Swing Era: Context

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Timbre of the Times

As Swing became an increasingly commercialized and omnipresent force in American popular culture, it made increasingly common appearances in American discourse and popular culture outside of the music industry. Examinations of Swing in painting, literature, and film questioned whether such a commercialized form of music could truly be considered "art." Simultaneously, these works examined, often uneasily, the societal implications of the Swing arena.

The new thirty-five cent record disc, the jukebox, and radio broadcasts of big band dance hall gigs made commercialization an unavoidable part of experiencing and interpreting jazz. This realization was first made by visual artists during the late 1930s. Painter Arthur Dove embraced the modernist fractionalization brought by new musical technologies as a uniquely American experience which could be translated into uniquely abstract American art. In his cityscapes, Stuart Davis suggested that technologically communicated jazz had become such an integral part of American culture that an abstracted depiction of America which aims to reflect the sensibility of swing is more fitting than a faithfully realistic representation of physical reality.

By contrast, American writers during the 1940s dealt with the new commercialized component of jazz by raising doubt as to whether the mediated Swing experience could truly be considered art. Both Eudora Welty in "Powerhouse" and Peter DeVries in "Jam Today" compare commercialized Swing consumption to more traditional live jazz. While Welty attests to the power of performance lost in recorded form, DeVries satirizes the snobbery of early bop enthusiasts who interpret the commercial success of Swing as an indicator of lowbrow quality.

In addition to inspiring examination of the boundaries of "high" and "low" art, swing inspired many writers as a metaphor for societal conditions and changes. Much of swing-related fiction centered around the perceived seediness of big band life: the loose women the swing scene attracted, and the supposed temptation towards violence or inter-racial romance caused by the touring and nightclub atmospheres. Sylvia Tate's 1947 novel, Never by Chance, concerns the mysterious murder of a swing musician's mistress. The novel illustrates 1940s ambivalence about swing. The greediness and violent tendencies of the swing musicians seem to be the antithesis of artistic sensibilities. Yet, while presenting her swing musician characters in an unfavorable light, Tate also criticizes those who make dismissive assumptions about the musicians' social class, and, by extension, talent.

Films of the early '40s such as the Glenn Miller vehicle Orchestra Wives also reflected on the big band touring lifestyle. This film presents touring as a democratic, self-sacrificing act on the part of musicians, celebrating their efforts to bring music to the young masses. However, the swing performance space in the film is presented as an area which causes dangerous shifts in traditional gender roles, while the opportunities for interaction among different races and classes made possible by jazz performance is ignored. Swing is presented as a commercialized, sanitized, and thoroughly "whitened" form of jazz.

Continuing in the tradition of elevating swing over other forms of jazz, a cinematic genre of "white jazz biopics" devoted specifically to popular white big band leaders emerged in the 1940s and early 1950s. Exemplified by such films as The Fabulous Dorseys, The Glenn Miller Story, and The Benny Goodman Story, this genre departed from earlier cultural reflections on swing in that it celebrated the commercialized jazz of swing as great white artists' elevation of a "primitive" African-American raw material to a true art form. Significantly, the appeal of these films was largely nostalgic, for they did not appear until the big band era was in decline.

The commercial and technological aspects of Swing had led to self-conscious examinations of Swing in comparison with other art forms as the music first became popular. Similarly, in fiction ("Jam Today") and films (The Glenn Miller Story), Swing became a genre differentiated from the jazz which preceded and followed it. Such self-consciousness reflects Swing music's role as an arena in which art is examined for the effects of commercialization and modernization.

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