3
The swing craze: professional musicians,
swing music, and the art of improvisation

If I should be asked to advise one of these young men what to do to become a front-rank swing player, I would urge him to learn to read expertly and be just as able to play to score as any “regular” musician. Then I would tell him never to forget for one minute of his life that the true spirit of swing music lies in free playing and that he must always keep his own musical feeling free. He must try always to originate and not just imitate.

Louis Armstrong, Swing That Music, 1936: 121

Louis Armstrong's autobiography was published at the beginning of a “swing craze” that hit the nation in the summer of 1935. The publication of Armstrong's autobiography demonstrated a new status accorded the jazz vernacular as well as a new status gained by black musicians. To suggest that the literate skill of reading a musical score was insufficient for a professional musician to be a top swing artist seemed radical advice given the obsession with the cultivated skills of music making just a decade earlier. By the 1930s, however, many professional musicians viewed the vernacular art of jazz improvisation as one of the most skilled expressions in American popular music and Louis Armstrong as its greatest practitioner. At the same time, black musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Teddy Wilson also gained recognition among white musicians and white music critics as premier artists in American popular music. This was a significant change from the Jazz Age when black professional musicians were denigrated or completely absent in the written commentary of top white musicians and critics acclaiming the cultivated jazz vernacular.

Just before the swing craze, however, the future of jazz actually looked bleak. The song composer Hoagy Carmichael expressed a common feeling in the early 1930s that “jazz was dying and at a fast clip. The stock market crash had sent millions of jazzbos to the ranks of the unemployed. ” (Metronome 8-1933: 23) In these early years of the Great Depression, traditionalist values seemed to have gained the upper hand as a consolidated music industry promoted the smooth sounds of “sweet” big band music.

-96-

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