Thursday, August 20, 2015
ON THE AVENUES: In the groove.
A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.
In this particular world, "beat me, daddy, eight to the bar" is not considered an obscene utterance.
It has been alleged that humans exercise “free” choice in our daily lives, although the decisions we make tend to be only marginally more contemplative than those pursued by our cats and dogs.
Obviously, instincts and conditioned responses carry far more weight than most of us are comfortable conceding, probably because the loftier aspirations of the human race have a way of being debased at breakneck speed by animal needs that can’t always be understood or controlled.
This is not to say that conditioned responses are universally bad or injurious. In fact, they can be quite conducive to an enjoyable, healthy and hummable consciousness.
Comes a normal, quiet Sunday morning at home, I invariably awaken with the urge to listen to music. Specifically, my subconscious demands authentic recordings of the big bands, those long-forgotten dinosaurs of popular culture that barnstormed the United States during the approximate period of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s "New Deal" tenure in the Oval Office.
In the interest of full disclosure, these recordings are neither the original 78 rpm heavyweight singles, nor the long-playing albums onto which the 78’s were transferred. My cassettes long since have given way to compact discs. As yet, there has been no legislation introduced to mandate uploading to an iPod.
Even if so, I'd decline to comply. New Albany doesn't enforce its own ordinance, anyway.
Long after the fact, those times roughly sandwiched between the repeal of Prohibition and the Potsdam Conference became known as the “Big Band Era” and the “Swinging Years” (referring to quickened tempo, not sexual adventurousness).
The historical status of the big band as semi-official soundtrack provider to the American experience in the Second World War simply cannot be denied. When removed from proper context, a song like “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” is devoid of meaning.
Today’s doughboys do not march off to Afghanistan or Iraq with songs like these wafting through their heads. There’s something archaic and mythical about Everyfightingman’s attitude toward WWII, resonating in tunes alternately hard-driving and softly sweet, rollicking and danceable, cockily sassy and guilelessly sentimental. Today they seem quaintly pre-ironic, and decidedly non-electric, to the jaded ears of a post-industrial country preoccupied with navel gazing and social media outrage.
To me, big bands are where the radical syncopation of early “hot” jazz came to meet the expanded instrumentation of the staidly formal middle-class orchestra. These mismatched celebrants stole off to a corn field by the roadhouse, and swing was their progeny.
A typical big band might have four saxophones and a clarinet; three trumpets and a couple of trombones; a rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass and drums; and both male and female singers. Multi-instrumentalists varied the sonic palette, as did additional vocalists, string sections, and the occasional cowbell.
Pure jazz, America’s least besmirched indigenous contribution to world culture, was present to greater and lesser extent, perhaps more so in black bands than in white, as were random symphonic touches (typically the other way around). The sum total of this music skirted American social mores, indisputably more rigid then than they are now, with swing offering a greater breadth of youthful subversion than might appear the case today, while still barely satisfying the chastity-first, prim and proper lobby.
Because the big bands tended to perform popular songs written by outside songwriters (Duke Ellington being an original and iconic exception), their unappreciated arrangers often were the true stars, taking by-the-numbers songs and rendering them into identifiable charts reflecting the individual band’s style, which is to say that Benny Goodman’s approach sounded different than Tommy Dorsey’s and Count Basie’s, even when the three bands played precisely the same song.
Soldiers and steelworkers whistled and listened, but the war itself hastened the passing of the big band era. Musicians were drafted and volunteered for service, often continuing to play for the troops overseas; some of them died, as when Glenn Miller’s plane disappeared over the English Channel.
Domestic rationing, travel restrictions and conditions on the home front conspired against touring and carefree recreation. Wartime exigencies changed people and their tastes, and as the baby boom erupted, pop culture took a wide turn. Later, when enough time had passed, big bands became synonymous with nostalgia, and now, 70 years after VJ Day, the generation embracing that nostalgia is inexorably passing.
I grew up in a non-religious household – not irreligious, which I chose to become purely by my own devices later in life. As a child, Sunday mornings quite literally were times for rest, reflection, breakfast, the newspaper, and perhaps a spot of radio or television, but the one activity that could be relied upon was listening to big band music on reissued LPs, something instigated by my otherwise non-musically inclined father, a veteran of WWII whose lyrical flights did not customarily extend far beyond singing the Marine Corps’ hymn.
That’s the whole cosmic point: He was a Marine, WWII was his war, big band music was his soundtrack, and Sunday morning was the time to attend his personal church of Still Trying to Make Sense of It All – to reflect, remember and reminisce to a boogie-woogie beat. When he died, the Marine hymn was not what came to my mind. Rather, it was his other favorite song: “Sentimental Journey.”
That’s why at 55, I still awaken on Sunday mornings to the swinging sounds of the big bands. I don’t even have to play the CDs outright, because the songs are in my head, burned into responsive permanence thanks to all that delicious – and haunting – conditioning.
Bonus Trivia: Did you know that Elvis Presley’s first television gig was Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s “Stage Show” in 1956?
August 13: ON THE AVENUES: It’s time to purge two-party politics and tie the community together.
August 10: ON THE AVENUES SPECIAL EDITION: When it comes to the RCI, can the RDA opt out of the RFRA?
August 6: ON THE AVENUES: Money is the ultimate bully.
July 30: ON THE AVENUES: Homegrown New Albany, but not in a good way.
July 23: ON THE AVENUES: A citizen's eloquent complaint about the parking debacle at River Run reminds us that planners and brooms go hand in hand.
July 16: ON THE AVENUES: Louisville Beer, then and now ... and cheers to Rotary.