The Big Band Era – top listening tips

The big band era of the 1930s and 1940s heralded the interest in jazz as a popular music to dance to as well as listen to. With a wide variety of swing and dance bands, and the widespread use of radio broadcasts form venues around America, jazz had never been so popular. 

The big band and swing era of the time ensured regular employment for many musicians as the bands toured across the US from coast to coast, and with no shortage of leading big bands it proved to be a place to nurture and present some f the finest jazz soloist of any era of the music’s history.

Of course, the big bands survived well beyond the swing era, with the Orchestra’s of Duke Ellington and Count Basie touring and recording for nearly half a century, and big bands remaining popular today although a little expense to finance as a going concern. 

It is however irrefutable that the height of the big band and the popularity of jazz was in a bygone era, and here we look at some of the big bands that helped define an era and shape the music of today.

Count Basie & His Orchestra

Formed in 1935 by Basie after the death of the bandleader Bennie Moten, the Orchestra would contain some of the legendary jazz soloists of the time including tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans, altoist Buster Smith and Earle Warren, trumpeters Oran ‘Hot Lips’ Page and Buck Clayton.

In addition to the star soloists, the band was powered by the inimitable rhythm section of Basie on piano, Freddie Green on guitar, bassist Walter Page and Jo Jones on drums. The orchestra would also feature some of the popular vocalists of the time, including Billie Holiday who performed with the Orchestra yet never recorded due to contractual obligations. However, her replacement Helen Humes recorded many successful sides with Basie, and the blues shouter Jimmy Rushing was a big crowd pleaser for the Count.

Suggested listening: The Original Decca Recordings (MCA GRP)

Duke Ellington Orchestra

By the dawn of the swing era, Duke Ellington was already established as a major voice in the music. His residency at the Cotton Club in Harlem had helped make his reputation and he had a number of his important compositions under his belt such as ‘Creole Love Call’, East St Louis Toodle-oo’.

Like Basie, Duke already had some major instrumentalists in his band such as baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, altoist Johnny Hodges, trumpeter’s Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams and Barney Bigard on clarinet, and valve trombonist Juan Tizol. 

As with all the big bands, Ellington also had to feature a vocalist and Ivie Anderson joined the band in 1931. She provided the vocals on ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ and would stay with the band for more than a decade.

The end of the thirties would find Duke continuing to expand the sound of his Orchestra with the unique musicians he was able to write for, and in 1939 he hired Billy Strayhorn as co-composer and arranger. This prolific and productive arrangement would last until Strayhorn’s death in 1967 and witness the creation of some of Ellington’s finest works.

Suggested listening: The Duke at Fargo 1940 (Storyville)

Benny Goodman & His Orchestra

Credited in some circles as having heralded the beginning of the swing era, Benny Goodman’s Orchestra was a hugely successful band that would survive despite the later decline in popularity of the big band. 

Goodman was a virtuoso clarinettist and an exacting bandleader. It was during a residency at Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles that started the band’s success. After a mediocre reception for the first half of the evening, Goodman started playing arrangements by Fletcher Henderson and these ignited the audience, and ensured not just the success of the residency but also launched the band across the United States and beyond via regular radio broadcasts.

By the end of the decade, Goodman’s band was one of the leading Big Bands of the swing era and cemented his position with a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1938.

Suggested listening: At Carnegie Hall 1938 (Complete) Columbia Records)

Harry James & His Orchestra

James was a virtuoso trumpeter with a fondness in the thirties for a hot style of playing. Starting out with Ben Pollack’s band before graduating into the Benny Goodman Orchestra. It was in fact Goodman who helped James get started as a bandleader in his own right in 1939.

Bandleading was not the trumpeters natural forte and the first band was short lived. He did however return to running his own band, but often adding strings and playing in a cooler less flamboyant style. Hi must also take credit as being the first major big band to hire Frank Sinatra, with the singer signing a one year contract with Harry James. Sinatra quit the band after just seven months after a dispute with James over a change of name and promptly joined Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra.

Suggested listening: Harry James & His Orchestra Featuring Frank Sinatra (Columbia)

Chick Webb

Drummer Chick Webb had a short lived career as a band leader but an influential one none the less. After a childhood fall injuring his back, Webb’s health never fully recovered. His first professional engagement was at the age of 11, but it was not until 1926 at the age of 17 that he was leading his own band on a regular basis in Harlem.

His band was the house band at the Savoy Ballroom in 1931 and attracted some of the greatest musicians of the era to play in his band including bassist John Kirby, trumpeter Taft Jordan and saxophonists, Benny Carter, Hilton Jefferson and Louis Jordan. In 1935 a young Ella Fitzgerald joined the band.

A huge presence on the swing style of the Thirties, Buddy Rich is on record as citing Webb’s virtuoso technique as an influence on his own playing, as does bebop drummer Art Blakey. Duke Ellngton has also acknowledged Webb’s influence.

Ill health finally caught up with Webb who refused to let up on a busy performing and touring schedule, and the drummer died in June 1939 of tuberculosis of the spine. Ella Fitzgerald took over the band until 1942 when she decided to disband to concentrate on her own career as a solo artist.

Suggested listening: Rhythm Man 1931 – 1934 (Hep) 

Artie Shaw

Like Benny Goodman, Shaw was a virtuoso clarinettist and the main soloist in his bands. He had a habit of forming and disbanding his groups on a regular basis. Despite this sporadic activity his was one of the most popular swing bands of the time.

Unlike some of the other bands in addition to the deployment of some superb arrangements he would often use a string section. This gave his music an added commercialism without compromising the music.

It could be said that his music lacked much in the way of hard core jazz soloists, but one notable exception was the inclusion of saxophonist Georgie Auld in the band. He was also able to secure the services of vocalists Billie Holiday and Helen Forrest. Perhaps best known for his 1937 hit with ‘Begin The Beguine’, Shaw was a deeply intellectual and enigmatic musician, and other intersests frequently took his attention away from music.

Suggested listening: Artie Shaw 1938 (Classics)

Thanks for joining us for this deep dive into a very popular style of jazz!

Looking for more? Check out our recap of some of the best jazz albums ever.

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