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Find Out Who Put the Zing in Swing

“The danceable swing style of big bands and bandleaders such as Benny Goodman was the dominant form of American popular music from 1935 to 1946, a period known as the swing era.” – Wikipedia

Music historians pinpoint August 21, 1935 as the night that officially launched the Swing music and dance craze, which began at a concert at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Benny Goodman and his band emphatically opened the Swing Era with an exuberant performance witnessed by thousands of young fans in the live audience and millions more tuning in to a live radio broadcast.

Bandleader Benny Goodman famously took drummer Gene Krupa’s advice that fateful night. The concert wasn’t going so well, and during the break Krupa pleaded, “If we’re going to die, let’s die playing our stuff.” The musicians returned to the stage playing “hot” arrangements by black bandleader Fletcher Henderson, with whom Goodman had previously worked in radio, and the crowd went wild – and continued to go wild for a decade known as the Swing Era.

 

Swing music was the most popular music in the country during this epoch, the only time jazz topped the charts in America. This wildly popular form of jazz was largely the product of two ethnic minorities – Jewish and African American – who fused musical traditions to put the zing in swing.

Goodman, who quickly integrated his own band following his breakaway success, opened the doors for future black bandleaders such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington, who continued to perform well into subsequent decades.

Goodman was the ninth of 12 children in a large Jewish family in Chicago whose father sent him to the local synagogue for clarinet lessons in the hopes he could play his way out of poverty. By his early teens, Goodman indeed was a working professional, and by 24 he led his band on a weekly New York City radio program called Let’s Dance.

Goodman was motivated to integrate the all-white Big Band ballrooms not only by his belief in equality but by his desire for quality. He is quoted as saying “I just wanted to hire the best musicians.” Indeed, as jazz arose in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, Jewish composers and Tin Pan Alley writers such as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin created a melting pot mentality through popular songs, Broadway musicals, movies, radio programs and live concerts.

“Through musical forms they wanted to create an America that was safe for Jews,” Professor Charles Hersh writes in his 2017 book, “Jews and Jazz,” adding that by incorporating a range of ethnic musical genres they “made an implicit case for acceptance.”

The swing era also brought respectability to jazz, bringing into the segregated ballrooms of America a music that until that time had been largely associated with the brothels of New Orleans, Harlem hotspots, and the gin mills of Chicago.

The wail of the cantor and the blast of the shofar had already infused klezmer by the time multi-cultural America entered the jazz era. From Big Band to Broadway, from be-bop to boogie-woogie, the influence of Jewish composers was inescapable as these recent immigrants found a natural affinity between their musical heritage and the distinctly American idiom being created in clubs and concert halls, church basements, and street corners across the country.

For proof of the strong connection between swing and klezmer, one need look no further than the improbable smash success of “Bei Mir Bist Du Sheyn.”

The story of this tune’s stratospheric rise is as unlikely as that of Yiddish swing itself. Composed by Sholom Secunda for a 1932 Yiddish musical that opened and closed in one season, the song was being performed – in Yiddish! – by two black performers called Johnnie and George at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Lyricist Sammy Cahn and pianist Lou Levy happened to be in the audience when the crowd went wild. Sensing a hit, Cahn convinced his employer at Warner Music to purchase the rights to the song – sold for $30 by Secunda.

With a new set of English lyrics, the song was given to the Lutheran Andrews Sisters, whose orchestra leader (would you believe his name was Vic Schoen?) created an instant smash hit. The era of Yiddish swing had begun. The Barry Sisters, who started performing as the Bagelman Sisters, found fame as the klezmer swing queens.

“Bei Mir” would soon be covered by virtually every pop and jazz artist of the age, and was even retranslated into French, Swedish, Russian — and even German. The song was a hit in Hitler’s Germany until the Nazi Party discovered that its composer was a Jew, and that the song’s title was Yiddish rather than a south German dialect.

Sammy Cahn claimed that he bought his mother a house with money earned from “Bei Mir.”

Join ACE to enjoy the music that got a nation on its feet!

REGISTER HERE

 “If It Ain’t Got that Swing: Benny Goodman, George Gershwin, Artie Shaw, Irving Berlin and Beyond”

Sunday, October 28, 7 pm

Tickets $25 in advance/$30 at the door

A celebration of Swing-era Jazz, featuring David Fulker, Faye Nepon, Joe Lukasik and more, with special post-concert swing dance party and demo!

*Special Screening of the documentary “From Shtetl to Swing,” detailing the influence of klezmer on American Jazz, on Monday, October 22, 2 pm. REGISTER HERE.

* Two swing dance classes with Mamie Kakes, Oct. 17 and 22. Register here.

About Kathryn Bernheimer

Director of Menorah: Arts, Culture and Education at the Boulder JCC. The former film and theater critic for the Boulder Daily Camera, Kathryn is the author of "The Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies" and "The Fifty Funniest Films of All Time."

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