SWING CHANGES: Big Band Jazz in New Deal America by David Ware Stowe

SWING CHANGES: Big Band Jazz in New Deal America

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This excellent book on the Swing Era, its music and meaning, is a model of interdisciplinary social history, combining music, business, economics, and politics in a seamless and fascinating chronicle. Stowe (American Language and Thought/Michigan State Univ.) examines swing as a reflection of changes in American ideology, the product of new technologies that allowed it to pervade American life in an unprecedented fashion, and, even more important, as a phenomenon that ""forced America to confront its own indebtedness to African-American culture as never before."" He traces the evolution of the form as it makes an uneasy transition from dance music to art music, opening the book with a recapitulation of an extraordinary moment in jazz history, a January evening in 1938 on which Benny Goodman hosted a breakthrough concert at Carnegie Hall, then traveled uptown to a battle of the bands of Count Basle and Chick Webb at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Stowe explores the role of the critics -- overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and progressive -- in crafting the ideology surrounding the music, an amalgam of New Deal progressivism and a Utopian radicalism that was not uninfluenced by the Popular Front. Most tellingly, the author examines the ways in which the period of corporate consolidation in radio broadcasting and the recording industry as well as the rising power of the booking agencies combined to affect the ways in which the music of the period was disseminated. Finally, he traces the role of swing in the war effort and the subsequent economic decline of the musical form as a result of postwar changes -- inflated salaries for musicians, a fragmenting audience, the rise of television. Although it begins to run out of steam in its last two chapters, much like the Swing Era itself, this is an intelligent and lively book, peppered with astute historical and musical observations.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1994
Page count: 344pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press