When I say “modern jazz,” I mean post-World War II jazz. Two things characterize it: (1) small bands; (2) it is for listening, not dancing.
Big band jazz was different. The era of the big jazz bands, meaning swing bands, lasted a decade: from about 1931 (Harlem’s Chick Webb) through 1942: mobilization during World War II. It was Benny Goodman’s band, beginning in 1935, that made the music popular.
The year 1942 was also the beginning of the strike of the musicians’ union. The union refused to allow its members to record music, except for the Armed Forces Radio Network, which was broadcast only overseas. Live performances were allowed. The strike lasted until late 1944. Meanwhile, singers branched out on their own, never to return to the big bands in supporting roles.
The big bands were dance bands. They played in large dance halls. These bands were large enough to be heard. There were enough paying dancers for the band leaders to pay a lot of musicians. There was interaction between the bands and the dancers. Benny Goodman’s signature song was “Let’s Dance.”
Goodman’s band became the first swing band with a large national audience. That was because, beginning in 1935, his band was one of three that played on NBC’s three-hour radio show, Let’s Dance. Goodman’s band started playing at 12:30 AM, which was too late for New York City. But in the West Coat, it was 9:30 PM. Goodman became a celebrity in Los Angeles.
There was another reason for this. There was a disk jockey in Los Angeles named Al Jarvis. He began playing swing records, beginning in 1932. He was among the earliest disk jockeys in the nation. He called his radio show The World’s Largest Make Believe Ballroom. He changed it later to Make Believe Ballroom. My mother liked to listen to the show in her teens, as she told me two decades later, when I watched Jarvis’ TV show. Jarvis’ story is here. Incredibly, there is no Wikipedia entry for Jarvis. There is for Martin Block, a New York City disk jockey who in 1935 copied Jarvis’ format and even the name of his show. Walter Winchell coined the phrase “disk jockey” to describe Block.
If you want my assessment of the consummate big band performance, it was Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” at the Carnegie Hall concert on the night of January 16, 1938 — the first presentation of jazz in that stately hall, shocking classical music purists. There was no dancing that night. Goodman wisely closed with the song. It lasted 13 minutes. Gene Krupa’s drumming blew away the audience. Jess Stacy’s unscheduled piano solo was icing on the cake.
My parents had a two-record LP version of the event. Columbia released the dual album in 1950. It had been held up for 12 years by contract disputes: performers from multiple record labels. The album became Columbia’s first million-seller LP. I first heard it sometime around 1953. That was the first jazz that I can recall.
LET’S NOT DANCE!
After World War II, the dance craze of the 1930’s faded. It did not revive for a decade. When it did, it was not based on jazz.
Dance halls folded. Most of the pre-War bands broke up. A few pre-War band leaders could still draw crowds at large concert halls after 1945, but not every weekend at dance halls. Lawrence Welk’s big band was an exception, but he did not play jazz. If you doubt me, watch this. He played for old people in a ballroom. They danced. If a big band in 1955 did not have a following on TV, as the Dorsey brothers did, it had no market.
When jazz moved from the dance hall to the club/tavern after 1945, the music became increasingly avant garde. The strategy of jazz band leaders switched away from getting large numbers of paying customers to dance. They wanted artistic creativity, meaning lots of improvisation, and not much melody. Small band improvisation was often borderline bizarre, e.g., bebop. Sometimes, bebop crossed over into the bizarre. As a result, most Americans stopped listening to jazz. The sales of jazz records began a seven-decade decline. Today, jazz music sales are no higher than classical music: 1.4%.
There was a brief revival of big band music. The unexpected success at the box office ($7 million) of the Jimmy Stewart/June Allyson movie, The Glenn Miller Story (1954), was based on attendance by my parents’ generation, but there were plenty of fans in my age group. I was 12 years old. I saw it at least twice. I had friends who saw it. There was a huge Glenn Miller revival; his records sold phenomenally well for several years. In 1956 came The Benny Goodman Story, starring Steve Allen and Donna Reed. It did not do as well financially ($2.4 million). My parents took me to a Goodman concert in a large auditorium, probably in 1958. The seats were filled, or so I recall. Then came The Gene Krupa Story (1959), starring Sal Mineo. It sank without a trace. The echoes of the big band era were gone.
LET’S DANCE AGAIN!
Rock and roll launched a new era of dance, but only among teenagers. It began in 1953 on the fringes of AM radio. By 1954, it was becoming a national phenomenon. Once again, Al Jarvis was the nation’s popular music weathervane. In 1954, he started a local TV knock-off of Philadelphia’s pre-Dick Clark Bandstand — it went national as American Bandstand under Clark in 1957 — where dancing teenagers competed. He understood the power of dancing for popular music. Rock and roll was danceable. Sock hops — shoeless dances in high school gymnasiums — appeared, as “At the Hop” (1957) indicated.
Key economic facts in 1955: (1) rock and roll bands were small; (2) rock and roll record sales were huge; (3) a 45 RPM record (two songs) cost 89 cents, or $8.22 in today’s money; (4) record companies’ profits were huge; (5) jazz was no longer a mass-market phenomenon.
EAST WAS EAST, AND WEST WAS WEST
There was a clear difference between West Coast jazz and East Coast jazz in the 1950’s.
I did not like East Coast jazz. It was too surrealistic for me. But West Coast jazz — that was something else. It began with melody. It returned to melody. You could hum it. In between there was creativity.
I started working in the Manhattan House of Music in 1956, at the age of 14. The next town south was Hermosa Beach. They were both middle-class towns — just barely. Today, they are astronomically expensive. You can surf there. But teenagers and young adults who are serious surfers can no longer afford to live there.
HOWARD RUMSEY’S LIGHTHOUSE ALL-STARS
In Hermosa Beach in 1949, an unknown jazz bass player named Howard Rumsey began hosting weekend jazz concerts in a small club, the Lighthouse. Hermosa Beach was off the beaten path. It was 26 miles south of Hollywood. There was no freeway close to Hermosa Beach in 1949. It was not a likely location for the launching of a new form of music.
There was little interest in modern jazz in Southern California in 1949. The men who played in Rumsey’s band, which he named the All-Stars, did not think the venture would work. The town at one point tried to shut down the club. He was able to persuade the town council to let him continue. He did not own the club, but he managed it. It survived. The audiences grew.
In July 1952 and October 1953, the All-Stars recorded songs that became three albums. I bought Volume 3 in 1956. It was a dealer’s demo copy. It was stamped “NOT FOR SALE.” My boss made $2.47 on the deal. On that album was a track that grabbed me at age 14. It still does: “Viva Zapata! No. 1,” which was written by the All Stars’ trumpeter Shorty Rogers. He titled it after Marlon Brando’s 1952 movie, released in February, Viva Zapata! Rogers had not yet formed his own band in 1952, which had a lot of success. On drums was Shelly Manne, who had not yet formed his band. On sax was Jimmy Giuffre, who had not yet formed his band. Other All Stars side men from time to time included Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Stan Kenton, Art Pepper, and Stan Getz. The All-Stars became stars within a few years.
“Viva Zapata! No. 1” was my first introduction to the unique musical instrument, the cowbell. Its fame took off in 2000 because of Saturday Night Live.
Here is the 1952 arrangement. This cowbell was made of metal — not the flimsy plastic SNL version.