New Jazz Swing

(A sidebar from The History of Kadandra.)

New Jazz Swing first became popular in Kadandra’s Chicago in 1956, and became known nationwide in 1959. A cross between Big Band and Jazz, NJS was in many ways a return to the earliest roots of Jazz, where 10-25 piece big bands were the norm. The new form of Jazz depended on even bigger orchestras, often 50 or so players (partially due to the reintroduction of the string section).

The first true New Jazz Swing song, called “My New Jazz Swing”, was composed by Duke Ellington, who first performed it with his orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956. It was an oddity in Ellington’s ouvre, being stylistically different from much of his other music, and featuring a set arrangement with little or no improv.

Featuring upbeat music and optimistic lyrics about “comin’ out the darkness, with your sun in my heart”, the song was about a condemned criminal, a former jazz musician, who was pardoned and forgiven, and in that forgiveness found the strength to let go of his guilt at having killed a man who slept with his wife. The refrain “I got a new jazz swing, I got a new jazz swing” referred to the joy he felt at playing music again, a joy he’d lost while in jail.

The song is widely interpreted by critics as a Christian allegory, as the criminal’s pardon can be read as coming either from a government official or God (the Master of the Big House, the “Big House” being readable as both a reference to a prison or to the House of God, as in John 14:2). “The Master took away my sentence, took away my guilt, set me free of the man I kilt.” The sun/son dichotomy is also seen as an oblique reference to Christ’s role in Christian redemption.

Audiences, however, saw the song as heralding America’s emergence from the depression that marked the post-War years. A live recording, made at the Newport Festival, became a hit record, and Ellington soon released a more polished studio version, which also sold in great numbers. After that, the several other New Jazz Swing bands formed, following in the style of Ellington’s song.

Influences

Musically, New Jazz Swing drew influences from Jazz, Bop, Swing, and Blues. In style, NJS is a pop version of jazz played by a large orchestra, the “pop” elements coming from strong melodies, catchy hooks, dance-friendly rhythms, shorter song lengths, a 2-4 verse-chorus structure, and set compositions (allowing the audience to “learn” the song and sing along).

Originally a revival of the style of the original jazz orchestras, it quickly became popularized by big band leaders hungry for a new sound. The upbeat music and optimistic lyrics of NJS matched the mood of a country finally recovering from the Black Decades.

The popularity of NJS rose along with the fortunes of America. As the post-war economic depression faded and prosperity returned to the US, NJS became ever more prevalent and ever more popular. NJS had a strong cross-generational appeal, it was never “the music of the young”. (Another factor contributing to its popularity.) It reminded the older generation of the pre-Black Decades big bands, while still being hip enough to appeal to a younger crowd.

The signature feature of mainstream Jazz was improvisation; in contrast early New Jazz Swing acts featured very little improvisation, instead focusing on carefully orchestrated, unvarying compositions and arrangements. (One Jazz musician said, “listening to New Jazz Swing is like listening to a phonograph record: it plays exactly the same every single time; there’s no jamming, no feeling, no life. There’s little jazz in New Jazz Swing.”)

The 1970’s saw a movement back towards improv, where the main part of the orchestra (the “base”) played the set music (the “head”), while a small core of seven or eight players (the “headliners”) improvised around the rest of the band. Typically, the headliners consisted of the band leader (or “caller”) and a lead singer (sometimes more than one, trios being quite popular), and a trumpet, sax, violin, and trombone (sometimes more than one of each). Often, a band’s piano and guitar would change from base to headliner and back, depending on the individual song and the mood of the headliners. Headliners were the best players in the band, and were often famous musicians in their own right.

Many Jazz musicians moved back and forth between NJS and old school Jazz. When they chose to join an orchestra, they were almost always headliners, their skills at musical improvisation clearly setting them apart from the rest of the ensemble.

Sub-genres of NJS included:

Torch Swing: Torch Swing bands were distinguished by a single, highly visible songstress (the “torch singer”), who also acted as the band’s caller. (The band leader being reduced to merely conducting.) Torch singers were invariable beautiful woman, whose dress and singing style played up their sex appeal (prominent torch singers included both Doris Day and Aretha Franklin). Torch Swing bands were heavily influenced by nightclub singers of the 1930’s, often featuring melancholy songs alongside more upbeat material. Typically, Torch Swing bands played slower music, and their songs (and singer) were often described as “sultry”.

Power Jazz: A outgrowth of Gospel music, Power Jazz featured six to eight singers (the chorus) as part of the base. They usually had no singers as headliners. Power Jazz bands were known for their forceful singing, with the chorus often overpowering the rest of the orchestra (by deliberate design). Power Jazz songs were often pastiches of or homages to old Negro spirituals.

Rhythm & Swing: First appearing in the late 1970’s, Rhythm & Swing bands were much smaller than other NJS acts, consisting solely of 5-10 bass, drums, piano, and guitar players, and a single lead singer (who did double duty as caller). There were no headliners or base; Rhythm & Swing did away with the improv aspects that had become popular earlier in the decade. R&S is the closest analogue to Rock and Roll on Kadandra.

(Sidebars are just that: small pieces of campaign info that don’t fit into the main body of a series. This particular one was written for a good friend of mine, Jake Linford, who’s a great fan of Jazz music. At my request, he graciously provided commentary on the piece, which was much improved thereby.)

“How About a Nice Game of Tag?”

Storm Knights is a big, big, big project. Seriously, you have no idea. There are 10 cosms, meaning 10 settings, 10 sets of axioms and World Laws, plus the campaign’s Reality Physics, the setup of the War itself, Destiny and its rules, and on and on…

As more material gets posted, it’ll inevitably become harder to find posts on any one topic. Or would be, if I hadn’t broken down and implemented Tagging.

Going forward, each post will not only be assigned a Category, it’ll be assigned appropriate tags. For example, the recent posts on Kadandran History were tagged “Cosms” (as they deal with a Storm Knights cosm), “Kadandra” (as they’re about Kadandra), and “History of Kadandra” (as that’s their specific subject).

(And not just new posts. Last night, I went through the old posts and added appropriate tags. As of now, the entire site has been tag-ified.)

People looking for information on Storm Knights cosms can click the Cosms tag, and will be presented with a list of all posts tagged with “Cosms”. Ditto for Kadandra and History of Kadandra. Instead of needing to troll through back-posts to find what you want, the tagging system will (hopefully) make it very easy to find posts on any given subject.

And, of course, if anyone thinks a new tag should be added, or that something was inappropriately tagged, drop a comment on the appropriate post.

The Worldwide War of An Alternate Earth

The History of Kadandra, Pt. 2

Kadandra is an alternate Earth, with a history that mirrors Core Earth’s very closely, up until May 1940. That month, as the Second Great War raged, Adolf Hitler was injured in an automobile accident, one severe enough to put him in a coma. With Hitler unable to lead Nazi Germany, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler took command.

As a result of changed circumstances, Kadandra’s Second Great War lasted far longer than Core Earth’s World War II, and killed far more people, both civilian and military. Nazi Germany wasn’t defeated until 1948, after invading and toppling the communist government of Soviet Russia.

The post-War years were very different on Kadandra. Europe, devastated in the War, had no industrial base and very little agricultural resources. America sent aid for several years, but soon turned European reconstruction over to the European Administration, which struggled for a decade to manage the continent-wide poverty and famine. Similar problems plagued China, Japan and other territories.

Recovery from the war didn’t begin until 1957, and the time from 1938 to 1957 became known as the Black Decades. The 1960’s were a period of rising prosperity, very similar culturally and politically to Core Earth’s 1950’s and very much unlike Core Earth’s 1960’s.

There was no Baby Boom, save in America where it was much smaller. There was no counter-culture movement, no anti-Vietnam War movement, no Rock ’n Roll. (The dominant form of post-war music began in Chicago with New Jazz Swing, a fusion of Big Band and Jazz. Instead of quartets, they played jazz with 50-piece orchestras and band leaders.)

Technology didn’t advance noticeably in the post-War Era, as there was no economic or industrial base to capitalize on war-time advancements. As late as 1968, the consumer goods and lifestyles of the populace were largely unchanged from those prevalent in 1938.

That changed abruptly, as 1968 was the year the Coari fleet arrived at Earth.

The History of Kadandra

<- Part 1 | Part 2 |

Kadandra: A Psychic War

The History of Kadandra, Pt. 1

Ages ago, there was a race called the Zinat. Masters of technology and psionics, they spread across galaxies, traveling along their star gates, encountering alien species and forging friendships with them. Zinat psis were so powerful, they were capable of accessing the Akashic Record, that psychic medium wherein the thoughts of every living thing were stored, forever.

There was a great cataclysm, an explosion powerful enough to engulf whole galaxies. The galaxy spanning alliance of the Zinat was devastated. For millennia, they were cut off from each other, and in that span of time a rift grew. Two great ideological blocks, the Coarii and the Akashanites, grew in opposition to each other, eventually coming to blows.

The Coarii thought they should rule the galaxies, guiding the other races so there would never be another cataclysm. The Aka preferred to work with alien species, to reforge the alliances lost during the Interregnum.

They fought with words, weapons, and psychic abilities. After centuries of warfare, a psionic virus, designed by the Coarii, was unleashed. This virus was not biological, it had no physical form at all. Instead, it infected the very minds of its host, spreading from person to person each time they spoke or shared thoughts, rewriting their personalities and memories, changing Aka to Coar.

In desperation, the Aka fled to the furthest reaches of space. There, they sought refuge in an unmapped stellar system, hiding themselves away among a primitive species, exiling themselves to a humble, little planet called Earth.

And the Coar came chasing after them…

The History of Kadandra

| Part 1 | Part 2 ->

You Are About To Be Lied To

Note: You are about to be lied to. Don’t take it personally, it’s endemic to all my campaign material. The campaigns are built around nested layers of secrets, secrets “baked-in” to the world itself. A large part of campaign play is based around unearthing those secrets and using them to effect change. (Why? See here.)

Upcoming is the first post about Kadandra, the Cyber Pulp Reality of Storm Knights. It begins with a description of the cosm, much of which is a lie. I’ll be posting the truth later, marked with vivid spoiler warnings.

GM’s who intend to use Kadandra in their own campaigns are free to read those posts, of course, but should probably warn their players away. After all, half the fun of the campaign lies in discovering just exactly how you were lied to in the first place, in unearthing secrets no one else knows, and leveraging them to defeat the bad guys.

Just know that you are about to be lied to. And the truth, when you discover it, will be stranger than you imagined.

The Cosms of Storm Knights

Storm Knights, like its predecessor, Torg, involves the invasion of the real world by several different alien realities. These places are not the real world, and things impossible here are very much a part of their daily lives. Per Defining Reality, each has its own unique paradigm that underlies the reality.

• The Nile Empire: The reality of Pulp Supers, the Nile combines the aesthetic of ancient Egypt with a reality of pulp adventure. Gangsters toting tommy guns battle with costumed heroes, adventurous scholars plumb the depths of desert and jungle, and the cruel Pharaoh Mobius rules his militaristic dictatorship with an iron fist. His vast armies, drawn from the many cultures of his Ten Empires, include Aztec flying aces, Mongol tankers, Chinese artillerymen, and Roman infantrymen.

• Aysle: The reality of High Magic, Aysle is a world of the fantastic. An impossible disk-world, with a sun that rises and sets in the center, it is home to greedy dragons, valiant knights, and powerful wizards. Men worship the eternal and immutable Patterns, and Honor and Corruption are tangible forces that touch men’s hearts and grant them strength and power.

• Tharkold: The Technohorror reality is a world scourged by the after-effects of a centuries-old apocalypse. Mankind, thrown down into barbarism, has lost the secrets of their ancient technomagic, and the ruins of their civilization are overrun by technohorrors, twisted beasts that meld magic and technology into their flesh. Worse, the horrific technodemons rule large parts of the world, enslaving humanity.

• The Living Land: This Lost Worlds reality is, on the surface, a primitive realm of wilderness and bestial creatures, ruled by the lizard-like edeinos. It is a place of natural perils and natural beauty, world-shaking miracles, and the strange creature-tools made through Shaping Life. More, the wilds of Takta Ker conceal lost fragments of alien cosms, and the edeinos tribes may not be so primitive as they seem.

• The Cyberpapacy: The Cyber-Religious reality is a cruel theocracy, ruled by Pope Jean Malraux (mockingly known as the Cyberpope). The Cyberpapacy was, at one time, a primitive reality, but it jumped forward 300 years in a (literal) flash, an explosion of transfiguring light known as the Holy Revelation of God. Now the faithful can walk the streets of the City of God, through the mediation of Virtual Experience hardware, and actual angels and demons battle in the GodNet.

• Britannia Mechanika: The Steampulp cosm is ruled by the British Empire, and the Empire is ruled by the marvels of Ethertech, dug from the ruins of the ancient, extraterrestrial Antediluvians. The immortal Queen Victoria, in the centennial of her life, claims colonies all over the Solar System, from the jungles of Venus to the deserts of Mars, as far out as the remote outposts on the verges of the massive ether Maelstrom, the site of vanished fifth planet of the Antediluvians, destroyed in an ancient cataclysm.

The lost remnants of Aetherian technology, scattered across the inner worlds, made possible the technological marvels of ethertech: The machina analytica, massive steam-powered calculation engines. Gigantic flying aerofortresses, massive tracked warcrawlers, and the etherships that ply the spacelanes. Hyper-evolution tubes, made sentient races from the great apes, jungle cats, cetaceans, and canines. Ethertech fuels the dominance of the Empire, and in her name (and the name of her enemies) adventurers, archaeologists, and scientists scavenge the surface of the Three Sisters (the inner planets colonized by Aetherians) for but a trace of the vanished Antediluvian technology.

• Sino Tech: The Wuxia Technothriller reality is a bifurcated realm, caught between a dystopian present and the strange otherworld of Jianghu. Martial arts masters and lords of industry battle for control of secret knowledge. The powerless and poor are crushed between them, championed only by the Xia, wandering heroes beholden to a strict code of honor who wield the great secrets of Wushu martial arts.

• Kadandra: The Cyber Pulp reality is the technology of the far future, wedded to the culture of the 1940’s. Interstellar starships, capable of journeying between suns in a matter of days, have bridges that differ only in detail from those of the seagoing battleships of WWII. Soldiers wield wooden-stock rifles that shoot .75 self-guiding gyroc rounds. And trucks that could be second-cousins to jeeps, ride on fields of antigravity. This alternate Earth has not only recently fought off Tharkold, it is embroiled in a war that spans galaxies, a psychic war between the Coarii and the Akashanites for control of the Akashic Record itself.

• The Hidden Reality: There are rumors of another reality, a reality of darkness and death so powerful it consumes other cosms, destroying them entirely, slaying their High Lords and consuming their Darkness Devices. This cosm, if it exists at all, is secret and unknown.

Building cosms is often a lengthy process. There is one other reality I’d like to add to the above:

• Earth Prime: The Superpunk reality. This would be a dark cosm, where the most powerful of superheroes have conquered the world and rule it for their own good, opposed by their own descendants, supers of far weaker power but far greater goodness who seek to free mankind from the paternalistic and superficially Utopian domination of their forebears.

This cosm is far less developed than the others. I have hopes that I can finish it, because the adventure possibilities of a dark superhero reality appeal to me.

Of course, work is ongoing for all the above realities. As pieces get finished, I’ll post them here and on the Torg List.

Action Movie Review: The Expendables & The Expendables 2

(Note: “Sources and Inspiration” discusses the various media Destiny and its campaign settings are drawn from.)

Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables was one of my favorite movies of 2011 (as was Red, another action movie, though with a spy thriller bent.) Though the central idea of the movie — cram in as many current and old-school action heroes as possible — was a gimmick, it was a gimmick that (for the most part) didn’t get in the way of the story or the action.

Jet Lee delights as determined martial arts ass-kicker and sometime comic fodder, Jason Statham’s turn as a jilted knife-throwing tough guy was affecting and sincere, and even the three-sided bickering between Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone rose above a casting stunt to become the second-best scene in the movie (and almost worth the price of admission by itself).

Improbably, what could have been gimmicky schlock managed to transcend action movie cliches and its own gimmick. Unfortunately, The Expendables 2 jettisoned everything that made the first movie memorable and worthwhile. Most critically, it failed to provide any real reason for us to care about even-bigger explosions, gunfights, and action scenes.

What most made The Expendables more than just another action-movie was the themes behind the action: suffering, despair, and sacrifice. Each of the main characters illuminates these themes in a unique way, each is touched by them and makes their own choices in response to the event.

Sustained anguish and pain, and witnessing same, changes people. Sometimes it makes them better, more attuned to the pain of others, sometimes it makes them bitter and angry at the world, and sometimes it makes them cold, calloused, and withdrawn.

Barney Ross (Stallone’s character) is one of the latter. While not cruel or vindictive, he is indifferent to the world. He cares about his teammates (a mercenary group called The Expendables), his personal code (mostly consisting of who should be killed and when), and not much else.

(Warning: Slight spoilers ahoy!)

While scouting a job on the (fictional) Caribbean island of Vilena, Ross sees much evidence of the brutality and ruthlessness of the island’s dictator. His contact, an earnest member of the opposition named Sandra (played by the improbably beautiful Brazilian actress Giselle Itié) refuses to leave the island, despite the regime soldiers hunting her. Forced to choose, Ross and his associates abandon the island, the job, and (at her insistance) their contact (though not without kicking up some fireworks first).

Back in America, he discusses the experience with Tool, their fixer and a former mercenary himself. In so doing, he gains insight into the suffering and despair that burdens his long-time friend and mentor, and where it comes from.

Played by Mickey Rourke, Tool is another one of the virtuoso performances Rourke has been churning out since his rebirth in The Wrestler. Acting is about illusion, creating a convincing false persona that feels real; in Tool, Rourke does.

Rourke’s Tool is a man utterly without faith in the world or himself. He is deeply cynical, not the cynicism of believing honor to be a lie, rather he knows that he and Ross have nothing to aspire to. They don’t believe in anything ennobling, they don’t even wish to be better men, because they don’t believe they can be better men.

It’s a dark thing to believe, deep in your soul, that you are worthless, that you aren’t a decent human being, that you have nothing good or virtuous to offer the world. Yet Tool marinates in such wretchedness, and has for years.

The scene where he describes his fall from decency is short, and easy to overlook. Yet it’s the thematic heart of the movie, the point where Ross is offered a chance to turn back from the darkness that’s engulfed Tool and make a different choice than his friend.

This conflict is a small part of the overall movie, well-concealed among the kinetic violence. The Expendables is an action movie, filled with martial arts bouts, gun fights, car chases, and really cool explosions. Yet what makes the movie something more than well-staged stroboscopic violence is its small, subtle, easy to overlook themes. The more one understands Tool’s despair and Ross’ choice, the more meaningful the movie is.

Since his own career rebirth in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, Stallone has directed several movies that evince a deep moral core. The Expendables was one of these; The Expendables 2 (notably not directed by Stallone) isn’t. The Expendables 2 lacks depth (and Mickey Rourke), and despite the amped-up violence (including a truly epic airport shootout with Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis), feels smaller than its predecessor — noticeably flatter and less meaningful.

Meaningful themes are hard to do right, and may not resonate with all the audience. Witness the split opinions about The Dark Knight: some people mocked the core conflict of the movie, others responded to the theme of a man who sacrificed his reputation to save his city. As difficult as theme is to implement, the writers and director of The Expendables 2 didn’t even try, and the movie is poorer for it.