In 1987 President Reagan invited Miles Davis to a formal dinner at the White House. He went, but wasn’t impressed. “[White people in Washington] stay stupid and make me and a lot of other black people feel bad because of their ignorance. And the President sitting up there and don’t know what to say. Man, they should have written down something hip for him to say, but they ain’t got nobody hip nowhere around him. Just a bunch of mother****ers with plastic smiles, acting all proper and s**t.”
Davis’ anger wasn’t entirely unjustified; conservatives have always had trouble appreciating jazz. In 1934 H. L. Mencken wrote of swing–dancing couples “bumping and grunting over the dance floor like dying hogs in a miasmatic pen”—and that at the height of the Swing Era. Fourteen years later, Richard Weaver called jazz “the clearest of all signs of our age’s deep–seated predilection for barbarism.”
Times have changed. Mark Gauvreau Judge, author of If It Ain’t Got That Swing, is a cultural conservative with more swing in his step. Contra Weaver, Judge claims that a recent resurgence of interest in swing music reveals Gen X’s predilection for an age less barbaric than its own. The success of bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Squirrel Nut Zippers, the renewed popularity of ballrooms, commercials, and movies featuring hip, swing–dancing teens—it all adds up to “nothing less than a pop culture revolt against the youth culture of the last forty years.”
Although Judge doesn’t say as much, If It Ain’t Got That Swing tries to correct a long–standing oversight that has dangerous implications for conservatism. Judge’s apology for neo–swing forces us to ask why conservatives have never much cared for jazz, and, more importantly, to determine precisely what they were missing.
Judge begins by describing Shaw, the Washington, D.C., neighborhood where Duke Ellington grew up. From Ellington’s childhood to the heyday of swing in the 1930s and early ’40s, Shaw was a close–knit community. Everyone knew each other, no one locked their doors at night, and kids respected their elders.
And they danced. Halls and theaters figured prominently in Shaw’s social life, as did a variety of coffee shops, diners, and similar hangouts. Men and women spent a lot of time in these “third places,” where they were expected to act like gentlemen and ladies. Swing dancing reflected their manners: dancers dressed well and treated each other with respect.
In Judge’s telling, the 1960s brought the “moral deregulation of public space.” Families fled Shaw and other communities, commuting along newly built federal highways to nearby suburbs. Inner cities declined as they spent the social capital they had built up. The suburbs, with their picket–fence anomie, couldn’t recreate Shaw’s swinging public life. A “culture of narcissism” filled the gap. Mick Jagger, that bard of narcissism, overthrew Duke Ellington, tolling the advent of the pop culture dark ages. For some thirty years now America has suffered under the tyranny of poorly dressed, self–righteous, would–be rebels and their oppressive kingdom of noise. This is music for the suburbs, Judge suggests, a soundtrack for lonely bowlers and the spoiled spawn of soccer moms.
But everything changed on April 21, 1998. That evening, a slowly emerging trend lindy hopped onto the national stage when a commercial for Gap khakis featuring a few dozen hip twenty–somethings dancing to the swing song “Jump, Jive & Wail” aired on NBC. Swing dancing had been winning over youngsters since the early nineties, and had even been documented in two popular films, Swing Kids (1993) and Swingers (1996). But the Gap commercial announced its arrival to a large, receptive audience.
According to Judge, the receptiveness stemmed from a deep–seated dissatisfaction with post–sixties American life. Now swing kids are struggling to revive everything rock, rap, and grunge killed—nice clothes, manners, and class. Judge goes so far as to claim that “swing is the first fad that has kids looking to grandparents and traditional rules for what’s hip.”
This last claim is tenuous at best, but it reveals where Judge—and the neo–swing movement, for that matter—go wrong. Our grandparents (or more likely, great–grandparents) would find little to admire in the revival of their era’s music. Neo–swing is not a genuine recreation of swing, as Judge and many neo–swing musicians believe, but merely a poor imitation. Back then, the conventional wisdom was summed up nicely by the phrase from which Judge takes his title, “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”—the implied corollary of which is, “as long as it swings, nothing else means a thing.” As long as one could dance to it—and one could dance equally well to the music of any group that could keep the beat—the rest, from the perspective of the dancing masses, was icing. The better musicians took full advantage of this fact, wedding a danceable rhythm to challenging harmonics and inspired improvisation, producing a single musical form capable of pleasing aesthetes along with everyone else.
But you’d never know it by listening to today’s neo–swing bands. These groups seem to have taken their cue from Swing Era album covers instead of the records inside: they are all swagger and style, the shiny gloss of swing without any of its musical substance. Dancing plays a larger role in neo–swing than in old swing. Judge’s book, for example, focuses almost exclusively on swing dancing while being largely deaf to swing music.
The most telling example of Judge’s tendency to ignore the music of the Swing Era is his inability to see any significant difference between swing and early rock. He writes that in the beginning rock ’n’ roll “was just swing music played leaner and tighter,” that “Elvis wasn’t far from swing music,” that the Beatles were “brilliant musicians” just like Art Blakey and John Coltrane. Judge seems to assume that simply because a certain strain of swing developed into rhythm and blues, which led in turn to rock, rock bears a close resemblance to swing. Something has gone dreadfully wrong when one can barely distinguish the artistic mastery of an Ellington, Count Basie, or Jimmy Lunceford from the sort of blues–driven, power chord dependent noise that today’s ten–year–olds can play after a few weeks of guitar lessons. Judge is right to praise swing—perhaps more right than he knows. But like most of the neo–swingers, he looks back without listening. And this is a shame, since real swing—not the modern version—deserves more respect from conservatives than it has hitherto received.
Conservative criticism of swing tends to be of two types. First, there are those conservatives, ably represented by Richard Weaver, who question the possibility of post–Christian art altogether. Art was meaningful when people took their bearings from a source of truth higher than and independent of themselves. But without a shared framework of beliefs art cannot help turning into expression and creation for no purpose; in a word, decadence. The artist no longer creates for the greater glory of God. Instead, he allows himself to take the place of God. “In ‘swing’,” writes Weaver, “one hears a species of music in which the performer is at fullest liberty to express himself as an egoist.”
If art detached from transcendental ends is decadent, one must admit that jazz—from its origins in ragtime and Dixieland, to the Swing Era, and to bop and beyond—is a decadent art form. No jazz musician plays for the greater glory of God, nor for any universal idea—at least not consciously so, and probably not unconsciously either, as jazz musicians’ consciences are modern through and through. Although church hymns and Negro spirituals had a significant influence on jazz during its infancy, it would be wrong to claim jazz as a Christian art form. Jazz lyrics, for the most part, have little to do with Christian themes; the sentiments jazz inspires bear little resemblance to the agape associated with godly music. Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So” is somewhat less edifying than Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.
But all decadence is not created equal. Those critics who constantly scream “decadence” whenever they come across modern music drown out the considerable differences between Ellington and Elvis, or, for that matter, between Ellington and Eminem. They miss, in other words, the best features of jazz, those qualities that jazz shares with the art produced in more reverent ages.
Jazz, even in its swing period, is a music of complex harmonics and demanding standards. The artistic mastery achieved by the great jazz masters is comparable, if not superior, to that of the geniuses of classical music. In fact, many of the greatest jazz musicians—Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman—were classically trained. Gunther Schuller, an acclaimed critic of jazz and classical music, writes that “in the classical field, a player of Hines’ prodigious gifts, had he been white, would have had a brilliant concert or solo career. Black musicians in the 1920s knew, however, that such prospects were to all intents and purposes precluded.” The same could be said of Tatum, whom Rachmaninov is said to have admired.
Weaver acknowledges the technical virtuosity of jazz musicians, but claims nevertheless that such skill only makes jazz more dangerous because more powerful. The power of jazz forces us to recognize its fundamental tendency, which he describes variously as “a triumph of grotesque, even hysterical, emotion over propriety and reasonableness”; a repudiation of restraint by intellect that expresses contempt and hostility toward our traditional society and mores; and a music with sexual and farcical subjects that “shows how the soul of modern man craves orgiastic disorder.” If jazz is bent on destroying traditional mores, it does not do so because it is undisciplined music; rather, according to Weaver’s argument, jazz is destructive because of the passions it inspires.
But does jazz really inspire men’s appetite for destruction? On its face, this claim seems ridiculous. Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” is anything but a revolt against traditional mores; Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” would serve nicely as a musical expression of Weaver’s nostalgia for the rootedness of an earlier day. If not an urge to destroy, what sentiments are associated with jazz? Jazz does encourage a certain breed of pride in one’s work; swing musicians knew they were playing challenging music, and those who mastered it sought recognition of their talent. For this reason, some of the best musicians of the Swing Era—Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Nat King Cole—took aristocratic nicknames. The best players in each band would take several solos, standing while playing so the crowd could acknowledge them for their skill.
Swing also gives voice to a wholesome sort of romance, usually suffused with a lover’s respect and admiration for his love. In fact, several of the most popular songs of the Swing Era were romantic ballads like Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” or his “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” Robert Bork praised such songs in Slouching Towards Gomorrah when he contrasted the lyrics of the jazz classic “The Way You Look Tonight” with those of Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Horny.” But the romantic side of swing is not limited to lyrics, nor to the chivalry and gallantry Judge finds in swing dancing. Rather, there is something romantic in the music itself: the characteristic swing rhythm and syncopation can seem impatient, eager to rush forward, in up–tempo songs; on the other hand, swing’s distinctive rhythm hangs on the back edge of each beat in slower songs, making for lovely ballads. A swing ballad moves the listener not so much to lust as to a simultaneously avid and restrained romantic passion. So swing may well be a decadent art form, in Weaver’s terms, but this does not mean that it corrodes traditional mores or admirable secular virtues.
The power of records and radio, two technologies born only a few years before swing reached its height, made jazz the first genuinely popular music. The second main conservative criticism of jazz finds such popularity suspicious, affecting an aristocratic disdain for whatever pleases the masses. Mencken, for instance, wrote of swing that “no matter what syncopations may be attempted in the upper parts, the drums and bull–fiddle bang along like metronomes, and that is the thing that soothes and delights the customers. It is music reduced to its baldest elementals, and hence music that they can follow.” In this criticism, great art is the province of the few; art for the ill–bred, uneducated hoi polloi as such cannot be great.
Although superficially different, this second criticism is closely related to Weaver’s attack on jazz’s “decadence.” An art that appeals to people regardless of education, taste, or privilege must find a denominator common to the members of its audience—such art will be mediocre, if not low. In a post–Christian age, the only people with access to universal, unchanging, and high things are philosophers and those Christians devout enough to live godly lives amidst a host of ungodly influences. Unless most people are already pious, art with wide appeal will have as its end a vulgar sentiment, one that the impious will find good or pleasurable. The universal pleasure par excellence is sex, and so an art at once decadent and popular is likely to be for the greater glory of sex, not God. And in the case of rock music and rap, we see this tendency writ large, as decadence feeds popularity and vice–versa. This second conservative criticism—that a popular music must necessarily be a low music—boasts a distinguished pedigree. Socrates would have told us to expect a universal lowness within a regime devoted to equality. Tocque ville might give similar advice, though perhaps with emphasis on the mediocrity, not necessarily lowness, of democratic art.
But, at least in the case of jazz, such criticisms mislead. Swing, at its best, had the characteristics of both aristocratic and democratic music: harmonics and improvisation for aesthetes, and a steady, danceable rhythm for everyone else. So long as this compromise lasted—and it did until the best jazz musicians pushed the tempo to an undanceable pace—swing resembled the ancients’ mixed regime, not in speech, but in music.
This, ultimately, is swing’s lesson: popularity does not necessarily imply universal mediocrity or lowness; unequal tastes and talents can thrive within a commitment to a common endeavor so long as they respect the limits. Swing music reveals how human excellence happens in democracies. It is not mere coincidence that Weaver expresses deep suspicion of democracy while decrying jazz; to ignore the virtues of the latter is to misunderstand the possibilities of the former. Any conservatism that charges itself with reminding rabid egalitarians of the existence of virtue—a form of inequality they would just as soon forget—cannot afford to criticize swing music. Nor, for that matter, can conservatism afford to praise swing music as Mark Judge does: by waxing nostalgic for the bygone communitarian paradise in which swing first emerged.
Miles Davis’ criticism—that conservatives are ignorant when it comes to jazz—was perhaps more prescient than he himself knew. To acknowledge the greatness of swing music is to recognize that human excellence is compatible with pleasing the common man. It is the lesson of swing, and conservatives would do well to listen.
Hugh Liebert is a senior at Harvard College, where he studies political theory.