Jazz History: The Swing Era

The jazz music genre is as fascinating as its sociopolitical and politico-economic underpinnings, the two latter narratives which virtually no scholar affords to skip or skim through carelessly without significant ridicule. The story of jazz is a narrative beyond music and one which evokes discussions that few researchers feel comfortable documenting. One notable jazz period that makes it to many research works even today is the Swing Era (ca. the 1930s to mid-40s) that many agree revolutionized jazz for the performing artists, the audience’s understanding of jazz as a music genre and to some extent the music industry as a whole. This paper reviews three works by three different authors on swing era jazz in a bid to uncover their opinions, subtle and explicit, on intriguing questions that span the art of music to the sociocultural realities of the swing era. It argues that of all jazz eras, the swing was the defining period when jazz became popular and gained acceptance outside African American community.

The Swing Era Uplifted Jazz from the Gutters
One defining statement used by Harker is that “though nurtured by the crass entertainment and night-club world of the Prohibition era, Armstrong’s [i.e., jazz] music transcended this context and its implications” (Harker 2008: 68). What could be drawn from such a statement is that jazz significantly evolved through the years from what researchers considered an Aframerican fascination rather than a standard form of music, and gradually gained respect. The White American society had not attached any seriousness to Jazz music through, and as the music gained traction and international appeal more so through the Swing Era, non-Aframerican’s more so from the White society gradually accepted Jazz albeit as a commercial venture rather music for what it was. The majority (i.e., White) who also controlled the economic direction of the country only sought the music and disregarded its uniqueness as a genre, its narratives as expressed through lyrics, or even the sociocultural context (i.e., Aframerican) from where it derives.

Brian Harker looks at Jazz and more so the spring of Swing Era jazz through the career of Louis Armstrong, a revolutionizing character in the wake of Jazz a genre. According to Harker, the value of swing era jazz lay in the synchrony between the instrument players and the acrobatic dancers. There was a peculiar urge in the jazzists to express themselves spontaneously and on the go rather than stick to a predictable formulaic pattern as has been the case with classical music. Therefore the performance stage was somewhat a place to showcase talent uniquely created by African Americans outside the influence of other music genres. Swing Era jazz was the only time jazz achieved popularity even though its origins and evolution had nothing to do with popularity rather than Harker refers to as “music for music’s sake” (Harker 2008: 68). The jazz of the Swing Era, on the other hand, compares with classical maturity and therefore gives the genre an equal footing with other genres such as opera even though it could have been an Aframerican creation.

Swing Jazz Creates a Complex Interracial Dialogue
Tami is a professor of performative studies and the daughter of Kirk Spry, a jazz drummer, both of which somewhat makes her the most qualified to discuss swing era jazz as well as the sociocultural complexities that surrounded the era. She calls her work an autoethnography of jazz-blues in the swing era as an analysis of the ethos of swing era jazz through the conception of Black and White audiences. Her work follows the socio-cultural complexities of Kirk “as the only white boy” in an all-Black band and one of the few White persons to have had close interactions with Black jazz performance and mingled enough in their circles to understand them beyond what is seen on stage (Spry 2010: 273). Even though the analysis follows the highs and lows of the swing era jazz, the researcher leans more towards the racial tension that somewhat situated the jazz of between the 40s and the 50s as a racial dialogue.

Spry quotes one scholar named Jorge Daniel Veneciano who characterized jazz as “an aesthetic practice that is defacto revolutionary in the cultural sphere” as concerns music and the broader performative arts (Spry 2010: 272). The spring era was a Cultural Revolution manifesting in the form of jazz, with the revolution solely lying in the sociocultural enclave of African Americans and not any other ethnic groups. Spry saw swing era jazz as music with a cross-cultural value or an art form that perhaps for the first time showed the ability to transcend the racial divide. It demonstrated the ability to bring audiences together despite their histories and backgrounds. However, from the perspective of Kirk Spry, swing era jazz tried to normalize racial tensions as White musicians also joined the now-popular jazz. The music style of the swing era was more agile and acrobatic both in the rhythm as well as the notes in what may be described as music for the sake of music.

Appropriating Jazz Music in the Swing Era
The swing era had been a time of two paradoxes; the raging racial segregation that even though had begun easing by the 20s, it still left the Jim Crow genie still floating around. And on the other hand, jazz was getting hot by the day as acrobatic acts got a widespread audience. However, the problem was that economic engine supporting swing solely lay with White America, a society that had a queer suspicion against Aframerican creativity and handled even the best performance with a racial distaste. In her article, Dixon-Stowell follows the story of Margot Webb and one Harold Norton, a duo known to have been a model ballroom jazz dancers through the early years of swing jazz. The writer concluded the article by marveling at how much the dancers had to go through to see their careers through as White audiences brazenly separated between jazz and the race of the dancers.

Dixon-Stowell’s analysis of swing era jazz through the story of Norton and Margot as they were known in their heydays does not seem as an anti-White critique as could be said of Harker and Spry (i.e., writers reviewed above) but rather as an emotionless analysis aiming at emancipating rather than stirring readers. What seems apparent from the report is that even though swing era jazz could have been one of the most famous evolutionary stages of the era, the Aframerican performers faced the paradox of being the face and the drivers yet supported by White audiences. For the ballroom team (i.e., Norton and Margot) their shining light was dimmed by “Aframericans [being] unwelcome in the surrounding White vicinity of the theatre” (Dixon-Stowell 1983: 5). In other words, the White audiences were more interested in the performance and not the performers. The Norton and Margot team experienced firsthand the feeling of getting used to shape a popular jazz era and not being the people to whom the credit was given. However, they were nobodies offstage and labored in finding lodging, hospitality, food, free spaces, and such necessities. Swing era jazz shaped the concept of popular music and came to challenge classical music.

It is not surprising that all the three reviewed works have mingled jazz music with the race issue more so between Aframericans and White Americans. Jazz is a music genre that aims at entertainment for the sake of entertainment and rarely does it include other subtle meanings such as would be the case with classical music. Perhaps due to the newness of jazz music, it has not fully matured even though jazz made strides within the swing era more than it had done so in the recent past. While African Americans created a music genre that had distinct features from any the genre in existence at the time, the style had significant sociocultural and ethnic connotations that made it distinctly Aframerican. The core value of jazz was self-expression rather than trying to impress the audience. The jazzists themselves enjoyed the music with the audience simultaneously. Many a time, as was the case with Louis Armstrong and the duo Norton and Margot, the performers created and evolved the music on the fly rather than have an elaborate plan to follow through the performance.

All the same, sing era jazz became so popular that the value of the music, which was pure spontaneously entertainment, crossed its borders to commercial grounds which was a change that for the first time ushered to the front the issue or racial dialogue albeit in a musical sense. The racial question manifested in different forms within era jazz. There was the performative sphere such as Kirk Spry being a White boy joining an all-Aframerican jazz band as a drummer. There was the thematic dimension where performances capitalized on the economic engine that supported the popular Swing Era jazz and somewhat defaulted to pleasing White audiences and distancing from Black audiences. There was the production dimension where the brains driving the popularity were the White capitalists that invested in, brought jazz to the world outside the Aframerican enclave, and convinced the new non-Aframerican audiences to heed jazz. Then there was the appropriation dimension where the majority (e.g., White researchers and neo-jazzists) synthesizes jazz as an American and not an Aframerican phenomenon. In as much as jazz and ideally swing era jazz may have given a face to jazz, it is apparent from the reviewed works that swing expresses significant racial connotations.

Swing Era jazz was indeed a unique time in the evolution of jazz to what it has become today and in the way it inspired different genres of music such as Blues. Jazz had been an African American music and performance phenomenon that sprung from the crass entertainment as well as the night-club world of the American Prohibition era. As reveling faced the heavy hand of the law, the creative spirit of African Americans explored with forms of entertainment some of which would crystallize to jazz music. The original roots of jazz had been unnoticed until the 1930s until such eccentric performers as Louis Armstrong, Kirk Spry, and the Norton and Margot duo among many others. However, race relations remained an issue to contend with. An overall view of the analyses by Harker, Spry, and Dixon-Stowell shows that despite the popularity and maturation of jazz in the swing era, African Americans remained in the shadows as race dictated the socioeconomic situation and thus denying them a chance to bridge interracial relations as well as reap the economic benefits of their creations.

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Dixon-Stowell, Brenda. 1983. “Dancing in the Dark: The Life and Times of Margot Webb in Aframerican Vaudeville of the Swing Era.” Black American Literature Forum 17/1 (Spring): 3-7.
Harker, Brian. 2008. “Louis Armstrong, Eccentric Dance, and the Evolution of Jazz On the Eve of Swing.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 61/1 (Autumn): 67-121.
Spry, Tami. 2010. “Call it swing: A Jazz Blues Autoethnography.”Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies10/4 (Spring): 271-282.