SWINGING THE MACHINES
BIG BANDS AND
If I were the American Stalin, I'd build a giant dance hall, with a negro orchestra in every town in America. That would be my church. —Sherwood Anderson, Kansas City, January 1933 I were the American Stalin, I'd build a giant dance hall, with a negro orchestra[,] in every town in America.
—Sherwood Anderson, Kansas City, January 1933
In 1993, before the swing revival, one summer night my girlfriend and I went to see the jazz veteran Illinois Jacquet and his eighteen-piece big band at the Tavern on the Green in New York's Central Park. 1 For white couples from the World War II generation, Jacquet's appearance was a nostalgia show, and the crowd was well-dressed, as if for dinner and dancing on a cruise ship. We were easily the youngest people in the room by thirty years. The room sat about three hundred at banquet tables horseshoed around a hardwood dance floor in front of which fourteen gleaming brass instruments lined up in formation. When the first song kicked in the band nearly blew me out of the room; before the first chorus I had no idea how loud eighteen instruments could sound, nor that a seventy-year-old Texas tenor saxophonist (and many other senior citizens) could rock my socks off.
I was a rock critic in my early twenties, and I liked my music loud, dynamic, chaotic, electric, riveting, thundering. I fought battles with my parents (and other adults) who seemed unable to hear even lyric-driven mid-tempo rock and roll such as Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan as anything but noise—to the point of putting their hands over their ears. And so I turned to my seventy-year-old listening companions expecting some perceptible discomfort, scrunched-up faces suggesting they turn it down. But the bald man next to me just started tapping two fingers rhythmically on the table, and his wife tilted her head slightly from side to side on the beat. I looked around the room and there was more of the