Who Invented the Swing Dance Band?

July 24, 2012

One of several topic options for a term paper that I offer to my jazz history class at NYC’s Pace University is the opportunity to review James Lincoln Collier’s fascinating book, Jazz: The American Theme Song (Oxford University Press, 1993). His take on several issues dealing with jazz history, being at variance with several textbooks I have read on this subject, is iconoclastic, interesting and provocative.

For example, various jazz texts state or imply that Fletcher Henderson and his chief arranger Don Redmond created the swing-band with its formula of:

  1. dividing the band into sections;
  2. utilizing call and response among the sections;
  3. having the sections or entire ensemble play with syncopated jazz phrasing;
  4. providing opportunities for brief jazz solos within the written arrangement;

Collier maintains that there is little evidence to support such an assumption, and that large bands playing arranged jazz had existed several years prior to Henderson’s band. (See page 171 of Collier’s book.) Let’s now examine his information.

FERDE GROFE

Leaf through the index of many jazz texts, and you will discover that the names Ferde Grofe and Art Hickman do not appear at all. Grofe, a classically trained composer and pianist, whose Grand Canyon Suite is part of the standard classical orchestral repertoire, played piano in small dance bands around 1910-1915 in cabarets and dance halls in the San Francisco area. He was reportedly comfortable in both the classical and jazz idioms, and apparently felt that he could enhance the dance band experience by applying various techniques of classical orchestration to jazz, including grouping instruments in sections that played melodic lines in harmony, adding counter melodies, and providing occasional opportunities for solos, among other orchestral devices. And so he began writing arrangements for several dance bands in which he also played.

ART HICKMAN

Drummer Art Hickman, the composer of the jazz standard, “Rose Room” (named after a ballroom in a hotel in which he played), assembled a small band in 1913 and hired Grofe as pianist/arranger. According to Collier, one innovation of the Hickman band was the hiring in 1918 of two saxophonists, Bert Ralton and Clyde Doerr, who had been playing the vaudeville circuit as a novelty saxophone team. Grofe soon recognized that saxophones could be utilized as a dance band section, so he began incorporating them into his written arrangements. (And as everyone knows, the saxophone has since become the quintessential sound of jazz.) The Hickman band became extremely successful in San Francisco, and in 1919 was booked into New York City’s Biltmore Hotel, where the band was received with great enthusiasm. Collier quotes Abel Green, a dance band correspondent for the New York Clipper, as saying that “Hickman, with his New York exposure, was the start of the new dance band. Joe Laurie, in his memoir of vaudeville, said ‘the guy who started all the dance bands was Hickman.’ The writer Charles Edward Smith, said ‘Contrary to the widespread misconception, inspiration in swing bands was inspired not by jazz, but by popular dance bands, such as that of Art Hickman.’”

PAUL WHITEMAN

The Hickman band’s success generated considerable public interest in large dance bands. Consequently, another individual working in the San Francisco area, and who decided to form his own band, was the classically trained Paul Whiteman. Whiteman hired Grofe to be his band’s pianist/arranger and, playing Grofe’s arrangements, his band catapulted to even greater acclaim than the Hickman ensemble. In 1920 the Whiteman band, playing in New York City, recorded for Victor Records and sold records in the millions. By 1923, it had become the most famous band in the world, specializing in what has been referred to as “symphonic jazz.”

FLETCHER HENDERSON

According to James Lincoln Collier, large bands such as those of Jean Goldkette, Casa Loma, and Ben Pollack fashioned their musical style after the Paul Whiteman band. Fletcher Henderson’s principal contribution, Collier maintains, was to transform dance band music from the so-called symphonic approach to a hotter musical style, by employing, towards that end, the outstanding jazz cornet/trumpet soloist Louis Armstrong. Subsequently, Duke Ellington hired trumpeter Bubber Miley and clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, and Paul Whiteman hired cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and saxophonist Frank Trumbauer to generate hot jazz sounds in their bands.

End Note

Assuming that Collier’s information in this matter is accurate, one must acknowledge that Grofe and Hickman were pivotal to the origination of the swing dance-band structural concept. Consequently there is clearly no excuse for these swing-band pioneers to be overlooked by jazz history textbooks. Omitting these seminal figures constitutes historical inaccuracy; therefore I call on future editions of existing jazz texts to address this subject by giving credit where credit is due.

Lee Evans

Lee Evans, Ed.D., is professor of music at NYC’s Pace University. In addition to his extensive catalogue of Hal Leonard books, his four fairly recent solo-piano books for The FJH Music Company include Color Me Jazz, Books 1 and 2 (late beginner/early intermediate levels); Ole! Original Latin-American Dance Music (intermediate level); and Fiesta! Original Latin-American Piano Solos (Upper intermediate level).

Dr. Evans is also co-author, along with four other writers including Dr. James Lyke, of Keyboard Fundamentals, 6th Edition (Stipes Publishing), a formerly two, but now one-volume beginning piano method for adult beginners of junior high school age and older.

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