Back in the Swing
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SPENCER MICHELS: In clubs across the country where punk or disco or just plain rock’n roll once ruled, the tempo has shifted to swing. The sounds and steps of the 30s and 40s – updated, to be sure – are rocking dance halls like Broadway Studios in San Francisco. Swing has sprung, and it isn’t just the seniors who are swinging. V. Vale has written and published a book about swing and has been following the fad since it started up slowly about four years ago and then really took off.
V. VALE, Writer/Publisher: This has become “the” way to meet people socially. You couldn’t do it at rock clubs anymore because they’re too loud. You have to wear ear plugs at rock clubs. People also got tired of just standing there, watching a band on stage playing. They want to do something.
SPENCER MICHELS: Today’s swing music is nearly the black magic that got people swinging back before World War II, when Count Bassie and Duke Ellington and later Bennie Goodman and Glenn Miller used a new sound to energize the crowds. Eighty-four-year-old Frankie Mann, who still teaches dancing, was there at the beginning, at the swing dance contest in New York’s Harlem.
FRANKIE MANNING: The very first I ever walked into the Savoy ballroom and I heard that music swinging and the floor was just crowded with people dancing, and it just seemed like the music was just pounding, and everybody was just – was just moving with that rhythm, and I just stood there with my mouth open.
SPENCER MICHELS: Manning became a top swing dancer specializing in the Lindy Hop, inventing what came to be known as aerials, which were featured in this 1941 film, “Hellzapoppin.”
FRANKIE MANNING: I remember the first time I did aerials. That was one momentous moment, I’ll tell you. When we actually did a step, it was like – you know – it was like quiet – like nothing – like to say – what happened, what did he do? You know, and then all of a sudden the Savoy just erupted, and everybody started screaming and hollering and stepping and carrying on. And I said, oh, wow, man, because, you know – I mean – from the excitement that they generated I said, oh, man, maybe I did something, you know.
SPENCER MICHELS: Manning danced to swing music that he says had its roots in African-American jazz of the 20s and 30s. Big bands like Bennie Goodman modified the jazz they were playing and moved into swing, making the music more easily danceable. John Coppola played trumpet with some of the original swing bands and still plays today on the West Coast, where the revival began.
JOHN COPPOLA, Trumpet Player: Swing is a word that means the music is being propelled. So-called “swing” bands were jazz bands. Bennie Goodman was a jazz band, Fletcher Henderson, Count Bassie, they’re all jazz bands that swung, which means that the rhythm is being propelled forward, you could dance to it.
SPENCER MICHELS: Coppola’s wife, France Lynne, was part of the swing scene too, singing in USO clubs during World War II, and with Gene Krupa and other swing musicians afterwards.
FRANCES LYNNE COPPOLA, Singer: We didn’t even know how marvelous it was when it was going on and we were in it. We didn’t know that this was so great.
SPENCER MICHELS: Coppola credits Louis Armstrong with transforming New Orleans jazz to swing, as on this early 40s recording of “Jubilee.”
JOHN COPPOLA: What Louis does, he began to take it another place rhythmically speaking. So we have now is floating over the whole rhythm section, which, of course, influenced the great Leslie Yago, influenced Charlie Parker, who influenced John Coltrane. It was another concept of not being strictly on the beat, which he’s doing here.
SPENCER MICHELS: This kind of music that we’re listening to there, is that almost the same as the swing we’re hearing today, or is there a big difference?
JOHN COPPOLA: I think there’s a big difference, really. I have to be honest with you.
SPENCER MICHELS: What’s the difference?
JOHN COPPOLA: Well, we don’t have any geniuses like that today, I’m afraid.
SPENCER MICHELS: What there is today is an explosion of interest in swing music and dancing. TV outlets like MTV are playing videos by a swing band called “Big Bad Voodoo Daddy,” whose first album has sold nearly half-a-million copies.
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SPENCER MICHELS: The trendy national clothing store, The Gap, has capitalized on the craze and pushed it along with a swing TV commercial set to Louie Prima’s, “Jump, Jive An’ Wail.”
(MUSIC IN BACKGROUND)
SPENCER MICHELS: In clubs, from San Francisco to New York, bands like Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers perform old classics and new tunes, while hundreds of dancers revive the steps of 50 years ago. The piano player and band leader for the Skillet Lickers is Chris Siebert, who has his own theory about the popularity of swing.
CHRIS SIEBERT, Band Leader: Maybe it’s even a ration against technology and our lives are raw, which can have a dehumanizing effect. I happen to think that the artistic standards of that period were incredibly high. You know, the musicianship was high. Now we have mass-produced music, and maybe this is a little bit of, you know, searching for something that’s not so mass-produced but maybe more hand crafted or that sort of thing.
LAVAY SMITH, Singer: You look at the singers today and they’re very blatant. There’s nothing funny about Madonna or in her lyrics, her sexual lyrics. She’s very blatant, and, you know, like Bessie Smith, I need a little sugar in my bowl. Those lyrics are funny and they’re much more intelligent.
SPENCER MICHELS: Band leader Siebert says swing musicians, unlike some of their rock’n roll counterparts, really have to know music.
CHRIS SIEBERT: People couldn’t just like, you know, pick up a guitar and in two months be on MTV. I mean, you really had to work at an instrument. You cannot pick up a saxophone and sound good in two months.
SPENCER MICHELS: Swing breaks out regularly at spots like The Great American Music Hall, where 550 San Franciscans show up every month for a week-night swing session. Beer takes a back seat to martinis and cosmopolitans, stylish drinks of yesteryear. Across the room proprietors of the Shoeshine Stand try to evoke nostalgia at 5 bucks a shot. And on stage before the band comes on two twenty-somethings teach the crowd the moves of their grandparents. One dance hall in Pasadena reports 600 dancers show up for lessons like this every night. What’s new for many of these dancers if the concept of actually holding their partners. Johnny Swing and Cari Elizabeth have been teaching swing for two and a half years.
JOHNNY SWING, Dance Teacher: Partner dancing is definitely a different thing for everybody now. And it’s more like communicating to somebody while you’re dancing, whereas, before, you know, you were just maybe dancing for yourself.
CARI ELIZABETH, Dance Teacher: They can ask anybody to dance without it seeming to be like I’m picking you up or I want to go out with you. It’s just I want to dance with you right now, I want to have a good time right now.
SPENCER MICHELS: Today’s swing scene involves more than just learning the steps, it includes a return to the hairstyles of the 40′s, a landscape Betty Grable or Veronica Lake, and it features clothes from that same era. Kids who were born three decades after swing went into eclipse are trying to revive that old look. Vintage clothing stores have become part of the movement, along with the music. Enthusiasts say the swing craze is just now hitting its stride. Those in the scene claim that new bands, new clubs, new songs, and a glorious history should keep this retro fad from fading too fast.