African-American Jazz & Swing Artists during Black History Month

Surrounded by shelves containing vintage recordings and a desk filled with various radio broadcasting apparatus, Craig Roberts gestured toward a stack of 78RPM records, “there sits some rare Ella Fitzgerald recordings for our 100th birthday tribute to the Queen of Jazz!”, he said with obvious pride. Roberts, who says his age is “the same as Jack Benny- perpetually 39!” has been collecting rare and vintage big band, swing and early jazz recordings for over 40 years.

He recently brought together a group of other fans of music of the swing era to form the ‘Swing & Big Band Preservation Society’, and launched the non-profit organization’s web site called ‘Swing Street Radio’. “These recordings were quickly being lost to time and had to be preserved”, explained Roberts. “So far, we have assembled over 15,000 rare and vintage recordings from the swing era, and are in the process of digitizing, restoring and preserving this great music for future generations.”

As a young boy, Roberts loved to visit his grandmother’s home, where he ventured into his father’s childhood bedroom to discover a collection of 78RPM records. “I played them hours on end. I literally grew up listening to Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and vocal groups like the Mills Brothers.” As a young adult, Roberts followed his passion into radio, where he has served as a program director, talk show host and engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area for some 40 years.

The eventual marriage of Craig’s passion for radio and love of big band and swing music seemed inevitable. “For example, there is an entire generation that knows nothing about the tremendous role African Americans played in early jazz and swing music, and how the music of that period continues to impact popular music to this very day” says Roberts. “Our goal is to not only preserve and promote the music to new generations, but to foster appreciation for the ‘trail blazers’ of the period.” Roberts calls the swing era “the golden age of popular music’.

Easily half of the performers that are showcased on Swing Street Radio are African American composers or artists. “Did you know that Ella Fitzgerald was the first African American vocalist to receive a Grammy?” Roberts asked. “Or that Cab Calloway was so popular in Europe in the 1930’s that he considered moving his orchestra there permanently- until the Second World War forced his return?.” When asked to identify his favorite African American artists of the period, Roberts did not hesitate. “Female vocalist? Hands down, Billie Holiday. She lived a painful life, and yet her ability to communicate through lyric is unparalleled.” Male vocalist? “It’s a toss between Billy Eckstein and Nat King Cole.” Orchestra? “The Mills Blue Rhythm Band. They only played from 1930 to 1938, but what a sound!”.

In addition to a live music stream, the Swing Street Radio web site offers extensive artist biographies, a listing of big bands still performing today and where, and daily “Profiles in Swing”, showcasing interesting facts on various early jazz, swing and big band artists.  During February, the station will do a month-long tribute to composers, artists and arranges of African American heritage.