If it Ain’t Got that Swing …

Duke Ellington and his Famous Men. Vancouver Sun, 15 April 1940.

Ad for Duke Ellington's first Vancouver show. Vancouver Sun, 15 April 1940.

Vancouver was first introduced to live jazz in 1914, but it wasn’t until 1940 that the really big names started rolling through town. After eleven years, Local 145 of the musicians’ union lifted a ban that had prevented non-Canadian acts from performing in Vancouver, and on April 15th Duke Ellington made his Terminal City debut at what was billed as “The Biggest Dance in Vancouver’s History!” Four thousand people flocked to the Forum, paid their $1.10 at the door, and, if they were so inclined, danced on the 25,000 square foot dance floor until 1:00 am. Down Beat wrote that besides being lucrative for Ellington, it was a great show, “although – as usual – about 60 per-cent of the band’s most impressive work sailed over all but a few heads.”

One audience member who didn’t fully appreciate the genius of Duke Ellington and this new-fangled jazz was 90-year-old George Markle. He had worked in lumbering, mining, and wheat farming, but 70 years earlier spent about five years as a dance instructor in Michigan. “Our dances were just as fast as this,” he said, referring to the jitterbugs dancing at the Forum, “and 100 times more graceful.” Markle admitted, however, that these young people seemed to be having just as much fun as they would if they knew how to dance properly. “I guess you have to just throw your body around the way these young people are doing if you want to keep time to the modern swing,” he said.

Jitterbugs and hep cats at Duke Ellington's Vancouver debut in 1940. Vancouver Sun, 16 April 1940.

Jitterbugs and hep cats at Duke Ellington's 1940 Vancouver debut. Vancouver Sun, 16 April 1940.

Al Hendrix, seen in the second photo from the left with his back to the camera (and most famous for the guitar legend he sired a few years later) recalled a dance competition at the Orpheum that was racially segregated. White contestants, Hendrix said, “felt they didn’t have a chance against us.” But over in the East End during the 1940s, music brought kids from different racial and ethnic backgrounds together. On weekends, the Parks Board would set up a sound system in MacLean Park. Neighbourhood kids brought their swing records and the black kids taught the others the latest dance moves.

Vancouver Sun, 23 May 1940

Vancouver Sun, 23 May 1940

Benny Goodman was scheduled to come to Vancouver the month after the Duke Ellington show, and Down Beat correctly predicted he would draw an even larger crowd. According to the review in the Sun the next day, Benny Goodman played to a packed house:

The fans shouted, they clapped, they whistled and showed their appreciation with an enthusiasm that almost rocked the building… There were ‘jitterbugs’ and ‘non-jitterbugs.’ Provision had been made to separate those who were and those who were not. It was not always possible to tell which were which… The ‘hotter’ the music grew, the louder the applause. Dancers and musicians alike went to town, and all seemed to enjoy themselves.

One thought on “If it Ain’t Got that Swing …

  1. Pingback: The Origins of Jazz in Vancouver | Past Tense

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