March 9, 2005


The Definition of 'Phat': Big Band With Young Fans: Contemporary big band jazz groups like Big Phat Band have found a market among teenagers, particularly those in school and college music programs. (MIREYA NAVARRO, 3/09/05, NY Times)

Taylor Rasmussen, a Led Zeppelin fan, recently discovered another band that suits his 13-year-old taste. He describes it as having "a new cool sound" with funky bass lines, high-pitched notes and difficult solos.

That band is actually a big band, Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, and its "new" sound is good old jazz. And at a recent concert at the gymnasium of the Lindero Canyon Middle School in Agoura Hills north of here, Taylor and an excited throng of students treated these jazz musicians like pop stars, screaming their approval and lining up to have CD's, T-shirts, posters and even casts autographed by Mr. Goodwin and his 17 musicians.

"Would you sign my back?" a giggling girl asked Mr. Goodwin.

"Could you write 'Happy Birthday, Kelley'?" another girl asked, handing him a poster she had just purchased.

The heyday of big band jazz may have been back in the last century, but contemporary groups like Big Phat Band have found a market among teenagers, particularly those in school and college music programs. Mr. Goodwin, a film and television soundtrack composer who formed his group in 1999, has aggressively courted this young audience. Jazz educators say students are a natural market for big bands because these are the most common type of ensemble in most schools.

"People would think that a lot of people supporting these jazz guys are older people, but a lot of them are high school and college kids who are exposed to the music," said Edward Protzman, band director at Central Bucks High School West, near Philadelphia.

Which calls to mind an especially fine polemic, The Home of Happy Feet:
An Essay on Swing Dancing, Spirituality and the American Dream (Mark Gauvreau Judge, Jitterbuzz)
It usually takes about an hour for it to start to happen. Heavy with sweat, I feel exhilarated, transcendent with a mystical inner peace. As I cradle my partner, I'm preternaturally calm and at totally at ease with the world. It is a state of trusting infancy, as if my ego and it's confusion, worry and entanglements has drifted out of my body. I am outside of myself, filled with spiritual ardor.

No, I'm not talking about sex. The feeling I'm describing comes over swing dancing. As documented in films, television, and articles in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times , swing dancing is now hot. To those of us who have been at it for a while - even, believe it or not, before film Swingers began filling previously empty jazz clubs - this is good news. Popularity means more bands and more places to dance, as well as an opportunity to spread the gospel of what a remarkable gift from God swing is. It's also a chance to separate swing, once and for all, from that most loathsome of current fads, lounge.

I first became interested in swing at a New Year's Eve party in 1993, a full three years before Swingers came out. I had quit drinking the year before after a diagnosis of alcoholism, and was at the party, which was thrown by some sober alcoholics I had met, because after the excitement and romance of ten years of drinking I wasn't adjusting to sober life well. Frankly, I found a life without all-night, booze-sodden bar conversations, sex with strangers and wall-smashing parties a bore.

For the first two hours, the party didn't help matters much. As I reported in the Washington Post at the time, for most of the evening the DJ playing contemporary rock music, the kind of stuff grunge crap that emotionally and musically runs the gamut from A to B. I shuffled around the perimeter of the dance floor aimlessly, not knowing anyone and feeling too awkward to ask anyone to dance.

Then, after ringing in the new year, the unexpected happened. The DJ, for reasons I never discerned, slipped on Glen Miller's "In the Mood." If it was intended as a kitschy joke, it backfired. There were two people at the party who actually knew how to dance, and before anyone could move they were on the floor swinging. The entire atmosphere of the party suddenly changed; the crowd started clapping to the beat, watching the dancers jump, twirl, and spin around each other with a precision that a mathematician would appreciate. The party, despite it's best intentions, became fun.

Yet this was more than just a spontaneous explosion of joy. It was a clear indication that my generation, those snarling, cynical, sexually and morally libertine X'ers, were not opposed to a little class and style. People always assumed that, like the baby-boomers, we have rejected the social and cultural mores of America's past. The truth is we were never offered the choice. The reaction to the dancers and Glen Miller's blast of horns signaled a desire for an alternative to the dominant "alternative" rock culture, with it's predictable power chords and mirthless celebration of alienation and nihilism. This was confirmed in the subsequent articles on swing, which all seemed to come to the same conclusion. Generation X actually liked the idea of people getting dressed up to go out, of having an environment of rules and manners and romance. [...]

In his book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day, which has just been reissued, sociologist Ray Oldenburg examines the broad social, spiritual, and psychological benefits of "third places," those spots outside of work and home that offer solace from the rat race and requirements of family. What is perhaps most remarkable about these places - which range from Irish pubs to Japanese tea gardens - are there roles as democratic meeting spots and the strict manners and self-restraint that govern them.

In third places, writes Oldenburg, a natural kind of "leveling" takes place. Unlike work, there is no hierarchy of status and power: "those not high on the totems of accomplishment or popularity are enjoined, accepted, embraced, and enjoyed despite their 'failings' in their career or the marketplace. There is more to the individual than his or her status indicates." Thought he doesn't name them, dance halls fit perfectly into Oldenburg's thesis. In ballrooms, dancing is the great leveler. Money, status, privilege, even looks are not appreciated as much as ability.

This was no more true than at Harlem's Savoy, one of the only integrated dance clubs [of its time], where the best spot on the floor was reserved not for whites [or blacks] but for the most electrifying dancers. The Savoy, called "the home of happy feet," took up an entire city block and boasted bandstands at two end. As Ralph Ellison would later note, the Savoy was "one of the great centers of culture in the United States," offering the likes of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald on any given night, artists whose talents lured not only dancers but classical composers like Stravinsky and Poulenc to Harlem.

Perhaps more than in other third places, in the dance hall unwritten rules of etiquette. If you ask a women to dance and she says no, it is inappropriate to pursue the matter any further. Bolstered by swing songs, with their soft melodies and romantic imagery, men learn how to behave, something they forgot in the 1960s. In Swing, Bop and Hand Dancing, a documentary about the history of swing and hand dancing, an modern offshoot of swing done primarily in black communties, Howard University dance historian Beverly Lindsay sums it up nicely. "The benfits of swing go far beyond just learning cool moves," she says. "In the old days of swing, there were entire rituals surrounding the dance. Men went and picked up their dates, then escorted them to the dance. They learned how to dress up, and how to behave. They learned how to ask a girl to dance, lead her onto the dance floor, then, at the end of the song, return her from where she had come."

One trip to Glen Echo or the Washington clubs where hand dancing takes place can teach a lesson that was lost during the Sexual Revolution: that there can be gradations of contact between the sexes. The dictum of all-or-nothing fostered by thirty years of pornography is a lie; worse, it is one that paradoxically cheats us out of some of the finer sensual pleasures of relationships.

So how did something as enervating as swing dancing die? Music historians point to material shortages of World War II, which made it hard to produce records, as well as the expense of employing a full big band and the rise of be-bop jazz, a style more attuned to ears than feet. However, one overlooked fact might be the most important: taxes. In 1944, a 30 percent federal excise tax was levied against dancing night clubs. Later, jazz great Max Roach recalled the devastating effect the tax had on dancing and other entertainment: "It was levied on all places where they had entertainment. It was levied incase they had public dancing, signing, storytelling, humor, or jokes on stage. This tax is the real story behind why dancing, not just tap dancing, but public dancing per se and also singing, quartets, comedy, all these kinds of thing, were just out."

In 1959, the Savoy was demolished and replaced by a government housing project. As much as the assassination of Kennedy, Vietnam, or Watergate, this was the death knell for a certain America, the place of self-made communities, truly interactive entertainment, and tough spiritual resolve. When the Savoy went down, a new America emerged from the rubble. Out went style, to be replaced by drugs, rock n' roll - which in the beginning was just swing music plyed leaner and tighter - and television.

And yet, there is hope of swing become firmly reestablished in American culture. Recently the Black Cat, a punk rock club in Washington, has started having swing bands four times a year. The place fills with dancers, and occasionally a black-clad wallflower is encouraged to drop their angst and give it a try. More and more jazz musicians, weaned on "free-form," are coming to appreciate dance music. In the book Bebop and Nothingness New York swing band leader Loren Schoenberg described to author Francis Davis the moment when she was born again in swing. "I never fully understood [Duke Ellington's] ‘Ko-Ko' until I saw dancers respond to that minor key, that baritone saxophone, that bass drum," Schoenberg said. "It's like the difference between hearing a concert performance or arias and seeing a fully staged opera."

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 9, 2005 8:35 AM

I wrote an entire novel listening to sixteen Buddy Rich big band albums over and over. There is nothing better.

Posted by: Randall Voth at March 10, 2005 7:48 AM