September 7, 2012

Jazz Blasts from the Past

If you were an enthusiastic fan of swing music in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s — and there were legions of them — you would have known these terms and even used them in conversation: tub thumper, ork (and orks), wax and shellac, jive, zoot, chirp, canary and warbler, 88 man, sweet, straw boss, flicker, gut scraper, and Hitemen. Swing music had its stars, its sidemen, and its own dialect.

A recent donation to the Hamilton College Jazz Archive included a fascinating collection of Down Beat magazines from the early 1940’s. Down Beat was established in 1934 in Chicago, and the original title was “Down Beat — Music News from Coast to Coast.” In the early days, Down Beat read like a big band tabloid; a weekly magazine that followed the music industry, concentrating almost solely on the swing genre of jazz, which was the popular music of the day. Let’s take a look at some of the articles from 1942, their captivating titles, and what the articles show us about the era.
April 15, 1942 — “Four Chirps to Chester Combo”
Down Beat tells us that band leader Bob Chester added four new vocalists to his organization, tentatively calling them the “Rhythmites.” Every swing band had a vocal component. Sometimes it was a girl and a guy singer, sometimes a group. The girl singer might also be called a “fem chirp” or a “canary,” who took care of the “warbling.”
From the same issue we see the headline “College Ork Eyecatcher”
This was an illuminating article about a hot young band from Northwestern University in Chicago, discovered by bandleader Les Brown. Ork is short for orchestra, also short for tailored orchestrations or arrangements, a huge part of the success or failure of a swing band.
From the same issue comes “Hitemen Leave for Army — Dizzy Gillespie Joins Ork
The news for the Les Hite band was that two members were drafted. Filling one of the trumpet chairs was the young but soon-to-be-famous Dizzy Gillespie. Of course World War II occupied the news and many of the articles in Down Beat talked of the musicians’ role in the war, who was drafted, who was going to lead a band in the service, and what famous musicians were killed or wounded in the conflict.
From February of 1942 we learn that “Sepia Talent in Demand in California” and “Unknown Sepia Crew Rocks Texas Plains.” Webster’s dictionary defines sepia as “a dark reddish-brown color or the particular tint in a photograph.” Down Beat used the word to denote an African-American musician, and it was most likely to be used with a person of lighter skin tone. Obviously this has become a word long out of favor. Despite some moves towards integration in the swing world, bands were almost exclusively all white or all black. I was interested to see the headline of the January 1, 1943 Down Beat issue “Ellington Wins Swing Poll” but the 1942 All-American Swing Band contained only five black musicians out of seventeen categories.
Earthshaking news for professional musicians was summed up in the alliterative title “Jim Jimmies the Jive” from July 1, 1942. Translation: James Petrillo, head of the American Federation of Musicians, made good on his threat to halt all recording activity in the United States. His aggressive stance against the recording industry for not allowing payments to musicians for radio and jukebox play eventually was a winner for union members. But for over two years recording of new music was severely curtailed in the United States, except for the bootlegs, the solo vocalists, and the V-disks made for the servicemen. Indeed sales of records (disks/platters) was a huge part of the music business and the union move was not the only thing threatening that part of the business. Another headline from February of 1942 reads “Rough Disks Make Critics Moan.” Shellac was an important ingredient in the creation of vinyl disks but in short supply because of the war effort. A combination of bad records and bad needles apparently was ruining the fidelity of the early 1940’s swing records.
A timely fashion item showed up in the November 1, 1942 Down Beat issue: “Curses, Lincoln Bars Zoot Suits.” The generously tailored zoot suit was synonymous with swing musicians and swing fans, and some club owners were not fond of it. The suits were also called reet pleates and drape shapes, and the article contained the following excerpt: “the [Lincoln Hotel] management has issued orders that characters, hep or otherwise, in the baggy overlong pants and coats which somehow have become associated with swing, will cut not a single rug while the nation’s top drawing card is on view.” In the atmosphere of World War II when many resources were being rationed, the Lincoln Hotel owners apparently thought the generous material put into zoot suits constituted wastefulness.

Our interviewee Sol Yaged spoke of his remembrances of the period, highlighting the Lincoln Hotel:
Sol Yaged
SY:     There was a lot of great music at one time. I’ll never forget the Lincoln Hotel on 46th, 47th Street and Eighth Avenue, I used to hear Artie Shaw’s band, or some great band. Charlie Barnet played that room, Jan Savett played that room. It was owned by a woman called Marie Cramer. She owned these two hotels, the Lincoln Hotel on Eighth Avenue and 47th Street, and then she owned the Edison Hotel on 46th Street off Broadway. But she used the sweet bands at that hotel. She used bands there like Blue Baron, Sammy Kaye and another band that became a hotel band later on, Henry Jerome and his orchestra. She used all the sweet bands at that hotel, the Edison Hotel, and the Lincoln Hotel she used all the hot bands like Artie Shaw and Charlie Barnet and Jan Savett. I’ll never forget the first time, even though I adore Benny Goodman, where I first heard Artie Shaw play in person at the Lincoln Hotel, “Begin the Beguine.” It was unbelievable. That sound was just unbelievable the way the band came in. Buddy Rich on drums, Tony Pastor on saxophone, a very exciting sound. And the band was right on, Monk. He had a very tight band. I’ll never forget when he was at the Strand Theater at the same time Benny Goodman was at the Paramount Theater. I was there. There was a big sign at the Paramount Theater with a picture of Benny Goodman with his clarinet, King of Swing. Then you walk up four, five, six blocks at the Strand Theater, a big sign, Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet, with his picture. At the same time they both appeared, it was unbelievably exciting. Everybody was running back and forth. It was a very, very exciting two weeks.
Down Beat kept tabs on the hot selling records and jukebox favorites. Here’s a look at the popular recordings spinning on the jukeboxes (a/k/a coin machines). Among the Top 12 in February of 1942 are “The White Cliffs of Dover” by Jimmy Dorsey; “Deep in the Heart of Texas” by Alvino Ray; and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” by Glenn Miller. Every song listing included the first artist choice followed by a second, as these songs were covered simultaneously by multiple bands and vocalists.
I’ve spoken to Hamilton alums and enthusiastic music fans who were teenagers in this period. They were every bit as fanatical as music fans of the Beatles and Beyonce. One Archive interviewee, the late drummer Stanley Kay, spoke of his passion for the music in the swing era:
Stanley Kay
MR:    Was your family surprised at the direction your career took?
SK:     No. Because they knew that’s what I wanted to do. That’s all I wanted to do. I never wanted to do anything else. And people shouldn’t do what I’m saying, but I didn’t graduate high school because I spent all my time in the Paramount Theater when the new bands were coming. It was like empty in the school. I was one. I was the leader of empty. And it was an interesting thing because when we went to the Paramount Theater, we gave one guy 55 cents in the morning. And it was, you had Don Baker at the organ, a sing-a-long, a bouncing ball, Fox Movietone News, the movie and then the band. And it could be Tommy and Frank Sinatra and the Nicholas Brothers or Charlie Barnet. And I’d sit there and say when am I going to do that? When am I going to do that? And the first time I did it with Buddy Rich, when the pit went up, I looked down and saw where I sat. I looked right there, and I went like this, I says thank you. I says I made it.

Down Beat magazine is still one of the two or three top jazz magazines in the country. Its current cover price ($6) is far different from what we see here, in 1942.

And, for your amusement, the rest of the swing slang:
tub thumper — a drummer
flicker — a movie or film
straw boss — the second in command in a swing outfit, often the lead alto sax man
gutscraper — a violinist (playing on strings made of cat gut)
wax — as a noun, a musical recording; as a verb, the process of recording
88 man — a pianist
sweet — swing music with a light touch for the less adventurous crowd; as contrasted to hot meaning bands with high energy and outstanding virtuosity
Music has the ability to capture the spirit of its era. Without a doubt, the enjoyment of big band music helped balance the somberness of a nation at war. The history books I’ve read don’t capture the joy of this era, nor the creative jargon, in these dusty relics circa 1942.

1 comment:

  1. I have thought about starting collecting Downbeat Magazines from the 40's and 50's, not just rare jazz vinyl collectibles. I guess I need to research which ones are the ones filled with the artists I like the most first. Visit my high-end jazz vinyl collecting blog here: