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The Only Jazz That Was Ever Popular : THE SWING ERA : The Development of Jazz, 1933-1945 by Gunther Schuller (Oxford: $30; 904 pp., illustrated)

February 05, 1989|Art Seidenbaum | Seidenbaum is The Times' Opinion editor.

For those who love the music, still hugging memories of the time, this hefty history becomes the chronicle of record and of records.

The people of the period come alive in musical transcription; author Gunther Schuller offers notation to re-create solos and arrangements. The transition to big bands from small combos--bands covered in his prior history, "Early Jazz"--comes in clear detail. The contribution by black musicians, followed by the commercial success of white musicians playing that music, is documented with care and without sermons. No previous book provides more jazz notes--and footnotes--to visit an American epoch that began in the midst of the Great Depression and wound up with the end of World War II. "The Swing Era" immediately becomes the prime source for serious students of those 12 years in American music.

That said, there is also a curious joylessness here and a lack of passion. Maybe that's because the often unrehearsed happiness of jazz does not lend itself to formal reconstruction in words or musical measures. I think it's also because the people don't come alive offstage, behind the bandstands.

Perhaps scholarly examination militates against inclusion of much personality and perhaps the appreciation of jazz has already suffered from overdoses of the fan magazine approach to music. The world does not need new synopses of Lester Young's drinking habits or Billie Holiday's addiction to heroin or Gene Krupa's marijuana arrest. The bulk of jazz biographies has already wallowed in the private lives of the players even as they celebrated the public playing. But the reader would appreciate a sense of the euphoria that sometimes happened in nightclubs on 52nd Street--then known as "upholstered sewers"--or even in recording studios.

Schuller's most engaging thesis is that during the swing era, jazz became America's dominant popular music for the first--and probably last--time.

What made it national, in large measure, was radio. Variety and comedy programs used big bands as musical punctuation marks. The major hotels in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles had ballrooms where big bands played for dinner and dancing; the major radio networks broadcast that music, live, usually late at night, for a whole country to listen to at the same time--"And now from the beautiful Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, we bring you Les Brown and his band of reknown." Legitimately jazz-oriented organizations led by Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and Charlie Barnet found audiences on records after establishing their presences on radio.

Yet the biggest big bands were not always swinging and, calculatedly, they were rarely jazzy. Schuller describes how the most popular white orchestras diluted and bowdlerized jazz for popular consumption. The leading orchestras emphasized arrangements over improvisations, vocalists over instrumental soloists and formulas over experiment. For every Glenn Miller "In the Mood," full of swing's repeated phrases or "riffs" to please the jitterbugs, there were half-a-dozen "Moonlight Serenades," slowed down with syrupy saxophones and singers to lull the fox trotters.

And while Schuller traces the influence of black bands on white music, he hardly deals with the musical integration process in terms of artists and audiences. Goodman, for instance, brought pianist Teddy Wilson and percussionist Lionel Hampton into a heretofore white orchestra, just as Tommy Dorsey hired arranger Sy Oliver and trumpeter Charlie Shavers, Gene Krupa hired trumpeter Roy Eldridge and Artie Shaw hired three superior horn players--Benny Carter, Henry "Red" Allen, J. C. Higginbotham--to work with a string section and accompany vocals by Lena Horne. The data are collected. What the arrival of black artists in a white musical context meant--both as stars and as tokens--is essentially ignored. While white music producer John Hammond is repeatedly cited for encouraging the emergence of Henderson, Basie, Holiday and others, the pleasures and perils of breaking old color lines do not appear.

The emigrations of Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas, for instance, are noted but not really explained. Three of the most celebrated tenor saxophonists left the United States for Europe at the height of their powers because they believed a black artist could have a better life on the Continent. Such contrasts--jazz as the most popular music at a time when the finest jazz artists chose to play elsewhere--are part of the swing era history.

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