Every jazz lover of a certain age, it seems, instinctively understands the meaning of 'swing', when used in a musical context. But ask them for exact definitions and the response is vague. 'It's a feeling, a kind of rhythm', they'll say. Peter Clayton and Peter Gammond provided a more useful answer in their Jazz Companion (Guiness Books, 1989). They pinpointed the verb 'to swing' as 'the act of creating the essential rhythmic propulsion and flowing beat that is the distinguishing mark of an exciting jazz performance'.
The first use of the 'swing' word is probably a matter of mystery now, a subject for arcane research: suffice it to say that Duke Ellington gave it wider currency in 1931 when he introduced his number, 'It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing'. This piece took on something of a prophetic ring, for within a very few years, 'swing' became a standard description for the brilliant dance music of the big bands and the many small groups which emerged from them.
In 1935, bandleader Benny Goodman's publicity people coined a memorable billing for their man. He became 'The King of Swing' and the musical decade which followed is now referred to as the 'Swing Era', a convenient tag for a time when 'swinging' big band jazz was the dominant force in American popular entertainment.
It was these large units - white or black, dance-oriented or vitally creative - that the majority of the instrumentalists featured in this tribute to 'Small Group Swing' first made their names. Many capitalised on their status as favoured soloists, leading combos in supper clubs and dance locations through the 'Swing Era' and well into the post-war years.
Hezekiah 'Stuff' Smith (1909-67) was 'The cat that took the apron strings off the fiddle', according to drummer Jo Jones. Inspired by Louis Armstrong, Smith sought to emulate the great trumpeter's style, developing a hot attack which made him the most explosive of jazz violinists. His Onyx Club band worked on 52nd Street in New York for years and included the fiery trumpeter Jonah Jones, who continues to play, and Cozy Cole, later a member of Armstrong's All-Stars.
Drummer Chick Webb (1909-39) led a fine orchestra, much praised by the dancers at New York's Savoy Ballroom. His Little Chicks were among many 'bands-within-a-band' and their perky versions of I Ain't Got Nobody and In A Little Spanish Town feature an unusual front-line of clarinet and flute. Wayman Carver was probably the first jazz flautist of any merit but it's Tommy Fulford's Waller-esque piano which steals the attention. Bunny Berigan (1908-42) starred in Benny Goodman's band and then formed his own unit in 1936, achieving great prominence through the sheer brilliance of his trumpet playing. Sadly, heavy drinking and unreliability marred his final years. His Blue Boys were a studio group, mixing Eddie Miller and Ray Bauduc, New Orleanians both, from the Bob Crosby Orchestra with a number of accomplished black players to create a masterpiece of relaxed improvisation. Miller plays booting tenor-saxophone and Chick Webb's arranger Edgar Sampson is on clarinet, but it's Berigan's imperious trumpet which is the highlight here.
The odd percussive effects which open Louis Jordan's 1939 Swingin' In The Cocoanut Trees hardly prepare the listener for the brightly dynamic alto solo which follows. The zippy riffs, neat instrumental passages and danceable tempo help to explain Jordan's massive popularity on record and in person. Drummer Walter Martin's unusual use of timpani for rhythmic emphasis was highlighted in the group's working name. Jordan (1908-75) was an extrovert performer and is remembered for his engaging vocals on a range of novelty jump numbers, typified by Doug The Jitterbug. Interest in him has been renewed through the success of the musical show, 'Five Guys Named Moe', which originated in Britain and is now playing on Broadway.
The Spencer Trio featured clarinettist Buster Bailey, a one-time protege of blues composer WC Handy, with colleagues from John Kirby's sextet. Bailey and Benny Goodman were taught by Franz Schoepp in Chicago; they shared superior technical finesse and irresistible facility. Billy Kyle, inspired by Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson, always played with an attractive rhythmic dash; he spent many years with Louis Armstrong's band. Drummer O'Neill Spencer is the vocalist.
Jess Stacy's stately piano ushers in the tenor of Lawrence 'Bud' Freeman (1906-91) on Three Little Words. Bud was the finest white saxophone stylist of his generation, his flowing, percussive approach influencing many tenormen including Eddie Miller. Joe Venuti, a more classically inclined fiddler than Stuff Smith, was a reputed improviser but attracted notoriety for his pitiless practical joking. His famous Blue Four session included Adrian Rollini, one of the few who could make the unwieldy bass saxophone sound like a proper jazz instrument. Rollini (1904-56) leads his own quintet on Josephine, this time on vibes. Quite a musical phenomenon, he also performed on such novelties (some self-invented) as the goofus and the hot fountain-pen.
The much-married Artie Shaw was thought by many to be the equal if not the better of Benny Goodman as a clarinettist and bandleader. The trouble is that Shaw always wanted to pursue a literary career and hated public attention. His perfect tone and exemplary musicianship shine out on the two tracks by the Gramercy Five. These feature Johnny Guarnieri playing another unusual jazz instrument, the harpsichord, and illustrate Shaw's adroit compositional ideas. Shaw (born 1910) left jazz in the 1950s but made his London debut in 1992 conducting both classical and jazz performances. Eddie Durham's electric guitar introduces Countless Blues, an ad-lib piece by a group from Count Basie's Orchestra, minus their leader. Each was a major figure in jazz: saxophonist Lester Young, usually known as 'Prez', plays his much-loved metal clarinet, riffing with Buck Clayton, the marvellous Jo Jones teasing the hi-hat cymbal. Trumpet ace Harry James (1916-83), a top sideman with Goodman, married Betty Grable and became a bandleader. Home James is from an unusual, impromptu collaboration with boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson.
The peerless Art Tatum made Body And Soul with a contingent from the Les Hite band in Los Angeles in 1937. Given prominence over the rest of the group, rightly, his solo piano choruses demonstrate both his flawless technique and inventive choice of harmony. Trumpeter Lloyd Reese later taught such bebop luminaries as Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus. Cleo Brown was one of a number of pianist-vocalists, like Rose Murphy or Nellie Lutcher, who combined a cute singing style with a righteous keyboard stance. She is still active, playing gospel music.
Another all-time favourite, stride pianist Fats Waller (1904-43), 'the harmful little armful' himself, leads a pickup group on The Minor Drag. A number of Harlem-ites were teamed with white banjoist Eddie Condon in a classic encounter. Very few of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings were from the Crescent City but their ensemble style recalled the old days albeit with a Chicago accent, exemplified by Gene Krupa's clattery drums. Vocalist Red McKenzie started out as a jockey and perfected a comb-and-paper routine known as 'blue-blowing'. Johnny Dodds (1892-1940) was the real thing, one of the finest New Orleans clarinettists, his playing drenched in the blues. 29th And Dearborn was from a session made with younger musicians in New York. His career in the doldrums, Dodds died before the traditional jazz revival of the 1940s. Benny Goodman (1909-86) was always happy to acknowledge his debt to earlier masters like Dodds and Jimmie Noone, their kind of intensity still present in his playing. His trio included the masterly pianist Teddy Wilson, among the first black performers to tour with a white orchestra in the 1930s. Krupa's energetic drumming caught the attention of the audiences everywhere. Trombonist Tommy Dorsey (1905-56) featured his Clambake Seven on big band one-nighters. It allowed him to concentrate on jazz as opposed to the creamy ballad solos for which he was justly famous. Johnny Mince's gritty clarinet is right in the Chicago mould.
Swing comes in many guises, uses many voices, but its essentials never change: 'rhythmic propulsion... a flowing beat... exciting jazz performances'. No doubt about it, Duke Ellington was right. Truly, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!
Peter Vacher, August 1993