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Who Mourns For Basie?

Editor's Note: Our very own David Rutter not only writes for the Beachwood but plays third chair trombone in the Big Band Sound of Deerfield.

For reasons no one but musicians know, Fletcher Henderson was the most influential man in modern music - before the Beatles.

The jazz great of the 1920s was a pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer, who handed his musical arrangements to clarinetist Benny Goodman.

Though he bridged Dixieland into Big Band music on stage and recordings, Henderson could never break through the racial divide of pop music success, though his writing, arranging, and performances were incendiary.

So he became Goodman's musical muse.

Here, Benny, your band should play these.

So Goodman's great band did.

He became a musical founder, a national star in 1935 on radio and big band Swing music as a phenomenon was invented.

That sound - Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman and the Dorsey brothers among 200 others - carried us musically into the 1950s. It was American as Apple Brown Betty.

Those who still love that music the most still play it regularly. Or did until four months ago when the pandemic arrived.

Of all the punishments inflicted by the COVID-19 virus, human suffering has been staggering.

But the virus has afflicted us all with other, more subtle cultural wounds.

There are dozens of community based big Swing bands arrayed around Chicago playing that old-time Swing. But they all are silent now.

Just as the pandemic shut down movies, live bar music, musical stages, and theatricals of all kinds from the Chicago Symphony down to dinner theaters, the virus also has flicked off the lights on Chicago's Swing community.

But there will be a Ravinia summer fest next year in Highland Park, and a Lollapalooza. But will Swing survive? That's a more nuanced question

Owen Marks hopes so. He has been a teacher, arranger, conductor, and player in such bands for 30 years. His current primary gig is directing the Big Band Sound of Deerfield, a 20-piece full swing band that has been in continuous operation for 40 years. It plays everywhere north of the Loop.

"Strictly in terms of very local groups, besides Deerfield there's the In Session Orchestra, RJO (Reunion Jazz Orchestra), OMJB (Old Man's Jazz Band), Highland Park Pops, Lakes Area Swing Band, Night Express, and those are just within about 30 minutes or so of Deerfield," Marks said in an e-mail conversation. "I think there are many more than most folks realize."

And the future?

"I believe that there is a very high risk of these bands not surviving thanks to the principle of inertia," said Marks, who is a classically trained bassist and trumpeter. "By the time our facility (Patty Turner Community Center in Deerfield) becomes available, particularly if we're talking about a year or more, I think it's likely that some members will have forgotten what they enjoyed about playing and will stay entrenched in their new pastime. It's also possible that practice facilities will never reopen to large groups, having decided that it's not worth the risk of having lawsuits brought against them by people who went to rehearsals and got sick."

Is there some risk that we are witnessing a tectonic shift in cultural habits and expectations?

Because Swing is only a modest slice of the entire music pie, its margins are always slimmer. The casts of amateur bands are mostly 70- and 60-year-old retirees. They are not only at-risk physically to the virus, but also culturally. Maybe Swing simply goes away because the audience - also primarily older listeners in residential centers - also face attrition.

Or maybe the virus will do to Swing what rock 'n' roll could not. Doom it.

"I think there's lots of risk there," Marks said. "People have always combined a love of the arts with socializing. Folks go to the symphony together; they go to the movies together, and sporting events and rock concerts and comedy shows . . . although I hope I'm wrong, the consequences could be these venues closing before there is a vaccine and before people begin to feel safe gathering in crowds again. People will lose the expectation and excitement of an upcoming live show because they won't want to attend."

So what? All live music is shelved. There always will be recordings of the old greats, and many listeners revere those sounds.

Vintage radio programming does not disappear.

But big band music is a complicated art form that must be played live and heard live to be appreciated. It's meant for dance partners.

"I have missed it terribly because to me and to so many others, music is inextricably tied to emotion," Marks notes.

"Being classically and technically trained in music I might listen with different ears than some others. But what fun music is! What joy! By the way, that's just the listeners . . . being a player is a whole 'nother side of that universe. The satisfaction THERE is starting with music that seems a bit out of reach, working it and working it and working it, and then, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, the notes on paper make a magical transformation into music."

It takes years for a group to get good at Swing, and hours of rehearsal to maintain the edge. For example, the Big Band Sound of Deerfield has 500 arrangements from which to produce live performances.

Culture, after all, is an expressive entertainment and necessarily less important in a reality where people are dying.

But given the age of both its players and audience, Swing music's lifeline is fragile. That's one reason the BBSOD maintains a reserve roster of 70 players who wish to summoned for fill-in duty.

Music that has melded into the Great American Songbook might go away forever if no one is left to play it. Will anyone remember Ellington, Stan Kenton or Glenn Miller?

Or songstress Ella Fitzgerald?

Swing is a continuum of decades, musicians, and singers who span those decades.

Now even the always-being-reconstructed touring Count Basie Orchestra has gone dark, as has the brilliant Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in New York under Wynton Marsalis.

Musically speaking, the entire world has gone dark.

Will Swing survive?

No one knows the answer to that question, and the world has a lot on its mind now.

But music fans should be worried as if this art were an old friend struck down by a virus and is unable to rise up.


Recently by David Rutter:

* Kris Bryant's Future Bar Trick.

* Mansplaining To A Millionaire.

* Status Check: Chicago Sports.

* The Week In WTF Redux: Blago Is Back Edition.

* What Is A Chicagoan Anyway?

* Glenn Beck's Turn In The Volcano.

* Only Science Will Bring Back Sports.

* I Loathe The Lockdown Protestors.

* Reopening Books.

* A Return To Abnormalcy.

* I'm Having A Down Day Emotionally. Here's Why.

* So Long, Jerry.

* A Special "Trump's Bible" Edition Of WTF.

* 5 Things An Angry Old White Man Wants To Say.

* An ANTIFA American Hero.

* The Fonz Lives And Franco Is Dead: News You Can't Use.

* Gone With The Wind: My Lost Cause.

* How To (Pretend To) Negotiate A Labor Deal.

* The Mystery Of Mitch's Missing Motivation.

* Dave's French Foreign Legion Tour Of Chicagoland.

* Remember The '85 Bears? Actually, No You Don't.

* On Boredom.

* Wherever Rod Moore Is, I Hope He's Safe.

* Blackhawk's Life Mattered.

* A Blackhawks Proposal.

* Launching College Football.

* Tom Hanks Meets His Match.

* The Truth About Hamilton.

* Goodbye, Columbus.


David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and more importantly, the former author of the Beachwood's late, great "The Week In WTF" column. You can also check him out at his Theeditor50's blog. He welcomes your comments.


Posted on July 31, 2020

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