One of the great inspirations for this blog is the Duke Ellington quote:
“There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind”
Another great Duke quote is from the title of one of his compositions:
“It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing”
Swing bands, dance bands, big bands were at one time America’s popular music. This was a special time in the history of Jazz music. Rock and roll was not born yet, and swing held the attention of the dancing youth of the States. Racial segregation was an unfortunate fact of life in the time of the swing bands, so you have recordings of bands made of predominantly (or exclusively) white musicians, and recordings of bands made of predominantly (or exclusively) black musicians.
One of the great things about music is, it doesn’t care what color you are. It doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, blind or sighted, tall or short, or anything else about you. Music only cares about music; is it Good music or bad. Fletcher Henderson is one of the great musicians of the swing band era. He wrote and arranged some of the best played, and widely heard music of the time. Henderson led a big band of his own that was fairly successful in the 1920’s, playing some written arrangements as well as “head-arrangements” that the band just knew from memory. One of the tragic elements of the Fletcher Henderson story is the fact that Fletcher was not as good a businessman as a bandleader. He was, however, a genius as an arranger and composer. Listen
Financial hardship in 1934 caused Fletcher to sell some of his arrangements to Benny Goodman, for use in his big band. Goodman was always very upfront about where he got his arrangements from, but achieved much greater financial success than Henderson ever did. Part of this could be attributed to Goodman leading a predominantly white band in an era of racial segregation, and part could be attributed to Goodman’s shrewd business sense. In 1939 Henderson became the staff arranger for the Goodman Orchestra for a time.
596 Lenox Avenue (in the New York neighborhood of Harlem) was the location of the Savoy Ballroom. Back in the day, the absolute king of the Savoy Ballroom was the leader of the house band, Chick Webb. An absolute fireball on the drum set, Webb was a man of small stature who suffered from spinal tuberculosis as a child. He was a giant of the drums, and led his band with fire and energy that few musicians could match. The Savoy had a no discrimination policy about race, and anyone could get in as long as they could dance. Two big bands often met in cutting contests, playing in turns to determine who was the best on that night. Few could match the energy of the Chick Webb orchestra, which also used quite a few Fletcher Henderson arrangements.
It is truly fascinating to me to be able to compare these bands on the exact same arrangements by the great Fletcher Henderson. Here are three versions of “Stompin at the Savoy”:
Of course, hearing these three great bands is only scratching the surface of the variety of sounds of swing bands in the 1930’s. The Cotton Club in New York housed the Duke Ellington Orchestra for a number of years.
Kansas City sent us a deeply swinging, bluesy sound in the way of the Count Basie Orchestra
As far as I am concerned, you will always find Good Music as long as you follow the swing.