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WHY THE BIG BANDS DIED

12:00 AM, Sep 9, 1996 • By ERIC FELTEN
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Stan Kenton had a grand ambition. He wanted to transform jazz into the modern equivalent of classical music. Over the years, Kenton wandered down one blind and tone-deaf alley after another in search of his new musical paradigm. Even before he had figured out what he wanted his new highbrow music to sound like, Kenton did know one thing for sure -- it wouldn't be for dancing. Who, after all, dances in the rarefied world of the concert hall?


" Jazz bands don't belong in ballrooms or hotel grills," Kenton said in 1947, " not as long as they cater primarily to dancers." Thirty years later, in May 1977, Kenton's grand vision had taken him, not to the concert stage, but to the Lancer Steak House in Schaumberg, Ill. There, his band blared bombastic Latin-rock epics in strange meters at a befuddled audience. When he was offered feeble smatterings of perplexed applause, Kenton was finally driven to desperate measures: "We're gonna play you a couple of dance tunes and see if we have any takers. If we don't, then we'll go back to what we've been doing." He was met by laughter from the Lancer Steak House crowd, and he laughed in response. "Our reputation as a dance band couldn't be worse. So even if you don't know how to dance, push each other around the floor. It'll look good for us." The band's performance was recorded that night, and without the slightest irony Kenton released the album under the title " Artistry in Symphonic Jazz."


The sound the steak-house audience heard was the death rattle of jazz itself.


It is hard to remember that in the 1930s and '40s, jazz was the popular music. It was rock, country, pop, and rap mixed together. It was everything. Fifty years later, jazz accounts for a little less than 2 percent of all record sales, about half of which can be attributed to the Muzak-like saxophonist Kenny G. But in the 1930s, jazz bands of great artistic distinction -- Duke Ellington's, Benny Goodman's, Count Basie's, Tommy Dorsey's -- were also the most popular musical acts in America. Now, large jazz ensembles don't even make up a sliver of the music business.


The precipitous decline of the big bands after World War II is the great mystery of American music, a pop-culture conundrum as confounding as the fate of the Stonehenge Druids or the Hohokam Indians. Any number of explanations have been offered. There's the business-cycle explanation: Inflated wartime salaries and the postwar economic bust of 1946 made big bands an economic dinosaur. There's the right-to-work explanation: When the American Federation of Musicians called a strike in 1942 and refused to play on any commercial record for more than a year, singers rose to their current level of prominence while bandleaders and band members fell into obscurity. There's the anti-bebop explanation: With indecipherable melodies and cryptic harmonies, the music of Charlie Parker and others drove away all but the self- consciously cool. Finally, there's the "Rebel Without a Cause" explanation: Teenagers in the 1950s rejected swing for rock as a way to rebel against their big-band-loving parents.


All these explanations have merit, but they do not suffice. What killed the big bands was neither economics, taxes, changing popular tastes, nor new styles in youthful rebellion. No, the cultural ambitions of the bandleaders themselves sank the swing ship. They didn't want to play music for people to dance to; they wanted people to sit, close their eyes, and study the music as it played. Stan Kenton wasn't the only jazz musician to turn up his nose at a dancing audience; Artie Shaw's discontent was so deep that he walked away from music at the zenith of his popularity. "They always wanted to hear dance music," the 86-year-old Shaw sneered in a recent NPR interview. In a way, the big bands were victims of their own aesthetic achievement. As the swing era wore on, the number of serious jazz critics multiplied. And almost to a man, they whispered in bandleaders' ears: "You're too good for dancing; dancers don't deserve you; you belong on the concert stage."


The dance bands of the '30s and '40s ceased to be dance bands largely of their own accord. And in so doing they abandoned not only their raison d'etre, but the touchstone of their art. Nothing killed the big bands. They committed suicide.