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Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture by Lewis A. Erenberg

Although the title of historian Erenberg’s account of the swing era alludes to a short-lived, interracially cast, 1939 jazz musical based on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the thrust of his approach is aimed at an examination of the cultural contexts and the historical events that gave this period its birth, sustained it for more than a decade, and ultimately brought about its demise. More of a sociologist than a jazz maven, Erenberg begins by painting a picture of the popular music scene both before and after the depression, when the joyous frivolity and hot music of the late 1920s quickly gave way to dolorous torch songs, sentimental crooners, and sweet bands. While the majority of white bands centered in New York were forced to acquiesce to changing public tastes, interestingly enough, the black bands, which never had access to the same working venues, i.e., the downtown hotels, theaters and ballrooms, remained virtually unaffected as far as their styles were concerned. But with the implementation of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the repeal of Prohibition, and the growing impetus of cultural pluralism, that resulted in an increasingly influential Popular Front, the scene was set for a radical change.

Though preceded in the black community by Henderson, Ellington, Hines, Webb, and Lunceford, and followed shortly by Basie and many others, the sensation caused by Benny Goodman’s hot band in 1935 immediately found favor with a younger generation bored by the bloodless rhythms, saccharine vocals, and simpering strings of the sweet bands. Within a short time, Swing was unquestionably King. The airwaves opened to hot music; theaters featured bands, not movies, as their main attractions; ballrooms and hotels once again resounded to hot rhythms; and the recording studios worked overtime to supply a feverish public with the latest sounds. The consensus was that the gravy train would last indefinitely. But, as we know, by the end of World War II the scene had shifted once again.

Erenberg makes no attempt at musicological analysis, but he does incorporate a vast number of quotations from musicians, critics, historians, and others to enhance his main theses: the importance of a democratic spirit at the root of jazz and its resonance in the proselytizing efforts of leftist-oriented white liberals in support of interracial bands and audiences and the defeat of racial and religious bigotry. It is ironic, though, that the very acceptance of the hot bands that the left fought for during the ’30s led to disenchantment with their growing commercialism and remove from the essence of “pure jazz.” Splintered factions grew within the movement, and out of them came the Populist-supported revival of interest in earlier, New Orleans-based hot jazz and its diametric opposite, the ultra-modern, fast paced, urban jazz known as bebop. Combo swing was lost in the scuffle.

Although generally free from typographical errors, the book does contain its share of misspellings of musicians’ names. There are other minor errors as well, but these can be overlooked in favor of the book’s many virtues, the most important being the emphasis it puts on the political ideologies and cultural factors underlying the gradual development of racial integration in both bands and audiences.

Originally Published