An Essay on Three Variables

I’m writing this after finishing up an incredible weekend with the Craig Gildner Big Band for DCLX at Glen Echo Ballroom in Maryland.  A fabulous show, with high energy from the dancers and musicians alike.

It got me to thinking what were the factors musically that made it such a great night.  It dawned on me fairly quickly.  These factors, or variables can apply to just about any of my bands, or my contemporaries bands.  Each one is important, but you need to have the three together for a successful performance and to make a lasting impression.

  1. The song itself.  Tastes are subjective.  Folks don’t like this or like that for different reasons.  Taste is not based on any substantive mathematical algorithm.  Someone wrote awhile back songs that become hits have melodies that travel down the scale, instead of up.  Hmm, OK.  So You Turned the Tables on Me, with the leap in the 2nd bar should be a dud, right?  Or I’m Confessin’ That I Love You should flop too.  Nope.  Sometimes it’s the lyrics, sometimes it’s the melody, sometimes it’s both.  What about major as opposed to minor key?  We played Bizet Has His Day, note for note like the Les Brown arrangement.  Everyone loved that one.  Same with Jazznocracy, in D minor.   In the case of songs for dancing, the main thing is…does the combination of melody, lyric and key make you want to MOVE?
  2. The arrangement of the song. I’m a total sucker for a good arrangement.  Back in the day, several bands would record their versions of popular songs.  Take Tuxedo Junction.  Miller recorded it.  So did Erskine Hawkins:  he actually had a hand in writing it.  Though the Miller version is the one most folks are familiar with and remember, it is the Hawkins version that dancers in this day and age appreciate.  You play it, and everyone breaks into the Shim Sham.  Choice of tempo, key, and utilization of voicings (which section/instruments take the melody, the harmony, etc.) can make or break a song.
  3. The performance of the song arrangement by the musicians.  By this I mean the skill set each musician brings to the table to interpret the arrangement in a fashion that does it justice.  In a repertoire band, you’re striving for equalling the sounds created by Ellington, Basie, Shaw and Goodman.  The instruments used also factor into the performance category.

Let’s look at combinations of these.  Say you have a great song, with a great arrangement, but musicians not capable of performing in a manner that suits the song.  An Artie Shaw arrangement of Begin The Beguine by high school musicians versus seasoned pros will sound vastly different.  How about a great song, but a so-so arrangement and great musicians?  The strength of one and three might carry it through, but if the arrangement is flawed, either in conception (choice of harmonies, phrasing) or execution (wrong notes, incorrect markings and note placement) it won’t stick in the audience’s mind.  Or if it does, it will for the wrong reasons.  A recent chart that came across my desk of King Porter Stomp that claimed to be arranged by Fletcher Henderson had such a ridiculously busy shout section, I was willing to believe there was a staff arranger at work, using Fletch as his nom de plume.  There are at least two more scenarios, but to save time, let’s just settle on having all three as strong as possible as the perfect equation leading to success and acceptance.

There were scads of local and regional bands during the big band era.  No such thing as swing DJ’s or anything spinning tunes on a hi fi sound system in 1941.  If you lived in Dubuque, IA and any of the big bands came to your town, it was for a brief moment.  Then they were gone.  What if you wanted to dance the following night, week, or weekend?  What did the local bands play?  Stocks, or what we call stock arrangements of hit tunes were published by music publishers for use by these bands.  Sometimes, the publisher would obtain rights to reproduce the exact Basie or Shaw arrangement note for note as it appeared on the recording.  In the swing band world of today, these are highly sought after. Other times, a staff copy arranger would transcribe from the recording, and perhaps add his or her own intro, interlude, key change, and ending.  Skill levels varied in these bands nationwide, so there were stocks for advanced and not so advanced players.  A complicated piano or trumpet solo might be omitted.  Difficult shout choruses watered down, sometimes to ill effect.

Today, we have the added advantage that several bandleaders donated their book of arrangements to libraries and institutions across the country.  Some are here in DC, some are in New York.   Some are accessible to the public, some are not.  I was amazed when in 1991, at a public library in Fairfax, Virginia, I stumbled upon several stocks by Duke Ellington that were available for study right on the shelves in the music department.  My biggest regret is not having the foresight at the time to know I’d be leading a big band many years down the road.  I only copied rhythm charts for the novelty.

In reviewing the evening, the CGBB had lots and lots of authentic charts transcribed painstakingly by modern arrangers, so they faithfully represent the original performance.  It was up to us to deliver musically.  I try to make all the variables work to our advantage.  As the big band is a relatively new endeavor, I am faced with the decision of doing a song with an “almost there” stock arrangement, or waiting until the real thing emerges, either from hunting through my resources, or actually transcribing the classic arrangement everyone knows and loves.  King Porter, which I consider to be a landmark Goodman arrangement on several levels (execution, soloing, tempo) must be done justice, and I’ve decided to refrain from programming it until I obtain an arrangement that faithfully recreates the 1935 recording.  There were several arrangements done by Sammy Nestico and Dave Wolpe in the 70’s that are still made available to bandleaders today, which, while they can be quite good for listening, are really beyond the mission of my bands.  Big band music post E=Mc2 (recorded in 1957 by Count Basie) is not for us either.  And really anything post 1948, when many big bands were throwing in the towel, must be evaluated on a case by case basis.

Seems like a lot of info, eh?  But really, these three variables have to be taken into consideration if one is to lead a contemporary swing band for dancing.  Is it any coincidence that some of the bandleaders enjoying success these days were or are swing DJ’s? I used to be a DJ too, back before I led a band.   It’s a perfect opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t among the dancers, and then program accordingly for your band’s performance.  You may discover that Cab Calloway’s version of The Jumpin’ Jive goes over better than Lionel Hampton’s.  Or that Hampton’s 1942 version of Flying Home is preferred over his 1940 version.  Trust me, the more you start applying these three variables to songs you hear at a DJ or live band dance, you’ll understand how important they are to keeping the maximum amount of happy feet on the dance floor.

Finding the Stewards of Swing, or : 1.) Stand in front of a mirror. 2.) Look at yourself.

So here it is!  The first ever message on our new website blog.  From here on out, I will try to bring you topics that grow the swing community, help to keep live swing music and dancing alive, and earn your trust.

 

As you may know, I lead five different bands that require my constant attention; the most recent is a 13 piece orchestra, The Craig Gildner Big Band.  Why five?  Am I insane?  Blue Sky 5 was the first, and was planned carefully to fill a need in the DC/MD/VA dance community for an authentic small swing group, with a traditional rhythm section and horns.  In 1999, there were several fine big bands, a few jump blues bands, and some rock and roll quartets with electric bass and guitar that could play a few shuffle numbers.  Maybe two that did Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw small group swing.  No small groups that played the music of Coleman Hawkins, Illinois Jacquet, Teddy Wilson, Edmond Hall, or Fats Waller.  As the scene grew, so did interest in other forms of early jazz: trad or hot jazz and gypsy swing.  As of late, there has been a resurgence in big band music.  Remarkably,  I was able to find excellent musicians in the area to assemble bands to meet these additional needs as they emerged.  I love all of the music in the early jazz period, and despite mainstream culture’s best efforts to ignore or suppress it, I feel my ability to perform it for dancers and listeners alike will help keep this unique American art form alive.

 

At the end of February 2014, I had the pleasure of giving a talk on the evolution of swing before a live audience in Cleveland and while researching for it I came to some interesting realizations. In the 1970’s, many music critics lamented the “death of jazz and swing” .  I don’t believe that either ever died.  It just was replaced as a popular music by something more ephemeral.  Madison Avenue needed music like that.  I also hit upon the theory that swing was probably the first music to be embraced and promoted heavily by the emerging modern mass media (radio, film, newspaper), and probably the last music that developed without corporate meddling.  Meddling?  Consider this.  By the end of the 1960’s, so called “music producers” were literally fabricating rock bands out of studio musicians.  These bands never toured or ever played in public.  They recorded simple, banal ear candy meant to chart in the top 10 with heavy airplay, sell a bunch of 45’s…that’s a phonograph record by the way….and then disappear quickly for the next one to come along.  The goal?  To make money.  Decades before One Direction, Backstreet Boys, or New Kids on the Block.

 

Victor Records did not assemble the Benny Goodman Orchestra.  Nor did Decca assemble the Count Basie Orchestra.  The impresario that discovered both, John Hammond, did not meddle with the band’s repertoire or lineup.  Success largely depended on the musical direction of the bandleader, the opportunities to perform in front of audiences for dancing, the ability to capture their minds and hearts…and sometimes, fate.  Goodman, based in New York, was being broadcast every Saturday night on both coasts in 1934 and 1935, but he became a hit with the west coast teens and twenty somethings because they were tuning in at 9pm, prime time, while the east coast was nodding off to dreamland.  Would Goodman have been a greater success sooner had the program been recorded and aired to maximum benefit during prime time on both coasts?  Perhaps.  But no one was thinking in those terms in the mid 1930‘s.  Recording by transcription (huge slow spinning 16” phono discs) wasn’t as high quality as live broadcasts then either.

 

In this example, I think the mass media were blindsided.  They didn’t know what hit them.  It wasn’t until 1938, three years after  Benny’s enthusiastic reception at Palomar Ballroom in California, that swing became a household word due in large part to the Goodman band winning over the elite and intellectuals at Carnegie Hall. Naturally, his success brought Goodman more appearances, both live and in movies, and more record sales.  Result: more money.  Once corporate saw the viability of this new music, they took hold of it, and commercialized it to the point it was pervasive.  Some sweet bands such as Abe Lyman’s and Kay Kyser’s that didn’t swing with the gusto of Goodman or Basie put away their old arrangements, fired, replaced or supplemented their musicians with ones who knew how to swing, and had new numbers penned with a swing feel…just to capitalize on the craze.

 

Corporate was caught napping again when rock and roll hit in the 1950’s, but it was the last time they’d be asleep.  In today’s world, if anything shows the slightest inkling of becoming a trend or a hit, it is plastered all over the internet and today’s media outlets.  Its staying power or lasting qualities are immaterial.

 

To me, this underlying characteristic of  being created before modern corporate and media influences makes swing music seem more pure, more genuine.  The public determined its fate on dance floors and in theaters, not six suits in a board room with charts, graphs, and number crunchers working out a formulaic success story to rake in millions.  The dance was a natural extension of the music.  It was not developed by committee, designed as some package by choreographers on salary to go along with the music for promotional purposes.

 

The modern swing scene is barely a blip on the radar of pop culture.  Madison Avenue has no use for it: after all, they see no difference between the neo swing movement of the late 1990’s which burned out quickly, and what’s happening now.  Too bad, because the bands and dancers are light years away from those times,.  In a way, I guess it’s good, because the scene’s life and future is in the hands of its participants, unfettered by mass media and corporate interests.

 

My band, and the bands of my peers will probably never get a shot on commercial radio, or appear as musical stars in a movie like Goodman, Shaw or Miller did.  But we can be successful in this microcosm based solely on the popular vote of dancers, much like the early days before swing became popular.

 

I still remember the first time I used lindy hop moves taught to me at a social dance, how good it felt to dance with a partner and have it come out right, all to music I enjoyed since I was a kid.  I do what I do in the hope that others out there can find that same joy.

 

The music and the dance now belong to us.  The movement is at a strictly grass roots level.  We are responsible for caring for it, keeping it healthy, and growing it.  A huge job.  But, to coin a phrase…with love, anything is possible.