ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award–winning music critic Orgill celebrates the Depression’s big-band soundtrack.
Bracketing her narrative with the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling match in the summer of 1936 and the Brown Bomber’s triumph over the Nazi boxer in their memorable rematch just two years later, Orgill chronicles the rise of the great swing orchestras. Playing against Count Basie was Chick Webb. Dueling bands found the groove and delighted the paying customers. Featured were female singers Billie Holiday, sporting a gardenia in her hair, and Ella Fitzgerald, in a decorous long gown. Jamming with the cool cats were the likes of Buck Clayton, Lester Young and Gene Krupa. Benny Goodman broke the color line by hiring black musicians. Nonmusical backup was provided by Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Jr., Jacob Lawrence and Langston Hughes—all handsome dudes with good-looking, pencil-thin mustaches. Eleanor was traipsing around, writing about her day, and Franklin was broadcasting his fireside chats. Amelia Earhart flew off to who knows where. On the air: The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Fibber McGee and Jack Benny. The tone of this history is decidedly sepia, the main action definitely uptown: showtime at the Apollo and stompin’ at the Savoy. With just a bit of vamping to maintain the beat, Orgill’s prose, reminiscent of Down Beat or Metronome, swings with period vernacular. Not content to help readers remember, her evocation of those past days bids us to listen.
Effectively captures the rhythm and the zeitgeist of a special time and place not so long ago.