Swing Time

Shake your blues away at Oregon Festival of American Music

Too rarely, a single musical style unites listeners who crave artistic innovation with those who just wanna get down. For a decade beginning in the mid-1930s, artists such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Artie Shaw and, above all, the magnificent Duke Ellington made immensely popular music that set American dancing — and also broke new artistic ground.

Running through Aug. 3 at The Shedd, the annual Oregon Festival of American Music revisits one of America’s great contributions to music — swing.

In 10 concerts, vibes master Chuck Redd directs a dozen of the city’s top singers (including Evynne Hollens, Shirley Andress, Siri Vik and Bill Hulings), an ace band made up of some of the nation’s leading performers of this classic music (trumpeter Byron Stripling, pianist Ted Rosenthal, guitarists Howard Alden and Frank Vignola), plus local jazz musicians and the Emerald City Jazz Kings. 

Swing (called in other contexts “groove” and even “rubato” — it’s all about straying from the square, steady beat to get your body moving) grew out of ’20s jazz, adding danceable rhythmic vitality to old tunes and spawning new ones.

Thursday, July 25, afternoon’s “Chasing Shadows” show (repeats the night of Thursday, Aug. 1) surveys the biggest hits of the era’s biggest band, the Dorsey Brothers, which catapulted one of its young lead singers, Frank Sinatra, to early stardom. Hits like “Tangerine,” “Chicago” and “Pennies from Heaven” mingle with lesser-known (today, at least) tracks like the title number. 

Thursday night (repeats Wednesday afternoon, July 31), celebrates the greatest swing musician — and one of America’s greatest artists of any kind — Ellington, who excelled in a lot more than straight swing in his long, starry career. Early pre-swing era hits like “Creole Love Call,” “Mood Indigo” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” get the full swing treatment alongside Duke’s incomparable 1940s classics like “Passion Flower,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and the band’s theme song, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” If you can only catch a single show, this is the one.

Friday (July 26) afternoon’s “Benny!” show (repeats Saturday night, Aug. 3) showcases the so-called King of Swing, clarinetist and bandleader Goodman. Hits include “Let’s Dance,” “Body and Soul,” the spectacular “Sing Sing Sing,” plus less familiar fare for both big band and small combo.

What really made swing go was the explosive drummers of the era (some of whom led their own bands), like Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Jo Jones, Buddy Rich, Shelly Manne and more. Friday night’s (July 26) concert (repeats Thursday afternoon, Aug. 1) pays tribute with some of the period’s drum-fueled hits, including what’s for my moolah the most thrilling of all swing tunes, Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” Expect solos from Redd and fellow drummer Matt Witek.

The big bands grabbed most of the attention, but some of the finest swing emerged from small combos led by Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Red Norvo and, across the pond, Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s airier gypsy swing. Without so much need to keep feet dancing, they also made room for ballads. This Saturday, July 27, afternoon’s show (repeats Wednesday night, Aug. 31) features “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “I Got it Bad” and more.

Swing’s poppier side really showed during World War II, when the world needed sweet tunes. Saturday, July 27, night’s “Moonlight Serenade” concert (repeats Saturday afternoon, Aug. 3) showcases vocal hits (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “In the Mood” and others) by the big dance bands led by Shaw and Glenn Miller.

The festival’s second week offers re-runs of some first-week shows plus other delights like Sunday, July 28, afternoon’s cabaret style jazz party. Tuesday’s, July 30, “Satchmo Swings” turns one of today’s finest trumpet masters, Stripling, loose on Armstrong’s hits (“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Potato Head Blues” etc.) and relative rarities.

Friday’s, Aug. 2, “One O’clock Jump” spotlights the great swing pianists, with Rosenthal leading a small combo in hits by Basie, the immortal Fats Waller, Goodman’s secret weapon Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines and more.

And Saturday, Aug. 3, night’s finale showcases two of the decade’s signature moments: Goodman’s famous 1935 Avalon Ballroom concert (which unofficially kicked off the Swing Era) and his even more-renowned 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, one of the most important performances in the history of American music. The festival also offers abundant free films, talks and even a community sing-along. 

Swing faded when the postwar economic slump killed most of the big bands, and changing times produced changing styles. Jazz artists seeking more artistic freedom made the music less about danceability and more about art, from bebop to cool jazz to more abstract styles.

Younger generations wanted their own dance music, from rock on down. But frequent swing revivals and spinoffs — Bob Wills’s countrified western swing in the ’50s to Manhattan Transfer and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks in the ’70s to recent resurrections by Stray Cats, Squirrel Nut Zippers and, of course, Eugene’s own Cherry Poppin’ Daddies — prove that the form is durable and robust enough to incorporate modern styles. As long as humans gotta dance, they’ll have music that swings. 

For a more intimate jazz experience, check out Saturday’s Broadway House concert featuring a reunion of some of the finest young jazz musicians to emerge from the UO (and, sadly for us, often move on to New York and other jazz capitals) over the past decade. Trumpeter Josh Deutsch’s band includes saxophonists Hashem Assadullahi and UO prof Steve Own, Portland pianist Greg Goebel and drummer Jason Palmer and more top-flight jazz musicians. They can swing, too. To reserve seats email pbodin@uoregon.edu.