The Benny Goodman Quartet with vibraphonist
Lionel Hampton, clarinetist Benny Goodman,
pianist Teddy Wilson, and drummer Gene Krupa, c. 1939.
Courtesy of the Frank Driggs Collection.
By the mid-1930s, swing had permeated nearly every aspect of mainstream American entertainment. Swing bandleaders were popular icons, performing for ballrooms full of wildly enthusiastic teen audiences, as well as in movies and on weekly radio shows. Perhaps the surest sign of swing’s success was the growing interest in the music’s history, spurred by the new breed of serious jazz record collectors and the rising influence of another new species, the jazz critic: By the end of the 1930s, reviews of jazz recordings and performances were appearing not only in specialized magazines like Down Beat and Metronome, but also in daily newspapers. A growing number of critics began to accuse swing of pandering to a wider audience and abandoning the essentials of jazz: that is, collective and individual improvisation. Add to all this a resurging interest in New Orleans veterans like Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, as well as the founding of independent jazz labels like Commodore and Blue Note that specialized in older styles of jazz, and by the mid-1940s the stage was set for a battle: It was the modernists (fans of swing) versus the traditionalists (proponents of older styles of jazz). The traditionalists quickly earned the label “moldy figs.”
In spite of this backlash, swing bandleaders continued to enjoy pride of place in American popular culture. Benny Goodman’s orchestra was one of the most successful swing bands, thanks in part to the brilliant arrangements of the African-American composer and bandleader Fletcher Henderson. Goodman challenged the segregation that was still common in jazz in that era. In a pioneering step toward integration in entertainment—on the bandstand, in the recording studio, and even on the movie screen—he hired pianist Teddy Wilson, with whom he’d already recorded, to be featured in a trio setting (with Goodman himself and drummer Gene Krupa) in the spring of 1936, and just a bit later made it a quartet by adding the brilliant vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. What may seem an unremarkable sight today—black and white musicians playing together in public—was considered the cutting edge of civil rights at the time and gave America a foretaste of an integrated society a decade before baseball followed suit.
America’s entry into World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, deeply affected the evolution of jazz, as it did virtually every aspect of American life. Musicians of fighting age from all over the country were drafted into military service. Then, in the late summer of 1942, the musicians’ union called a strike against the record companies, demanding that musicians be fairly compensated for radio and juke box play of recordings. For almost two years, no new instrumental music was recorded for commercial issue. Only vocalists, who were not part of the union, continued to record, accompanied only by other singers.
Clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw and his
World War II Navy Band perform on a warship
in the South Pacific, c. 1943.
Courtesy of the Duncan P. Schiedt Collection.
While instrumental jazz seemed to be stagnating in the United States during and after the war, it was conquering the rest of the world, thanks in part to American military swing bands that traveled around Europe. Still, in the United States, the era of the big band was unmistakably drawing to a close. The union boycott and shifts in taste had elevated singers to heights of popularity from which they have never fallen, and disc jockeys overtook bandleaders as the music business’s new iconic personalities. Yet instrumental jazz was far from dead—by the end of the war a new sound was beginning to emerge that would inherit from swing the modernist mantle. It was called bebop.
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