Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Artie Shaw * Back Bay Shuffle * 1938

In the liner notes to the 1997 reissue of the complete RCA Victor Small Group Recordings of Benny Goodman, Loren Schoenberg boldly outlined the cultural importance and strength of jazz:

Jazz flowered in this country in the 1930s during a period of universal social upheaval. In defiance of the crippling economic depression that gripped the world's economy, this music became the rallying cry for a young generation that less than a decade later, in World War II, would go on to thwart the megalomaniac fascist leaders of Europe and Asia.


Anyone doubting the justification of a context this grand need look only as far some of the Hollywood films that came out in support of the war effort. The Andrews Sisters teamed up with Abbott and Costello in 1941's Buck Privates, perhaps the best remembered of these movies. Several decades of nostalgia and tribute bands have, for a time, obscured the intensity and optimistic ferocity of swing era music, but if we put ourselves back in time for a moment imaginatively, we hear how full of courage, swagger, and unyielding brilliance performances like the Andrews Sisters' were. Attempting to sing or play 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy' as they did reveals everything: there is no room for sentimentality. The music punches, rolls, and swings on perpetually--it is clear, crisp emotional, and strong.

Other films offer equally powerful displays. Harry James and the Andrews Sisters teamed up for Private Buckaroo in 1942. One number near the end, featuring a dance group with Harry wailing in his modal Jewish style (Helen Forrest once said she joined the James band because of that Jewish sound) is particularly telling. It's filled with young dancers: the whole thing projecting American freedom, youth, and strength in the face of danger. Here swing becomes, in the words of Artie Shaw, a musical demonstration of "life against death."

Most of the jazz oriented swing bands of the '30s and '40s weren't the syrupy, sentimental units they were later caricatured as (often by other bands). They were lean, hungry, often ferocious ensembles who shouted joy, sorrow, and everything in between with clarity and determination. I doubt we'll hear their like again. Even a light hearted little number celebrating gigs in Boston, recorded by Shaw in 1938, has emotional depths simmering beneath the bouncing surface.

"Back Bay Shuffle" was a Shaw original; a little tone poem describing the scramble of musicians after a late Boston gig to catch the last train back to New York, lest they be stranded over night. The tune was a major hit. I offer it here today, along with my thoughts and prayers, for the people of Boston, in the wake of the sinister and cowardly attack upon them yesterday. May God's peace be with you, and may tunes like this help strengthen you as you continue (we musicians must do what we can).

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