Tuesday, May 20, 2014

acausal connecting principles in the swing era

The pop stars of big-band years, the period from the mid-30's to mid 40's and often described as the 'swing era', were the band leaders.

These were usually virtuoso instrumentalists and 'conductors' of sorts.

Yer Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey among some of the most well known.

For the most part the singers in the big bands had to make do with being of secondary importance to the band leaders.

For example, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra’s vocal chores were handled some semi-anonymous young fella by the name of Frank Sinatra.

The natural order of things was disrupted, however, in part due to a somewhat random event.

A strike in 1942 by the US musicians’ union, in a dispute over royalty payments led to a temporary stop on any new recordings being made, as union musicians halted recording for any record company.

Live performances were still permitted, but this posed problems for both the radio stations (who had only just got their heads around playing records in the first place) and, of course, the record companies themselves.

Among the workarounds that the radio dj's employed were importing new records from outside the US, and staging a wholesale revival of pre-40s recordings.

Things were not so simple for the record companies, however.

For a start, early developments in the emerging and popular new jazz style known later as bebop - being honed by the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie - were never properly recorded. We can still lament this today.

Around the same time as the strike Frank Sinatra was becoming one of the first vocalists to emerge in their own right and had signed a solo deal with Columbia Records. Columbia wanted to get Sinatra product out as fast as possible, so, to get round the no-musicians rule, Sinatra suggested that they hire master arranger Alec Wilder and vocal group the Bobby Tucker Singers as back up.

Very soon the rest of the industry noticed that the musicians strike didn’t apply to the singers in the band.

The MU just represented players of instruments so the labels quickly put together vocal only groups featuring the big band back up singers - mimicking instrumental arrangements acapella - and the main vocalists pushed up front.

Not only was a new genre born but when the strike ended the market had moved on and those other vocalists who had previously had to stand in the shadow the band leaders were following Frank's lead and becoming the new stars.

While this flip would have probably happened anyway it's not much of a stretch to speculate that the situation perhaps brought the singers' day forward somewhat.

It's best described as a synchronicity - a ‘meaningful' coincidence.

A sequence of events that cannot be fully explained by simple cause and effect but are still connected.

And an example of a swift and nifty bit of innovation (by copying) in the face of necessity on behalf of the record industry.
And set the tone for all manner of Elvisness and James Brown et al to come.

The story of how the record industry were slow to recognise how digital distribution etc would impact their business model, and the consequences that followed, is well documented.

But its worth noting that, frankly, this was not always the way.

blog comments powered by Disqus