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America's Music:
A Film History of Our Popular Music From Blues to Bluegrass to Broadway

Swing Jazz

Thursday, February 7, 2013, 6:30 p.m., Warch Campus Center Cinema

Before you go: read an introduction to Swing Jazz

Read/Listen to/View more about Swing Jazz

Episode 6 of Ken Burns’ acclaimed series on the history of jazz, The Velocity of Celebration, picks up Swing jazz in the late 1930s.

As the Depression deepens, Swing thrives, becoming unprecedentedly popular across all social classes. While some think the music is becoming too commercialized, in Kansas City a new sound is emerging that will redefine Swing.

This segment of the 90- minute episode begins in 1936. Count Basie arrives in New York City, bringing the signature up tempo blues-influenced sound and unique syncopation he developed playing clubs in Kansas City. After a disastrous first appearance at Roseland Ballroom, he expands his band, which includes legendary sax player Lester Young, and hires Billie Holiday. They spend the next year performing up and down the East Coast.

That year, jazz history is made when Benny Goodman brings his Swing band to Carnegie Hall, the temple of upscale classical concerts. The film shows clips of the performance, which begins woodenly to the dismay of both audience and musicians. Gene Krupa’s pyrotechnic display of drumming ‘reminds the band how to swing again’ and sets the highbrow audience to dancing in the aisles.

By early summer 1938, Basie’s band is back in NYC with an ongoing gig at the Famous Door. Their time on the road paid off. By the end of the summer, his was considered America’s premiere Swing band. Records, radio shows and film performances brought his joyous alternative to commercial swing to the world.

The next award-winning documentary shown in its entirely, International Sweethearts of Rhythm, tells the little-known story of a multi-racial all-women swing band that became a sensation in the 1940s.

A girls’ band that performed throughout the South to raise money for its school in Piney Woods, Mississippi evolved into the Sweethearts of Rhythm after the Depression. When the outbreak of World War II removed male musicians from the scene, the group expanded, riding the swing craze to national success in Sold Out performances in theaters across the country. While their audience was white as well as black, the demand for their music among black servicemen won them a year long performance tour of Europe towards war’s end.

The 16 member band of 14 to 19-year-olds grew to embrace members from different races -- black, white, Latina, Asian, and Indian -- and many of the best female musicians of its day. Along with wonderful archival footage of the band playing in the U. S. and Europe, the film records the often wry and humorous recollections of band members as they reflect on defying Jim Crow laws in the South, their musical and social education on the road, the social cohesiveness of their group, and the sexism they encountered in the music world.

Photo credit: Jezebel Productions

Be sure to attend the third viewing/discussion session on Thursday, February 14, From Mambo to Hip-Hop.

“America’s Music” is a project by the Tribeca Film Institute in collaboration with the American Library Association, Tribeca Flashpoint, and the Society for American Music. “America’s Music” has been made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor.