As renovations to the New Jersey State Museum head toward a projected November, 2007, completion date, exhibits continue to be mounted at various gallery spaces around Trenton. Among the current shows is “Swing!,” which was originally organized by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. This multi-media exhibit is on view through Saturday, May 5, in the first floor gallery of the state office building at 225 West State Street, just down the street from the museum itself.
Using photographs, memorabilia, posters, sheet music, press releases — and even an authentic 1920s beaded dress added from the State Museum’s collection — “Swing!” traces the development of music, dancing, and culture from black dance orchestras in the 1920s into the big band sound of a few decades later.
The show serves as the centerpiece of the Friends of the New Jersey State Museum’s annual fundraiser on Friday, March 30, at the War Memorial. Guests at the “Swing Party” will be able to visit the exhibit around the corner, and be chauffeured back and forth from the gallery in antique cars.
The fundraising party will recreate a swing-era social event. The historic theater’s auditorium and ballroom will be decorated and transformed into a 1930s-’40s nightclub. Swingadelic, a big band, will provide music, and dancing instructors from Broadway Ballroom in Lawrenceville will be on hand throughout the evening to give guests lessons in different swing dances from the east and west coasts.
An additional attraction of the evening is Bucks County painter Robert Beck, who will create a canvas on site at the party, depicting the events of the evening. The painting will then be auctioned at the party. The $125 admission covers dinner, dancing, and rides in the antique car shuttles to and from the exhibition. Proceeds benefit the museum.
The free exhibition is open to the public weekdays and Saturdays. Upon entering the gallery, visitors are met with a lively film, “Golden Legends of Jazz,” dating from the 1950s with plenty of vintage clips. There is Cab Calloway leading his orchestra and dancing wildly to the beat, “the Elvis Presley of his time,” the narrator says. Rudy Vallee, with his patrician-looking band of musicians, is “the vagabond lover of the crooner era.”
“The film gives people the opportunity to see some of these famous performers in action,” says Jim Turk, the New Jersey State Museum’s curator of cultural history. “You see Count Basie, who is one of the most famous musicians from New Jersey — Red Bank, in fact. And of course Frank Sinatra, from Hoboken, is there. He had his start during the big band era.”
“Swing!” chronicles the development of the art form by placing it against a backdrop of racism and segregation. At the beginning of the display are lobby cards, which advertised films in theater lobbies, from such attractions as “Swing Fever” with Tommy Dorsey. There are no people of color in these ads. The African-American performers, though dominant in the films, were often edited out of the advertisements for distribution in the segregated South. Even Count Basie and Duke Ellington were removed from the backstage radio musical “Reveille with Beverly,” the exhibit shows. Their scenes were sometimes released as short subjects, or integrated into films for targeted urban releases.
An article from a 1942 edition of Swing magazine features an interview with “The Duke of Ellingtonia,” showing a handsome Ellington at his breakfast table, reading a musical score instead of the morning paper. This was a rare example of an African-American musician appearing as a matinee idol in a general audience fan magazine, the exhibit shows.
“Many reproductions of things like newspaper clippings and advertisements reflect what’s going on during that era,” says Turk. “Swing really became a social phenomenon in many ways. Objects in the show speak to those issues. It was also an era in which some of the boundaries of segregation broke down.” Because bands often shifted size and musicians to fit bookings in such disparate venues as restaurants, country clubs, and concert halls, they sometimes performed with integrated personnel. And for some people across the country, swing bands were the first integrated performances they had ever seen.
Latin music was a big influence in swing, as represented in the exhibit. The recording and publishing industries promoted crossover songs and dances, and traditional and progressive Caribbean swing, Afro-Cuban, and Havana-based “orquestas” were popular. Sheet music for the song “Tico Tico” is part of the display, as are photos of such ensembles as the Afro-Cuban house band at New York’s Club Cuba.
Swing started with ensemble jazz in the 1920s and became the most popular form of music in America during the 1930s. From 1935, as the U.S. recovered from the Depression, big bands flourished as the swing dance craze swept the country. Radio provided nationwide exposure, as did recordings. Bandleaders became household names — Benny Goodman, Dorsey, Calloway, Ellington, Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Artie Shaw, and Earl “Fatha” Hines among them. Celebrity bandleader cults developed around ensembles based in hotel lounges.
Some of these lounges and nightclubs are pictured in the show, especially those in Manhattan. The Waldorf, the Plaza’s Persian Room, the Paradise Club, Cotton Club, and El Rio give a glimpse of the glittery excitement surrounding the bands’ appearances. There is a blown-up “Night Club Map of Harlem,” which ran in Esquire magazine in 1932. A young Sinatra is pictured at the Paramount Theater in 1940, singing with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
Swing that was recorded or broadcast on radio consisted of compositions and arrangements that were less than four minutes in length. This is the form of swing that is preserved on 78s, and it produced the “dense, rhythm-driven sound of the big bands,” according to information at the show. “Swing for live performance and dancing could be longer, allowing for open-ended arrangements and compositions with 16-bar improvisations by instrumentalists.”
The exhibition also details swing as a social phenomenon. One clipping from Life Magazine shows a swing dance in progress at Madison Square Garden in 1939, held by the Young Communists League of New York City. The headline: “Young Communists Get in Groove at Party Rally.”
Swing influenced Broadway songwriting and arranging, and had a major influence on Hollywood musicals. While it was most popular during the 1930s and through the years of World War II, it continues to be a favorite form of jazz and popular music.
“I think it is interesting that there seems to be a revival in the music of swing,” says Turk. “So much of the music from that era has become standards. So often, current performers are looking to the standards to interpret. They don’t go away. Swing speaks to people. The music itself continues to do so. And it’s fun.”
Swing!, Friday, March 30, 5:30 p.m. Friends of the New Jersey State Museum, War Memorial, Trenton. Dinner dance features the swing band, Swingadelic, and dance lessons by instructors from Broadway Ballroom in Lawrenceville. Guests will be escorted in vintage cars to the Galleries at 125 for a private viewing of the “Swing!” exhibition from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Silent auction from 6 to 9 p.m. Register. $125. 609-394-5310.