A line I recently read in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay resonated with the jazz fan in me.
Describing one night in a ‘Golden Age’ in the history of New York Chabon writes:
“Tommy Dorsey’s band were playing. Sammy sat and watched and listened, eyes half-closed, aware, as were all devotees of big-band swing in 1941, that it was his privilege to be alive at the very moment when the practitioners of his favorite music were at the absolute peak of their artistry and craft, a moment unsurpassed in this century for verve, romanticism, polish and a droll, tidy variety of soul”.
Unsurpassed, and unrepeated too. The line prompted a thought – how come I rarely hear swing these days? This was a music which propelled American out of the Depression, tore through Britain and Germany and was halted only by a world war.
It revolutionised pop culture, soundtracked the lives of a generation of teenagers (before that term existed) and even went some way to racial integration, on stage at least.
And yet, with the exception of the odd track I might overhear once a year, it’s almost as if it never existed, at least from where I’m standing. Maybe it didn’t hit Radio Eireann way back when. It certainly never had the effect of the blues, a music which, like swing, defined a generation – albeit through the prism of white players and not their black antecedents.
Perhaps Gene Krupa rimshots and Benny Goodman’s searing clarinet sound too sharp to the modern listener. Maybe the sound echoing down the decades from Carnegie Hall and similar long-departed dancehalls and studios is just too antiquated.
That’s what occurred to me this week when I watched BBC4’s excellent docu The Swing Thing, which revisited the music’s golden age.
A confession, however. All that said I, for one, couldn’t listen to swing all the time. But every now and then my shuffle throws up this opening horn blast, and I’m there, in a gleaming era of metropolitan romanticism and polish. And as for Chabon’s ‘droll soul’, I just don’t hear it.