Class Of 39: Lindy Hopping Down The Yellow Brick Road


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A decade after the crash that caused the Great Depression, Americans were eager to embrace a new sense of hope. In 1939, some of the best movies and pop songs of all time lightened the load for the 17.2 % of the population still without a job.

This week on Riverwalk Jazz, performances by guest artists Lionel Hampton, Bob Barnard, Dick Hyman and Brian Ogilivie track the state of jazz music in 1939 with popular songs heard that year on the airwaves, in Hollywood movies and Broadway shows, and live on New York's 52nd St.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website.

In 1939, the politics of race continued to be part of the national dialogue. After the Daughters of the American Revolution refused permission for African-American concert singer Marian Anderson to perform to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall in Washington DC, she performed for 75,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. With the backing of the first independent jazz record label, Commodore Records, Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit,” a song with graphic lyrics about lynching in the South.

Americans were obsessed with radio. There were 44 million radios in homes and cars. Everyone laughed at Jack Benny and thrilled to episodes of The Shadow. In sports, radio was there live when Joe Louis defended his heavyweight title and won—twice in ’39—and when power-hitter Lou Gehrig announced his retirement from baseball in his famous “luckiest man” speech.

Radio fueled an insatiable demand for swinging jazz music—and lots of it. Benny Goodman reigned as the “King of Swing,” and could set a concert hall of jitterbugging teenagers on fire with his clarinet and “killer-diller" big band. Yet the big event of 1939 for Goodman was the moment he invited a shy, Oklahoma-born guitarist named Charlie Christian to join his band. Although his tenure with Goodman was brief, Christian changed the course of jazz with his playing and compostitions for Goodman’s Sextet, and his contributions to the famous jam sessions at Harlem's Minton's Playhouse, an important incubator for the early be-bop movement.

In 1939, while on tour with the Goodman band, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton had the jitters about his first airplane ride. When Goodman assured him there was no other way to get from Los Angeles to Atlantic City for their next gig, Hampton used his nervous energy to compose his signature song, “Flyin’ Home,” during the flight.

1939 was also the year that the enormously popular Glenn Miller Orchestra recorded “In the Mood,” to this day one of the most-played tunes from the Swing Era.

Another very popular swing band of 1939 was led by Bob Crosby, Bing's younger brother. The band was a cooperative of great hot players, among them trumpeter Billy Butterfield, who that year had a hit with Bob Haggart's “What's New?," to this day an often-performed jazz standard.

1939 was the year that tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman formed his Summa Cum Laude small band. The recordings they made, including “Easy to Get," established Bud's place as one of the most important and influential musicians of the Swing Era.

In 1939, Jerome Kern was in his third decade of composing enduring hit songs for Broadway musicals. The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra’s arrangement of Kern’s “All the Things You Are” climbed the charts for 13 weeks in 1939. Kern strongly believed that his songs should be performed exactly as he composed them. He would therefore be horrified to know that “All the Things You Are” is today one of the staples of jam sessions worldwide, subject to endless de-construction and improvised variation by generations of jazz players.

In the Third-Reich Germany of 1939, Adolph Hitler banned jazz and swing as “degenerate music.” But on New York’s fabled 52nd Street, half a dozen high-octane jazz clubs lined the pavement in one block alone. The Onyx where John Kirby held forth with Charlie Shavers and Maxine Sullivan, the Famous Door where the Count Basie Orchestra wedged itself onto a tiny stage, the Three Deuces and Jimmy Ryan’s were open from dusk to dawn.

Working his gig at Kelley’s Stables, Coleman Hawkins had been playing the same pop standard just about every night. At the end of a recording session in October 1939, Hawkins tossed it off as an after-thought and almost forgot he’d recorded it. Today, Hawkins’ 1939 version of “Body and Soul” is required listening for jazz saxophonists of all stripes.

Bandleaders Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and tap dance star Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson starred in the World’s Fair Edition of the year’s popular revue—The Cotton Club Parade. Two songs in the show made a splash—Sammy Cahn’s “You’re a Lucky Guy” performed by Armstrong and “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” introduced by Calloway.

1939 was an extraordinary year for the movies. Two of the top ten most popular films of all time were released that year—Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. It was the year of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring Jimmy Stewart. Shirley Temple was The Little Princess, and Bob Hope starred in the screwball comedy, Some Like it Hot, from which came a hit song of the season—”The Lady’s in Love with You.”

Moviegoers lined up to see the The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Judy Garland topped the charts with the year’s Academy Award-winning song—”Over the Rainbow.” Ahead of its time in using special effects, Technicolor, and fantasy storytelling, The Wizard of Oz has become the most-watched film in history, according to the Library of Congress. Harold Arlen's score raised the bar for jazz and swing-inspired movie compostition.

Every newsreel in every movie theater in the country chronicled the build-up of troops in Germany in 1939. After the invasion of Poland, no one was surprised when President Roosevelt told the nation in September that the war in Europe had begun. For the most part Americans spent the year free of war’s grim realities, except for the thousands who poured into theaters to see the Civil War reenacted in Gone with the Wind. But a song made famous by the British singer Vera Lynn—”We’ll Meet Again”—set the tone for a world that would soon be at war.

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