Guest Post – You Ain’t Got A Thing, If You Ain’t Got That Swing ! – GPCox

The Big Band Era

By: gpcox

“You ain’t got a thing, if you ain’t got that Swing!”

Swing was a verb that musicians used long before press agents turned it into a noun or adjective to describe both an attitude toward music and a special way of performing it.  “Swing” suggests rhythm and a regular propulsive oscillation, a form of jazz that is still influencing music today.  There are many instruments reinforcing the others, then other times, playing against each other and a solo instrument playing against a background.  The jazz form traveled north out of New Orleans in the 1890’s and slammed into the Chicago scene in the 1920’s.

Vincent Lopez

Vincent Lopez

The beginnings can be traced back to Fletcher Henderson in New York and Bernie Moten in Kansas City.  Fletcher and his brother Horace created the pattern for swing arrangements and was the first to train a big band to play jazz.  “Sweet” bands, like Guy Lombardo, Vincent Lopez and Wayne King had ample audiences. (Lombardo’s band was still playing under the direction of his son-in-law out on Long Island and I was priviledged to see twice.  My grandmother had dated Lopez years ago.  Smitty, my father, took me to the Hotel Taft in Manhattan and had me tell the conductor that I was her grandchild.  Lopez sat me on stage while the band played a song for me.)

In Denver 1935, things didn’t go so well.  Even Goodman’s band was not well received, despite featuring trumpeter Bunny

Gene Krupa

Gene Krupa

Beregan, drummer Gene Krupa and pianist Jess Stacy.  When the tour hit Los Angeles, the Palomar Ballroom did not respond until Goodman let the musicians go wild with the Henderson arrangements – the crowd exploded.  Jazz turned into swing and the press described it as a new form of music and Benny as the King of Swing.  Bands sprung up everywhere.  Bob Crosby’s “Bob-Cats” as well as Artie Shaw and Woody Herman wowed the crowds by 1939, including Igor Stravinsky.

In the late 1930’s, people tried to ease their depression by dancing and ballrooms became the rage, so for a large room – one needs a large band.  Ellington’s and Basie’s were two of the largest and Ella Fitzgerald’s voice resounded over the crowds with her upbeat skat singing.

A “big band” usually had 10 musicians or more.  Jazz, which was mostly for listening, developed slowly into the swing music for dancing.  Louis Armstrong started in the ’20s to help this transition along.  Count Basie’s band stressed improvisation and his “One O’Clock Jump” sold over a million copies; for the era – this was unheard of.

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman

The best thing at the time for a teenager was to see a Big Band in person.  In New York, it was a status symbol to be present at the Paramount [opened in 1926] seeing the Benny Goodman band strike out with “Let’s Dance.”  Lines formed to get in and school rooms would be half empty for the priviledge.  N.Y. and Chicago weren’t the only places to go.  Lakeside Park in Dayton, Ohio saw Herbie Kaye, featuring Dorothy Lamour and Phil Harris had his singer, Leah Ray.  Jimmy Dorsey brought Helen O’Connell and Alvino Rey had his electric guitar; the first amplified instrument for many.

Playing in a dance band was one way a student in college during the ’30s could help finance their education; MI0001955447some continued afterwards.  The Blue Devils of Duke U. had Les Brown, an undergraduate to lead them. (Better known to many as Dean Martin’s house band on TV.)  The Univ. of North Carolina produced Hal Kemp and later on, Kay Keyer’s student band.  The music of Alton Glen Miller, out of Clarinda, Iowa, is still considered today as the anthem of this musical age, had put himself through two years at Columbia Univ. by playing in a student band.  Though he never took a musical course, he later studied with Prof. Joseph Schillinger and “Moonlight Serenade” was born out of an arrangement exercise.  When Ben Pollack hired him in 1925, the shy star and the ‘Miller Sound’ were born.

Whether listening to the radio broadcast from the Grand Terrace Cafe in Chicago, the “society” bands at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto or Mark Hopkins in San Fransico, the swing fad became more popular than rock is today.  Saturday nights supplied listeners with “Your Hit Parade” reviewing the top ten smashes of the week, such as: “String of Pearls,” “Begin the Bequin,” and “Green Eyes.”  Spike Jones had the kids moving to the beat and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” shook the rafters.  The music and the bands entered the movie business and the jukebox became the best sound system when concerts weren’t available.

Jimmy Dorsey

Jimmy Dorsey

The Big Band Era basically ran from 1935 to 1946 (according to historians) and is a major part of cultural history in many countries.  But, Shep Fields and his ‘Rippling Rhythm’ played the famous Roseland Ballroom in 1931 and Grosssinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel in ’33.  By 1941, he removed the brass section, making it an all-reed group as ‘Fields and His New Music’, featuring Ken Curtis.  Curtis was better known as one of the ‘Sons of the Pioneers,’ replacing Sinatra in the Dorsey band and for playing Festus Hagen on TV’s “Gunsmoke.”

Coming out of the ’30’s, the name Harry Haag James can not be avoided.  Even as Warner Bros. made the movie “Young Man With a Horn,” based on the life of Bex Beiderbecke, James played the trumpet solos while Kirk Douglas mimed on the screen.  The hot trumpeter became the most imaginative and sought after musician in

Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw

modern history, but Lawrence Welk thought he was too loud for his band when James tried-out.  By writing a novelty number called “Peckin'” he started a new dance craze.  With WWII, his sentimental phase started and “You Made Me Love You” became his first hit record.  The ever-famous closing song for so many bands, “Goodnight Sweetheart” was written by the British bandleader Ray Noble, and ironically, so was the tune “Cherokee” recorded by Count Basie and Charlie Barnett.

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

The female vocalists with the bands were called “canaries”, but unknown to many, there quite a few all-girl bands during this era as well.  A prime example was ‘The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.’  They emerged out of the south with such popularity that they toured Europe after completing the U.S. route.  Bandleader Peggy Gilbert continued playing into 1995 at the age of 90.  Prairie View College in Texas started all-girl bands to make up for the shortage of men during the war years.  The military, with the USO, featured female swing band tours to entertain the troops.  The ‘Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band’ went to the Philippines, Korea and Japan.

In 1941, Stan Kenton came along, but so did WWII and a strike called in 1942 by the American Federation of Musicians.  Les Brown suddenly became more popular with his creamy but lively style.  Ballads emerged with lyrics and solo singers; music as a whole was moving on.  In 1946, within just a few weeks, eight of the greatest swing bands broke up; Goodman and Dorsey included.  A progressive hard-edged version of jazz took over with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the lead.

No one truly ever recorded the greatest arrangements of the age because the old microphones could not transmit sound with the complete amplitude and fidelity.  Modern engineers have been able to rediscover some of the sounds that went into the mikes and transmitted on the master discs, but not onto the vinyl records for distribution.

Who were your favorites or your family’s record collection hidden back in the closet?

Resources: “An Introduction to the Swing Era” and “The Swing Era” by Time-Life Records; All that Jazz.history; “When Swing Was King” by John R. Tumpak; “Swing Shift” by Sherrie Tucker; Wikipedia.

In a letter from Lad to Grandpa, dated June 14, 1943, he writes:    “Last night, Art, Marian and a girl friend of Art’s and myself went to Hollywood and spent all evening dancing to Woody Herman at the Palladium. Woody is one of the Swing Band leaders that I don’t like particularly, but he does have a good orchestra and plays some sweet music now and then. Marian is not a jitterbugger and neither am I, but she is a very good dancer and we get along very well dancing to almost any type of music, so we had a perfect time.”

For the rest of this week, I’ll be posting letters surrounding Christmas, 1943. Lad was sent to Texarkana on December 21st, so he and Marian had an early Christmas ans she’s not feeling the Christmas spirit very much. They have been married for a little over a month and had only found a place to live 12 days earlier, after bunking in the car or at friend’s homes. Not much to be thrilled about, although she tries to keep her spirits up.

Judy Guion


54 thoughts on “Guest Post – You Ain’t Got A Thing, If You Ain’t Got That Swing ! – GPCox

  1. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I love to hear a live band when I can. The music is so much better.

  2. I love the Big Band music! As an adult, I played clarinet in several bands, ranging from polka to rock and roll. My favorite has always been swing band. It has a wonderful rhythm and beat all it’s own. Thank you for posting all the great info!

    • jaggh53163 says:

      Simple Country Christmas – Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comments. When readers add their own experiences, it broadens everyone’s viewpoint. Come back again.

  3. CJ says:

    You DO realize that you’ve opened the door to coax Gp into finding us a piece about U.S.O. shows, I hope…

  4. bookdiva says:

    I grew up with big band music playing in the background of my childhood home. Fond memories, indeed.

  5. Night Owl says:

    Thank yuou, GP. That brings back sounds and memories. Benny Goodman was one of heroes. I had been forced to take piano lessons as a kid, but then when I heard Goodman i insisted I wanted to learn the clarinet instead. Never was very good on either one, but it was fun.

    • jaggh53163 says:

      Night Owl – Thank you for sharing your experience with us. Even though each of the Big Band leaders were lumped together with “the Big Band sound”, each had their own distinct sound and flavor, and everyone had their favorites.

  6. Argus says:

    Oh gods … I remember so many, I must be older than I thought … not sure whether to thank you or not.

    Dammit, so informative I have to thank you~!

  7. Whew, I’m bookmarking this post as a research guide. My next book has a late 20’s-early 30’s Hollywood story line, and I’ll want to study up the popular music for the time and get my details right. Great resource you’ve put together; good job! :)

  8. kanzensakura says:

    Truly great music. I learned to dance (standing on my papa’s shoes while he moved us about) to String of Pearls. It remains one of my favorites. Thank you for the memories.

  9. Brilliant to have gpcox do this post. Love how you tied it in to your ongoing story. This is such a favorite subject of mine!!!!!

    • jaggh53163 says:

      Susan – Thank you. GP and I connected almost a year ago because we both were writing about the same time frame. Each of the monthly Guest Posts ties GP’s overall picture of a topic complements the more detailed, personal story of my family. Together, you get two different perspectives and a more complete understanding of the time frame.

  10. maggie0019 says:

    Mom says she remembers being stationed in Pearl Harbor and listening to Hawaii’s retro “KORL” (“coral”) radio…was all big band & swing. Very appropriate considering her location! Woof!

  11. So many greats, so hard to choose one. Great post!

  12. Though I was a child of the 50’s, I find myself listening to “40s on 4” on Sirius radio most of the time. Swing music is my favorite genre of that era. Thanks for the lesson, as usual, your research is first class!

    • jaggh53163 says:

      photobyjohnbo – Thanks for stopping by and I’m glad you enjoyed this Guest Post so much. gpcox does incredible research and I always learn quite a bit from the posts.

  13. Great article! Even Tokyo Rose liked Big Band Swing, Big Band Jazz. Best of all Big Band Jazz is still, very much, alive… To prove it, today there are FAST SWING DANCE CLUBS made up of college kids and young adults dancing, just like their grandparents did in the 30’s and 40’s, to Big Band Jazz. Big Band Jazz is still, very much, alive… Thank goodness! If you want, on You Tube, you can find videos of these FAST SWING DANCE CLUBS. It’s a blast to watch and listen to.

  14. Crash MacDuff says:

    Reblogged this on CrashCourse.

  15. swabby429 says:

    I had a Sunday afternoon radio show that was all swing and big band each week. When the station went all talk, Rush Limbaugh’s reruns took over my slot. I played some sweet bands, but most folks wanted more upbeat tunes.

    I was lucky to have my show on the air when contemporary pop music had its brief fling with big band swing in the late 1990s, too. I built up quite a collection of records and CDs. Some of the original 78s were recoverable, so I was able to digitally reprocess some for the broadcast automation.

    My theme song was Charlie Barnett’s “Cherokee”. Barnett could do no wrong in my book. The show was an education for me, since I was a Beatles fan as a kid. I learned to love the Big Bands and many of the singers. I enjoyed the early Frank Sinatra. Helen Forrest is still one of my favorite vocalists.

    There was a series of Time/Life retrospectives that re-created many of the major hits. They used the original artists when possible, if they were still living. They were available by subscription. The box sets contained some amazing records. Fortunately I purchased nearly all the music for the programs so I still own them and play many of them from time to time.

    I could go on and on because I really miss playing the songs for my loyal listeners on Sunday afternoons.

  16. Mikels Skele says:

    My dad worked for RCA Victor in the 50s, and was allowed to bring home 6 albums a month, which he chose pretty much at random. As a result, I was exposed to an incredible variety of music. Among my favorites were the big bands, which were still recording at the time, as well as a number of anthologies from their heydays. Thanks for the history lesson!

  17. awax1217 says:

    Somehow you understood the words. Today it is a foreign language which makes music dirty and sordid.

  18. GP–What a fun post. It took me back to memories of my father, who loved this era of music. After college, in the early 90s, I worked at a local radio station that played Big Band music–it was there I got my education. This music makes you want to MOVE!

    Thanks for the memories:)

    • jaggh53163 says:

      Dadicus Grinch – GP does a fantastic job on any topic, but I enjoyed this one myself because the music IS FUN and i still dance to it occasionally. I know of some clubs in the Tampa, FL area. Thanks for the comment.

  19. Thanks for the insight into an error of music that I haven’t had much exposure. One of my favorite Jimmy Stewart films was The Glenn Miller Story so I can see how big the band era was.

    • jaggh53163 says:

      Maryann – Thanks for the comment. I learned quite a bit from The Glen Miller Story myself. Glad you enjoyed this Guest Post by gpcox. There are others… just click on the category Guest Posts and Re-Blogs to find them.

  20. gpcox says:

    Reblogged this on pacificparatrooper and commented:
    This was a fun topic to research and write about. There were so many excellent bands, please let us know you opinions. LET’S DANCE!

  21. Gallivanta says:

    Amazing. No matter what is going on in the world, be it war or economic depression, there’s always room for music and dance.

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