The Big Band Era

Swinging through the dark times.

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The Big Band Era
21

At the turn of the 20th century in New Orleans, Ragtime was transitioning into the early jazz.

In 1917 the first recordings of the Original Dixieland Jass Band were released. White musicians played the tunes and arrangements of black musicians, that’s what their gig was. Their records sold over a million copies and introduced jazz to all of America and the world. The general record buying public was completely unaware that this style of music was not that new. The music that would become known as Jazz had been played in New Orleans and other parts of the South for many years by bands lead by musicians such as Buddy Bolden, Frankie Dusen, Jack Laine, etc. Before 1918 the style was referred to with many different spellings such as 'jass', 'jas' and even 'jasz.'

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In the ‘20s the jazz began to evolve to bigger band formats. The bands played ragtime, black spirituals, blues, and European music. These groups featured Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Red Allen, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter, and John Kirby, Duke Ellington, Ben Pollack and others.

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In these bands, each instrument had an assigned role. Trumpet kept the melody, clarinet embellished it, trombone did chord roots with smears, slides, or slurs (sometimes it also had the melody or after beats), tuba performed the bass line, banjo and piano provided harmony and rhythm, drums were used as a timekeeper and to set up the breaks.

At the beginning of the Roaring '20s and even during the Great Depression, the best big bands had the ability to get people to relax, dance and have a good time. While traveling musicians were playing and spreading big band jazz, hotel dance bands also played a significant part in the evolution of the Big Band era. Paul Whiteman, The California Ramblers, Ted Lewis were a few of the successful hotel dance bandleaders of the time. They were playing for ballroom dance crowds into the early 1930s. Besides playing for dances and parties, Dixieland (aka hot jazz) bands would also play for funerals marching along with the procession.

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The jazz orchestras kept growing in size, so, naturally, the arranger became the focal point of the band. Improvisation during solos was written into the arrangements, but their location and duration were controlled. The new easy flowing style becoming known as ‘Swing.'

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In the mid-'30s the swing took America by storm. It was very hard to sit still to the hot rhythms, so people invented new dances and the craze took off. The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem opened its doors in 1926 and for the next 20 years became the center of swing music. It was at the Savoy that a dance style called the ‘Lindy Hop’ was invented. It became very popular among college kids and youngsters incredibly fast.

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At that time America was still in the grips of depression. The average person couldn’t afford to buy records or to listen to live shows. Record sales dropped to an all-time low. Because of that, there was very little work left for musicians.

But there’s nothing so bad, as not to be good for something. As technology improved, radios became smaller and cheaper, so they became the central piece of furniture in the average family’s living room. By 1935, 23 million homes had at least one radio. It became known as the Golden Age Of Radio with shows like ‘Amos & Andy,’ ‘Fibber McGee And Molly,’ ‘The Lone Ranger’ etc. More and more musicians were hired to play at live music broadcasts or as background instrumentalists for commercials on the radio. Benny Goodman’s ‘Let’s Dance’ broadcasts, which regularly aired in 1934, were one of the first weekly live radio broadcasts of hot jazz to be aired by a national network on a regular basis.

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In 1933 Homer Capehart sold his Simplex record changer mechanism to the Wurlitzer Company. Wurlitzer used the invention to produce the jukebox. Thanks to the jukebox, numerous new tunes were available to the public at drug stores, bars, dance spots and other places. Exposure to the music made records even more desireable, and the sales increased. Swing was everywhere.

By the ‘40s the number of radio stations had grown faster than the availability of live variety acts. So the recorded content was in high demand too. Radio stations began to make music programs based entirely on playing prerecorded music with introductions and follow-ups by the first Disc Jockeys.

Recorded in 1941 for the film Sun Valley Serenade, the song 'Chattanooga Choo Choo' by the Glen Miller Orchestra became the world's first certified gold record. It sold 1 200 000 copies in the following year which was a complete record for the time.

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Their song 'In the Mood' was also one of the greatest hits of the Swing Era. It has been so influential that NPR includes it on its list of 'the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century.'

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Another absolute hit of the swing era was 'Take the 'A' Train' by Billy Strayhorn in 1939.

Duke Ellington offered Strayhorn a job and gave him money to travel from Pittsburgh to New York City. Ellington wrote directions for Strayhorn to get to his house by subway, directions that began, 'Take the A Train.' But the lyrics used by the Ellington band were added a bit later by Joya Sherrill, who was 20 at the time. She made up the words at her home in Detroit, while the song played on the radio. Her father, a well-known Detroit Black activist, set up a meeting with Ellington. Owing to Joya's remarkable poise and singing ability and her unique take on the song, Ellington hired her as a vocalist and adopted her lyrics.

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Journalists and jazz fans of the 1930s and '40s highlight two types of Big Bands: the 'swing bands' or 'hot bands' (Count Basie's, Duke Ellington's etc) and the 'sweet bands' (Glenn Miller's, Guy Lombardo's etc).

In one of the popular radio shows Bing Crosby asked Louis Armstrong to explain swing music to him. Louis replied: 'Ah, swing, well, we used to call it syncopation, then they called it ragtime, then blues, then jazz. Now, it’s swing. Ha! Ha! White folks, yo’all sho is a mess.'

Although the big-band era ended after World War II, orchestras led by such stars as Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Harry James and many others continued to tour and made records for several decades after.

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17 comments sorted by best / new / date

    BlackDeath92
    I was not expecting to see an article on big band music on a guitar-driven website. What a pleasant surprise! Keep these kinds of articles coming UG!
    LadyWhiskey
    Let's not forget about great Buddy Rich, who took the risk to make big band music when it began to quickly lost popularity and everybody thought it was a dead format. Here's my favourite rendition by Buddy Rich Big Band of a tune called "Time Will Tell" (starts around 4:10 mark):
    As for the contemporary bands I strongly recommend Mingus Big Band, which play solely music by Charles Mingus, but sometimes they play it better than the original (in my opinion), like in their rendition of ""Moanin'":
    Great article btw.
    Maria_Pro
    Thank you very much! There are a lot of cool big bands I could write about but unfortunately I am a bit restrained by the size of the article I'm more than happy to discuss them here in the comment section, though. I absolutely love Charles Mingus, he's always on my playlist. I also love Dizzy Gillespie 
    vekii
    Great article, Maria! I know a lot about this era, but today you taught me some things I didn't know. Could you maybe do some of your magic on the bebop era too? I know that a lot of people here could take something from Bird and the philosophy of that time (his story and music deeply influenced my life on many levels, ESP in the practicing department ) Thank you very much, keep up the great work! Cheers  
    Spinnerweb
    I love these music history articles, they're well-condensed and easy to read through quickly. Cool to see how people really wanted music back then.
    wylde1994
    I was a sax player in a big band such as this prior to picking up the guitar...such fond memories of touring and playing at countless events n stuff  
    vekii
    Awesome! Which do you like better, guitar or sax? I've been playing guitar for a long time but the tenor sax keeps calling me more and more Cheera
    wylde1994
    Probably the sax (I played both tenor and alto, loved the tenor so much more) I made so many fond and exciting memories with it and my band mates, If I had the time to take lessons for the guitar instead of teaching myself I'd probably be as good a guitar player as I was saxophonist and probably looked to form a band or something a long those lines...but I never did 
    Soundwash22
    This is on my bucket list - to play Guitar at least once in a "Big Band" setting.  I think it would be awesome, whether you play jazz, rock, metal - whatever.  Just to have a musical conversation with so many instruments would be incredible!
    travislausch
    The concert band I play in locally is currently playing a medley of big band arrangements called Big Band Spectacular. I learned to do walking bass in that piece, so I'm definitely grateful for big band music  
    MrKRB64
    I actually like this kind of early music but Bioshock has made me feel a bit uneasy with some of it