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The Night Jazz Became Legit

Historians tell us that many major turning points in history can be traced to a decisive victory in a single military battle; for example, Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar. Changes in musical preferences and specific events signaling those changes, while culturally important, certainly do not alter the course of history, although I am sure there are some who feel that Elvis Presley’s 1956 appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show signaled the decline of the Western World. While the world didn’t really change after that performance, the fortunes of Elvis certainly did.

Howard Stone

The difference between a cataclysmic defeat on a battlefield and a rock performance on TV doesn’t really merit an analysis. However, somewhere between these extremes are events that change peoples’ perceptions and therefore, the course of events thereafter. And so it was that a jazz performance in New York City on Jan. 16, 1938 forever altered the course of jazz history. The location was Carnegie Hall, the Mecca of classical music at that time, and some say the most important concert hall in the world. This was the citadel of high American culture – classical music.

To place the performance in the proper perspective, one has to remember that jazz was considered to be the stepchild of popular music. In the early 1920s, jazz was seen by many as the devil’s music, played by black musicians in bordellos and honky-tonk bars; it was perceived to be vulgar and low-class by the white establishment, but slowly it began making its way into the main stream of American life and culture. By the early 1930s, it had arrived with the Swing Era; young white kids were dancing to the music of the Big Band Era. Americans were beginning to take notice of the music, but no one would dare compare jazz to classical music. Jazz was PLAYED in clubs and in dance halls. Classical music was PERFORMED at concerts.

Today, many would agree that jazz is the American classical music of the 20th Century, but in 1938, to even mention jazz in the same breath as classical music was frowned upon by the purveyors of cultural correctness.

On that fateful night, Benny Goodman (the “King of Swing,” at the height of his popularity), his orchestra and some guests (Count Basie and members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra) made their Carnegie Hall debut. Tickets sold out weeks before the show ($.85 to $2.75) and the show was broadcast live nationally. The performers were racially integrated (not a first by any means, Goodman had hired Teddy Wilson, an African American in 1935), but this was a very important venue for a public display of integration. In the coming years, jazz would go on to continuously shine a light on the sad reality of the separation of the races and by example, establish that the creative process of making music could rise above bigotry.

The result of the concert was astonishing. Jazz was elevated to the upper reaches of American music, acknowledged as an art form that deserved to be given recognition with the improvisational skills and virtuosity of its players to be admired and respected. The performance has now come to be regarded as the single most important public performance of jazz in the history of the music – legitimizing it and celebrating it. It was jazz’s coming out party, not in a club or a dance hall, but at Carnegie Hall. And it was presented as a CONCERT.

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary season in 2019. 

Let’s Dance

“Let’s dance” may be a call to action, but it was also the name of a short-lived, but very popular radio program (Dec. 1934-May 1935) that launched the career of Benny Goodman. The format of the New York show was unique in that it was five hours long with three rotating bands, but only three hours of music were “aired” in each time zone. Starting at 10:30 p.m. on the East Coast, the last three hours of the program were heard on the West Coast beginning at 9:30 p.m. and it actually had a much larger audience in the Pacific time zone due to its earlier start time.

While the program was extremely popular, a labor dispute at Nabisco, the show’s sponsor, caused it to cease all sponsorships, and the show was canceled. That summer Goodman took his band on the road, but was met with limited success, as the audiences were indifferent to the band’s performances because they played “stock arrangements” that were not all that “swinging.” Goodman was broke and close to quitting, but that all that changed on the night of Aug. 21, 1935, when the band opened at the Palomar Ballroom, a famous dancehall in Hollywood. The crowd came to dance, but when the band played the same material they had been playing that summer, the dancers were non-responsive and it looked like the end was in sight for the band. However, it was Goodman’s drummer, Gene Kruppa, that turned it all around. Between sets that night he said to Goodman, “If we’re gonna die, Benny, let’s die playing our own thing.” Goodman went “all-in,” opening the next set with Fletcher Henderson’s swinging arrangements of “Sometimes I’m Happy” and “King Porter Stomp.” The dancers went wild, bursting into applause and gathering around the bandstand to watch the band play. What Goodman learned that night was that the crowd was there because they had been listening to Goodman on “Let’s Dance” and they were waiting for the opportunity to do just that … to swing dance. At the end of the three-week engagement, Goodman’s position as the “King of Swing” was firmly established.

So what is swing dancing? Well, let us start with the music that is danced to: “swing” is jazz that has a propulsive drive with musical accents related to a fixed beat. When you hear it, you know it, as you instinctively want to click your fingers and tap your feet and the music has that “swing feel.”

The origins of swing dancing can be traced to Harlem in the 1920’s and 30’s. Known variously as the Jitterbug, Balboa, Shag and Boogie Woogie, and many more colorful names, the most widely adopted of which was the “Lindy Hop.” Its roots go back to African rhythms meddled to European dance conventions – partner dancing. Besides providing sheer joy to the participants, it allowed the dancers to improvise with aerials and other techniques that captured the imagination of young people who did not want to dance like their elders. Sound familiar?

The Lindy Hop got its name from the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, whose 1927 solo flight from NY to Paris brought “Lindy” world fame for his “hop” across the Atlantic. Shortly thereafter, a newspaper reporter asked a dancer what was the name of the wild dance the crowd was performing, he responded, “the Lindy Hop,” and the name stuck.

Ground zero for the Lindy Hop was the Savoy Ballroom, located at 141st and Lenox Ave. in Harlem. Known as the “Home of Happy Feet,” the cavernous dancehall could accommodate 4,000 dancers and was opened seven nights a week with an admission charge of $.60 after 6 p.m. and $.85 after 8 p.m. It had an elongated dancefloor anchored by two bandstands – one at each end of the dance floor. When one band stopped to take a break, the dancers moved to the other end of the floor and without missing a beat, the next band began to play. The Savoy was the scene of many band competitions, or “cutting contests,” as they were known. The most famous swing-era bands led by Count Basie, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and many more, did battle at the Savoy and it was the inspiration for the great swing-era tune, “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”

Most importantly, the Lindy Hop and the Savoy played an important role in the beginning of the desegregation of the races in America. Annual attendance was 700,000 with an estimated mix of 85% black patrons and 15% white patrons, but some evenings it was 50-50. White dancers went uptown to the Savoy to be part of an evolving dance scene, which would ultimately become a dance craze that would sweep the nation and lead to the tearing down of barriers between the races. The Savoy was in reality a social experiment, not just a dancehall, especially when contrasted with another very famous Harlem establishment only a few blocks away, The Cotton Club, a “whites-only” venue. It was controlled by the “mob” and catered to the wealthy, featuring top black entertainers with an all-black service staff. Decorated with a jungle motif, it reeked of overt racism and the best that can be said for it was that it launched the careers of jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Lena Horne.

So let’s dance!

Vail Jazz presents “Swing! Swing! Swing!” at 8 p.m. Friday, March 30 at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch. The evening of swinging dance and live music from the Tony Gulizia Sextet celebrates the 20th anniversary of Vail Jazz Goes to School.  

BUY TICKETS

 

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Winter Series and the Vail Jazz Festival. 

 

Jazz and the Coffee Connection

The first beverage that comes to mind when thinking about jazz is not coffee but alcohol. The two have been served in taverns, bars, juke joints, nightclubs and dance halls since jazz’s inception in the early 20th century and the pair have been the main ingredients of a good time ever since.

While alcohol can be traced to pre-history, coffee didn’t appeared in the New World until the mid-1600s in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (New York). The British, of course, ultimately ruled the colonies and tea was the drink of choice, but that all changed after the Boston Tea Party. Since then, coffee has been the non-alcoholic drink of choice in the U.S., with coffeehouses/coffee shops proliferating.

Fast forward to the 1940s, jazz was the popular music of the day. However, after World War II, jazz took a turn and bebop was born – a new style of jazz. Jazz was not for dancing anymore, but for listening, a thought-provoking art form, the music of the oppressed, the underdog and a vehicle to protest injustice. Bebop innovators Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie were seen as musical revolutionaries and social change was beginning to gather momentum.

In 1948, Jack Kerouac, poet and writer, was in the forefront of the “Beat” generation – the name given to a group of disillusioned youth that embraced anti-materialism with a disdain for a conventional life style. Living in New York City, Kerouac frequented jazz clubs and was greatly influenced by the beboppers’ musical revolution. His classic book “On the Road,” celebrated jazz, the musicians that were turning the jazz world upside down and the Beat generation.

Many youths were drawn to the new lifestyle and gathering places for them sprang up in urban centers: coffeehouses. These dark, seedy establishments had, in many cases, the look of an opium den, with funny names (Hungry I, Pandora’s Box, Bitter End and Fickle Pickle), where jazz, folk music (the beginning of the folk revival), poetry and comedy could be heard. Alcohol certainly didn’t disappear, but it was now cool to drink coffee while listening to jazz.

By 1958, members of the Beat generation were known as “beatniks,” the suffix of “nik” from “Sputnik” added by a newspaper columnist and it stuck. The media took over and a beatnik stereotype was created: an unkempt, sandal-wearing male, who rolled his own cigarettes, was attired in a black turtleneck sweater and a beret, with a goatee, wearing dark glasses, speaking in hipster slang, while beating out rhythms on his bongos, spouting poetry without provocation and ultimately crashing in his one-room pad. TV and movies jumped on the bandwagon and beatniks were everywhere (remember Maynard G. Krebs – actor Bob Denver – in the TV show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis?).

Actually, the beatnik look can be traced to Gillespie and Monk, who in the 1940s were often seen wearing dark glasses and berets, had goatees, spoke hipster-ese and were counter-cultural to the max.

By the mid 1960s, beatniks along with the coffeehouse craze began to fade as the moral righteousness of the Civil Rights movement took center stage and became the focus of protests against the establishment.

Today, most of the old coffeehouses are gone, having been replaced by the monotone, lookalike boxes, serving up drinks that are so outrageous that a ”venti, light-iced, skinny, hazelnut, macchiato, sugar-free syrup, extra shot, no whip” is a drink of choice. Starbucks now has over 27,000 locations worldwide, serving over 4 billion cups of “joe” a year. The name “joe” for coffee can be traced to Secretary of the Navy Josephus “Joe” Daniels, who in 1914 banned alcohol on US Navy ships. Thereafter the strongest beverage available on a ship of war was a cup of joe – black coffee.

But a funny thing happened on the way to coffee Armageddon, jazz became the soundtrack of coffee quaffing. Starbucks, Peets Coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts, three of the biggest players in the market, all now prominently feature jazz soundtracks in their establishments. Ted Gioia, a jazz historian suggests that, “Jazz is now a code word for sophistication and classiness, even affluence.” Whatever the new perception is, jazz is now part of the world of coffee.

Since I was a kid, I always loved jazz, but coffee came much later out of necessity – the all-night cram sessions before finals. Over time, I have realized that jazz and coffee have magical qualities. Both have connected me to so many people and had a remarkable impact on my life. Sitting with friends conversing and sharing thoughts over coffee has become a daily ritual for my wife and me and has enriched our lives immensely. Even solitary cups of coffees have had an amazing impact on me, as they have afforded me those private moments of introspection that are so enlightening. Whether in a group or solo, the coffee always tastes better when jazz is playing in the background.

 

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Winter Series and the Vail Jazz Festival.