Big Band Swing

During the 1930’s jazz gravitated towards New York, where specialist jazz venues like The Cotton Club drew audiences like moths to a flame. Musicians from previously important jazz centres like New Orleans, Chicago and Kansas City — the home of the Count Basie Band — were drawn to New York by the quickly developing jazz scene. Pioneers like Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson were soon followed a list of band leaders that reads like a who’s who of jazz and big band swing music: Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, Harry James, Artie Shaw and, arguably, the most commercially successful of them all, a certain Glenn Miller. 

Henderson is an interesting figure in the development of jazz and big band music of this period. His New York-based jazz orchestra was the most popular African-American band of the 1920s. But it was in his slick arrangements that other band leaders found their inspiration. Similarly, Duke Ellington became known for the unique fusion of jazz and classical musical styles — a musical language pioneered by his legendary arranger, Billy Strayhorn.

Big band music was different from what had gone before: it was a much larger ensemble, and for the first time players were organised into set positions — or 'sections' — on the stage. Whereas early jazz was largely developed and learned by a small collective of improvising players, the big bands needed arrangers to set the musical ideas down in a written score, from which the individual parts would be extracted. Improvisation remained, but was organised into set piece solos for featured soloists from within the band.

The Swing era spawned numerous hits that have become classics, or 'standards' as jazz musicians call them. Ellington gave us "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (1932), "Sophisticated Lady" (1933) and "Caravan" (1936), while Basie, with his Kansas “jam session” style — where blistering solos were backed up by riff-based accompaniments from the band — had hits with “One O’Clock Jump”, “Jumpin' At The Woodside” and “Lester Leaps In”, featuring his star tenor sax player, Lester Young.

Bands often featured singers, and they provided early platforms for singers such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan. Who all went on to forge hugely successful solo careers.

Key Artists

Duke Ellington

Count Basie

Cab Calloway

Jimmy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey

Benny Goodman

Fletcher Henderson

Earl Hines

Harry James

Artie Shaw

Glenn Miller

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