Big Band Music

views updated


The 1920s may have been the "Jazz Age," but the 1930s was the era of "The Big Band." Big band jazz provided the soundtrack for a generation coming of age in hard times. And from the big bands came swing, a phenomenon that briefly made jazz the most popular music in America and the first to truly define a mass youth culture.

Already popular by the late 1920s, big bands usually included at least ten musicians and emphasized written arrangements with consistent melodies over spontaneous soloing and improvisation, although band leaders like Duke Ellington, the most innovative composer-arranger of his time, often constructed such arrangements around the strengths of soloists. While the stock market crash of 1929 precipitated a drastic fall in record sales and rising unemployment among musicians, the Depression actually proved to be a catalyst for big band music. An excess of musicians looking for work brought down wages and made it easier for leaders to hire bands of a dozen or more. Increasingly accessible radio broadcasts from venues like the Cotton Club in Harlem helped to popularize the big band sound and made stars of bandleaders like Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Cab Calloway. Thousands of musicians spent the decade traveling by any means available to dance halls and clubs in virtually every city, town, and county in the nation.

Jazz musicians used the term swing as early as the 1920s, and in 1932 Ellington's band had a hit with "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing." But the birth of the popular swing era came on the night of August 21, 1935, when teenage fans at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles burst into dancing excitement during the performance of the band led by twenty-six-year-old clarinetist Benny Goodman. While the definition of swing itself remained elusive, performers and fans could recognize it when they heard it in the rhythm and when it moved them to the dance floor. From the loose jam-session-inspired performances of Count Basie's band in Kansas City to the polished pop sound of Glenn Miller's globetrotting orchestra, swing became the most popular music in America during the later Depression and World War II years.

Swing appealed to both genders and across class lines. It transcended racial divisions, but failed to bridge them. The music introduced millions of young whites to African-American music and led them to appropriate the slang, or "jive talk," of black musicians. But segregation remained the rule in both the bands and the dance halls, although exceptions did occur, such as Goodman's hiring of the black vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and Billie Holiday's singing performances with the white Artie Shaw band. White bandleaders and musicians generally enjoyed better working conditions and greater public acclaim than their black peers, who often found themselves playing to all-white audiences. And despite the deep roots of jazz in African-American culture, the public and press still crowned a white man, Benny Goodman, "the King of Swing."



Firestone, Ross. Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman. 1993.

Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945. 1989.

Stewart, Rex W. Jazz Masters of the Thirties. 1972.

Stowe, David W. Swing Changes: Big Band Jazz in New Deal America. 1994.

Tucker, Mark, ed. The Duke Ellington Reader. 1993.

Bradford W. Wright