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Sounds of the swing era

The sound of a big band in full flight must surely rank as one of the defining timbres of twentieth century music. It continues to be preserved by, among many others, Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, remixed by DJs and artists like Matthew Herbert, re-popularised by stars including Michael Bublé, rejuvenated for a new teen audience by West Coast composer Gordon Goodwin (whose charts have become staple repertoire for high school bands), and represented on mainstream television shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and, until recently, X Factor. In all these guises and more, the big band sound continues to delight and sets toes tapping.

Return to recordings from the ‘golden age of swing’, however, and the hisses, pops and mono sound mean that performances from yesteryear can lack the appealing lustre of their modern counterparts. As my colleagues and I found out some years ago when undertaking a teaching and learning project, the sound quality of early jazz recordings was a significant barrier to our students’ engagement with the music. In his 1999 remastering of clarinettist and bandleader Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert, producer Phil Schaap embraces the full gamut of documented sounds from the musicians, audience and the recording process itself. In the liner notes he urges listeners that:

The greatest noise reduction device is your brain. Trust it to work with your ears to hear music that would otherwise have been excised if a computer did the work. This is the truth [Schaap, Liner notes to The Famous Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert, Columbia/Legacy C2k 65143 1999 : 38].

Schaap’s approach is the polar opposite to that of Bill Savory, who engineered the original 1950 LP release of the Goodman’s concert to present a ‘clean’ version of the material. Indeed, while Schaap was keen to include every sound captured on the master discs, Savory made edits in the interest of an aesthetically-pleasing end product. When faced with the choice between the two versions, most reviewers have concluded that it was desirable to own both: the original for the quality of the listening experience and the remaster as the ‘complete’ historical documentation of the live event. (On closer inspection the complete omission of different musical material from both versions further complicates the comparison.) Since 1999, other remasterings have offered a compromise between these two approaches. But whichever version we choose, recordings continue to leave us distant from the experience of ‘being there’ at the time of the event, particularly frustrating in the case of a ‘live’ (as opposed to studio) performance.

The most prolific live recordings from the swing era were made by enthusiastic amateurs from their radios. The popularity of this practice among fans has enabled D. Russell Connor to produce invaluable discographies of Benny Goodman which extend well beyond his studio work and allow the full scale of his career to be appreciated. Many of these ‘air checks’ are now commercially available which testifies to our continued desire to capture the ephemeral. But what do such recordings, often profoundly dissatisfying as sonic artefacts, have to offer beyond functioning as mere momentos providing some tangible grasp on the otherwise transient nature of musical performance?

Perhaps Schaap has a point. Embracing the imperfections of unedited live recordings and air checks provides perspective on the released studio recordings that are easy to view as definitive in retrospect, especially as they are often technologically superior. As with Connor’s discographical work, we can gain a better appreciation how particular moments of performance that were captured in the studio fit into the relentless everyday existence of a band at the height of the swing era. Through close analysis of series of performances it is possible to develop a deeper understanding of performance practice in its widest sense, including an appreciation of underlying processes such as rehearsal and the evolution of interpretation which remain largely undocumented in any other way.

In the case of a Goodman classic — Fletcher Henderson’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” — such analysis exposes the 1935 studio recording as a ‘safe’ rendering which was subsequently developed and refined. By 13 September 1938, when Goodman broadcast the number from the Congress Hotel in Chicago, “Blue Skies” had been comprehensively redefined as up-tempo swing. Jeffrey Magee has analysed this number in detail in his book The Uncrowned King of Swing, but on this broadcast Henderson joins Goodman and the band to perform his own analysis of a short section of the piece.

The band demonstrates the brass and saxophone parts from the beginning of the second chorus of “Blue Skies” separately and then together, to which the rhythm section is subsequently added. This is remarkably similar to trumpeter Chris Griffin’s description of Goodman’s rehearsal process:

First we’d run the chart down as a group, then the brass and reed sections would rehearse separately. Finally the two sections would rehearse the number together, over and over, without the rhythm section. None of the other leaders I worked with rehearsed a band in this way — without the drums, bass, guitar and piano. We had to keep time and make the tune swing by ourselves. Benny’s idea was that, in this way, the band would swing better and have a lighter feel. If you didn’t depend on the rhythm section to swing, you would swing that much more when the rhythm section finally was brought in. [Deffaa, Swing Legacy 1989 : 45–46]

There can be no clearer demonstration of the synergy between arranger and bandleader which was so vital to Goodman’s success. Indeed, as Goodman recalled in his autobiography, the introduction of Henderson’s arrangements demanded rapid development of the band’s performance style which was to prove formative.

It was one of the biggest kicks I’ve ever had in music to go through these scores and dig the music out of them, even in rehearsal. We still didn’t have the right band to play that kind of music, but it convinced me more than ever which way the band should head — and it was up to us to find the men who could really do a job on them. [Goodman and Kolodin, The Kingdom of Swing 1939 : 157]

The Henderson-Goodman partnership produced a defining sound of the swing era which continues to influence and inspire musicians. But even today there can be no substitute for live recordings to help us to understand this music as the soundtrack to an era for those fortunate enough to be present at the hotels and ballrooms where the Goodman band played, and equally, for those that tuned in and captured these moments for posterity.

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