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‘The Chunkel’ (draft), ‘Bill Williams on Swing’ by Bill Williams
BILL WILLIAMS ON SWING
The attempts to define the expression ‘swing’ have to been many and varied. In fact, if you happened to be a regular contributor to the English musician’s professional weekly newspaper ‘The Melody Maker’ you would be in position to read a fresh definition once a week. Usually these articles or letter would be so full of technical details as to leave anybody but the most avid of swing fans in a state of complete bewilderment. While I do not claim to be an authority on the subject, I have had a certain amount of experience in playing the piano for semi-professional and professional dance-bands and playing and singing both as a solo-item on the air and in cabaret.
It is my opinion that ‘swing’ is merely a smart word for jazz and was introduced about the time Clara Bow was discovered to have ‘it’ . (Another smart expression which was eventually replaced by ‘glamour’) However, although the basic rhythm remains the same swing differs from jazz inasmuch that it has progressed and has more polish, orchestrations which need absolutely accurate timing. Teams of instrumentalists who not only have to play the night notes at the right moment but have to blend their tones so that no individual is playing more excessive vibrato than another.
There is a school of thought which says that this type of orchestra – for example Benny Goodman or Ambrose – which plays this type of polished music does not ‘swing’ and quotes a combination like Bob Crosby’s Bobcats as their idea of what a real swing band should be. Anyone of you who have heard this last named combination will know that it plays in the real old Dixieland style. This style of playing is usually performed by a small number of musicians consisting probably of piano, drums, string bass, guitar, saxophone, trumpet and trombone. (The original Dixieland band did not include string bass, but included a banjo instead of a guitar. Incidentally, this combination included Nick La Rocca, the man who composed ‘Tiger Rag’). The style of playing is usually to allow each mission to have his head and
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‘The Chunkel’ (draft), ‘Bill Williams on Swing’ by Bill Williams (Cont.)
extemporise on the melody they have decided upon to their hearts content. Although the individual’s performance is something pretty terrific in the way of a hot chorus, the combined effort of the band sounds pretty crude, at least to my ear.
To compare the music of a Dixieland band with that of Benny Goodman’s orchestra is like comparing the works of Wagner to that of Schubert. Both actually admirable perhaps in their own way. But one has a way definite taste for one or the other.
I have been asked whether or not I think swing is here to stay. There is no doubt in my mind that it is. Although the style may alter slightly, the rhythms which have remained the same now for something like twenty-four years will continue I am sure, for at least a similar length of time. After all there are more foxtrots or quicksteps played in the English dance halls to-day than any other dance, and the foxtrot was the real beginning of jazz.
New rhythms such as the rhumba and the conga have been introduced from the Continent and South America, but even these are written four beats to a bar the same as foxtrot. Boogie-Woogie rhythm is becoming increasingly popular at home, and although this style was being played by the negroes even before jazz was introduced I think that eventually it may have a universal appeal. Even this rhythm is written in common time (that is four beats to a bar) but there are eight definite bass beats to a measure. One of the earliest recorded versions of Boogie Woogie style of piano playing is ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’ played by Mead Lux Lewis.
Often one hears the remark “the tunes of to-day will never last like the old ones” and examples like Blue Danube and Destiny are quoted. It is a fact that a number of those old tunes are still very popular to-day, but I think that the main reason for this is that when those tunes were composed radio had not been thought of and gramophones were very crude affairs. In these days when a new number is written it is usually plugged to death on the radio, can be bought on record for 2/6d, and the complete orchestration is put on sale for the benefit of semi-pro bands to plug still further in the dance halls. The result is that the average life of even a first class hit is about six months or less. In spite of this handicap I think that number like Begin the Beguine, Night and Day, etc., will still be played twenty years hence.