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Swing Music’s 80th Birthday August 23, 2015

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Uncategorized.

Goodman_at_Palomar1935Eighty years ago this past Friday, on Aug. 21, 1935, the Swing Era was born.  The energy that was released along with its birth was propelled musical revolutions and helped define the high-points of American popular music since that one evening eight decades ago, and it all began one night with Benny Goodman and his Orchestra performing at the Palomar Ballroom at 2nd Street and Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles.  Ironically, they had no idea that they were about to make history.

The night started out disappointingly.  His first segment of the show was tepid at best, playing the safe, “sweet” stuff that pacified his conservative Middle American audiences that made up most of his cross-country tour.  During the break of that segment, Benny decided that if they were going to go down, they were going to go down swinging – figuratively and literally!  To the rest of the band’s delight, he called for the hot stuff – specifically the Fletcher Henderson arrangements.  When they reconvened on the bandstand to start the next segment of that evening’s concert, they immediately kicked things off with “King Porter Stomp.”

The fans in attendance immediately recognized the tune, and it created an instant (and positive) sensation!  He and his band quickly followed up with “Sometimes I’m Happy”, followed then by “Sugar Foot Stomp”.  With each number, the fans were hollering for more.  Every tune the band played during the rest of the night resulted in all sorts of Lindy-Hopping and Jitterbugging.  The atmosphere for the remainder of the night was electric; the sensation that was created that evening made Benny Goodman an overnight superstar, and the Swing Era was officially born.

What explains all of this?  How could a bandleader and his men, who had to endure disappointment after disappointment during a grueling cross-country tour in the summer of 1935, finally find this unexpected pot of gold at the rainbow’s end?

Two major factors explain this, factors that Goodman never took into consideration at the beginning of that fateful night.

One was a radio show hosted by disc jockey Al Jarvis, entitled the Make-Believe Ballroom (a title later borrowed by Charlie Barnet for his hit 1936 tune, with the Modernaires on vocals).  This show was based on playing records over the radio – a novel idea at the time.  Jarvis built up Benny’s audience playing records, specifically, Fletcher Henderson’s choice arrangements.

The other, even bigger factor, was that Benny Goodman actually enjoyed a national audience through his weekly “Let’s Dance” radio show out of New York City.  The show had three different bands, one built for three different music genres.  One segment was filled by Kel Murray (actual name:  Murray Kelner), who provided the “sweet” music, strings and all.  Another segment was filled by Xavier Cugat, who provided the Latin music, and Benny Goodman’s band capped things off with the Swing.  The “Let’s Dance” show, brought to a nationwide audience courtesy of the National Biscuit Company (you might have heard of them by their abbreviated moniker of Nabisco), helped build Goodman’s fan base all over the country, although in uneven concentrations.

As mentioned earlier, many of his Middle America audiences preferred the sedate stuff.  When Benny and his band tried to push the proverbial envelope with hot swing arrangements, they often received negative push-back.  One particular low point came in Denver when the audience demanded their money back.

Things started to look up a bit on the West Coast, however.  His Oakland, Calif., concert was very positively received, as was a subsequent concert at Pismo Beach.  But after all the disappointments the band experienced, they took these two high points as flukes, thinking that such success could in no way be sustained.  Better to play it safe, survive, and get the rest of the tour over with.

What Benny failed to consider was that the aforementioned “Let’s Dance” show had built up a nationwide audience for his band, and that fans were particularly concentrated on the West Coast.  Hence, the fans were hungry for the good stuff when they were finally able to see the King-of-Swing-to-be in person.  Hence, moreover, their consternation when Goodman and his band started off the evening playing the safe, sweet numbers that they thought would ensure their survival.

It turned out in hindsight the band’s unexpected, earlier successes at Oakland and Pismo Beach were not flukes.  All it took was Goodman to have the intestinal fortitude to play the hot, swinging songs that he and his band were built to play….that and a highly receptive audience that he did not even realize he had until he already decided to play the Fletcher Henderson arrangements.

Needless to say, his concert the following night was just as successful, and we can be grateful 80 years later that somebody on August 22, 1935, had the foresight to record an aircheck of the concert for posterity.


The legendary Palomar Ballroom, the birthplace of Swing (or, at least is era) is sadly no more, and has not been for a long time.  It burned down in 1939.  Today, a Von’s grocery store occupies the spot where, 80 years ago this weekend, the greatest era of American popular music was born.



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