Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.
By W. C. Schondrop
On “Black Friday,” October 20, 1929, the New York Stock Exchange collapsed. During the next decade, the nation slowly dug out from the rubble the stock market left of the nation’s economy. The country’s young people looked for ways to free themselves from the worry and sacrifice their elders suffered. They said, “Let’s be free, let’s dance,” and dance they did as never before or since.
Image caption: Big Bands were popular in the 30's and 40's. Drawing by Tony Barron
The swing era was on its glorious way, and the big band sound was the driving force. In 1932, swing was adopted as the newest form of jazz after Duke Ellington recorded “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” Listening and dancing to swing music was a way to overcome anxiety and frustration.
Swing, a characteristic style of jazz, emphasized four beats to measure and played off various instruments in the band, brass versus reeds, for example. The rhythm section, including bass, piano, drums and sometimes a guitar, provided a steady beat and the formal structure to support the solos. Dance bands repeated a melody over and over, allowing single instruments to play solos as well as to harmonize with others in different combinations.
Beginning in the early 1930s, big bands consisted of a front line of melody instruments and a back line of accompanying rhythm instruments. Solos with relatively simple styles were played from the front line. Most bands carried as many as three trumpets, three trombones, three or four saxophones and a four-piece rhythm section.
Bands sometimes included violins because violinists could almost always read music, and they would pass on musical arrangements to the rest of the band, many of whom played only by ear.
As big bands and swing grew, instruments began to be modified. The drum set is a classic example. By 1933, a drummer was able to play more than one percussion instrument at the same time through the invention of the foot-operated bass drum pedal and pedal-operated cymbals. The drummer’s hands were now free to play other instruments such as snare drums, tomtoms, cowbells and wood blocks.
Another important invention was the wire brush which the drummer used instead of a stick to make a more delicate sound on both the drums and the cymbals. Gene Krupa, one of the greatest drummers of all times, made the drum a solo instrument. He played with Benny Goodman and also formed his own band.
Charles “Charlie” Christian, born in Bonham, Texas, in 1919, provided the greatest single contribution of a jazz guitarist. Given the credit for making the guitar a solo instrument, he also amplified his guitar so it would compete with louder instruments in the band. Christian played in Benny Goodman’s band for three years beginning in 1939.
Early swing dances had names such as “Bumps-a –Daisy” and “The Charleston.” From the simple two-step and something called Walking, names such as Jitterbug, Bebop, Hard Bop, Cool Jazz and the Boogie-Woogie became common in and out of music and dance circles.
Bill Toering, a longtime resident of El Paso, says, “We all danced to swing, but sometimes you were so relaxed your feet didn’t move at all. You just moved your upper body while your feet stayed put.”
Swing flourished for a short thirteen years, from 1932 to 1945, during a time when Benny Goodman emerged as the King of Swing. The movie “The Benny Goodman Story,” released originally in 1955, shows how Goodman’s band and combos, starting in 1934, brought swing to nationwide audiences through ballroom performances, recordings, and radio broadcasts.
Until 1936, prejudice got in the way of jazz and black musicians. Goodman was the first white band leader to feature black and white musicians playing together in public performances, not to make a political statement but because they were the best in the music business.
Lionel Hampton was one of the first great black musicians to make the swing music scene. He introduced the vibraphone, a percussion instrument similar to the xylophone, and which became very popular in combos, in 1936 when he joined Benny Goodman’s big band.
By 1931, several Texas musicians had become successful and were given the big band swing style a country western flavor. W. Lee O’Daniel of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company sponsored a three man group headed by Bob Wills which went on the air over KFJZ in Ft. Worth, Texas. Three years later, Bob Wills and Texas Playboys were on the air over KVOO in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Wills played dance music with a strong rhythm that was modeled after swing-jazz bands of the late 1920s. In 1934, Leon McAuliff joined the Wills band with his steel guitar, the instrument that became a trademark for western swing.
El Paso had its own Golden Age of swing. George Reynoso, owner of All That Music in Lee Trevino Plaza, has a home movie narrated by Federico Gonzalez which traces the El Paso connection.
The movie shows that Louis Jordan and his band, Tympani Five, and Big Joe Turner, the great blues shouter, played and sang in El Paso during the early forties. Jordan was so impressed by the railroad sounds he heard at the El Paso train station that he wrote “Choo, Choo, Ch’Boogie.” The song sold over a million copies and ushered in a series of records for Jordan.
Like other young fans of the swing music craze, students at the old Bowie High School were called “cats,” short for “hepcats,” slang for people listening and dancing to music of that time. The students would frequent local establishments such as the Cortez, Hilton and the El Paso Del Norte hotels to listen to their favorite bands.
In honor of the students from Bowie, Jordan wrote a boogie-woogie style song about “a gal waiting for me in El Paso.” It was titled the “T. P. Special,” T. P. standing for the Texas Pacific Railroad. The person in the song was West Texas bound. Together he and his girl would “cross the border and honeymoon in Juárez.”
South El Paso dance establishments included the Hollywood Café, the Venice (now the Acapulco Café & Bar) and the Old California, current location for the National Dry Goods Company. Impromptu jam sessions were common at the Whoo’s Club at 300 S. Mesa St. and at the Esquire Club. Mail carriers would congregate at the red Star Bar on Saturday nights and listen to Xavier Solis’s Latin big bands sounds.
Keeping swing alive in El Paso today is the Villa Band. This seven piece band plays locally and features Mexican-American big band sounds. The Mike Caranda Band also continues to be a local favorite, not only playing for weddings and private parties but for Sunday afternoon dances and big band gatherings. In Las Cruces, Big Band on the Rio Grande keeps the swing sound going.
During the swing era, the nation went through some traumatic times, but a whole generation of young people grew up thinking that times were not all that bad. They were unable to find jobs and did not have very much money to spend, but none of this seemed to bother them.
Dance marathons, pinball machines and movies did not cost much. Records and radios playing swing music were all that were needed for a good house party, and juke boxes played six of their favorite pieces for a quarter.
These were great times for music lovers. Bill Toering says, “For many of us, swing music fostered dancing to keep people occupied. It was a new kind of jazz, but it allowed a person’s mind to travel while listening.”
Musical arrangements burst upon the American scene which expressed yearning, loving, courage and hope. Such tunes as “Walking My Baby Back Home,” “Goodnight Sweetheart,” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” “Blue Moon,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” were just a few of America’s favorites.
The soaring melodies and touching lyrics of swing united men and women across the oceans and continents as they faced the pain of uncertainty and separation of World War II. Anxious mothers waited for the return of their sons while listening to swing on the radio to help while away the hours. Swing indeed provided a type of therapy for Americans during the Great Depression and the war years.