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Technology and Swing

William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Tommy Dorsey, Record Store in Washington D.C., between 1938 and 1948

Swing's position as a specific genre within jazz and as a genre of popular music which played a unique role in American culture is closely linked to the technology which broadcast it.

With swing music, the only genre of jazz ever to dominate the mainstream of American popular music, the recording industry pulled itself out of the Great Depression. The practice of releasing low-priced thirty-five cent records, pioneered by upstart company Decca Records, led to increases in sales during the mid 1930s. The continuing popularity of the phonograph and a dramatic swell in number of jukeboxes, a new technological development which employed radio discs, from 25,000 units in 1933 to 300,000 in 1939, also marked the growth of a musical consumer culture centered around Swing. The recording industry's low of 10 million records sold in 1933 climbed to 33 million by 1938 and to 127 million by 1941.

Ironically, while big bands helped pull the recording industry out of the Depression, it was the Depression which had led to the initial development of big bands. The decline in record sales in the early 1930s, coupled with the closure of speakeasies and jazz clubs after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, had forced many of the nation's jazz musicians to move to New York or other highly populated cities and seek work at dancing venues. Regional and national radio broadcasts of dance hall performances soon led to national followings for these big bands. While records and radio made swing music widely available, this mediated music soon inspired fans' desire to experience their favorite swing live.

Touring dance orchestras soon took the place of vaudeville, a Depression casualty. In The Birth of Bebop, Scott DeVeaux writes:

We tend now to think of swing as a form of jazz and to reduce it to its music--the solos and arrangements carefully preserved on shellac. But this was only part of the package. Swing bands were still dance bands, playing in ballrooms to publics that might dance to Count Basie or Jimmie Lunceford one week and Kay Kyser or Guy Lombardo the other. . . . And by inheriting vaudeville's place in theaters, swing thrived on clowning and physical entertainment. Whether crisscrossing the continent, appearing over the airwaves, or providing the soundtrack for Saturday night good times on the local jukebox, the name band simultaneously embodied all of these delights, its appeal cutting across divisions of age, class, race, and region.
In spite of the democratized "unitary popular culture" (DeVeaux) created with the mass mediation of swing, rhetoric about the music often critically examined the technology through which it was mediated. The essayist or artist who analyzed swing often differentiated between mediated swing and live swing. In her 1941 short story, "Powerhouse," Eudora Welty fictionalizes her impressions upon viewing Fats Waller in performance, after listening to him on records. "Of course you know how he sounds--you've heard him on records--but still you need to see him," she writes.

In Peter DeVries' essay "Jam Today," the success of swing's commodification as a product suggests to jazz elitists that a simplicity inherent to swing must have invited such commercialization. These elitists elevate bebop over swing and elevate themselves by presenting their tastes as more cultivated than those of the masses who embraced swing. "You can safely rule out 98 percent of what's played," one of DeVries' partygoers explains. "But the lowest point of all is probably swing. I mean there are people who seriously think that's jazz."

Visual artists such as Arthur Dove experienced the technological aspect of swing differently. They embraced the modernist fractionalization brought by mediated sound, and employed it as a model to create a specifically American method of painting.

Thus, as swing, whose fate as a genre relied heavily upon its technological commercialization, entered the mainstream, rhetoric about the music emerged which analyzed not only the music itself but its mediation. American thinkers set out to determine the significance of swing, mediated jazz. The jazz music as created by musicians themselves no longer analyzed or reflected culture; the significance lay in the methods through which a now-sanitized music was broadcast and consumed. Thus, as scholars increasingly turned their eyes to the increasingly pervasive commercialized jazz, the agency of individual musicians as artistic creators was often ignored.


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