Music has always been an indispensable element of radio broadcast. The station which would eventually become WHA, Wisconsin Public Radio, began its first music broadcasts as early as 1917. It is not surprising that we have a number of terrific music programs on the shelves here at OTRCat, which showcase a number of different musical styles. If we were to choose a single style of music to typify Old Time Radio, that style would have to be Big Band Jazz.
The origins of Jazz are muddied and complicated by both the passage of time and the fact that they were the result of many influences coming together. The most vital elements were the melding of the syncopated rhythms of Africa with the melodic traditions of European music.
When the slaves were freed after the Civil War it meant artistic freedom as well as economic. As more blacks sought fulfillment through artistic expression, they explored the remembered tribal rhythms, combining them with the melodicism and “square rhythms” of the European tradition. These musicians abandoned the “Oom-pah Oom-pah” styling from European courts and peasant villages.
The newly freed musicians explored beats, melodies and harmonies that were more “ragged”. Ragtime musicians were among the first to achieve financial success from their music. Success brought imitation as well as innovation.
As troops demobilized in the port of New Orleans after the Spanish American War, several military bands dumped their instruments on the local market. Black musicians were quick to purchase these instruments, although they often had to teach themselves how to play. This self taught ethos fit well into ragtime improvisation, but the surplus brass and woodwind sounded best when played in conjunction with other instruments.
The loose structure of Jazz needed some discipline to avoid becoming a caterwaul. Bands came together and “arranged” their music by rehearsing the pieces over and over again until they felt and sounded “right”. The membership of these bands changed regularly, sometimes weekly. Success depended upon musicians who could quickly fit in and bandleaders who could tame these disparate elements. This constant personnel change enforced the change which would become the hallmark of Jazz.
White musicians quickly became enthused about the artistic freedom and possibilities of Jazz. They also brought a measure of formality and discipline to Jazz, at least to the extent that Jazz could be formalized or disciplined. One of their greatest contributions greater formality and structure in arrangements. This structure would be beneficial as the bands became popular through the magic of radio.
Big Band Music popularity came in two distinct phases, both of which worked remarkably well for radio play. Beginning in the mid-twenties, Big Bands, typically 10-25 pieces, began to dominate popular music. This Sweet Jazz period was highly melodic, often quite danceable, but far too disciplined to truly be called Jazz. Some of the best surviving OTR examples from this period include, Live at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, and the Cocoanut Grove Ambassadors.
The disciplined approach made for some terrific music, but the enthusiasm of jazzmen for their craft is hard to contain, especially as more instrumentalists became bandleaders. The clarinets of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet stand out as examples. Improvements in electronic technology also gave vocalists a chance to come to the fore. Even the strongest human voices strain to be heard over the volume of a band, but through amplification, crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby could be heard in front of a swinging band, and pretty girl singers could be appreciated for more than their looks.
From the time it began to separate from Sweet Jazz, Swing was music for youth. There was little better than attending a concert performance of a favorite band, but if that was not possible, a dance party to records or even the radio would have been a welcome substitute. Like America itself, Swing Music “grew up” during WWII.
The War had a combination of effects on popular music. It concentrated some of its most ardent fans in troop camps and gave performers, both in and outside of the service, a ready and enthusiastic audience. Many bands experienced personnel shortages as players were drafted while those who held together found their popularity soaring. Big Band Swing became the de facto sound of the USO.
The War wasn’t all good for Swing Music. One of music’s most shining lights, Glenn Miller became a casualty of the War. Many bands folded when members joined the service. For most of the War, musicians were on strike against the recording industry. This gave even more importance to individual vocalists. Finally, listener tastes changed after the War.
Fortunately, the music lives on thanks to the great recordings of Old Time Radio!