If you want to know what America was like at different points in time, listen to the music. While sheet music and recordings are hardly perfect reflections of our culture—demographic and regional tastes are never unified nor do they shift in lockstep—music can offer compelling clues. After all, music's primary purpose is to appeal to listeners—challenging artists to nibble around the edges to find the soft spots while remaining true to their aesthetic.
In the years leading up to America's entry into World War II in December 1941, much of the world was already at war or on the brink. These mounting tensions weren't lost on American anxieties, which had already been stretched thin by World War I and a grueling Depression. [Photo above of Armistice Day 1937 in New York by Irwin Shaw]
Despite a series of Neutrality Acts passed by Congress in the 1930s, the national pulse was racing in anticipation of the inevitable. Nazi Germany occupied the Rhineland in 1937 and invaded Austria in 1938. Fascist Italy was tearing around Africa. And Japan was at war in China. [Pictured above: New York's Roxy Theater in 1937]
Growing fear over global events that America couldn't stop or control was the Swing Era's backdrop. With rising nationalism and militarization in the 1930s as well as rising ethnic hatred in Europe and Asia, the music here grew both hot and sweet. [Photo above of New York's Fifth Ave. in 1938 by Irwin Shaw]
Among the bands that neatly reflected the uncertainty and quest for calm was Artie Shaw's Rhythm Makers. The band recorded between March 1937 and February 1938 and is perhaps Shaw's finest orchestra. This band escapes many Shaw fans, who tend to begin their listening with the July '38 recording of Begin the Beguine. But to Shavian purists, the Rhythm Makers band has a charm and appeal all its own.
For one, the band maintained a smart, chunky Fox Trot beat throughout this period, which still keeps your feet tapping reflexively. For another, Shaw's clarinet had a measured, modern sound even then—swinging in and out of the day's melodies as if trying to settle the band's agitation. And lastly, most of the arranging was handled by Shaw and Jerry Gray, one of the swing era's finest and most overlooked penmen.
Virtually every track recorded by Shaw's Rhythm Makers opens large, with reeds taking the melodic lead and horns providing hip counterpoint. Typically, Shaw sauntered into the mix for a bit before an over-rendered vocal by Peg LaCentra, Nita Bradley or Bea Wain. Then Shaw came sailing back in, swinging gracefully with that ice-blue clarinet in the upper register. It's perfection.
To fully understand Shaw on and off the bandstand, this orchestra is as good a place as any to begin your analysis. Shaw's notorious restlessness and unhappiness with the quality of his future bands may well stem from the high bar he set with this first band...
I don't know how Shaw felt about the Rhythm Makers, but after giving all of the recordings an intensive listen, I'd bet that in Shaw's mind it was all downhill after this band. I don't think Shaw was ever able to duplicate the band's skin-tight quality. From rhythm section to reeds and trumpets, the orchestra provided Shaw with just the right level of tension and stretched elasticity, allowing him to bounce around on his clarinet. [Pictured above: Artie Shaw and Jerry Gray]
When Shaw folded and started a succession of bands in search of new sounds in the '40s, I suspect this is the sound and feel he was trying to recapture. A band wound so tight that clarinet notes would spring off the surface when dropped.
By 1941, America's pastoral days were ending. The cities—with their ports and communication centers—were becoming cerebral, rational hubs, replacing the heart found in the farmlands, the hollows and the hills. But in 1937 and the first part of '38, Shaw's band was a metro ensemble that was still in awe of America's innocent soul. [Pictured above: Port of Los Angeles in February 1942]
Three weeks after Pearl Harbor, Shaw enlisted in the Navy and when he returned after the war, Shaw and his bands took on a new purpose and role. But for a brief 12-month period in 1937 and early '38, Shaw was in an enviable groove and would spend the rest of his musical career trying to recapture that illusive something special. Fortunately for us that sound is all here.
JazzWax tracks: The only set available on this band comes from the U.K. It's Artie Shaw: The Complete Rhythm Makers Sessions 1937-1938—three double-CD sets from Flyright Records in 2003, with liner notes by John McDonough. The sound is terrific. You'll find them here, here and here.
JazzWax clips: Here are three tracks that say it all...