Swing in Austin

Big Band Swing had a strong presence at UT in the 1930s and early 1940s. Benny Goodman performed in Gregory Gym during the first months of the Swing phenomenon and, in the years afterwards, countless “hot” orchestras appeared in Austin. Nationally, Swing culture had connections to the democratic pluralism of the New Deal. In Texas, this openness was limited and conditioned by Jim Crow.

TextMichael Schmidt
PublishedJune 12, 2019

Many of the concerts discussed in this exhibit happened during the height of the iconic Swing Era (1935-1945), a period which typically brings to mind the beautiful and acrobatic dance maneuvers of jitterbugs and the up-tempo propulsion of big bands. Swing was a young people’s music and UT students were not exceptional—they also participated in the Swing moment . Benny Goodman’s orchestra , usually seen as the quintessential example of the Swing band, played at UT in November 1935, just a handful of months after his famous appearance at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles (which is often considered the starting moment of the Swing period).

Benny Goodman holding clarinet

William P. Gottlieb. Portrait of Benny Goodman, 400 Restaurant, New York, N.Y., ca. July. United States, 1946.

Thus, Austinites were some of the earliest participants in the national Swing phenomenon and his 1935 UT concerts were some of its earliest events. Despite being one of its pioneering audiences, it took some time for the more intense rhythms of Swing to garner wide spread enthusiasm amongst the university population. When Goodman played at UT, his two performances went “relatively unnoticed by the student population.”1 Within a few years, however, Swing had a significant following at the university. In February 1938, a poll of 500 students ranked Goodman’s band as the most popular orchestra at UT.2

And Goodman’s concert was not an isolated event—his was only one of many national Swing bands to show up in person on the 40 acres. UT students heard many of what are now considered to be the premier Swing bands of all time: Ellington’s orchestra with Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster; Count Basie’s 1941 band with the legendary rhythm section of Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones (plus blues vocalist Jimmy Rushing; saxophonists Don Byas, Tab Smith, and Buddy Tate; and trumpeters Harry “Sweets” Edison and Buck Clayton); Jimmie Lunceford’s band from the mid-to-late 1930s with Sy Oliver; Fletcher Henderson ; Benny Carter (probably with Max Roach or J.J. Johnson); the Dorsey Brothers (with Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich/Gene Krupa on drums); and Stan Kenton (with June Christy).

There seems to have been a lively swing dance culture at the Cotton Club and UT . During the 1938 Fall semester, “no dance was complete unless it found students shining and shagging [through the Big Apple swing dance] til they were ready to drop,” the 1938 Cactus claimed. There were enough good dancers that the Driskill Hotel hosted a competition to “find the best Big Apple dancers in Austin” and the Cotton Club held a benefit “Big Apple Contest” with the dance band from Prairie View University in 1938 to raise money for the construction of the Tillotson College Gym.3 Jimmie Lunceford’s band was especially popular with jitterbuggers at UT and there was a “Jitterbug Jam Session” which featured champion white dancers.

The Democratic Culture of Swing

Many historians have identified Swing as an essential cultural expression of the New Deal. Lewis Erenberg claimes that Swing culture “mirrored a new optimism about democratic culture, an appreciation of ethnic and racial pluralism, and a delight in the utopian promise of urban life. For a variety of fans in the 1930s and 1940s, dreams of new sexual relationships and new American identities came together in the throes of jitterbug dance.”4 Swing recognized African American musicians and dancers as central to the mainstream culture of the United States for possibly the first time, something that had been denied to them in the past despite their critical contributions. “Hot” rhythms and improvisation—which had been tied closely to black musical culture since the late 19th century—were celebrated and placed at the fore, even if white bandleaders still received the greatest amount of prestige and cash.

Many prominent critics, most notably the New York music impresario John Hammond, directly tied themselves to the progressive politics of the New Deal Popular Front. They advocated against racism in the music industry and argued that jazz and Swing were a people’s music. Big Bands, they passionately contended, represented the values and culture of everyday people, the hard-working laborers and folk artists who comprised America.5

The University of Texas had its own local version of John Hammond and Leonard Feather: E. Gartly Jaco. Jaco, a young student and jazz drummer, participated in the wider birth of jazz criticism in the 1930s and reflected many of the same Popular Front ideas about jazz that the critics in New York espoused. An editor for the Daily Texan, Jaco began to write a series of jazz columns in the early 1940s. In one “Record Session,” he covered the pioneering jazz magazines Down Beat and Metronome’s “anti-prejudice campaign” in the entertainment business. African American musicians faced economic discrimination, he reported, because of racism. “Jazz and swing were originally the Negro’s music,” he maintained, and “the immortals of the various instruments are Negroes.” As the primary innovators, it was especially unfair that black bands were not given the top jobs. Jaco connected the anti-prejudice campaign in jazz to a larger black freedom struggle: “this racial prejudice in the swing industry is just another cog in the entire nation’s discrimination against the Negro, in American life and business. After the present war, this will be one of the many problems that will have to be settled once and for all before we can call these United States a true democracy.”6

Swing bands had begun to integrate over the course of the 1930s and early 1940s, a major achievement in the de-segregation of popular culture. The most famous example was the appearance of pianist Teddy Wilson (born in Austin) and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton in Benny Goodman’s small groups in 1935 was pivotal, but other bandleaders, like Artie Shaw , Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines , Gene Krupa, and Charlie Barnett also hired mixed bands.

This integration was not always welcomed, however. In 1941, Artie Shaw had organized a tour throughout the South. As part of the string of dances, he was scheduled to play at UT on October 4th. A number of Southern hotel owners tried to persuade Shaw to not include Hot Lips Page, his African American trumpeter from Texas, in the band’s performances. In response, Shaw cancelled all his Southern dates in early September, including his dance in Austin.

Although the pluralism of people like Jaco certainly existed in Austin, the local democratic culture of Swing in Austin was structurally limited by race. A segregated institution in Jim Crow Texas, UT barred African Americans from entering and attending. Thus, the utopian democracy envisioned by UT students at dances was largely meant to be between whites, not across the color line. For the dances, the only blacks present were on the bandstand or university porters. Furthermore, other musical performances held in the Union and Gregory were explicitly racist, like the annual Cowboy Minstrel show, which featured students from this organization in blackface.

Swing vs. Sweet

The bands that played at the “Germans” and fraternity/sorority formals in the Swing Era did not uniformly or even predominantly play Swing tunes. Many of the groups made a more rhythmically subdued dance music that was often augmented by string sections and known at the time as “Sweet” music. If Goodman and Henderson were icons of Swing, Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians were the epitome of “sweet.” In fact, Lombardo and Vincent Lopez were probably more popular overall in this period than their now more well-considered contemporaries. A major name since the late 1920s, Lombardo led the most well-known and well-liked band of the 1930s, despite that decade’s deep association with Swing. And more “sweet”-identified bands played at UT than Swing: not just Lombardo and Lopez, but Jan Garber , Kay Kyser , Shep Fields , and many others.

The same 1938 poll that found Goodman to be the most popular bandleader at UT also ranked the much sweeter bands of Wayne King , Lombardo, and Jan Garber in second through fourth places. After the high of 1938, Swing enthusiasm seemed to have waned by the following year. The Daily Texan dance music column “I’m in a Dancing Mood” insisted that “the hot type of band” was declining in popularity in Texas and that recent concerts around campus showed that “the sweet side is right side up.” Despite this, bands identified as “hot” or Swing continued to play UT and draw crowds. The balance in popularity between “sweet” and “hot” seemed to have ebbed and flowed as the student bodies changed. In 1944, for example, a UT student polled thousands of other students and local army camps on his KTBC radio show. Count Basie, the “jump king of swing,” won first place, while all other spots in the ranking were occupied by other “swingsters.”7

The Musical Versatility of Swing and Dance Bands

Focusing on the popularity of Count Basie vs. Kay Kyser can obscure the wider, more varied kind of music that was typical at All University Dances. “Sweet” and “Swing” should not be seen as two separate and widely different types of music. Musically, they had a great deal in common and they both shared the same origin: they both developed out of the same pop orchestra tradition centered around Paul Whiteman and Fletcher Henderson during the 1920s. It’s more accurate to see them as two ends of a dance orchestra spectrum. Some bands played mostly in one of these styles and were identified as “swing” or “sweet” bands. But many groups fell somewhere more in the middle, seeing them as different styles of songs that a band could incorporate into their act for variety instead of as a fundamental musical identity.

As reviews and descriptions from the Daily Texan bear witness, many groups were versatile, performing some swing songs, some sweet songs, Tin Pan Alley tunes, movie themes, waltzes, and novelty music. According to the DT, Joe Reichman played “new arrangements of old time favorites with the latest swing hits.” Bernie Cummins played “an evening of waltzes and rhumbas, interspersed with a few jitterbug numbers” at his concert in Gregory. Similarly, Herbie Kay’s band “[strove] for versatility with moderate amounts of swing and sweet”; Vincent Lopez played “rhumbas and danzons”; and Malcolm Beelby and his Royal Hawaiian Orchestra featured “rhumbas, tangos, and waltzes.”

This versatility was a major part of the popular music profession in the first half of the twentieth century. When ragtime was a national phenomenon from the 1890s to the 1910s, dance orchestras and brass bands had to play it alongside whatever other types of dance music were popular at the time: foxtrots, waltzes, tangos, rhumbas, etc. Being able to play different types of music for different types of dances and different types of audiences was a sign of professionalism in the music industry. Bands had to accommodate the tastes of different listeners, depending on what part of the country they were playing and the composition of their audience. Thus, dance bands played all sorts of dance music; swing and jitterbug numbers were just one type.

For Texas as a whole, versatility was a requirement for playing for different cultural communities. If you played for an African American audience one night, an Anglo one the next, then a university gym or a working class dance hall, you needed to be able to play different music for each. Don Albert , probably the most well known jazz and Swing bandleader in Texas in the mid-to-late 1930s, explained that

“Texas is a melting pot. In West Texas you find cowboys; Central Texas, the Mexicans; East Texas you have what they call ’die hards’ … Texas is like a lot of different states with a lot of different people … if you have something they want to listen to they’re going to appreciate it and ask for their requests. For instance, with the Mexicans they might ask for ‘Maria Elena’ or ‘Begin the Beguine’ whereas the Germans like ‘Roll Out the Barrel.’ The young ones don’t care what you play. People were more interested in melodies, not band style.”9


  1. The Cactus: Yearbook of the University of Texas (Austin: Texas Student Publications, 1938.
  2. “Benny Goodman is Favorite at University,” Daily Texan (February 20, 1938).
  3. “Ten Dancers Chosen for Radio Show,” The Daily Texan (March 23, 1938); “Big Apple, Swing May 13 Help Build Tillotson Gym,” The Daily Texan (May 6, 1938).
  4. Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream, xvi.
  5. Lewis Erenberg, Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998; David Stowe, Swing Changes: Big Band Jazz in New Deal America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).
  6. J. Gartly Jaco, “Record Session” Daily Texan (May 13, 1943).
  7. “Basie Records Most Popular,” Daily Texan (May 14, 1944).
  8. Daily Texan (April 27, 1938); Daily Texan (March 1, 1941); Daily Texan (March 3, 1938); Daily Texan (November 28, 1934); Daily Texan (April 4, 1941).
  9. Interview with Don Albert, May 5, 1972.