Swing, Swing, Swing: A History Of Big Band Jazz

From its origins in the Roaring 20s, to a heyday in the 30s and beyond, big band jazz has produced some of the best jazz bandleaders of all time.

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Photo: David Redfern/Redferns

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 Twenties, 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 clarinetist 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 harmonized 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 marvelous 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 rigors of frenetic jazz dancing and came to favor the more sentimental music sung on radio shows by crooners such as Bing Crosby. Even superb musicians like Benny Carter and Hawkins went to Europe to find work with radio orchestras.

Listen to the best of big band jazz on Spotify.

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 program 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 rivaled in popularity only by clarinetist Artie Shaw, who scored such a hit with “Begin The Beguine.”

Goodman also realized 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.

Kings of swing

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 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.”

A-Tisket, A-Tasket

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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 marvelous 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-caliber 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.”

Enter bebop

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, criticized 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 modern era

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.

Follow the Jazz Giants playlist for more essential classics from jazz bandleaders past and present.



  1. Gene Newman

    February 8, 2017 at 5:46 pm

    You left out a great and successful band Buddy Rich.


    February 8, 2017 at 5:54 pm

    My parents played with The Pinky Tomlin Band and The Frank Waterhouse Band back in the late 30’s through early 40’s. My mom, Shirley Lane, was the lead singer and my father, Johnny Lynch, played the piano. I still have some great pictures of that time.

  3. Bob Ross

    February 8, 2017 at 8:07 pm

    Its a great shame that you missed out one of all time greatest bands, rivalling Benny Goodman. Artie Shaw and his Orchestra. Man did this band swing or what. Even through to his Grammarcy bands, Shaw more that earned the credit to be included in this list. Its a pretty bad exclusion!

  4. Phil J. Whitmore

    February 8, 2017 at 9:49 pm

    Stan Kenton…Stan Kenton…Stan Kenton…

    • Robert Mckenzie

      June 15, 2019 at 9:38 am

      The middle fifties, Kenton blew me away. Listening yesterday to Adventures in Jazz, I realise how timeless it is. I heard Kenton and forgot popular music, unlike Q.Jones who embraced money-making sounds. Kenton attracted High School Musicians to the future in Military bands, a 1960 grad. going on to the Airmen of Note Air Force Band, Hank Burnette, recently deceased near Langley A.F.B. in Virginia. A fine Trumpeteer, Hank was delighted to retire but he left us too soon and his wife Ann.

  5. Edgar Hutcherson

    February 9, 2017 at 12:22 am

    C.parker’s elegant scalar flurries, with images of a virtuoso’s symphony…like she said ” go baby and he said, oh yeah, yeah-you are ;-)….Thank you

  6. Charles Jensen

    February 9, 2017 at 1:25 am

    I’m “flabergasted.” No Stan Kenton? He was waaaay ahead of His time. Check out City of Glass sometime. Thank You.

  7. Jeff Ortopan

    February 9, 2017 at 7:28 am

    I love big bands. All of them, but my hands down favorite big band is Count Basie’s bands through the years.

    • Geoff Stokes

      February 12, 2018 at 9:40 am

      I first saw the Basis Orchestra around 1961 have been a great fan ever since, a wonderful band, I also have CDs of Basies smaller bands, love em all.

  8. Albert Goddard sr.

    February 9, 2017 at 9:32 am

    Glen Miller Glen Miller Glen Miller…………….. Com mon Glen Miller You can’t leave him off like that……. He was the man….!!!!!!

    • Bob Brooks

      February 8, 2018 at 10:54 pm

      Glenn Miller is in there, but they gave him a backhanded compliment.

  9. Bill

    February 9, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    My Parents had a lot of 78s of some of the bands listed. One Will Bradley comes to mind. Louie Prima had an orchestra that I was fortunate to see live at the old RKO Palace in Rochester N.Y. 1948.
    I borrowed a recording from the Rochester library which featured the Duke Ellington band. The recording was made in 1927. I saw the Glen Miller band perform at the N.Y. State Fair in 1955. It was led by Glen’s drummer.
    I have some recordings of Jazz combos that includes Zoot.

  10. Richard

    May 9, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    I agree absolute with the inclusion of Stan Kenton, just listen to Cuban Fire! Also, let’s not forget Woody Herman, Buddy Rich and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, still playing outstanding music every Monday at the Village Vanguard in its current guise of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

  11. Ben Shaw

    August 21, 2017 at 1:43 am

    Regardless of all the names left off the list, it remains that the big bands carried a war weary world through its toughest time of the 20th century. The music spoke to everyone in one form or another. It was responsible for jazz to make the strides it did through the following decades. I only hope there is a big band heaven. That’s where I want to be!

  12. Phil Vinson

    August 21, 2017 at 5:15 am

    Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Thad Jones, Stan kent on, Woody Herman, /UNT One O’Clock Lab Band, Maynard Ferguson. Mazny college bands, many local big bands.

  13. Will

    December 3, 2017 at 7:24 am

    Never heard of “Walter Ferguson” and google doesn’t turn up much except an illustrator and a calypso singer. Assuming this was about Maynard Ferguson

  14. Richard Silva

    December 4, 2017 at 12:03 am

    I was born in 1949 but was able to see Count Basie (,twice),Benny Goodman,and the Glen miller band live back in the early 80’s My favorite though “THE COUNT”

  15. Edgardo Rivera

    December 4, 2017 at 1:33 am

    …where is Glen Miller and his band?

  16. Edgardo Rivera

    December 4, 2017 at 1:34 am

    …not the last, Luis Alcaraz Band…must be one of the best

  17. Herb

    February 8, 2018 at 6:28 pm

    I agree with the Kenton lovers. Saw him in concert with the Four Freshmen (remember them?). If don’t already have it, check out Kenton’s rendition of West Side Story. Kenton and Bernstein — a great combination.

    • Bill Hardy

      February 26, 2018 at 10:40 pm

      Herb, totally love Kenton’s West Side Story. “Somewhere” just wrecks me every time I hear it. The arrangements on this album are pure genius.

  18. Feliks Gailitis

    February 8, 2018 at 8:51 pm

    You omitted one of the most important leaders and one of the greatest players, Benny Carter.

    • Zatto

      August 3, 2018 at 8:21 pm

      Absolutely right

  19. Bob Brooks

    February 8, 2018 at 10:52 pm

    Maynard Ferguson! Idiot!
    How about Toshiko Akioshi-Lew Tabakin Jazz Band, Don Ellis & his orchestra , Adam Holzman, Bill Russo, Bill Watrous & Manhattan Wildlife Refuge, Buddy Rich, Charles Mingus, Clark Terry Big B-A-D Band, Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Band, Gary Urwin Jazz Orchestra, Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band, Louis Bellson, Michael Davis, Boss Brass, Thelonius Monk, Tom Kubis Big Band, and Urbie Green Big Band?

    • Wally

      February 27, 2020 at 7:42 pm

      And the great bands of Bill Holman, Bob Florence, Terry Gibbs. The list is endless!

  20. Geoff Stokes

    February 9, 2018 at 8:37 pm

    I first saw the Basis Orchestra around 1961 have been a great fan ever since, a wonderful band, I also have CDs of Basies smaller bands, love em all.

  21. Steve Wilson

    March 8, 2018 at 2:21 am

    Les Brown and his band of Renown with Doris Day

  22. george

    April 13, 2019 at 7:35 pm

    Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy, Kenton, Shaw, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers…and of course the great Sun Ra, who was Fletcher Henderson’s arranger before leading the greatest outside big band of all for the next 60 years…

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