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The Swing Era

March 2023
1min read

The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945

by Gunther Schuller; Oxford; 919 pages .

In a footnote deep in this monumental jazz history, the author remarks that “jazz-writing and criticism, even more than classical music, is a field rampant with hotly contested judgments and acrimonious feuding between writers who have staked out territories they possessively consider their private domains of expertise.” Indeed, the jazz experts have had a field day picking at the strengths and weaknesses of this book. But they all agree that it is a milestone, perhaps the most important single history of jazz yet written, and by an author who seems to stand above the usual battling. Schuller is not only a jazz historian but also a respected jazz player, a prominent orchestral conductor, a noted composer, the longtime head of the New England Conservatory of Music, and a scholar of the music of several centuries. His breadth and depth of knowledge is unmatched and his musicality unquestioned.

This volume follows an earlier, much slimmer one on the pre-swing era; the author now promises a third book that will complete the cycle, covering jazz from 1945 to today. His focus in The Swing Era is principally on the big bands. His organization is encyclopedic: He starts with chapters on Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong and their bands and follows with sections on lesser big bands, great soloists, and small groups, with the result that the book is as useful as a reference as it is as a narrative history. Look up Nat King Cole and you can trace in nine pages his important work as a pathbreaking jazz pianist before his great popularity as a vocalist eclipsed that achievement. Or turn to the section on Earl Hines and follow his influence and adaptability as a bandleader and piano player from the mid-thirties right up to the seventies.

Throughout the book Schuller integrates technical detail, nontechnical musical description and criticism, discussion of individual recordings, and the larger historical picture. For example, he describes with some precision what Frank Sinatra brought to popular singing that was entirely new—his phrasing, his vocal quality, his ability to stretch slow tempos. He discusses how Sinatra’s talent grew during his years with Tommy Dorsey, how his unprecedented success helped put a whole new emphasis on the solo singer in popular music, and how this emergence of the popular singer in turn became one of the nails in the coffin of the big-band era. All this takes about two absorbing pages out of nine hundred.

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