The Big Band Era
“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.
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
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.
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; some 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.
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
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.
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.”