Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



The term describing popular music during the period c.1935-47; also called the Swing Era. Big modern dance bands began during WWI. Art Hickman and his pianist Ferde Grofé began arranging for saxophone choirs, combining aspects of the concert band with the potted-palm type of hotel dance combo. Hickman composed his theme 'Rose Room' and had hits on Columbia in 1920-1 but suffered from ill health. A good case can be made that the Big Band Era began in Detroit, where Jean Goldkette led a superb band and nurtured others: the Casa Loma Band started there; Goldkette hired Bill Challis to write arrangements for his own band, and Don Redman as music director of McKinney's Cotton Pickers, which became one of the best black bands: all were playing superb hot dance music long before the Swing Era officially began later in the 1930s. Challis, Grofé and Goldkette's best players went to work for Paul Whiteman.

Parts were written out for reed and brass choirs, with solo space in them for stars like Bix Beiderbecke; but Redman, who began as Fletcher Henderson's arranger in NYC, was a primary inventor of the style later called Swing, inspired by Louis Armstrong's brief stay in Fletcher's band (see also Swing in Music). Duke Ellington (similarly inspired towards jazz by Sidney Bechet and Bubber Miley) soon found a unique skill for voicing and tonal colour in the big-band mode, and Henderson's was the band he admired.

Redman wrote parts for reed and brass sections that were like written-down solos, playing sections against one another and leaving space for soloists; while jazz purists did not consider big-band jazz to be jazz at all, arrangers like Redman created 'charts' that could swing relentlessly if the right band played them. Henderson's was the top band of the late '20s, with Benny Carter among the arrangers (who later said that Challis was his idol), and Fletcher's brother Horace. Before the Swing Era proper began there was also Benny Moten in the Midwest; of white dance bands, the Casa Loma Band and Ben Pollack's were popular (with good soloists and some 'hot' arrangements); 'sweet' bands used similar instrumentation, but records by Ted Weems, Irving Aaronson, Jack Arnheim etc from the late '20s-early '30s reveal arrangements that were excessively busy and relentlessly cute. Early bands used tuba and banjo in the rhythm section; string bass and guitar took over as the New Orleans 2/4 beat was superseded by a smoother 4/4. (The tuba and banjo could be heard more easily from the bandstand and were easier to record, but a tuba player found it difficult to play four beats to the bar at a quick tempo.) A band might have three trumpets, two trombones, four reeds, four rhythm (bass, drums, piano, guitar); leaders who were arrangers innovated in the search for extra voicing: Ellington was first to make sure the string bass was adequately recorded in the late '20s; his and Redman's bands first had three trombones in the early '30s; Duke had two bassists in the late '30s, six trumpets in '46, and insisted that reedmen (the sax section) double on clarinet even after the clarinet became less fashionable. 'Head' arrangements were improvised (cf. Basie's 'One O'Clock Jump').

Ellington was a composer, in a class by himself; other top arrangers included Deane Kincaide (b 18 March 1911 Houston TX; d 14 August 1992, St Cloud FL; worked for Pollack, Bob Crosby and others), Gene Gifford (with Casa Loma), Don Kirkpatrick, Jerry Gray, Edgar Sampson, later Billy May, Sy Oliver, Bill Finegan, Eddie Sauter, after WWII Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti, Ernie Wilkins, Manny Albam, George Handy, Bill Holman, Pete Rugulo, Johnny Richards et al. The importance of the arrangers cannot be overemphasized: part of the reason Ben Pollack's band was not more successful was probably because it never had a musical identity bestowed by an arranging staff, and Pollack was not a skilled editor like Glenn Miller or Woody Herman. Section leaders rehearsed attack and phrasing as well as leading the sections in performance; men like George Dorman 'Scoops' Carry (1915-70) with Earl Hines '40-7, Langston Curl (b 1899) with Redman '27-37, Hilton Jefferson (1903-68) with Claude Hopkins, Chick Webb, Carter, Henderson, Cab Calloway, briefly Ellington, were admired by musicians if less well known to the public.

The Big Band Era began in 1935 when Benny Goodman was a sudden national success playing Henderson's music (as well as arrangements by Spud Murphy, Jimmy Mundy and others); the style then dominated USA music until after WWII. In general, the black bands played the best music but did not play in top white hotels, restaurants and dance halls, so did not get as much radio exposure and did not make big money: Ellington, Henderson, Redman, Hines, Basie, Webb, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins, Harlan Leonard, others. The most popular white bands were led by Goodman, Charlie Barnet, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Les Brown and Woody Herman. A band fronted by singer Bob Crosby, with key men from New Orleans, played a unique big-band dixieland style; the small-group Bob Cats were a band-within-a-band (there were also T. Dorsey's Clambake Seven, Woody's Woodchoppers, Goodman's trio, quartet and sextet). The Glenn Miller band was the most commercially successful of all, cleverly combining sweet and jazzish content; scores of sweet bands did good business (e.g. Guy Lombardo, Kay Kyser, Sammy Kaye). Good bands in the UK included Henry Hall, Jack Hylton, Carroll Gibbons and others; Ray Noble transplanted successfully to the USA (it is possible to argue on the basis of the old records that the average white dance band of the 1930s in the UK had higher standards of section playing etc than its USA counterpart). Goodman, Barnet and Herman were the most faithful to jazz of the white leaders. Sidemen went off and started their own bands: Harry James and Gene Krupa from Goodman, Bunny Berigan from Tommy Dorsey, and many others. Goodman, Shaw, Krupa, Barnet and others hired black musicians but racism on the road was a serious problem.

During WWII dance halls closed and bands toured less as petrol was rationed (and public transport in USA was being wrecked by special interests), and there was a 20% wartime entertainment tax (not lifted until well into the 1950s). Hayes Pillars (b 30 April 1906, North Little Rock AR; d 11 August 1992, Richmond Heights MO) was co-leader of the Jeter/Pillars Orchestra, which elected to stay in St Louis rather than tour but graduated sidemen like Jimmy Blanton, Harry Edison, Jo Jones and many more; he told Cadence (interviewed by Bob Rusch), 'The average nightclub owner, if he paid them 20 per cent, he couldn't afford a big band ... they found out that they could book combos and people would come on in and sit down and listen and buy drinks.' The record business was hurt as war industries demanded shellac from which 78s were made; from August 1942 a long musicians' strike stopped recording (see James Petrillo) and the band singers, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dick Haymes, Rosemary Clooney and many others, were glamorous heart-throbs (easier for fans to emulate than instrumentalists) and cheaper to record than the bands: they became the stars of the following decade. The Dorseys, Shaw and others tried using strings, which raised costs with little musical benefit, while blacks invented bop partly to get their music back and partly because jazz is an art form and had to evolve. Some white musicians were interested in bop (mainly a small-group music), tired of playing the same old stuff, but the bands themselves were partly to blame for their downfall. Herman's was the most up-to-date white band in 1944; Stan Kenton seemed hip at the time; indeed Billy Eckstine, Claude Thornhill, Dizzy Gillespie, Boyd Raeburn and even Ray McKinley were leading innovative bands (see their entries); but dancers were forsaken as arrangements were slowed down to accommodate vocalists or speeded up to show off musical skills; and anyway more dance halls were soon closing with competition from TV. No matter how good the music was, the dancers had always been the biggest audience.

January 1947 was seen as the end: big-name bands folding that month included Herman, James, Goodman, Brown, T. Dorsey, Carter, Jack Teagarden and Ina Ray Hutton; the music business was shocked, but the economics of the road had changed. Basie, Ellington, Kenton and Maynard Ferguson carried on; Goodman, Herman and Gillespie re-formed from time to time; Lionel Hampton led crowd-pleasers in the '50s; new bands were born and usually died, e.g. Capp/Pierce, Sauter/Finegan, Don Ellis, Gerald Wilson, Carla Bley, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Sun Ra; Ted Heath in England, Clarke/Boland in Europe. Arrangers May, Paul Weston, Axel Stordahl, Nelson Riddle and others worked for record companies; first-rate sidemen took studio jobs; Albam and Carter formed bands for record dates and jazz festivals; big-money pop music was dominated by white vocalists and by studio A&R executives and producers (see Mitch Miller) until the banality of this studio-bound music caused pressure released in the explosion of rock'n'roll.

Big bands remained useful in schools so that young musicians could learn to read arrangements, play in sections, etc (Bill Ashton's National Youth Jazz Orchestra in UK has graduated scores of fine musicians). The bands will never die because they make a joyful noise; there will always be arrangers who want to write for such ensembles and young musicians who want to learn to play in them: Mel Lewis played every week at the Village Vanguard for 20 years, while the Jazz Warriors and Loose Tubes drew UK fans in the '80s; Louie Bellson led bands subsidized by other work; Gil Evans was perhaps the most important innovator in the '50s-60s; Evans's protégée Maria Schneider was leading a big band Monday nights at Visiones in Greenwich Village in the '90s, following in both Lewis's and Evans's footsteps. The North Sea Jazz Festival saw Gillespie, Ray Charles and Illinois Jacquet leading big bands '88; young musicians were playing superbly in the Kansas City Boulevard Big Band's two superb albums as well as big-band sets Harpoon (U. of Wisconsin/Eau Claire) and Vintage Year (Northern Arizona U. at Flagstaff), Live At Montreux 1996 (Synthesis, from Brigham Young U.), Spritely Overdue (nominated for a Grammy) and Disposable Income (both Western Michigan U. Jazz Orchestra), all on the Seabreeze Vista label in the '90s. Trombonist Ray Anderson made a Big Band Record '94 with the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band; Mathias Rüegg, Franz Koglmann and Willem Breuker as well as Gruntz led big bands in Europe, and for that matter Continental radio networks still had big bands on staff. The Smithsonian Institution's Big Band Jazz: From The Beginnings To The Fifties (compiled by Gunther Schuller and Martin Williams '83) and Big Band Renaissance: The Evolution Of The Jazz Orchestra/The 1940s And Beyond (Bill Kirchner, '95) were good surveys of the recordings, while Schuller's The Swing Era '89 is the best book on the subject.

Big Band vocalist Amanda Carr comes from the tradition; her mother, Nancy Carr, sang with bands at the Totem Pole, a famous ballroom in New England; her father, Nick Capezuto, played trumpet with several name bands. Amanda's latest album was Common Thread in 2009 on OMS with the Tommy Hadley Big Band: Hadley had led a band in New England for 24 years and re-formed to make this album. Amanda has formed the American Big Band Preservation Society to preserve and perpetuate the music by seeking out big band arrangements and giving them a safe home, as well as providing them to music programs in schools. The ABBPS will also provide educational clinics and master classes, not only to students from elementary school through college but to teachers who may not have much experience with larger ensembles, all of which will help school systems who are stretched for money nowadays. (Thanks to Nat Hentoff for his article in the Wall Street Journal.)