It has got that swing, but it don't mean a thing

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE is an unpleasant memory that I have been trying to suppress for the past three months, but it won't go away, so I would like to share it with you and spread the baleful load a bit.

It goes back to last Christmas when I was in dear old Canada, where they are ahead of everything that happens here, and where one day I heard my nephew Christopher singing, 'It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing . . .', and my eyes opened wide because you don't expect to hear a 12-year-old boy singing or whistling something that Duke Ellington wrote in 1933 or thereabouts. (Of course, you don't expect to hear anyone whistling anything any more because whistling has vanished entirely from the face of the earth, either because of some evolutionary change to the shape of our mouths or because nobody writes songlines you can whistle any more, I'm not sure which.)

'Nice song, Christopher,' I said, casually but carefully. 'Isn't that something by . . .'

I didn't quite know how to phrase it. 'Isn't that one of Duke's early things featuring Johnny Hodges on alto?' is not quite the way you talk to a child who normally relates only to karate and Superman. But he saved me the bother.

'It's one of the tunes from Swing Kids,' he said.

'From what?'

'Swing Kids,' he said impatiently. 'It's a movie. Haven't you seen it yet?'

'No,' I said. 'What's it about?'

'Oh, it's about these two boys and one is German and one is American and they're both really into swing music, and then the war comes, and they have to fight on opposite sides, but it all ends happily after the war when they meet up again. . . .'

I can't remember the plot-line exactly. Christopher has that gift given only to children and strangers at parties of being able to relate a film story without leaving anything out, so I must have blacked out somewhere along the line, but I came away with the firm impression that the Americans had made a film out of a strange bunch of ingredients: swing, Nazism, war, dancing and buddily love. Schindler's Gig, maybe. And then again, maybe not.

Well, there was a time when Hollywood was always making films set in the jazz or swing era. And always getting it wrong. Actually, Hollywood got it all wrong right at the outset, by calling its first talkie The Jazz Singer and not having a jazz singer in it at all, only the abominable Al Jolson.

Later on they preferred titles such as The . . . Story, the gap being filled by some name like Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman. After a while Hollywood gave up doing these swing biopics because they had run out of white bandleaders and there was a danger that they would be reduced to filming The Count Basie Story or The Duke Ellington Story, in other words, life stories of black bandleaders who could outplay the white guys without thinking.

Since those days Hollywood has not entirely ignored swing. I'm always vaguely bemused that the songs which turn up in American animated feature movies such as Dumbo or The Jungle Book are mostly second-rate swing-style songs and don't reflect current fashions at all. But Hollywood has mostly contented itself over the last few years with leaving jazz alone and travestying other kinds of music instead. All that Blues Brothers footage, for example. And I overheard a teenager yesterday saying: 'I can't believe they're actually making a film in which the fifth Beatle is played by an American]' Which shows that teenagers can still be delightfully nave.

I'm not trying to knock America, by the way. If you want to find out the truth about the mix of Nazism and jazz and war, you have to go to an American to find it. Mike Zwerin, eminent jazz critic on the International Herald Tribune, wrote a wonderful book about jazz under the Nazis for Quartet, which he called La Tristesse de Saint Louis, that being what the French had to call St Louis Blues in the war. The book pursues the music into the heart of occupied territory, indeed right into Auschwitz and Dachau, and leaves the reader feeling fairly troubled. In fact, you get the distinct impression that having to interview all those sweet old retired German army officers who had overseen swing bands inside concentration camps left Zwerin somewhat troubled himself.

It is unlikely, however, that Swing Kids will trouble anyone, at least in the same way.

And I suppose that any film which can get a 12-year-old singing Duke Ellington tunes can't be all bad. I suspect, however, that most of it may be very bad. I just wish it would come so we can get it over with. Or, even better, that it came and went here at Christmas when I was away . . . .