July 29, 2021

Tennis and jazz: united by swing

To have good swing is synonymous with doing well in any aspect of life. In the tennis, a good swing is the great pivot on which to raise the technical bases of the hit. In the jazz, the swing was more than just a style. Was the sound of a time in which the Big Bands filled millions of people with music and joy from Harlem venues such as the Cotton Club or the Apollo, fantastic locations of the Black Cinema. Both of them swings, the tennis one and the jazz one, they shared beautiful adventures.

In tennis, also in golf, the swing is the dynamic movement that is carried out with the racket from the assembly phase of the stroke, until the accompaniment phase and completion of the same. It refers to the complete movement of the player’s entire body in the process of transmitting force on impact, but especially in the path of the racket.

In jazz, swing has its roots in the 1920s, when great dance music groups began to use new styles of arrangement written with rhythmic innovations pioneered by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. But swing undoubtedly dominated the decade prior to the outbreak of World War II, with Armstrong himself and stars such as Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller or Louis Prima among others.

Recorded an LP

Without any doubt, if anyone had a swing for tennis and jazz, it was Althea Gibson, the first black tennis player to conquer Wimbledon.

Tommy Dorsey was a huge tennis fan. Glen Miller played, according to his friends, too vigorously, and many other musicians in the bands played tennis. Louis Armstrong never played, but the most important court in American tennis bears his name from having been a neighbor of the neighborhood: Louis Armstrong Stadium in Flushing Meadows. One of the most surreal tennis photos is that of the great Dizzy Gillespie playing tennis in his boxers smoking a cigar.

Without any doubt, if anyone had a swing for tennis and jazz, it was Althea Gibson, the first black tennis player to conquer Wimbledon. Born on August 25 in the Silver Cotton Fields, Gibson and her family settled in Harlem three years later during the Great Depression and after being accused of stealing cotton.

After a terribly complicated childhood, in which she survived thanks to her natural cunning, Althea was emancipated in full adolescence. She survived working as a cashier, shop assistant, elevator operator, employed in a button factory and in a factory where she plucked chickens for both the piece. He lost this last job when he read in the newspaper that Sara Vaughan was singing that night in New York. He quit work and sneaked into the concert. Althea idolized Vaughan and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, whose family also hailed from the cotton fields. His passion for jazz was absolute.

Althea Gibson’s jazz record.

Third parties.

Sarah Vaughan ‘took’ her job, but a musician, Buddy Walker, who had seen her play tennis in the street, bet on her. Walker was in charge of the Harlem Society Orchestra and collaborated with the police in paddle tennis classes in the parks of Harlem. Walker introduced Gibson to his friends at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, all with good purchasing power. He also introduced him to Sugar Ray Robinson, who, in addition to their friendship, gave him a saxophone that became, together with the rackets, a fixed piece in his suitcases.

After her brilliant tennis career, breaking social barriers in favor of the black community, Allthea devoted herself fully to music, her other great passion, both as a vocalist and a saxophonist. In 1943 he had already sung and played some pieces at the Apollo, but his professional debut was in 1957, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, at the birthday party of the father of blues William C. Handy. Gibson recorded an LP of his songs.

Tennis united the sports and social life of two great tennis players: Donald Budge and Gene Mako. Budge was the first tennis player to conquer all four Slams in the same year (1938) and Gene Mako, his rival in the final of the US Open that year, was his perfect partner in the doubles. Together they won twice at Wimbledon and twice at Forest Hills.

Al tenista Donald Budge

“I’ll let you play in my band if you win your first professional game against Ellsworth Vines.”

Tommy Dorsey
Jazz musician

Mako and Budge had another common passion: jazz. When they decided to switch to professionalism, they bought a gramophone to liven up the long bus trips to different American cities. The Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey records were playing all the time. Mako, born in Hungary, but after World War I ended up moving with his wife and son to Los Angeles. In his youth he had studied at the Budapest School of Arts and also received music classes. Once in the United States, Mako came to compose different songs and performed in a musical.

The son of a Scottish emigrant who played for Glasgow Rangers, Donald Budge seduced Pau Casals with his tennis, wrote to Hitler, discussed Einstein’s theories, read Heine’s romantic poems and could not live without jazz. When he debuted in the pros, Tommy Dorsey challenged him.

“I’ll let you play in my band if you win your first professional game against Ellsworth Vines.” Vines was the number one ‘pro’ back then. Days later, in the great hall of the New Yorker Hotel, Dorsey told him: “My band is yours” and Budge launched himself as a percussionist.

One of the most ‘unexpected’ combinations between tennis and jazz occurred in 1958, after the then Vice President of the United States, Richard Nixon, was attacked by a crowd on an official visit to Venezuela. Joseph Blatchford, then head of the American Peace Forces, believed that a plan was needed to improve his country’s relations in South America.

Imagen de Dizzy Gillespie.

Imagen de Dizzy Gillespie.

Third parties.

Blatchford had grown up in Beverly Hills (his father was a powerful man in the movie industry) and he was also a good tennis player. He became the captain of the UCLA tennis team, where he became very good friends with the young men in the marching band, many of them dedicated to jazz. Blatchford devised a three-month tour of different South American countries, in which his tennis friends and jazz musicians would perform in small towns, converse with people and take an interest in their problems. He was able to raise funds from family, friends and foundations for the cause.

Nicknamed the ‘King of the Clarinet’, Arty Shaw never played tennis, but had a hard time on one of his tours. He performed with his band in San Francisco, in a show in which the big star was nothing more and nothing less than Ava Gardner. His band arrived at the theater on time, but Shaw was late. Ava Gardner, with a tennis racket in hand, and visibly angry, appeared in the clarinet player’s dressing room and said to the group musicians: “Is Arthie coming soon?”

Tennis, jazz and a third passion, cinema, come together in Woody Allen. From his first bet on tennis with Annie Hall, to his appearances in big tournaments to enjoy his favorite sport, or his popular ‘Match Point’, Allen and tennis have lived together in harmony. Passionate about jazz, he began playing the clarinet as a child and went by the stage name Woody because of his admiration for clarinetist Woddy Herman.

Woody Allen defined his three passions with the following words: “I am a terrible musician, but the members of the band are excellent. They tolerate me and treat me with affection because I make films, but if I had to make a living from music I would starve. I am a Sunday tennis player ”.