Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Name That Genre

I spent this evening preparing for a re-take of my Spanish exam (tomorrow morning, wish me luck!), but also doing some preparation for a lecture I am doing next week. The class is "Music and Gender," and my contribution is discussing the post-WWII woman singers that I study, people like Doris Day, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, and so on. This is a repertoire I really like, and a good change of pace for me--unlike John Cage, this is stuff I can sing along to while driving to school.

I have this problem though. I never have any idea what to call this music. Above, when describing it, I gave the time period (post-WWII), the gender (women), and the fact that they were solo singers, but that description doesn't actually tell you anything about the genre and style of this music. And this isn't just a problem I am having, this is actually a problem with the way everyone discusses popular music of the second-half of the twentieth-century. What exactly do we call the style of music that was immensely popular in this country from about 1945 until rock n' roll hit in 1954?

Quick history lesson: Most jazz historians will tell you that during World War II, the great swing bands of the 1930s all shut down for lack of money and personnel. So when people trickled back into the country and the record industry began producing again in 1945, the participants in those swing bands went in three different directions:

1) a small number of instrumentalists started jamming at afterhours clubs in New York City, and produced a virtuosic and rarefied modernist style of jazz that came to be called be-bop.

2) a larger number of instrumentalists simply joined bands that were smaller and more stripped down than the big swing bands of yore. This gave a sound that was a bit more energetic and rawer. Instead of having a section of saxophones, you might just have one sax player, who would play loud and hard. This style becomes known as "jump blues," and is ultimately the music that becomes rock n' roll. Most people now would listen to this and think it just sounds like early rock n' roll. The only difference between this stuff and say, Bill Haley, is that the jump blues musicians were all black, and the music circulated in subcultural urban African-American communities, rather than in the white mainstream.

3) Back in the day, these big swing bands, like those lead by Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, and so on, all had vocalists. But they weren't the star of the show, and they tended not to sing songs that were focused solely on the singer. Rather, they would play long numbers, and the vocalist might join in for a verse or two. Doris Day's "Sentimental Journey" is an excellent example of this. Doris was just an unknown vocalist with the Les Brown Orchestra in the 1940s. Although most people now associate this song very strongly with her, if you listen to it now, you'll be amazed at how little she actually sings, and how most of the song is actually instrumental.

After World War II, the most popular style of music actually comes when all of these vocalists from the big bands strike out on their own. Obviously solo singers have been around forever (Bing Crosby, for example), but after the war music by famous vocalists becomes completely dominant on the pop charts, and stays there for decades.

This post is getting way too long, but again, I point out: what do we call this music? It isn't swing. Many of them called themselves just generic jazz, but importantly, many of them did not, especially the women singers. "Pop" works, but is way too vague. Today in the record store it usually gets classified under "Vocal," but that is also pretty vague.

Any thoughts?

1 comment:

sushipjs said...

Genres are a funny thing, aren't they? I guess the question to ask yourself is what the people of the period called the music. Say post-war pop vocals? I have no idea... I have the same genre problem with Brazilian music, since there are only really 3 genres that record companies acknowledge. Insane!