Don't Mean a Thing
Race, class, dress-up-and the meaning of the SoCal
been one of those nights, the type that leaves you questioning,
once again, whether all the sweat and sacrifice you put into being
a musician is really worth the trouble.
I've been doing this on and off since 1981 and I'm here
to tell you that being a musician can be self-imposed manic depression.
It's a high-speed thrill ride with peaks that leave you glowing
with the kind of raw, exhilarating buzz that I believe is impossible
to duplicate from anything else you could do in this life. The
pride and joy, the sense of accomplishment you feel from playing
your songs to a roomful of people left breathlessly wanting more,
more, more is like no other kick imaginable. It's addictive; the
very idea that your band's harmonic symbiosis has clicked to the
degree where you've transformed another human being into a happily
screaming lunatic. You made this person forget all about their
suckass, dead-end job; their no-account, meth-addled spouse; their
mother slowly dying of cancer. Just for an hour or so, you changed
someone's life, made it all feel better than it did before they
came out to see you.
But the stakes are high and the lows are a bitch. The profound
rejection and inner vacuum you feel when no one gives a shit can
transform you into quaking Prozac-bait. You've spent endless hours
toiling over polishing that new song to perfection, rehearsing
and arranging it with your band so that all the pieces fall into
the right places, honing your part so that it fits seamlessly
into the sculpture. You're a craftsman, so proud of your work
that you can't wait to unveil the fruit of your labor to others.
So when you get up on that stage and the reward for all your effort
is blank, contemptuous stares, the mirrored scorn you feel can
be downright scary.
All of this sounds horribly overstated and cliched, I know,
but a musician lays himself naked and vulnerable before an audience.
Sometimes you get a sweet, collective blow job, sometimes you
get a stiff kick in the walnuts.
band has just finished playing it's second of three sets at the
Derby in Hollywood. I've been a regular there more or less since
late-1993, and the changes I've seen in that time have been almost
theatrical. The Derby, you see, is L.A.'s premier swing club,
and in the last five years the swing scene has grown and metamorphosed
from a quaint little cult phenomenon into an overgrown, reeking
Not a lot of people went to the Derby when we first started
playing there; just the fans you pulled in, the oddball members
of a nascent scene and a few curious onlookers. Sure, it was a
bit trendy and stupid even in the beginning, as all "scenes"
are. But it was fun and there were always fans who actually came
to hear the music; fans who appreciated an intelligent solo, a
passionate vocal, a perfectly executed horn chart.
Times have changed as swing has become a trend nouveau.
Every weekend, the Derby is now packed beyond capacity and it
doesn't even matter who's playing. People are there to be seen
and make the scene, to play dress-up, to show off and take in
I jump offstage, drenched with sweat, grab a seat to cool
down and have a beer. The crowd seems disinterested tonight --
particularly whenever we tread off the well-beaten swing path
to lay down a bop instrumental or a jump blues. The band's getting
little more than a smattering of courteous applause even though
we're playing our asses off. Yep, it's one of those nights.
A girl sitting next to me starts to make small talk. "This
is the first time I've ever been here," she coos. "I
heard about all these swing dancers and how cool this place is.
Wow, it's really something!"
"Yeah, it's something," I parrot.
She gives me the outline of her life's story - where she's
from, what she does, what she's into. I listen politely.
Then: "So, what do YOU do?" she asks me.
Yep, I'm at the Derby. You can give everything in your soul
for two hours on a raised stage as the frontman of the band and
people won't recognize you. They've come to check out the tourist
attraction, not your music. All long as you play the expected,
don't challenge anyone's ears and they give it a 95, it's got
a good beat, they can dance to it, everything's cool.
"I'm an actor, like everyone else in L.A.," I
tell her. Then I move to another part of the room.
three is ferocious. The band plays until it bleeds, literally:
the saxophonist has cracked his lip from blowing so savagely,
the drummer has worn a red, oozing hole in his hand. Emotions
are raw, a mix of musical elation at how fucking well we're playing
and antipathy for these cretins who'd prefer a jukebox cranking
Glenn Miller in their collective face all night to a band whose
music might inhibit their ability to execute dance steps properly.
Our last song, a hellaciously fast-paced instrumental workout,
finally wins them over and we get a much-deserved encore. But
before we can get back onstage, the soundman has turned on the
CD player and announced last call over the P.A. The band shrugs
a collective "Oh well, what the fuck ya gonna do?" and
grabs a table to make love to our wholesome, delicious bourbon
Tony Gower, the Derby's co-owner, comes up to pay the piper.
Tony's a fine guy, always paid us fairly, bought us drinks, treated
us respectfully, given us gigs when we wanted them. He also has
a great sense of humor and yessir, I've come to like him quite
a bit over the years.
"We 'ad a few complaints from customers tonight,"
Tony informs me in his thick, cockney accent.
"Complaints? About WHAT?" I ask, incredulously.
"Well, they're saying you don't play enough swing,
ain't they? They don't reco'nize any of the songs you play. They
don't wanna 'ear all the blues you geezers do. And you play too
"BLUES? Hell, we don't DO any blues, unless you mean
jump blues - which swings like a bitch! You gonna tell me Big
Joe Turner didn't swing, Tony?!"
"Wha'ever. But we'll 'ave to 'ave more swing if you're
gonna keep playing `ere."
For a couple seconds, Tony is a stranger to me. I look him
up and down in a state of shock, then recover to realize he's
not the one to blame for this moment of rare stupidity.
"You're bloody well pissed then, ain'tcha?" he
"I'm not pissed at you, Tony," I say, collecting
my pride. "But you KNOW I'm not gonna play this warmed over
crap everyone else is doing just to get over with a bunch of
wagon-jumpers who wouldn't know what real swing was if it came
up and bit 'em on the purple. No fucking way. I do what I do,
"I respect that, mate. Look, it ain't like it was a
few years back. It's all about business now, it's no bloody fun
anymore. All the bands sound the same. But I got a club to run,
don't I? And I got 'a give the customers what they want. Look,
I can't have James 'arman or Juke Logan in here either, even though
I love their music."
Tony offers us "another chance," but there will
be no compromise. And with that, the run of the Buddy Blue Band
at the Derby comes to an ignominious end.
A group of friends and I attend an animation festival that
will feature the best of the old and the new--student and art
house shorts share the bill with classic cartoons from the `20s
20-year-old head gets completely bent when a 1933 Betty Boop cartoon,
"Snow White," comes on the screen. In the middle of
the action, the evil queen is transformed into an eerie, long-legged
ghost who sings a chilling version of "St. James Infirmary"
while skeletons and demons dance in and out of the background.
That voice haunts me; a pinched, nasal moan that sounds positively
hexed as it raises up and down in pitch, full of joy and pain
and sex and suffering all at once. At one point, the ghost sings,
``Hand me over a shot of that BOOOO-OOO-OOZZZEE!!" as it
animates into a bottle and That Voice hits a note that literally
raises goosebumps all over me. The horns syncopate the beat and
a clarinet screeches in the upper register and I am TRANSFORMED.
This creepy little performance has effected me in a way like nothing
else I've experienced in a long, long time.
I notice during the credits that the vocal was by Cab Calloway.
I know that name, don't I? I've heard my mother talk about him.
One of those old swing guys, I think. Didn't he used to play at
Uncle Doc's nightclub or something?
The next day I check out a bunch of record stores in search
of anything I can find by this Cab Calloway. The only thing available
is a two-record set called "The Hi De Ho Man." There's
a version of "St. James Infirmary" on it, along
with songs like "Minnie The Moocher," "Nagasaki"
and "A Chicken Ain't Nothing But A Bird," which have
me dancing nekkid around the house like a real idiot. I MUST have
My Search For Cab takes me to a little shop called Folk
Arts Rare Records. Here I find treasures of the most wonderful
sort; dozens and dozens of Cab Calloway 78s from the early
'30s through the '50s. I pick up a dozen or so sides, then stop
off at a thrift store on the way home and buy an old 78 player
(still cheap and easy to find in these days). I am in Cab Heaven.
the next few months, I almost move into Folk Arts. The owner,
Lou Curtiss, is a benevolent guy whose heart is obviously warmed
by this young kid's interest in old-time music. He introduces
me to Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Frankie "Half-Pint"
Jaxon, Blanche Calloway (Cab's sister!), Andy Kirk, Jimmy Lunceford,
Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson...the list goes on and on. I listen
to these old records for hours every day, buy whatever my student's
budget allows, haunt the libraries for books on the subject and
consume them all voraciously. I'd been heavily into rock and blues
since before I was even a teen-ager, but swing music has opened
up a whole new world to me.
I have a real gas tracing the music's roots, figuring out
who influenced who, debating with Lou over the relative merits
of each band. What's most readily apparent is that this is quintessentially
black music, every bit as much as the blues and dixieland from
which it sprang. You can hear echoes of the sound of primal blues
records by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Victoria Spivey in
the early, pre-swing "jass" and "jungle music"
records of Calloway, Kirk, Lunceford and Ellington. What a revelation
to discover that country blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson played
on early Ellington sides!
If the early blues performers were a product of their primitive,
Southern environment, swing and jazz were the result of a northward
black migration, of African-Americans casting off their chains
and celebrating the seemingly limitless possibilities of liberation
to big Northern cities like New York, Chicago and Kansas City.
The music bespoke a joy, a naive optimism, a period of artistic
creativity and growth among black musicians the likes of which
have perhaps never been equaled in this country before or since.
Well, there's always John Coltrane and George Clinton, but that's
The truth, however, is that racism and segregation were
just as much a part of northern life as it was in the south and
the blues rang eternal, it just hit a different note. The Cotton
Club, for example, was America's most renowned swing venue. But
right in the heart of Harlem, as black musicians, singers and
dancers held court in their own neighborhood, their friends and
families couldn't gain entry into this whites-only establishment.
Performers were routinely degraded and abused, forced to execute
their acts in front of humiliating stage motifs featuring watermelons
and outlandish African caricatures for the amusement of Mr. Charlie.
Of course, it was only a matter of time before crackers
began to co-opt, twist and commercialize the sweet fruit of swing
music itself. As ofays tuned in, Anglo orchestras began to proliferate
by the late '30s. Some, like Benny Goodman's, were hot bands nearly
the equal--in technique if not in spirit--of the groups fronted
by Calloway, Basie and Ellington. Others, like the aptly-named
Paul Whiteman Orchestra, were watered-down, atrocious farces.
By the end of the '40s, post-war changes in taste and simple
economics reared their ugly heads. As the big bands, black and
white, began to sink under the weight of their own impossible
overhead, all but the most renowned began to choke in the dust
like dinosaurs. In their place rose the small combos, some of
which began to experiment with what Calloway disdainfully called
"Chinese music" - bebop. With it's sophisticated chord
structures and accent on free improvisation, only the most innovative
and complex swing musicians--such as Lester Young and Roy Eldridge--even
attempted to make the transition. As names like Charlie Parker
and Dizzy Gillespie (a former Calloway sideman who once sliced
up the bossman during an argument!) rose to prominence in the
jazz world, there would be a lot of unemployed swing musicians
in the '40s and '50s.
There was a school of singers and musicians who took another
path, however. Utilizing the structures of the blues and mixing
it with the brass and backbeat of big-city swing, jump blues was
born at about the same time as bebop. While I loved bop and could
appreciate it's innovations intellectually, it didn't appeal to
me on the same emotional level as jump. Bop was cold and technical
where jump was down home and good-timey. Bop was of the head more
than the heart. Bop was artificial insemination where jump was
fucking like buttered weasels in season.
Jump took blues and swing and distilled them down to their
best elements, becoming all the rage among black listeners for
a brief period in the late '40s and early '50s. Singers and musicians
such as Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, Eddie "Cleanhead"
Vinson, Bull Moose Jackson, the Treniers and brothers Joe and
Jimmy Liggins rose to fame on the chitlin' circuit. The king of
the jump blues performers, Louis Jordan, was embraced by white
audiences as well, enjoying mainstream hits.
The music was blatantly full of sexual braggadocio. Songs
like Harris' "Sittin' On It All The Time," Jackson's
"Big Ten Inch Record," Vinson's "Somebody Done
Stole My Cherry Red" and the Trenier's "Poon-Tang"
were lewd even by today's standards. The vocal style was a wild,
open-chested shout, the horns screamed in overblown fury, the
beat became bigger, faster and more frenetic.
Jump blues was a short but ecstatic blip on the musical
map, evolving by the end of the '50s into rock 'n' roll, with
the help of folks like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley
and Elvis Presley--men both black and white, men in equally obvious
artistic debt to the jump blues performers.
But that, too, is another story all together.
was right when I thought I remembered my mother talking about
Cab Calloway. Years before I was born, it turns out that my hero
was playing the Three Rivers Inn, a nightspot outside of Syracuse,
New York, that was owned by my uncle and aunt, Doc and Esther
Summers. My own flesh and blood had brushed greatness! Now here
I am, a budding journalist with a community college newspaper,
and Cab Calloway is making a rare concert appearance in San Diego.
Of course, I must interview him.
A call to the promoter determines that Cab is staying at
the Sheraton. I ring the hotel, ask for Cab Calloway and am astonished
when I'm actually put through to his room. The voice that answers
the phone is one of a sleepy, cranky, 73-year-old man who grunts
his "hello" as if he's not happy to hear from me, not
I introduce myself as a college journalist and diehard fan
who'd be honored if Mr. Calloway would grant an interview. He
grunts again and expresses his displeasure at the notion before
I go ahead and attempt the ace up my sleeve.
"Listen, uhhh...Mr. Calloway, I don't know if you remember
Doc and Esther Summers? Well, I'm their nephew."
"Doc Nester?" he says in disgust. "Never
heard of them."
"No, DOC AND ESTHER, Doc and Esther Summers. They owned
a club in upstate New York called the Three Rivers Inn and I was
told you used to play there."
"Oh! Doc and Esther!" he perks up. "Three
Rivers Inn, yeah! Shit, I haven't heard those names in years!
Wow, you're taking me back. How they doing?"
"Well, uhhh....they've been dead for years, I'm sorry
"Ohhhh, man...that's too bad. I'm getting old, I've
been losing everyone. Man, oh man. Just yesterday I lost another
old band member, Walter `Foots' Thomas."
"I'm sorry to hear that...ummm.....so do you think
you could give me maybe a half hour or so of your time for an
"Sure, I've got time for any kin to Doc and Esther,"
he says warmly. "C'mon up here in an hour."
"Okay! Thanks! See you in a bit then!"
An hour later I find myself sitting in a chair across from
Cab Fucking Calloway. This is only the second interview I've ever
conducted with a major music figure. I'm wet behind the ears and
about to soil my shorts in awe. It's been years now since I've
been intimidated or starstruck during an interview, but I can
still feel my heart in my mouth today from being in the presence
of this man 17 years ago.
I fumble at my pad and tape recorder and ask a series of
wrenchingly dumb questions, never deviating from my written script,
never asking him to elaborate on any answers that beg further
discussion. Still, I get a few good quotes from Cab about snorting
coke ("kicking the gong around," he used to call it),
his appearance in the then-new Blues Brothers movie (he "really
likes" John Belushi) and his unfortunate taste in contemporary
jazz (sadly, Cab also "really likes" Chuck Mangione).
When I conclude my lameass, greenhorn interview, I turn
off the tape recorder and Cab graciously signs an autograph. I
show him an album of his old 78s I brought along, rare sides on
Perfect and Vocalion from the early '30s.
"Shit, I haven't seen those in years," he says
(in what appears to be his standard line). "Man, you ARE
An hour or so and many snapshots later, I say good-bye.
This will be the first and last time I'll ever meet Cab Calloway,
although he gives me his home phone number and I call him every
December 25th for a few years to wish him Merry Christmas and
Happy Birthday (yep, he shares a birthday with Jesus). By 1985,
though, he's changed his number and I've lost touch.
It's 1990 before Cab makes another appearance in the area,
and when he does, I call his room again. This time I'm an experienced
heavy, I know what to ask, I will not be intimidated and I'm about
to write the Ultimate Cab Calloway feature, for a Major Metropolitan
Newspaper this time. I even plan to broach the subject of penning
his authorized biography.
Cab grunts as before, when he answers the phone, only this
time it's a phlegmmier sound. He's 83 years old.
"Hello, Mr. Calloway. This is Buddy Seigal. I don't
know if you remember me, but we got together the last time you
were here in town, about 10 years ago."
"Ok, well I'm the guy who's related to Doc and Esther
"Uhhh.....Doc and Esther Summers...the Three Rivers
Inn...uhhhh, you don't remember? We spoke at length about them
last time. I used to call you on your birthday, remember that?"
"Listen, I'm trying to take a nap."
"Ok, um, sorry to bother you. But do you think we could
get together for an interview before you leave town?"
"I don't have time and I'm too tired, sorry."
Cab Calloway died four years later at the age of 87. In
his time, he was as big a star as has ever emerged from jazz,
making hundreds of records, dozens of films and putting in decades
on the road. Once upon a time, the Cab Calloway Orchestra traveled
the country by train, with a special car to tote Cab's pink Cadillac
Touring Car from town to town. He slept in the house of my aunt
and uncle and let me know he was grateful, because "niggers
weren't a real popular thing to have sleeping in white folk's
homes back in those days."
Cab Calloway was a delight and an inspiration to generations
of fans and admirers, one of the most beloved entertainers of
the century. The day after he died, I went out and got a really
nice tattoo of him etched into my right arm as a tribute.
When Newsweek published it's year-end issue in 1994 and
ran it's usual gallery of annual celebrity dead, a tiny, black-and-white
photo of Cab Calloway appeared in the corner of a page. Towering
above it in gaudy color was a morose-looking portrait of Kurt
Cobain, whom I had personally pegged as the single most over-rated
figure in the history of rock music.
I wrote a letter to Newsweek decrying the injustice of it
all, questioning who's music would be remembered and deemed the
more important in a hundred years.
Of course, they never ran it.
I've recently signed with Bizarre/Planet Records, and am
talking with A&R man Bob Duffey about my next album. In the
past, I've done country rock with the Beat Farmers, R&B with
the Jacks and everything from punk to blues on my first solo album
a couple years ago. But I'm bored and indecisive about music right
now, looking for something different than what I've already played.
"Why don't you put together a band to do that stuff
you're always listening to at home?" Duffey suggests. "That
Cab Calloway-type of music."
"I dunno, man. That's some heavy shit to me, I don't
know if I can mess with it. I'm a white guy. What do I know about
playing this stuff? I'm a big fan, but I'm no jazz cat."
"Why not try it and see what happens? What have you
got to lose? That's the stuff you really love, that's what I always
hear you listening to."
"Ya think so??"
My band had fucked around with jump blues, swing and standards
a little bit--if for no other reason than I'd found myself playing
in a band with what was essentially a jazz rhythm section in drummer
Jeff Aafedt and bassist Oscar Barajas. But writing a whole batch
of new tunes in a style I'd never really tried my hand at, hiring
a horn section and having to learn a whole new arsenal of guitar
chords and scales seems like a daunting task. Hmmmmmmmm....
"What the hell. Why not. I'll give it a shot, Bob."
much trial and error, things turned out all right. We became regulars
at a few choice clubs in Southern California. Our album, Dive
Bar Casanovas, failed to take the world by storm but most importantly,
the band had a lot of fun. With time, we all got better at what
we did. Personally, I felt my voice developing a resonance it
didn't used to have from all that shouting. My fingers began to
naturally curl into positions on the guitar that seemed completely
foreign to a rock guy a few months back.
We were not alone. Neo-swingers Royal Crown Revue were already
a wildly popular attraction in L.A. before Dive Bar was even released.
Brian Setzer's first swing album came out at about the same time
as ours. Then some Canadian guy named Colin James released a swing
album in '94, as did Buster Poindexter, of all people.
Surprisingly, I liked Buster' album best of the lot - including
my own. I thought he managed to capture the spirit of the music
better than all of us, his voice was well-suited to the material
and his band blew everyone else's away. Not surprisingly, it was
Setzer who got all the press and kudos, though. With name recognition
from the Stray Cats and Disney money behind him, Setzer's album
got all the ink. It was as if none of the rest of our albums existed.
It was all good giggles for a couple years anyway. The swing
dancers who jitterbugged at our shows made the scene something
of a spectacle. I never understood people's need to play dress-up
when they came out to see us, but it was all harmless fun.
Many times, people would come up and ask me, "What
kind of music is that you play?" I'd gladly regale them with
tales of Louie's Jordan, Armstrong and Prima; of Cab, Cleanhead
and the Count; of Wynonie, Bull Moose and Big Joe. People would
ask for CD recommendations and I'd gladly clue them in. It did
my heart good to see young people taking an interest in this neglected
American artform, much as Lou Curtiss had sagely tutored me along
some 15 years before.
There was a swing revival in the air and much to my surprise,
I was some small part of it. Whooda thunk it back when I first
started collecting '78s all those years ago?
sense of pride I once took in the swing revival has long been
replaced by disgust at the entire scene. So many have jumped on
the bangwagon--for all the wrong reasons, and with no knowledge
of what swing really is, musically or culturally--that the wheels
tremble precariously under the collective weight. Soon it will
collapse, as all flavors-of-the month must do. You think KROQ
is gonna be playing much ska in 1998? Hey, it's a new year, Bubbie--time
to leave yesterday's news behind and get on to the Next Big Thing.
Corporate concerns dictate a short attention span.
The frustration I initially felt at being unceremoniously
eased out of the Derby has been replaced by a sense of relief.
If the fans up there don't consider what my band plays to be swing,
fuck 'em for their ignorance. I don't need to try and please them
There's a whole new crop of neo-swing bands, most of which
play some white-assed hybrid between rockabilly, pop and swing.
As Tony Gower said, they all sound alike, at least for the most
part. There's a method to it all, and here's the rulebook:
The singer shall croon monotone notes in an exaggerated
vibrato like a bad Sinatra impersonator gargling on vanilla pudding.
Lyrics shall not transcend diluted hep cat colloquialisms, daddy-o.
Solos, if they're undertaken at all, shall be performed by rote,
based upon existing licks from overplayed swing hits. All horn
charts shall be more or less lifted note-for-note from Benny Goodman's
"Sing, Sing Sing," credited or otherwise. All drummers
shall be chopless and subscribe to the notion that keeping an
unsubtle 4/4 on the high-hat is the apex of jazz cool. All bands
shall be excluded from the club if they fail to wear matching
baggy suits, and if you shall be a real, real gone cat, porkpie
Modern perceptions of swing constitute the mass embrace
of one big, cheesy cartoon; a lot of Hollywood, a lot of Vegas
and very little Harlem, New Orleans or Kansas City.
Ironically, one of the few newer groups which has shown
some solid chops and originality along with a genuine knowledge
of tradition is a band frowned upon by most scenesters: Squirrel
Nut Zippers. Because their name and image aren't retro enough,
most swing weenies consider them to be tres unhep.
Many of those who come to jitterbug are at least as annoying
as the awful bands, although some still hold no agenda beyond
having some fun. At one of my shows recently, a couple of them
actually tried to forego the cover charge by claiming that THEY
were the entertainment. You know what? They believed it, too.
Once the swingers take the floor, forget about dancing if
you're not of the clique. Anyone who just wants to squirm about
freely and have a good time can count on being soundly ridiculed
and physically bumped from the floor by well-aimed, flying bodies.
Many long-time fans don't come to see us anymore, rightfully pissed
off at the hostile takeover of the dance floor by the trendies.
At one recent show, a mosh pit was spontaneously formed. At first
I thought this ludicrous; what in the world are these people doing
bashing about to my music? Upon further ponderance, though, I
felt really good about it. If we're laying down enough energy
to incite punk rock behavior, it's all for the good and certainly
no less inane-looking than any other form of dance.
I spoke last week with a local swing promoter, let's call
him Joe. Joe seemed a genuinely likable sort, and I can fully
understand a guy trying to cash in. But then he began to sing
the praises of one group whose existence I find to be particularly
"They don't even have any original material,"
"They have ONE original, and it's really good!"
"The covers they do are all so obvious--they actually
play "Minnie The Moocher," I pointed out.
"Hey, people love it," Joe responded.
"That singer's so godawful he can't even hold a note,
and yet he talks like he's God's Gift to music," I argued.
"Well, I think he's great" Joe retorted.
I asked Joe why he doesn't bring Clarence "Gatemouth"
Brown to town. Gatemouth, a half-century veteran of the Texas
blues tradition, released what was inarguably the best swing album
of this age some months back in Gate Swings. This is a guy that
was THERE when it first happened, Jack. His 1954 "Okie Dokie
Stomp" was one of the great, latter-day jump blues instrumentals,
and he's one of the few players from that era still with us today.
Gate Swings is full of jaw-dropping guitar playing, hot, punchy
charts and heartfelt vocals the likes of which I haven't heard
since 78s were still being pressed. It's as if Gate took notice
of the swing revival and jumped up in all our faces to show us
how to do it right. How very inconvenient.
Joe told me he loved Gatemouth but that no one would show
up to see the old guy if he booked him. The sad thing is, Joe's
probably right. You see, not only is Gatemouth old, but he's black.
How very unfashionable. Sometimes I wonder if the only convention
from the old days adopted by the neo-swingers is the racism and
Anglo co-opting of the music. If short, fat, black, homely Jimmy
Rushing--maybe the finest swing vocalist who ever lived--were
to come back from the dead and appear onstage at the Derby, I'm
certain that customers would complain about it to the management.
Last week, after deep reflection, I instructed my agent
not to book me at any more swing-specific clubs, on any more swing-specific
nights, with any other swing-specific bands. I don't want the
word "swing" to appear in any of our ads, flyers or
radio spots. It's a misnomer now anyway, a dirty word to me. Swing
no longer means swing. I wash my hands of it. If I can't throw
in a Thelonius Monk instrumental or shout some blues during our
set without engaging the wrath of the yahoos, daddy don't wanna
swing no mo.' Playing the same sound all night has always bored
me; I had assumed, wrongfully it seems, that it might bore audiences
All this is not to put my music or band up on a pedestal.
But I can say in all sincerity that I've tried to hire the best
musicians I could find without regard to their collection of vintage
clothing or personal beauty. We have tried to approach the music
with a respect for tradition and basis in integrity. My band is
not the best of it's type in the world, nor is it the worst. But
always, we play from the heart rather than trying to gauge what
will curry favor with scene-makers.
If you have found this essay to be study in self-service,
I can't say I blame you. But if my editor is willing to give me
6,000 words to bespeak a 20-year passion and bemoan the compromise
of something very close to my heart, I'm taking him up on the
offer. Call it whining, call it sour grapes if you must. But my
motivation is born out of a very real love for this music and
a lack of patience with ignorance and pack mentality that's hit
very close to home.
I can find something of merit in almost any genre of music,
even stuff that goes against the grain of my personal tastes.
Music is nothing but organized sound, and all organized sound
is legitimate when executed for love of the results. I'm most
fond of roots music but am not a roots Nazi, I'll listen
to a bit of everything. Conversely, I also believe that musical
styles do not automatically become archaic because some overfed
harlequin at a radio station or record company deems it to be
so. There's nothing wrong with working within the realm of the
traditional any more than there is the new and radical. I weep
for the state of humanity whenever I see someone turn a deaf ear
to music because it doesn't conform to their notion of fashion.
Fashion clearly sucks. If you don't believe me, check out the
clothes I wear.
In closing, I issue a challenge to those of you indignant
at what I've written. Yes, you--the swing dancer who will never
again come to a Buddy Blue show because you've been deeply insulted;
you--the bandleader who wants to punch my lights out for dissing
your group; you--the promoter plotting my assassination for casting
aspersions upon your cash cow; you--the reader with no stake in
this scene who finds me to be a typically insufferable music critic:
Before you pass judgment, buy some classic swing CDs by
people you've never heard before. Immerse yourself in the music,
learn what swing truly is. Read some books on the subject and
bask in this precious heritage. While you're at it, boning up
on your history and sociology wouldn't hurt, just to put things
in perspective. Look inside your heart, open up your mind, question
your motivations and always remember this: Opinion is valid only
when based upon a foundation of cogent fact. And if you're going
to become hostile or endeavor to debate without any knowledge
of the subject matter at hand, take it to your pals at the Derby,
not I. And tell Tony I STILL think he's a down geezer.