Newspapers and the Big Band era: A historical comparison

As newspapers struggle through a recession at a time of media tumult, Stowe Boyd writes:

The Big Band era is coming to an end, and while some oldsters are going to keep on listening to Count Basie and Duke Ellington, most of us are moving on to rock and roll. Many of the players will find new gigs, experiment with new musical forms, but some won’t. Some will retire, open bars, or find something else to do. Zell and Tierney may have to take their losses and find something else to invest in. David Carr may have to start blogging for the Huffington Post, or run for office.

His comparison with the death of the Big Band era is more apt than he states.

You could say Big Bands were killed by rock and roll, but that would really miss the point (and be at least a decade off the mark). Big Bands were killed as much as anything by hubris, greed and technological efficiency, not to mention changes in society’s musical taste and needs.

The musicians strike of the 1940s opened the door to smaller combos filled with non-union musicians. Not only where these combos more nimble, they were playing new kinds of music (such as country and rhythm and blues), driven by better technology for amplifying their music. By the time the strike ended in 1944, the new musical forms had not yet gained in popular demand, but the trajectory was set. Hank Williams would break through in 1947. Louis Jordan dominated R&B charts from the early 1940s through the end of the decade, setting the stage for the birth of Rock and Roll.

Of course, the oldsters who clung to the golden era of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman saw no value in hick or race music. To them, it was all a fad whose time would pass. These wild sounds weren’t polished or sophisticated. This wasn’t quality music. The public would return to its senses and soon demand those big band sounds again. Sort of sounds like journalists attitudes toward bloggers, doesn’t it? (Interestingly, Goodman made a fine switch to small combo music, and he recorded some of the first jazz to feature lead guitar, employing the pioneer Charlie Christian).

Note that music didn’t die with the Big Bands, nor did it really diminish in quality. It fact, some of the greatest music of human history was created in the second half of the 20th Century. The music that came after was, to the discerning ear, no better nor worse than the stuff gathering dust on scratchy 78s. It was just different.

The same will be said of journalism fifty years hence.

For old-time sake, here’s Big Band music at its best: Goodman’s band playing the Louis Prima-penned, “Sing, Sing, Sing.”

UPDATE: Ur, um, is this video really “Sing, Sing, Sing”?  Nobody’s called me on it, but upon reflection — the “Sing, Sing, Sing” melody is not any part of this performance.  What it does have is elements of “Christopher Columbus,”  which was incorporated into Goodman’s version of “Sing, Sing, Sing.”  But “Sing, Sing, Sing” was eight (studio version) to 12 minutes long (the famous “Live at Carnegie Hall” performance, which is without a doubt the single greatest achievement of recorded music history.  At least, I say so.  More here.

(Boyd link via Jack Lail)

3 thoughts on “Newspapers and the Big Band era: A historical comparison

  1. Just last night I was watching The Buddy Holly Story with a thin and, presumably, sane Gary Busey. The opening scene showed what was called the Buddy Holly Band playing a slow, dirgelike tune in a bowling alley as skaters and people sitting around were ostensibly not listening.

    Buddy said what the hell, and launched into one of his rock numbers and all the teenagers gathered around the bandstand while all the parents took on looks of shock. The next scene is Buddy in church as the preacher condemns the new be-bop music.

    I made a note to myself that the connections between the big band/rock ‘n’ roll transation and current state media were blogworthy.

    And here you’ve done all the work and better….

  2. Thanks, John.

    Also, I have a great VHS I’ve owned for years (not sure if it could be found now) called “the real Buddy Holly Story.” It was narrated and produced by Paul McCartney in response to the movie.

    Also, last I checked you could find some great old Buddy Holly videos on YouTube. Great stuff.

    I caught a bit of the Busey movie myself the other day (a rare moment of channel surfing). I dug the hell out of that film when it came out when I was in high school (I had just discovered Holly just before it came out). It’s entertaining fluff. Not great, but good that it was made.

  3. As a band leader, arranger, business manager for more than 15 years with a moderately successful small big band – 10 pieces compared to 20 or more. The demise of swing, big band is more financial than musical or stylistic. The music has a classic power. I wish I could say more but I have to run…

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