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JAZZ A Film By Ken Burns
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Jazz LoungeSwing Style
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Swing Style

By Loren Schoenberg, Conductor and Saxophonist

Audio sample Hotter Than 'Ell
Recorded September 25, 1934
(Courtesy Verve Music Group)

It has been said that all of jazz is in some sense a variation on the music of Louis Armstrong, and that was never truer than in the music of the "Swing" era. The various melodies, riffs, and solos that all the bands played had strong roots in what Armstrong had codified. Fletcher Henderson played a key role as bandleader and later, as arranger, in the music's dissemination to the public at large. Hotter Than 'Ell, a 1934 Fletcher Henderson flag-waver (as these fast tunes were then called) is chock full of ideas that are sheer Armstrong — from the melody at the beginning right through the various backgrounds, and especially in the rousing "shout" chorus, where the entire band plays as though it was Armstrong incarnate. Soloists trumpeter Red Allen and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster reveal how far musicians had come by 1934 in extending and elaborating on Armstrong's innovations.

Audio Feature Gary Giddins, critic
On Big Band's resemblance to a Baptist Church
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

Also note how they blend in with the arrangement (by Fletcher's underrated brother, Horace) and how Allen passes the baton (in this case a concert F#) to Webster. Buster Bailey, who plays the clarinet solo, was brought by Armstrong himself to Henderson band from King Oliver's band in 1924. You can hear why the big band is to American music what the symphony orchestra is to Western European music in this electrifying performance where improvisation and composition merge in a new way.

Audio Feature Gary Giddins, critic
The electrifying lure of swing music
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

Jazz has never had a better home than a big band. The emphasis between what was set and what was created on the spot varied from band to band, each emphasizing its particular strengths. During their heyday, from the mid-30's through the mid-40's, the big bands were an indispensable part of our popular culture. There were literally dozens of first-rate bands touring the country 52 weeks a year. Never again did popular culture and jazz intersect in such a fashion. These bands represented something intrinsically American — all hands working together, spontaneously creating an entity and identity larger than the mere sum of its parts. A decade before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the major leagues, black and white musicians were joining forces before an ultimately accepting public.