Book Review - Journal of American History (March 2003), p.1584-5.


Swing: That Modern Sound. By Kenneth J. Bindas. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. xix, 209 pp. paper, ISBN 1-57806-383-3.)


David Borgo


Swing era music is often characterized by jazz historians as less innovative and authentic than the New Orleans-style jazz that came before it or the bebop that would follow; as an intermediary stage during which the music was whitened and commercialized.  Kenneth J. Bindas, in his compelling new book, is aware of these interpretations but he aims to cast a wider net and place the music within the larger cultural and historical context of the period from the Great Depression through the World War II era. He stresses that “one must confront not only its musicological lineage, but also the social and cultural conditions of the people who created the sound, those who received or consumed it, and the market forces that promoted and profited from its popularity.”  This broad approach to the subject is both the book’s forte and its weakness, as the important sounds of swing music are occasionally silenced in favor of historical and cultural commentary. 

Bindas focuses attention on swing’s connection to “the rise and empowerment of a distinct social, cultural, and economic force called youth” and the music’s relationship to the “positivistic values connected with the New Deal.”  He frequently frames his discussion with the lens of modernity – “where the machine becomes both a means of production and an organizational ideal” – and illuminates the contradictory influences of the burgeoning music industry and media technologies (recordings, radio, film, jukebox) on musical production and consumption.  Mirroring the larger societal debates over modernization, swing musicians realized the potential of these new technologies to disseminate their music – earning fans, bookings, and wealth – while and at the same time curtailing the need for live music, the variety of regional styles and local talent, and individual creativity.

Incorporating dozens of advertisements drawn from Downbeat and Metronome, Bindas connects the “brand name” of swing to the business practices of the era and the emerging culture of consumption.  He illustrates how “star” endorsements, “modern” graphic designs, and wartime ad copy were designed to provoke patriotism, desire, and even fear of alienation to further consumption.

Bindas’ discussion of class, race and gender in swing is informed by statistical analysis of the backgrounds of 278 musicians and a healthy dose of biographical anecdotes, but at times still reads as too idealized.  At one point he writes that “many confrontations had less to do with ethnicity or color than with neighborhood territory, girls, and bullies,” but the story he uses to justify this claim still hinges on ethnic conflict.  Elsewhere he writes that “many women found that once they had shown their musical chops, or skills, the gendered view of them as sex objects or canaries lessened,” but the supporting story offers no mention of musical skills. 

The book’s final chapter, titled “Swing’s Low,” thoroughly details the variety of factors that contributed to the music’s decline.  All in all, Bindas provides a detailed and perceptive interpretation of the period when jazz music, in the guise of swing, defined a generation and initiated a modernist revolution.