain a comparatively bland popular music. Paul Whiteman, who played sweet jazz with great commercial success, made a good amount of money with a song called “Whispering”. It featured a rhythm that crooned, and soft horn accompaniment that suggested a picturesque meeting of two chaste lovers. Though this style of music was relatively popular, it did not garner much respect from the jazzier bandleaders of the time. Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing”, referred to sweet jazz as “a weak sister incapable of holding its own in any artistic encounter with the real music of America.” (Erenberg, pg. 69)
While this “weaker” style succeeded to draw the few paying patrons left, the “darker” musicians were forced to lighten their music in order to make a living, since much of the freelance and recording industry had seen its bottom drop out. The artists that refused to conform found that they were running out of space in which to play. Many of Chicago’s cabaret musicians found themselves envying artists like Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, who were able to continue playing their music to a mostly black audience. They became the figureheads of the struggle to stay current and active in the jazz scene. The music presented the audience with a picture of the 1920’s Jazz Age without the monkey of decadence and pompous civilization on its back. Swing had a democratic, for-the-people thrust that represented a certain carefree possibility to it, something that was carried through the Depression into its true popular success.
Chicago’s Maxwell Street was and is a major artery of gritty, urban creative musical expression. After the famous O’Leary Fire of 1871, Maxwell Street received a flood of refugees attempting to find temporary housing. Recognizing the potential for profit, Jewish peddlers pushing two-wheeled carts began working Jefferson street, a perpendicular of Maxwell, selling household items, shoes, and other consumer good and services. The influx created a ghetto of about a square mile; it was so crowded that a social scientist theorized in 1900 that if the entire population of Chicago were as densely populated as its average slums, the city would be home to 32 million people instead of 2 million. If Chicago were as dense as its worst slums, such as Maxwell Street, the entire Western Hemisphere could have been housed in Chicago. For every 10 people, only one toilet was available. Once small, dank, dark flat might have housed several families. These were the conditions in which many of the most famous blues and jazzmen grew up and began their careers, in the lowdown and dirty clubs of the South Side. Like geological pressure forcing carbon into the shape of a diamond, the social pressure of Maxwell Street forced the Jews and blacks together
The historical significance of Maxwell Street cannot be denied, but there currently is a controversy concerning the future of the street and its resident buildings. The University of Illinois at Chicago has been planning to expand even further south in an effort to gather more proceeds from an increased land value. Using a private contractor, UIC has bought out and torn down many buildings which had been considered for Historical Preservation in order to effectively push the poorer out and move the richer in. The expansion of UIC is not a concept to which conservationists reject, it is the bulldozing of one of America’s cultural hearts that they cannot accept. It is cooperation that they seek, not confrontation. UIC seems to be acting in the role of obstructionist, instead of helping to improve the area, and build around the historic buildings. The controversy rages, and it becomes more clear to determine that UIC will eventually have its way; that is almost undeniable. The question is how will the administration deal with the cares and lives of the people that have made Maxwell Street their homes and lives for so long? The answer to that question will undoubtedly effect the future life of Chicago’s musical scene.
Chicago has seen the birth of many jazz greats; Condon, McPartland, Freeman, Wettling, Pollack, King, and Benny Goodman were among the musicians and bandleaders from Chicago to move to New York in order to spread their musical wings. Most of the hot recording action took place on the East Coast where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway were making their big band jazz music in The Cotton Club. Paul Whiteman was already famous and quite rich by the time the Swing Era truly began in the 1930’s. His style of mixing sweet jazz with swing was highly marketable and much of white America was familiar with Afro-American music only through contact with Whiteman’s. By contrast Cab Calloway’s “Jumpin’ Jive” was a swinging, rocking jazz style where one could not help tapping his or her feet. That kind of musical compulsion was no doubt disconcerting for many in America, and so Cab remained mostly a musician’s musician outside the urban jazz centers, where big band jazz was being popularized by one of the greatest, if not the greatest, bandleaders of the 20th century, Duke Ellington.
Duke Ellington, the godfather of big bands, had been playing swing for close to ten years before any of the white bands came on to the scene, but to none of the popular exclaim and excitement that greeted Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey’s bands. Even more than Cab Calloway, Ellington’s respect among the musical community was unparalleled. A major reason for this was the climate of prejudice prevalent in America; where Ellington would receive awards for his music in England, America would but restricted him to colored-only clubs. The color of his skin was not the only reason for this; Ellington was known for looking down upon the sweet jazz that was most popular at the time, the kind of music that filled concert halls. Ellington maintained a high respect from his fellow artists, and was highly respected in Europe as well, where swing was becoming an anthem for democracy.
Benny Goodman or the “King of Swing” was another musician whom did not look kindly upon sweet jazz. Goodman grew up near Maxwell Street as the son of a Russian Jew immigrant listening to street musicians play their rusty used instruments. As one of the first bandleaders to integrate his band, using blacks to arrange his music and sometimes play his instruments, Goodman can be considered a bit of a pioneer in race relations, due his stature as the first bandleader to employ a black arranger. He was widely known for “Sing, Sing, Sing”, a moving and vibrant dance number that become a staple of any big band’s repertoire. Benny Goodman also has the distinction of playing the first swing jazz show and Carnegie Hall, a moment that many consider a landmark in the history of popular music.
It has been said that all good things must come to an end. Swing jazz is no different from any other good thing, and it did reach a peak in its popularity. As victory approached in the Asian theatre of World War II, many in the swing scene looked forward to the future. Service bands like Glen Miller’s had spread the word to Europe, where thousands found a fresh style that represented democracy and American economic prosperity. Fans around the globe looked for information on swing or the opportunity to jam besieged American GIs. Pessimism took the place of optimism as band’s fees dropped suddenly from wartime highs. Ballrooms closed early or opened only on weekends, and big bands couldn’t scare up a crowd, either on tour or in the hip clubs of New York or Chicago.
There are two reasons generally offered for this decline in popularity. First, the war and subsequent draft created a high demand for competent sidemen to fill an orchestra at the same time that touring costs rose. Bandleaders would hire more musicians than they needed and passed these costs on to hotels and ballrooms, which simply raised the ticket prices, easily done in a flushed wartime economy. But as the war came to a close, big names were being paid top dollar but only drawing half crowds. Ticket prices became prohibitively high, and many halls were being closed. An attempt to cut costs by letting band members go was a killing cure as well. As Buddy Rich noted, “You can’t do it – people are too accustomed to big bands on the stand – they’ll feel cheated with anything less.” (Erenberg, pg. 214)
The audience themselves were changed from their experiences in Europe and Asia. Having been forced to grow up, American veterans settled down into a more relaxed and focused lifestyle; raising a family and making the mortgage payments took precedent over dancing. “Swing and pessimism don’t mix”(Erenberg, pg. 215), noted bandleader Ray McKinley, and returning GIs had much to be pessimistic about. Sweet jazz, however, was suited very well to America’s post-war social climate. With its tender and romantic ballads stoking the fire’s in the youth eager to start their lives over, sweet jazz was nurtured back into a strong health. The music was fit to what men and women seemed bent on doing: marrying and creating families. As families were established, the singer became the new icon. Expressing a heightened sense of individuality, singers like Frank Sinatra broke away from their bands to pursue successful solo careers. As Metronome noted in 1947, “When you want popular music at CBS now, you turn to singers and singers alone”(Erenberg, pg. 217). This trend continues well into modern day, with artists like Jewell, Ani DiFranco, and Sarah McLochlan, all of whom found great popularity by taking the center stage while expressing their social commentaries through music. Consider the success of teen idol soloists in the 1950’s like Paul Anka and Frankie Avalon and in the 1970’s with singers like Debbie Gibson and David Cassidy. These crooners were immensely popular, most due to high charisma and sensual charm. Sometimes talented, sometimes regurgitated, these figureheads of musical styles never seem to be put down for good.
A revival of the culture of our ancestors is what is commonly referred to as nostalgia. Every so often, our modern culture looks to the past in order to ground itself, to seek solace in a simpler time. In the early 1990’s, swing music came back into the cultural picture in the small communal atmospheres of cities like San Francisco. It is interesting to note that neo-swing, as characterized by a swing with a rock flavor, was introduced as a reaction against the punk and grunge scenes. Early enthusiasts were generally ex-punks who found that the scene had become stale. They sought to recapture their sexuality and sense of self-worth that the punk/grunge music had tried to 3-chord-rock them out of. Using the symbols of the status quo the neo-swingers found that they could thumb their noses at the mainstream by embracing the products and attitudes of a forgotten and ignored aspects of the American experience. People would seek out second-hand Union made clothes that would stand a thorough scrub from a washing machine, and in doing so sought out a simpler time without the corporate psychology behind the manufacture of products that must be re-bought every so often. They would seek out forms of music that had not been pre-washed by “the corporate music industry’s sanitized and stilted face-lift”(Vale, pg. 4).
“Albert Murray calls the African American public dance a ‘ritual of purification, affirmation and celebration. It helps drive the blues away and provides rich opportunities to symbolically challenge social hierarchies by offering powers and freedoms that are impossible in ordinary life?”(Vale, pg. 5) says Jacqui Malone. Neo-swing brought that ritual back; dancing became the way to socialize, and brought with it a renewed emphasis on manners and grace. A rebellion took place, a conservative rebellion, in that they sought to reclaim the values and cultural mores of a lost era. Neo-swingers, musicians and fans alike, are making discoveries and reviving old movies, clothing, and music – restoring vintage cars, collecting vintage ties, hats, shoes – they created a new scene out of an old one. Ironically though, as they built this counter-culture the very entities, corporate America, that they sought to reject attempted to wrest control away from them. The rebellion based on black music assimilated by white mainstream of black music was being assimilated by popular culture. As the demand for it grew, the purity of the statement became diluted, while the original appearance of swing was initially reaching out to society at large.
Swing has swung back and forth through the good favors of global society for about 80 years. Why is there a staying power behind this musical style? It has been hypothesized that swing represented the nexus of an international youth culture that rose above class, ethnicity and race. During a free Swing Jamboree at Soldier Field on August 24th 1938, a racially mixed crowd of more than 100,000 young people gathered to listen to twenty white and black big name orchestras. As one attendee observed, the result was a “barrelhouse, boogie-woogie, bacchanal of 18-year old ecstasy, as it seemed to the younger generation of the city”. Despite the outcry of community and religious groups, the youth of the times revolved to the swinging sounds of the big band sounds.
As a cultural phenomenon, swing’s popularity was not restricted to the young jitterbugs; the intelligentsia took a heated interest. Swing and its implications were discussed on radio broadcasts, in literary journals, and newspaper editorials. Adults danced, drank, and became kings and queens in hotel dance floors and the newly sanctioned nightclubs that spread like wildfire, following the retreat of Prohibition in December 1933. Big bands were booked almost any venue that could fit a crowd, and even riverboats were used for “moonlight” dance cruises. There were hundreds of ballrooms in the 48 states of the Union, in cities both large and small. This jazz interpretation was not a subject upon which to brood, and swing did not pretend to be as weighty as any Mozart concerto. Swing was simply fun, and people enjoyed it on face value. When a good band started its engines, they could soar on the wings of the powerful rhythm section, and fly over the heads of the franticly dancing crowds. Much of swing’s popular appeal was its ability to empower the audience toward a state of aural climax, expressing for them their individual freedom at either a time in life when breaking free was an expected social ritual, or at a time when people wish to recapture their youth and vitality.
Assimilation and expression are thematically present in the American experience. Without tradition, the American culture was able to grow organically from the native cultures of its early inhabitants. The history of swing music is a mixture of honest artistic expression and crass commercialism, a modern day morality play. This phenomenon sets a precedent for all future popular music, art, media and culture. Conflicts between of social authorities, musicians, and music lovers continue on with the classification and re-classification of American music and this seething cauldron produces popular music that is art, music that is not, and music that is just awful. In his book Blues People LeRoi Jones referred to swing music as the corruption of black hot jazz and blues, mass-produced and watered down, a white version of the real American music. On the other hand, Benny Goodman spoke of jazz when he said, “It’s very American really”(Erenberg, pg. 91). Which is the right question: is swing a bastard or an immaculate new birth? Their respective perspectives sway the opinion of either author: once is white and the other is black. This is perhaps the deepest consequence of swing music. Swing precipitated the active discussion of rights and patents as applied to cultural creation, it created a new class of economy for recreation, it set the image of suavity and class for generations of young Americans. Swing touched the soul. Swing moved the feet. Swing angered and instigated and stretched boundaries, but swing could never and will never be ignored.
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