Swing as an Art Form
TA: Beth Ratay
To participate in discussion, read the following, including the instructions in the “DISCUSSION ASSIGNMENT” below— and then click on “Post New Entry” above (login to see the button) to submit your post.
In a famous early quote, Ellington claimed not to write jazz but “Negro folk music,” which cast emphasis on jazz as a form that arises through aural and oral culture, from traditional roots. However, as his career developed Ellington devoted increasing energy to intricate narrative works like 1943’s Black, Brown, and Beige Suite (premiered at Carnegie Hall) that aspired to match the symphonic tradition of Europe’s Art Music. The contrast between these two perspectives gives us a hint at the difficulty facing anyone who wants to define the role of jazz in U.S. history and culture.
Though Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman were all “swing” musicians, each of these three bandleaders had distinctive styles and different interpretations of what “jazz” could mean to their audiences, and their own beliefs evolved as the complex decade of the 1930s progressed. In Stowe’s (1998) chapter “Tempo of the Time”, we see clearly that by the late 1930s, the creative seriousness of Chick Webb, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and others, transformed the pop-culture success story of early jazz into something widely recognized as America’s classical music.
(The live Carnegie Hall concert that Stowe describes in detail is represented as tracks 20 and 21 of your “Kansas City to New York Swing” listening list.)
DISCUSSION (Due October 29 — or submit by October 24 at noon to get TA guidance toward an essay):
How does Duke Ellington’s music of the late 1930s compare to that of Count Basie’s or Benny Goodman’s? Choose one recording of Duke Ellington’s music from the “Kansas City and New York Swing” playlist (or “Solitude” by Billie Holliday from the “Swinging Tin-Pan Alley” list), and one or two recordings (Goodman or Basie) from the rest of the “Kansas City and New York” playlist. Analyze what you hear in each recording, and think comparatively about the expressions.
Begin with questions like these: How do changes in the music’s arrangement, from one section to the next, affect your experience as a listener? (It’s ok, to begin with, if you don’t identify all the instruments correctly.) Are there long solo sections? Do other sections focus more on the sound of the whole group? How would you analyze the form of the recordings?
Your thoughts, in about 150-250 words, should be posted to this webpage, by clicking on the “create new post” button on the upper left corner. (You’ll have to login to see it.)
ESSAY (Due October 29 — if you choose to write an essay in this unit):
In light of the Unit 2 readings, and your own personal experience in listening to this music, discuss what you perceive to be the important similarities and differences between the music of Duke Ellington, and whichever other artist you have chosen. Please choose at least two of the following topics to elaborate on.
(1) Form: Form is the overall structure of the music. The Tin Pan Alley style form that is utilized in these songs follow a general AABA form totaling approximately 32 bars (8 bars per letter). Apply this basic structure to the songs you are discussing and try to see how the composer changes this basic form throughout the song. What differs (or not) between these songs with regard to musical form?
(2) Arrangement: Instrumentation is the choice of instruments used and featured in the recording. Which instruments or groups of instruments are used in the recordings? Which instruments solo or play melodies? How does the composer use different groups of instruments in the piece? Do all instruments play together all the time? Are there times when just brass instruments (trombone, trumpets, etc.) or just woodwind instruments (clarinet, saxophone, etc.) play?
(3) Improvisation: How is improvisation used in these pieces? Are there any solos that sound improvisatory? Which instrument is playing in these solos? How often does this sort of improvisatory feel occur in each song? Is there a significant difference in the frequency of these solos when comparing the two songs?
(4) Effect: Describe the effect the music has on you as a listener—emotional, intellectual, or otherwise. What does the music bring out of you? After identifying your favorite passage(s) try to shed light on what in the music causes that feeling. Use the terminology defined in lectures to describe the musical effect achieved. Feel free to contact me (TA Beth Ratay) if you’d like some advance help on those terms.
Your essay, in the form of a post to the Swing as an Art Form Essays page, is due on October 29 at noon. It should be about 600-800 words long. Double-check your facts, and proof your work to make sure your peers will understand your argument and your ideas. Please write clearly and concisely — big ideas count more than big words.
When you are done, please take time read your peers’ posts and essays, compare and contrast your thoughts, and continue discussion.