Today's musicians hate what they called a "Top 40" gig -- and increasingly there is no other. Used to be, when you played a Top 40 gig, you played in a regular band, with full instrumentation -- guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, singers -- and duplicated, as nearly as possible note-for-note, the hits of the day and the hits of the past. That's bad enough, being a live jukebox. But at least you had other musicians to play with.
Today, with the advent of synthesizers and samplers and tape recorders, a Top 40 gig gets played solo. One guy, with a guitar and his voice and a bank of tape records and/or a rhythm machine, absolutely predictable, all night long. I retired from rock with a growing waistline and bald spot before having to do that, and I am glad. That's not music. It's one-man karaoke.
But swelling waistline and spreading bald spot do not interfere with another kind of Top 40 band, and long may it wave. For the past two and a half years, I had my first chance to play the classic tunes of the swing era in a real big band, the jazz band at the New Jersey Workshop for the Arts in Westfield, New Jersey. We rehearsed every week, we performed frequently in a variety of indoor and outdoor settings -- on stages under lights, in church parish halls, at street fairs -- and, under a series of conductors, we consistently got better.
After spending half a lifetime playing rock and roll, I'm not about to start any arguments about one music being "better" than another. But I will make this point: In their real, vital, incarnations, both rock and swing only lasted about ten years, swing from 1935- 1945, and rock from 1955 to 1965. Because we are more prosperous and more electronically connected nowadays, rock and roll has managed to run on fumes since then, while swing folded its grand tents with a near-simultaneous whoosh about 1946. At their peaks, both musics had something important in common: Dancing, and immediate feedback from dancing audiences in live performance.
Swing degenerated to solo singers (Vic Damone, Perry Como) and rock retreated to the studio. Too bad, in both cases.
Some great big bands keep playing. I can't pretend that the NJWA band was one of them. But I found out what the music was all about, digging into the classic arrangements of songs like "A String of Pearls," "Take the A Train," "Satin Doll," and "Tuxedo Junction." Experienced big band players do gripe about some of those songs. There is actually a running joke about a mythical organization called something like "The Society for the Elimination of 'In the Mood,'" with circulated placards mocking the repetitious riffs of that best- known of all big band songs. For me, it was all new, and I still felt the glory of playing that Glenn Miller hit, which heralded to the world in 1944 and 1945 that Americans had arrived and that the world would soon be free.
Under a good conductor -- and our last conductor, Norman Paley, a wonderful clarinetist in his seventies, was the best -- playing in a big band is a free and creative experience, nothing at all like slogging out one rock hit after another.
Here, listen. In the last performance I played with the NJWA band, we were set up on a street corner in Westfield. The street was not closed; the traffic went honking by; and it was a hot summer night. We had a big, solid lineup, seven saxophones, three trumpets, three trombones, and rhythm section -- Norman out front with his clarinet. Toward the end of the evening, we played Neal Hefti's immortal Count Basie arrangement of "L'il Darlin'," dead slow, but still lilting.
Came time for the trumpet solo, and we saxophones drop down low ("subito," says the music) to play sustained tones in support. Directly behind me, a big round twenty-year-old black kid named Andrew, who got better every time I heard him, his musical talent exploding like a rocket, began to play …
And he started the solo an octave low. That's a low B for the trumpet, a tone usually reserved for comic interpolative blats. And trumpeters usually show off by playing high. Not Andrew. Here comes that low B, big, round, golden, and then he builds on the familiar solo: A few little double-time ornamental trippings, sketchy hints of outside intervals. And you could feel the entire band snap to, listening, exerting every effort to make Andrew sound even better. For my part, inexperienced as I was, simply sustaining my well-rehearsed whole tones required conscious will, I was so moved.
Some years back, my wife and I heard the Northeast Navy Show Band, one of the very best of today's regular practicing swing big bands, play in City Square in Charlestown, Massachusetts. As the sun began to set, we headed for home, the band still playing away behind us.
"How many summer nights have heard those tunes?" my wife asked me. Thousands, I suppose. May there be thousands more.