Is She Under Fifty? Jan Garber, Jazz and the Depredations of Time

One of the things that first strikes a newcomer to the hot dance bands of the 1920s is the sheer amount of lead-in on each record before we get to the vocal. If there is a vocal, of course, and it isn’t long before you realize that songs like That’s My Weakness Now are stronger without one. But these were dance numbers after all, and vocals always came second to filling the floor with couples. It’s the same with dance music now.

Nevertheless, we aren’t dancing. We’re listening alone on a computer, or next to a stereo or MP3 player, and to our ears the long lead-in to 1920s hot dance numbers can take on a satirical, mocking air as though the band were keeping us hanging deliberately, one amused eye on our building frustration.

Jan Garber’s band is one of the less familiar orchestras now. He kept a band going right up to his death in 1976 (after living the ’20s aesthetic, the 1970s must have been like waking up in a scrapyard) which he’d modelled after the Guy Lombardo sound of the swing era, but the earlier orchestra we’ve just heard had some names within it: Victor’s Nathaniel Shilkret, and trumpeter Harry Goldfield who played with Beiderbecke under Paul Whiteman.

It’s twenty-two years since I first heard Garber’s band. (As I write this, I’m listening to Argerich’s live Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto no.1, which sounds much the more contemporary). I was living in a single room in Oxford overlooking the St Clements roundabout where a student colleague ┬áremarked to me that as of then, a 1927 recording was 64 years old. Remastering techniques were improving fast at the end of the 1980s, and I remember speculating on what other 64-year-old sounds would emerge as the technology advanced. Jazz recording studios of the early electric microphone days weren’t altogether soundproof. Would we find voices? Passing cars? The whole lost sound spectrum of Jazz Age New York at its height?

There are, it turns out, strict limits to information. Behind the jazz is only white noise: no voices, and what was 64 years ago in Oxford is now 86 years ago in Edinburgh. The friendly old men on the lawns at reunions who remembered themselves “Black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half-tight”1 in front of the proctors after some oversherried toot are gone. So are the jazzmen, so are the dancers: what oral history has left undone it is now too late to do. And the music I wasn’t listening to twenty-two years ago because I was listening to Jan Garber is now itself remembered on television by once-startling Brits who have decayed, as rock Brits tend to do, into mellow conservative country squires.

Whatever romantic conflict was reflected in that song – and I think we both sides of the tracks into this one, with a distinctly pre-War outcome – if she was under fifty, she is no more. Because this too is a lost sound. You’d think that a mix of humour, irony and resignation like Garber’s would translate well to the UK, but it came in an inescapably bright and optimistic non-verbal wrapper. The Kinks would catch some of it at the end of the 1960s, but the wrapper had been stripped off decisively by the Wall Street Crash, and it proved beyond even the Davies brothers to fold it back on again.

1Philip Larkin “Dockery and Son” The Whitsun Weddings 1964

3 Replies to “Is She Under Fifty? Jan Garber, Jazz and the Depredations of Time”

  1. Many of my favourite jazz CDs come for the Dutch firm Timeless – an oddly unsuitable name, all considered.

    On the other hand I can remember at second hand the dancing of Adele and Fred Astaire, in the sense that my father still marvelled at them decades after he’d seen them.

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