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Swingin' into Swing

Dr. David W. Stowe is a Professor of American and Religious Studies at Michigan University. He also taught at and acted as associate dean of Doshisha University’s Graduate School of American Studies in Kyoto, Japan. Stowe has written much on American music and religion, and in 1992 won the Bert M. Fireman Prize from the Western History Association for his work.

“Sunday evening, January 16, 1938”1 was a historic time for swing. It was the night Benny Goodman—the “King of Swing”—and his orchestra performed at the high-class venue of Carnegie Hall. It was the night Chick Webb and Count Basie faced off with their orchestras at The Savoy ballroom in Harlem. It was, essentially, the night swing music became an American sensation. Beginning with these events, Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America by David W. Stowe delves into the history, the fundamentals, and the future of swing.

Stowe first tackles the issue of how to define swing. With its roots firmly set in 1920s jazz, swing was believed by many to be a short fad, an offshoot of genuine jazz music. Surprisingly, however, swing enjoyed great popularity all over the nation and abroad, with its peak years form 1935 to 1945. One fan even went as far as to say that “Swing is the voice of youth striving to be heard in this fast-moving world of ours…Swing is the tempo of our time” –and it defiantly appeared that way.2 While bandleaders and critics argued about the technical musical aspects of swing, the lifestyle of jitterbugs and “ickies”—swing’s fanatical dancing fans – became a subculture of its own. Overall, swing music was characterized by big-bands or orchestras, led by a bandleader, which performed in ballrooms and nightclubs, not only in Harlem, but all over the country. Swing’s popularity even grew in Europe where it was viewed as being “as American as baseball and hot dogs” and as one of the only genuinely American art forms to emerge for the states.3 However, swing did not reach such great heights overnight.

The ascent of swing was uneven and riddled with opposition. Firstly, big bands traveled all across the country to perform and spread their music, usually to the youthful jitterbugs who packed dance halls. This stirred great resentment from the older generation of Americans who believed that swing brought about “hedonism and uninhibited exhibitionism” in youths which could “break down conventions and lead to moral weakness.”4 As swing fans slowly transformed from dancers to listeners, however, this argument was put to rest. Another, more serious accusation arose in its place: swing musicians had communist sympathies. This rumor originated from Barney Josephson’s Café Society, which was a bastion of Popular Front ideology. Yet, whatever political preferences were held by musicians, no political unrest resulted from swing music itself. In fact, swing was highly viewed as a form of opposition to fascism. While some promoted “entertainment…[as] the greatest antidote against hysteria” during World War II, others acted on such impulses.5  One bandleader, Artie Shaw, “assembl[ed] and lead a crack navy band that toured the South Pacific”, bringing joy to sailors while also expanding swing’s influence around the world.6   

After the war, swing’s popularity began to decline. This was due in part to swing’s commercial growing pains. With the increase in radio coverage, bands became more focused on gaining air waves than playing at one-night concerts or touring the country. The competition between musicians playing live music and juke boxes playing V-discs added to swing’s woes as well. Plus, with the growth of the swing industry came the growth of the recording industry. Many critics lambasted orchestras for shifting to consumer based music and ignoring their authentic, “hot jazz” roots. Such “sweet” music offended critics but bandleaders found that “the public no longer accepts ‘the hot stuff.’”7 Finally, various corporate battles between the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and radio broadcasting networks such as the National Broadcasting Network (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), weakened the financial situation of many bands and band leaders. By 1945, swing had drawn to a close and a new form of jazz was emerging.

The last portion of Stowe’s book centers on bebop - a jazz offshoot which followed swing but never reached the same level of popularity. Unlike swing, bebop artists valued rhythm over melody and were generally less accepted by the public. Dizzy Gillespie, the one musician who was widely accepted, embodied bebop so much that “no feature on bebop in the late 1940s was complete without a description and photograph of” him8. Gillespie’s trademark beret, horn-rimmed glasses, and goatee became emblems of the bebop subculture. Unfortunately, bebop fame petered to a halt in 1950 and with it ceased the jazz spirit which would not be reawakened until the age of Rock n’ Roll.

Throughout Swing Changes, Stowe emphasizes his view of swing as an egalitarian movement. He not only refers to it as a genre of Populist music, but also as one which is “quintessentially American.”9 No other culture has created a musical movement that has brought together artists from all aspects of race and social class. According to Stowe, this is what makes swing the “preeminent musical expression of the New Deal: a cultural form of ‘the people,’ accessible, inclusive, distinctively democratic, and thus distinctively American.”10 It also functioned as a gateway to greater public integration for African Americans and even fed into the Black Power movement of later decades. It is Stowe’s stance that swing guided America through the Great Depression and World War II, maintaining morale and developing a cultural identity unlike any other. This is an unsurprising viewpoint considering that Stowe wrote his book in 1994 during a time of liberal consensus. Rather than have a reactionary standpoint, Stowe reveals his liberal leanings when he applauds swing –a form of music considered controversial in its prime.

David W. Stowe became interested in music at a very young age. His father enjoyed listening to jazz, and probably passed on some of his interest to his son. Stowe likely acquired his adulation of swing and bebop during these years. However, Stowe’s serious involvement in jazz came when he began teaching American culture and music at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. By viewing jazz like an outsider, Stowe probably came to realize just how much the music embodied the American dream. He later carried this work back home to Michigan University, where he taught and wrote most of his research on jazz music. In addition to Swing Changes, Stowe has published his award winning article “Jazz in the West: Cultural Frontier and Region during the Swing Era” and his second book How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans.11   

Despite Stowe’s advanced knowledge of jazz and swing music, his book is not without flaws. A review done by Sherrie Tucker for the Journal of Musicological Research generally applauds Stowe’s meticulous work, especially where it concerns the commercial involvement of swing. However, she was disappointed by the lack of “gender analysis [which] may have yielded more useful conclusions” about the egalitarian nature of swing.12 She also thinks that Stowe’s work lacks continuity between the inclusiveness of African-Americans in swing and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  Another reviewer, Robert Crowley of the International Journal of Comparative Sociology, had different complaints to make. Since Crowley lived during the swing era, he praised Stowe’s broad coverage of every facet of swing. Yet he still felt that Swing Changes’ “most striking disproportion lies in the extended treatment of bebop.”13 Had Stowe focused on topics of greater significance to swing, he would have won more of Crowley’s approval.

Overall, Swing Changes is an informative and engaging book aimed towards those interested in the big-band era. Stowe thoroughly covers a decades’ worth of musicians, music, and the music industry. He offers a plethora of information on the evolution of music from jazz, to swing, to bebop and enhances it with detailed descriptions of events like Benny Goodman’s 1949 “Bop at the Stork Club” party.  By giving special attention to the roles of African Americans in jazz, Stowe shows how “swing inaugurated a new chapter in race relations” and how something as simple as music could shape a national identity. 14 Unfortunately, Stowe’s book may be too detailed for the casual reader, and many of the references he makes to famous musicians might be lost on someone with a limited knowledge of jazz. Yet it is an invaluable work to jazz enthusiasts everywhere. For the swing enthusiast, Swing Changes is a must-read book that captures the essence of the swing era. Stowe’s work can also be easily understood by any casual reader hoping to learn more about a dynamic time in America’s history.

1. Stowe, David W. Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1994. 17.  
2. Stowe, David W. 24
3. Stowe, David W. 65
4. Stowe, David W. 32
5. Stowe, David W. 146
6. Stowe, David W. 148
7. Stowe, David W. 190
8. Stowe, David W. 210
9. Stowe, David W. 13
10. Stowe, David W. 13
11. Stowe, David W. “The Homepage of David W. Stowe.” 17 Dec. 2001.
12. Tucker, Sherrie. Journal of Musicological Research. Routledge. July 1999.
13. Crowley, Robert. International Journal of Comparative Sociology. SAGE Publications. June 1997.
14. Stowe, David W. 245