The Giant Swing, filmed in 1941 as Dance Hall, is set initially around a Midwest dance hall where its hero, Joe Nearing, plays jazz piano. The book didn't get good reviews, possibly because readers were expecting it to be as gritty as Burnett's first two books. It's actually a perceptive novel about a common cultural phenomenon: Joe's talent and interest in classical music make him a misfit in the provincial working-class circles where he starts out, but his lower-class roots leave him also uncomfortable in the higher-flying world where that talent takes him. (It's quite tempting to read Burnett's own situation into it, as a writer who had been working as a night clerk in a seedy Chicago hotel before achieving instant success and a ticket to a Hollywood career when Little Caesar was published).
THE GIANT SWING—W. R. Burnett— Harper. Author Burnett, who has sung hitherto only of sidearms and hard men, has changed his key a little. The Giant Swing's hero, never a tough boy, rises from jazz pianist to nationwide genius, a combination George Gershwin-Ziegfeld.
Joe Nearing played the piano in the jazz band at "Spanish" Strapp's amusement park. "Spanish" only managed the Park but he owned the owner's wife. A bully without bluff, he took men and women as they came. Joe admired Spanish, wished he were like him, knew he could never be. When Joe acquired a girl and Spanish saw her, Joe feared the worst. It happened. Joe left town. The story drops out nine years and back he comes in a flurry of flashlights, publicity and obsequious old acquaintances, as a musician not only great but rich and popular, author of a musical extravaganza that was a smash hit all over the country. One by one he looked up his old friends, his one-time girl, his old dreaded hero, Spanish. Time had not improved any of them. Joe was glad he had come back, especially the way he had come; sorry, too.
- Books: Jazz to Genius, Time, Sep. 05, 1932
Joe has been inspired to greater ambitions by hearing Debussy's En Bateau (he thinks it's "Debewski's On Battoe"). His original compositions are inspired by the sounds of railway yards. With the help of a more sophisticated mentor, Sorel, he writes a musical called The Giant Swing (no relation to Sao Ching Cha in Bangkok) which succeeds despite an initial panning from a reviewer who describes it as a "mixture of Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Stravinsky and Debussy".
Unusually, we can actually hear Joe's first unpolished composition that impresses Sorel, as Burnett included the score in the book. There's no indication who wrote it in reality, but here it is, a minute-long piano solo: click for MP3.