November 1, 2005

NO SHAME IN THIRD PLACE (via Glenn Dryfoos):

Strength in Swing (Wynton Marsalis, 10.31.05, New Republic)

Jazz came out of New Orleans in the 1910s, and defined an age in the 1920s, and became the pop music of America in the 1930s. In the 1960s, the rest of the country started to catch up to jazz's old message of equality. Jazz has always been concerned with who we are as Americans, from the projects to the penthouses. Now, we are an impatient nation; we demand quick solutions. If we can't fix the problem, then we fix the surface and move on. (Too busy to learn to sing? Then lip-synch it. No time for the gym? Get a plastic surgeon.) Many of us are ready for the Katrina story to be over, when it is just beginning. So, if we are to hold on to our best intentions, I suggest that we recover the wisdom in the jazz principle of swing.

Swing is a philosophy of steadfastness. It instructs us to maintain an equilibrium when external forces are conspiring to tear it apart. At the heart of swing, two extremely different instruments--the drum and the bass--must be played with absolutely the same intentions. The cymbal that is struck on every beat by the drummer is in the high high register, and the bass notes, also articulated on every beat, are in the way way low. In order to swing, these extremes must get together, and then they must stay together. If you think getting together is hard, then you probably know that staying together is practically impossible. Anyone can swing for a few measures--but swinging is a matter of endurance. It tests the limits of your ability to work with another person to create a mutual feeling.

That is what is required of the citizens of this country now: sustained engagement with the issues that have been raised by this tragedy.

Mr. Marsalis's point is not as trivial as it may seem, but was put much better here, The Home of Happy Feet: An Essay on Swing Dancing, Spirituality and the American Dream (Mark Gauvreau Judge, Jitterbug) [and then extended here, If It Ain't Got That Swing: The Rebirth of Grown-Up Culture]:
From that moment on, I couldn't get enough of swing. I went to Glen Echo the next week, and the week after. Then I started finding dances during the week. I took lessons from the local champions, and bought tapes to practice at home.

Then, after about a month, I was at a dance when it happened - my first swing-related high. I was twirling my partner to a jump blues number - I think it was "Good Rockin' Tonight" - when my consciousness seemed to take off. I felt lighter, yet more comfortable and assured in my body. Hoots of delight popped out of my mouth, and my partner laughed along. While my description sounds a bit flaky, my experience is somewhat common among dancers as well as athletes. As far back as 1922 anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown described similar euphoria among a group of Andaman islanders who dance in religious ritual: "As the dancer loses himself in the dance, as he becomes absorbed in the unified community, he reaches a state of elation i which he feels himself filled with energy or force immediately beyond his ordinary state, and so finds himself able to perform prodigies of exertion."

Athletes describe such feelings of euphoria as being "in the zone"; in a recent article on "The Spirit of Athletics" in The World and I magazine, journalist Mark Barna recounts some of the "emotional and physical peaks" reached by athletes. Barna recounts a quote from former NFL great Joe Greene: "It's almost like being possessed. [but while] it is a kind of frenzy, of wild are never out of control. You have great awareness of everything that is happening around you and your part in the whole."

Both Greene and Radcliffe-Brown's descriptions emphasize not only their feelings, but how those feelings tie in with those around them, leading to another one of dancing benefits: it's ability to foster community and teach etiquette that reaches outside the dance hall. 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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 1, 2005 9:52 AM

Thanks, Glenn.

I've always wanted to know why Wynton can't swing. Listening to a jazz record of his is like wearing dress shoes two sizes too small. His classical recordings are far better.

Posted by: Randall Voth at November 1, 2005 10:40 PM