Swing era

There was a time, from 19351946, when teenagers and young adults danced to jazz-orientated bands. When jazz orchestras dominated pop charts and when influential clarinettists were household names. This was the swing era.
Scott Yanow, Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 128. ISBN 1-904041-96-5. 

The swing era (also frequently referred to as the "big band era") was the period of time (around 19351946) when big band swing music was the most popular music in the United States. Though this was its most popular period, the music had actually been around since the late 1920s and early 1930s, being played by black bands led by such artists as Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Bennie Moten, Cab Calloway, and Fletcher Henderson, and white bands from the 1920s led by the likes of Russ Morgan and Isham Jones. The era's beginning is sometimes dated from “the King of Swing” Benny Goodman's performance at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on August 21, 1935, bringing the music to the rest of the country. 1930s also became the era of other great soloists: the tenor saxist Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry; the alto saxists Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges; the drummers Gene Krupa, Cozy Cole and Sid Catlett; the pianists Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson; the trumpeters Roy Eldridge, Bunny Berigan, and Rex Stewart.[1]

Music experimentation has always been popular in America. The many avenues of black, white, Latin, American, and European music influences merged when Swing arrived. In 1932, early in the jazz, and the sweet music styles of the American music scene - they worked on new, often unheard-of musical arrangements that were emphasized toward a more polished song with a bounce. Recordings by Isham Jones, the popular jazz/blues bandleader, and his orchestra which sometimes included Benny Goodman recorded for RCA Victor. The swing era also was precipitated by spicing up familiar commercial, popular material with a Harlem oriented flavor and selling it via a white band for a white musical/commercial audience.[2] In Benny Goodman’s band, the most diversified styles flowed together: some New Orleans tradition, through Fletcher Henderson, who arranged for the band; the riff technique of Kansas City; and the precision and training of many white musicians. On the other hand, the easy melodic quality and clean intonation of Goodman’s band made it possible to “sell” jazz to a mass audience.[3]

The jazz/blues era brought to swing music Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and by 1938 Ella Fitzgerald. Other musicians who rose during this time include Jimmy Dorsey, his brother Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Goodman's future rival Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman who departed the Isham Jones band in 1936 to start his own band. Several factors led to the demise of the swing era: the recording ban from August 1942 to November 1944 (The union that most jazz musicians belong to told its members not to record until the record companies agreed to pay them each time their music was played on the radio), the earlier ban of ASCAP songs from radio stations, World War II which made it harder for bands to travel around as well as the "cabaret tax", which was as high as 30%, the change in music taste and the rise of bebop. Though Ellington and Basie were able to keep their bands together (the latter did briefly downsize his band; from 1950–1952), by the end of 1946, most of their competitors were forced to disband, bringing the swing era to a close.

Musical Elements


The older styles of jazz are grouped together under the heading “two-beat jazz.” Toward the end of the twenties the two-beat styles seemed all but exhausted. In Harlem, and even more in Kansas City, a new way of playing developed around 1928-29. With the second great exodus of jazz history - the journey from Chicago to New York – Swing begins. This is true in general, but as is so often the case in jazz, there are confusing exceptions. Louis Armstrong (and some Chicago-style players) were already conversant with four-beat style in the twenties. On the other hand, Jimmie Lunceford’s big band at the height of the Swing era employed a beat that was simultaneously 2/4 and 4/4.[4]


In May 1935, the No. 1 record in the country was Jimmie Lunceford’s “Rhythm Is Our Business.” Released a few months before Benny Goodman triggered the national craze known as swing, the song offered a foretaste of the coming deluge. “Rhythm is our business/ Rhythm is what we sell,” Lunceford’s singer declared: “Rhythm is our business / Business sure is swell.”[5] If rhythm defined the swing bands, its foundation lay in the rhythm section: piano, guitar, bass, and drums.

In big bands, these musicians fused into a unified rhythmic front: supplying the beat and marking the harmonies. Each of the leading bands presented a distinct, well-designed rhythmic attack that complemented its particular style. The rhythm sections of Ellington, Basie, and Lunceford, for example, sounded nothing alike. Just as the soloists were champing at the bit of big-band constraints, rhythm players were developing techniques and ideas that demanded more attention than they usually received. In the 1930s, rhythm instruments made dramatic advances toward the foreground of jazz. In the process, they helped set the stage for bebop.


To help bands adjust to the new groove, major changes were made in the rhythm section. While the bass drum continued to play a rock-solid four beat pulse, the tuba, commonly used in large dance bands of the 1920s, was replaced by the string bass. During the early years of recording, the tuba was able to project a clear, huffing sound. But the string bass had always been a specialty of New Orleans, and many players, including Wellman Braud with Duke Ellington’s band, showed that the instrument had a special percussive flavor when the strings were given a pizzicato “slap” (plucked rather than bowed). Change came gradually in the late 1920s, once word had gotten around about how well the string bass worked; many tuba players realized that they’d better switch instruments or lose their jobs.

The banjo, with its loud and raucous tone, was replaced with the guitar, which provided a more subtle and secure pulsation (chunk-chunk) in the foundation rhythm. As the saying went, the guitar was more felt than heard. Listeners felt the combined sound of bass, guitar, and drums as a sonic force that pushed through cavernous dance halls. “If you were on the first floor, and the dance hall was upstairs,” Count Basie remembered, “that was what you would hear, that steady rump, rump, rump, rump in that medium tempo.”

As often noted by commentators on jazz history, the Swing era saw the saxophone supersede in many ways the trumpet as the dominant jazz solo instrument. For this reason the types of solo improvisations would change dramatically during the thirties. In addition, the role of the reed sections in big bands would bring to jazz a totally different dimension that involved between the various parts of the jazz ensemble. While the saxophone was present in jazz ensembles from most the earliest recordings, its rise to a position of prominence and the development of its virtuosic and expressive possibilities before individual artists had mastered this instrument that was originally thought unacceptable for jazz. Once again, it was the Bix Beiderbecke recordings of 1927, with Frankie Trumbauer on C melody sax, that pointed the way for many of the saxophonists of the Swing era.[6]

The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1927 consisted of two trumpets, two trombones, three reeds, piano, banjo, tuba, and drums. The Goodman band in 1935 had three trumpets, two trombones, the leader’s clarinet, two alto saxes, two tenor saxes, piano, guitar, bass, and drums, fourteen pieces in all, compared to Henderson’s eleven in the earlier days. The piano-guitar-bass-drums rhythm section had become standard and kept a steady and uncluttered beat that was very easy to follow. Goodman was quite skilled at setting the perfect dance tempo for each song while alternating wild “killer dillers” with slower ballads.[7] In addition to Henderson and his younger brother Horace, Goodman employed top arrangers such as Jimmy Mundy, Deane Kincaide, Edgar Sampson, and Spud Murphy who put the melody first but included rhythmic figures in their charts and wrote arrangements that built to a logical climax. In 1935, Goodman did not have many major soloists in his band. Unlike Duke Ellington who went out of his way to hire unique individualists, Goodman was most concerned that his musicians read music perfectly, blended together naturally, and did not mind being subservient to the leader. It was the sound of the ensembles, the swinging rhythm section, and the leader’s fluent clarinet that proved to be irresistible to his young and eager listeners.


To fit the new groove, dance-band arranging became more inventive. To some extent, this was a belated influence of Louis Armstrong, whose rhythms continued to be absorbed by soloists and arrangers through the 1930s. Arrangers learned to write elaborate lines for an entire section, harmonized in block chords, called soli. They were conversant with chromatic (complex) harmony and knew how to make the most of their flexible orchestra.

Arrangements could also arise spontaneously out of oral practice. But even in New York, where bands prided themselves on their musical literacy, musicians could take improvised riffs and harmonize them on the spot. The result, known as a head arrangement, was a flexible, unwritten arrangement created by the entire band. One musician compared it to child’s play—“a lot of kids playing in the mud, having a big time.”

Both kinds of arrangements, written and unwritten, could be heard in the hundreds of recordings made in the 1930s by Fletcher Henderson. For flashy pieces, Henderson relied on experienced arrangers, from his brother Horace to Don Redman and Benny Carter. But his biggest hits emerged from the bandstand. One was “Sugar Foot Stomp,” derived in the early 1920s from the King Oliver tune “Dippermouth Blues” and still in the repertory. By the 1930s, it had evolved into a thoroughly up-to-date dance tune, with a faster tempo to match the tastes of the dancers. Another hit was “King Porter Stomp,”[8] a ragtime piece by Jelly Roll Morton that became radically simplified, shedding its two-beat clumsiness and march/ragtime form as it went. Many of these pieces were ultimately written down by Henderson, who became his band’s chief arranger. His genius for rhythmic swing and melodic simplicity was so effective that his music became the standard for numerous swing arrangers. Henderson was fond of short, memorable riffs—simple, bluesy phrases—in call and response: saxophones responding to trumpets, for example. In some passages, he distorted the melody into ingenious new rhythmic shapes, often in staccato (detached) bursts that opened up space for the rhythm section. Henderson was shrewd and efficient. He wrote only a few choice choruses, leaving the remainder of the arrangement open for solos accompanied by discreet, long-held chords or short riffs. As each piece headed toward its climax, the band erupted in an ecstatic wail.

Songs from the swing era

The swing era produced many classic recordings. Some of those are:


  1. Berendt, Joachim, “Swing – 1930.” In The Jazz Book, 16. St Albans: Paladin, 1976.
  2. The jazz of the Southwest citing "The Book of Jazz: A Guide to the Entire Field. Leonard Feather. page 110.
  3. Berendt, Joachim, “Swing – 1930.” In The Jazz Book, 15-16. St Albans: Paladin, 1976.
  4. Berendt, Joachim, “Swing – 1930.” In The Jazz Book, 15-16. St Albans: Paladin, 1976.
  5. Giddins, Gary and Scott DeVeaux. “Rhythm in Transition.” In Jazz, 255-68. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.
  6. Oliphant, Dave. “Precursors to and the Birth of Big-Band Swing.” In The Early Swing Era, 32-38. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002.
  7. Berendt, Joachim, “Swing – 1930.” In The Jazz Book, 58-61. St Albans: Paladin, 1976.
  8. Giddins, Gary and Scott DeVeaux. “The Swing Era.” In Jazz, 174-77. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.
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