The Jazz.com Blog
December 16, 2008 · 1 comment
Below is the final installment of Eugene Marlow’s account of George Gee and his daring plan to mount a large-scale swing extravaganza in present day New York. Will today’s audience flock to the kind of entertainment that their grandparents once enjoyed? We will soon find out. (Click here for Part One and Part Two of this article.) T.G.
I asked George Gee about the evolution of swing and the so-called end of the swing era in the aftermath of World War II, over 60 years ago. I wanted to know why, in 2008, he is about to perform in a major venue in New York City with a big show swing band. Why is swing still around? Why hasn’t it gone away or evolved into something else? Why is there still an audience for this music?
His response: “It is true American music, born and raised and evolved in American culture. It is known worldwide, but you know where its roots are. In New York City, it was part of the Savoy Ballroom, and it had big clubs in Chicago and Kansas City back in the ‘30s and the ‘40s, even earlier.
“When the folks from the Edison Ballroom came to listen to my band at Swing 46 there was one guy who was sort of a skeptic. There is always a skeptic in a crowd. And he was a dear friend. He attitude was ‘Maybe we should do disco or salsa music. I don’t know if there is an audience for big band music,’ blah blah blah. He was one of the rare persons that actually said ‘I don’t really have any feeling for big band music.’
“But when he came over to the club and felt the beat and the rhythm and the sound, at the end of the night he was snapping his fingers and tapping his toes with the best of them. We won him over. He might not have walked in there a big band fan, but when he was presented with the music properly, with the jumping spirit and the soul of it, he left a big band fan. He said: ‘I think this is perfect for the Edison Ballroom.’
“In the last 60+ years the big band art form has gone through many stages, and it is a struggle to keep a big band working. And that is why I also have a 10-piece band. I call it the economy big band. The charts are written for a smaller sound and orchestra. It is not a five sax, four trombones, four trumpet section. But it is still what I consider the smaller version of a big band. But it is difficult financially to make that happen in this day and age.
“I think people still love the purity of a good, swinging big band. People love the interaction and the dancing. And even if you don’t dance, you can always tap your feet and snap your fingers. Count Basie said it the best. The first thing he looked at in the audience, whether it was the ballroom or theatre or a wedding reception, was for that cat who started slowly tapping his finger on the table. And then the next thing you see his feet pattering a little bit. Once the guy or gal fell into the groove, then he knew everything was okay.
“When you have got the Lindy hopping and dancing and people holding each other close together and swirling each other around and smiling and laughing, then you know you really won them over. This is a good thing. And the longevity that it has and the fact that, yes, it is 2008 and we are still talking about doing a big, big band show is a tribute to the fact that it is here to stay.”
Gee also commented on why younger audiences are gravitating to the music: “I think the younger generation—everything from teenagers to people our age—are tired of a lot of things in today’s so-called popular music. I am not a big fan of popular music of the last few decades. I am kind of narrow-minded about that. I don’t like a lot of the way music has steered away from musicians playing live music or the interaction of musicians performing together. I am not a big fan of the whole electronic path and the dependence on the studio to create music. It has become too sterile for my taste. There is an audience for all of that variety of music, but it is just not my cup of tea. “And I think it has got a lot to do with the younger audiences having discovered the fact that you can dance to this music. And mind you, not everyone dances. People say to me ‘Oh, George, we don’t have a dance venue.’ People can still sit down and enjoy the music. You don’t have to dance to it. But dancing is a big part of it. And I think the younger generation really loves that social interaction and networking that has developed between dancing and swing music. It is really this niche of nightlife where you can spend three-and-a-half, four minutes together twirling each other on the dance floor and developing a new relationship. Nightlife is all about enjoying yourself and in the most basic sense trying to find love or friends or that whole social interaction thing that is so important. That is why people, especially the younger generation that’s discovered it, are digging it so much. And mind you, this whole resurgence that we talked about, it has been going on for over a decade now.
“When I first started doing this 20—28 years ago, it wasn’t like this. I never thought in my wildest dreams even as an optimist that it would be like this. That it would be a place where I could play music all around the world and people would be digging this. This whole swing big band dance resurgence that has happened kind of threw me for a loop. I literally woke up one morning a decade ago or more and was flabbergasted that there was a future in this business. I was just doing it as a labor of love. And all of a sudden I am fortunate enough and blessed enough that I have a career as a big band leader. How outrageous is that?
“I think the future is even bigger and brighter than it has ever been since the quote/unquote original swing era of the ‘40s. I think all the good music is hanging in there tough from the recent resurgence. And the bands that are still standing and doing their thing are really continuing the tradition.
“I feel like the torch has been passed to me by greats, like Count Basie whom I had the pleasure of knowing and who mentored me in the beginning of my career. And to this day I feel like he steered a lot of his messengers to me in sharing that true spirit of that Count Basie style and music. My close relationship with such luminaries as Frank Foster who I recorded an album with a few years ago, and Bennie Powell, and Frank Wess, just to name a few—I have had the good fortune to have them in my corner and be a part of my big band and support it spiritually.
“When I met Count Basie back in 1979—I knew him from 1979 to his passing in 1984—I learned so much from that man. But the most important thing I learned from him had nothing to do with music. It was all about being. The stuff he taught me would apply not just on the bandstand. It didn’t matter what career I went into. It didn’t matter if I was in the conference room or the dining room. It was all about the way you present yourself, about the way you treat people and the way you expect folks to treat you back. And that is what Mr. Basie taught me. And when you are dealing with a contingent of as many people as you do day in and day out, that is ever so important.
“I think a lot of my spirit and success so far is due to the fact that I’ve got a serious supporting cast. In no way shape or form can I do this by myself. I think that is the truth for any of those big bands, whether it be Basie or Duke or Charlie Barnett. Even bands like Glenn Miller. Glenn Miller was known as a very strict bandleader. And he was very successful at what he did. He might not have been the most family-oriented big band person from what I’ve heard. But he had the respect of his musicians, and he knew what sound he wanted. Of course, keeping the guys working, that is very important too, and treating them fairly.
“I am the worst musician in my band. And you can quote me on that. I am a bass player, but I am not a practicing bassist. I surround myself with musicians who are much more top notch than I am. And I see that may be one of the keys to my success. What success I have had so far is the fact that I surround myself with fabulous musicians.”
I pointed out to George that while he may not be as good a musician as those in his band, nobody can front the band like he does. He replied: “Thank you. I have a great time. And I like to think that besides Mr. Basie, I am very influenced by bandleaders such as Spike Jones and Cab Calloway. When you have a good time as a band-leader, everyone gets sucked into that vortex and then you hang on.”
This blog entry was posted by Eugene Marlow.