Though the golden age of big band music is associated with the 30s, it originated a decade earlier, in the Jazz Age, when jazz bandleaders began to lead groups that emerged out of small jazz combos, swelling in size and musical ambition. In the Roaring 20s, the burgeoning record industry attracted musicians to big American cities, and new bands such as McKinney’s Cotton Pickers could have strings of bestselling hits.
Fletcher Henderson was a major force in establishing big band music, with accomplished ensembles that included musicians of the quality of Louis Armstrong, saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, and clarinettist Buster Bailey. In Henderson’s music lay many of the origins of “swing”, and it is no coincidence that he was later to work as an arranger for the King Of Swing, Benny Goodman. Henderson’s bands were pioneers in getting harmonised arrangements to work for large groups of musicians. Even Armstrong, whose work with his Hot Five and Hot Seven Bands had been so innovative in the 20s, began working with an orchestra, producing his own marvellous big band music.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, big bands felt the effects of the Great Depression, with even Henderson forced to disband temporarily. Ballroom dancers had also tired of the rigours of frenetic jazz dancing and came to favour the more sentimental music sung on radio shows by crooners such as Bing Crosby. Even superb musicians the likes of Benny Carter and Hawkins went to Europe to find work with radio orchestras.
But as America came out of the Depression, the public wanted musical entertainment; the big band era was about to begin. This coincided with a feeling, in jazz circles, that bigger was better. The height of the swing era was between the years 1935 to 1940, and many jazz bandleaders enjoyed huge success, none more so than Goodman, a dazzling clarinet player.
It was also a time when radio audiences were at their peak and stations needed fresh music to help fill their schedules. Goodman was quick off the mark: his broadcasts on Camel Caravan, a programme sponsored by a tobacco company, brought him legions of new fans – many of whom saw him live. At one time, Goodman was playing five shows every evening, to 21,000 people a night, and his band was rivalled in popularity only by clarinettist Artie Shaw, who scored such a hit with ‘Begin The Beguine’.
Goodman also realised that he would need exciting arrangements that were challenging enough to keep his good musicians stimulated, and the bandleader was also ahead of time in race relations, bringing black musicians, such as piano maestro Teddy Wilson, into his group.
The big band phenomena also took jazz into new venues, such as Carnegie Hall, which had previously been a preserve of classical music. And ballrooms across America were the hotbeds of new dance crazes such as the jitterbug and the jive. Swing bands were big business, and if you found the right song you could have a million-seller on your hands. Tommy Dorsey (trombone and trumpet) had a string of hits, including ‘Marie’ in 1937, while brother Jimmy (trumpet and clarinet) had his own runaway winners, including ‘Amapola’.
Goodman’s success also inspired many of his sidemen – including drummer Gene Krupa, trumpeters Harry James and Bunny Berigan, talented multi-instrumentalist Lionel Hampton and reed player Woody Herman – to create their own big bands. However, Berigan, who had a drinking problem, was less successful than James. For James, it was large concert halls and million-selling hits such as ‘You Made Me Love You’. For Berigan, it was bankruptcy.
Running a big band was a tricky exercise in financial astuteness and man-management, as well as a test of musical prowess. The bandleader was responsible for paying for arrangements, the band bus, uniforms, agency fees and publicity costs. And bands weren’t always harmonious off stage. Composer and bandleader Hoagy Carmichael once described life in a big band as being “like an inmate in a traveling zoo”.
As well as white bandleaders such as Goodman and Krupa, the 30s saw the rise of black bandleaders, including Chick Webb, whose group played regular residencies at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, with a young Ella Fitzgerald. It was a collaboration that brought the massive hit ‘A-Tisket, A-Tisket’.
There were also notable bands led by Earl Hines and Cab Calloway. However, the most important black bands to emerge were those of William “Count” Basie and Duke Ellington’s marvellous orchestras. Basie had wonderful musicians in his band, which had originated in Kansas, including bassist Walter Page and tenor saxophonist Lester Young, and he brought in top-calibre vocalists, among them Jimmy Rushing and Billie Holiday. Ellington, the man who had composed ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’ in 1932, also had wonderful sidemen, such as bassist Jimmy Blanton.
Led by two of the most charismatic jazz bandleaders, Basie and Ellington’s bands produced some of the best and most exciting jazz that had ever been made, and Basie’s superb driving rhythm section seemed to have an almost telepathic understanding, improvising on tunes which did not always have written arrangements.
Even within big bands, however, individuals could impose their own creative brilliance as a soloist, as Coleman Hawkins did with his 1939 recording for Victor Records, ‘Body And Soul’. This hit was arranged for an orchestra but was essentially Hawkins’ own majestic tour de force.
Big band music continued to dominate the airwaves during the years of World War Two, when the music of Glenn Miller captivated the public. Though not a noted improviser, Miller was a fine trombonist and superb arranger. By smoothing out the big band sound and adapting the songs to popular dance rhythms, he made his name for himself among jazz bandleaders with tunes such as ‘In The Mood’ and ‘Moonlight Serenade’.
By the end of the war, jazz was moving in new experimental ways. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie had his own band of 15 musicians for a time, but he abandoned the big band format, believing that it was not right for the future direction of his creativity. He was one of a number of musicians who led the bebop wave in the 50s. Perhaps sensing a threat, some of the older big bandleaders, particularly Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, criticised this new style of jazz.
Some jazz bandleaders tried to be more forward-thinking. Woody Herman continued leading big bands in the 50s but he employed young talented musicians such as Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, and allowed them to express the new sounds in their solos. Claude Thornhill began using the “modern” arrangements penned by Gil Evans for a reinvented big band that included bop musicians such as alto saxophonist Lee Konitz.
In a similar way, Billy Eckstine’s band employed Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. There were also moves to use vocalists with big bands, as Eckstone did with the honey-voiced Sarah Vaughan, a singer who had learned her trade with bandleaders such as Earl Hines. One celebrated singer who also earned his chops with big bands was Frank Sinatra, who admitted that his path to solo success was helped enormously by his time spent singing with the swing bands of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey in the early 40s.
Another singer who cut her teeth with big bands was Peggy Lee. Born Norma Delores Egstrom, she started with the swing bands of Jack Wardlaw and Will Osborne, and gained her real break in 1941 when she replaced Helen Forrest as Benny Goodman’s vocalist. Under his watchful eye, she honed her technique. In the electric microphone era, Lee was able to command even a searing big band with delicate inflections. Like Sinatra, she went on to have a dazzling solo career even as the appeal of the big bands faded and rock and pop music took over.
As rock’n’roll engulfed all in the 60s, jazz bandleaders Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington were virtually the only ones of a bygone era who continued to flourish, often keeping afloat with lucrative world tours. But even the titans struggled. Basie started working with a sextet and Ellington had to use royalties from his compositions to fund his big band work. As Ellington joked: “There is nothing to keeping a band together. You simply have to have a gimmick, and the gimmick I use is to pay them money.”
The past half-century has seen big bands endure ups and down. The one formed by ex-Basie trumpeter and conductor Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis went down a storm and continued to set the standard in the 60s and 70s, when musicians such as Walter Ferguson also flew the flag for the format.
Smooth jazz dominated the 80s, but there was still good and bold big band music being recorded in the 90s, including the 1993 live album Dave Grusin Presents GRP All-Star Big Band Live!, by GRP Records co-founder Dave Grusin. The term “New Big Band” was coined to refer to the groups that fuse elements of classic swing with the bop artists. Among the most successful of those have been Christian McBride, who won a Grammy in 2012 for best large jazz ensemble recording. That came just a year after Bob Curnow, a respected composer and producer, released the second volume of his big band arrangements of the music of Pat Metheny. The follow-up to 1994’s The Music Of Pat Metheny And Lyle Mays showcased the very best in contemporary big band writing.
Big band and swing music will always find an audience (just ask Robbie Williams, whose two swing tribute albums this century have sold more than 10 million copies) as music lovers go back to the greats, such as jazz bandleaders Basie and Ellington, who created some of the most uplifting music of modern times.
Click here to follow the Jazz Giants playlist, which features classics from jazz bandleaders the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.