(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.
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.)