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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Swinging Cinema, Part 1 (originally published 12/98)

Strange child that I was, there was a period in my youth when I all but abandoned the popular music of the time and became infatuated instead with the popular music of my parents' time. At a time when most of my contemporaries were listening to the Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane, I was snapping my fingers to the beat of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Count Basie. The energy and inventiveness of the great swing bands captured me utterly, leaving me a fan for life. Even after I returned to the fold of my own generation's music, learning somewhat late in the game to appreciate the musical delights of the Stones and the Airplane, among many others, I never lost my love of the big band sound. Even so, I accepted the fact that I was an exception to the rule. Swing music was already regarded as old fashioned by the time I discovered it. It had seen its day in the sun and had been relegated to the status of nostalgic artifact. I never once entertained the notion that it might one day see a revival on the contemporary pop music charts.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently heard an old Louis Prima tune on a radio station that normally confines itself to the current hits. Stranger still, it was not the Prima version I was hearing, but rather a new recording by a group with a name so impertinent that it could only belong to a nineties band. It seems that swing, against all odds, is back. If the current swing craze has caught your fancy, you should know that the "classics" section of the corner video store includes plenty of movies that swing to that same beat. Here are some titles to look for.

"King of Jazz" (1930). The title refers to bandleader Paul Whiteman, who modestly used that sobriquet during the height of his fame in the twenties and thirties. His band didn't really play swing music, but rather a blending of jazz rhythms with traditional orchestral instrumentation that Whiteman called "symphonic jazz." In that vein, it was Whiteman who conducted the premiere performance of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." This Hollywood extravaganza, featuring both the brand new talking picture process and the relatively new Technicolor process, is simply a musical revue without even the pretense of a plot. Think of a pre-swing era version of MTV and you'll get the idea. Highlights include "Rhapsody in Blue" and a big production number in which Whiteman stirs lots of musical influences together in a giant kettle to create jazz.

"Strike Up the Band" (1940). This is one of those great old "hey, kids, let's put on a show" musicals starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and directed by Busby Berkeley. In this one, the kids get their big break when they have the opportunity to play for Paul Whiteman himself as part of a contest. The score includes the big band classic "Sing, Sing, Sing."

"Sun Valley Serenade" (1941). The Idaho ski resort of Sun Valley is the setting for a this vehicle for former Olympic skating star Sonya Henie. While Henie's skating provides the visual appeal, entertainment for the ear is supplied by Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Their repertoire includes "It Happened In Sun Valley," "In the Mood," and "Chattanooga Choo Choo."

"The Glenn Miller Story" (1954). It was inevitable that Glenn Miller's life would become the subject matter of a movie biography. The circumstances of his untimely death - lost at sea when his small airplane encountered rough weather over the English Channel - gave the story the kind of dramatic finish that Hollywood just can't resist. Jimmy Stewart plays Glenn Miller, supported by June Allyson in the second of three movies in which she played Stewart's wife. The bulk of the film centers around Miller's search for the sound he hears in his head but can't seem to realize. Eventually, of course, it comes to him: a clarinet lead over four saxophones, the distinctive sound that made him one of the dominant figures in swing music. The film's musical highlight is a Harlem jam session featuring Louis Armstrong and legendary drummer Gene Krupa as themselves.

There's lots more swing where that came from. Get your zoot suit cleaned and pressed and come on back next week for some more big band movie titles.

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