Lindyhoppers getting carried away at Harlem’s
Savoy Ballroom, c. 1941.
The Charles Peterson Jazz Photo Collection,
courtesy of Don Peterson.
In late 1929 the Jazz Age literally ended with a crash. The collapse of the stock market and the years of widespread unemployment and poverty that followed seemed destined to erase the exuberant optimism of the previous decade. And yet jazz musicians continued to innovate new, forward-looking styles in the face of hard times. While fewer records were actually being made, the early years of the Depression saw significant improvements in recording technology and a noticeable expansion in the size of bands. These new, larger bands were usually made up of a brass section consisting of three to four trumpets and two to three trombones and a reed section consisting of up to four saxophones and clarinets. These wind instruments could play together in unison or in a call-and-response fashion and were driven by a rhythm section comprised of piano, bass, drums, and guitar. The dominant two-beat feel of most of the music from the 1920s was now giving way to an even four beats per bar. It was a looser, more flexible rhythm that suited a new style of dancing known as the jitterbug, which was becoming increasingly popular in dance halls such as New York City’s Roseland and Savoy ballrooms.
The 1930s were grim for many Americans, but swing, as this lively new four-beat music came to be called, was not given to self-pity; it was a beacon of energy, industry, and hopefulness throughout those dark years. Not that swing bands were always concerned with speed and intensity; they could also play with a slow, languid, dreamlike quality. By the mid- to late 1930s, the beginning of the so-called Swing Era, jazz, in its varying forms, had firmly established itself as the pop music of America. Swing allowed bands to lend a jazz feeling to almost anything—new pop songs, older sentimental ballads, Broadway themes, marches, waltzes, even classical pieces. Some bands played sweet-sounding songs that appealed to an older generation; others, like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, looked to their Southwestern roots, adding fiddles and mixing swing with country and square-dance music. Many young people, however, had become interested in the purely jazz-inspired qualities of swing, especially the solo-driven, improvisatory approach to the music. Like sports fans, they argued about the merits of particular bands, knew all the featured soloists, and stood in line for hours to see their favorite bands when they appeared in the popular stage shows at first-run movie theaters. (Benny Goodman broke all attendance records at the Paramount in New York’s Times Square in 1937.)
In spite of segregation, swing reached every race, class, and age group in the country, and by the end of the 1930s, as the Depression came to an end and World War II loomed, musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong had become popular with virtually everyone. Thanks to radio and the gradual resurgence of the market for records, what had once been purely regional styles could now be heard in living rooms in almost any part of America.
Five hundred miles southwest of Chicago, and even farther from the swank dance halls of Manhattan, another town was being transformed by jazz and Prohibition. Kansas City, Missouri, boasted a sprawling entertainment district run by bootleggers, gamblers, and small-time operators; music, particularly the insistent train-like shuffle of the blues, could be heard at all hours of the day and night. And with the help of an East Coast piano player dubbed “The Count,” the city would become an epicenter of swing music. As bandleader Andy Kirk explained, in Kansas City the stock market crash was “like a pin dropping: the blast of jazz and blues drowned it out.”
Pianist and bandleader Count Basie
at the Aquarium, New York City, c. 1946-1948.
Courtesy of William P. Gottlieb.
William “Count” Basie was born in 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey, and grew up under the spell of East Coast ragtime and stride piano players, especially Thomas “Fats” Waller. Stranded in Kansas City while on tour with a road show, Basie found work playing piano in a local movie theater and soon became an integral part of Walter Page’s Blue Devils, one of the greatest jazz bands of the Midwest. In 1935 Basie took over the band of local favorite Bennie Moten and soon began a series of radio broadcasts that sounded very different from the music coming out of Chicago and New York.
Basie’s music was laden with blues feeling; he fashioned rhythmically strong arrangements that featured blues singers and were often built around riffs—short, repeated figures that were played behind soloists or singers. His band carried on a constant musical conversation: The brass and the reeds traded riffs in a fiery dialogue that excited dancers and inspired soloists, most notably tenor saxophonist Lester Young, to new heights. Driving it all was the most cohesive and powerful rhythm section yet heard in popular music: drummer Jo Jones, bassist Walter Page, guitarist Freddie Green, and Basie on piano. The Count’s band now joined the ranks of Louis Armstrong, singer Billie Holiday, guitarist Charlie Christian, and trumpeter Roy Eldridge, all of whom were relaxing the rhythms of jazz while maintaining the fervent push and pull of swing that kept dancers on the floor.