Swing It: An Annotated History of Jive
The history of jazz music is rich with characters, “scenes,” stages in music development and musical progress—all peppered with its own mythology.
One feature of the jazz world over the years is the way a number of its people developed and perpetuated a special insider language. The black codified lingo, as it were, may have been started with the idea of mystifying white people who ruled the roost, but later delineated who was hip and who was square. It became an emblem.
Swing It: An Annotated History of Jive, by Bill Milkowski (Billboard Books, 288 pages) gives a broad glance into the history of the hipsters from the beginning up through the group’s and people today who are still trying to keep it alive in retro fashion (Whether the retro groups add any value is debatable, but Milkowski reports on them. He doesn’t judge them).
The book doesn’t just deal with what many know as the swing era. This catalog of jump and jive covers all eras, through bebop and beyond. The lingo and its innovative cast of creators and keepers of the flame were a source of intrigue to the author, and it has resulted in a delightful presentation on the subject.
The book covers a lot of ground, but quickly. All of the major artists and the other important players are the subject of informative essays, but they’re relatively short. One can peruse the styles and stylists quickly, but still get a good feeling for why they fall into to swing hipster category and what they contributed to it.
In today’s world, where Internet and even newspapers are thinking in terms of writing shorter and snappier for today’s supposedly “busier” people (dilapidating attention spans?), this book seems to fall in line. But it’s a good trip, entertaining and educational.
Milkowski is an excellent writer (you can find his work in mags like Downbeat and JazzTimes and he has authored books including a fine bio of Jaco Pastorious), but that doesn’t really come to the fore in this book, due to its short, punchier format. But he’s done a great job of researching and it fully encompasses the genre. He also provides a solid and valuable discography, as well as a list of various references where people can go to read and learn more about these artists, including good Internet web sites.
The foreword by Tim Hauser (1/4 of the Manhattan Transfer) is captivating and Milkowski sets the stage nicely in his introduction. Then it’s off to the players, starting with the “godfathers”: Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, one to major purveyors of hip and jive like Louis Jordan and Slim Gaillard.
Along the way it touches on the blues, the bebop era, the New Orleans, white contributors, women hep cats, and today’s bands that have had some success donning zoot suits and swinging. It’s fun to read and learn more about Harry “the Hipster,” Mezz Mezzrow, Babs Gonzalez and King Pleasure, along with a lineup of lesser known, but interesting others. Most people know Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Jon Hendricks and Ella Fitzgerald. They’re probably aware of Mose Allison, Bob Dorough and Ben Sidran as well, but the write-ups place them properly where they belong in the hip parade. It’s enjoyable to read about Ingrid Lucia of today’s Flying Neutrinos, Connee Boswell of the 1930s, Lavay Smith, Annie Ross and so many more.
There’s even a glossary of hip terminology for those of you who got your boots on. With plenty of pictures and other visuals, the book is slick and easy to negotiate.
Like the music style of its ambassadors, Milkowski’s book is fun. So, if you have eyes for it, get your dukes on the book-o-reeni, grab some juice, cop a squat and goof. You won’t bust your conk and you might just dip and dive on this mess o’ jive.