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Today it seems inevitable that nearly all styles of American music are based in New York City. Certainly by the 1930s, New York’s dominant influence was as the home for the major record labels, the most famous radio stations, the nationally famous theaters and clubs, Broadway shows, and the recording studios. By 1920 the most technically skilled musicians worked in New York where their technique, precision, and accuracy were greatly prized.

Jazz did not actually originate in New York, and during the first half of the 1920s, the New York musicians mostly lagged behind the New Orleans transplants who were working in Chicago. Listening to the typical New York band from 1923, it sounds several years behind King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band when it comes to spontaneity, swing, and phrasing, often emphasizing staccato rather than legato lines. The New York players, even when they were improvising, sounded as if they were reading the notes rather than being creative, and few knew how to utilize bluish and bent notes in their solos.

One of Louis Armstrong’s greatest contributions to music was the impact that he made during 1924 and 1925 when, as a member of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, he altered the New York jazz scene nearly overnight. Even before his arrival, however, there was some notable music performed in the Big Apple.


When Nick LaRocca brought his band to New York in January 1917 and they performed at Reisenweber’s, they caught on even bigger than they had in Chicago. On February 26, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) became the first jazz band to ever record, cutting “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixie Jazz Band One Step” for the Victor label. “Livery Stable Blues” has the novelty of three horns imitating barnyard animals, and when Victor rushed the music out for release, it became a surprise hit. Although the music sounds quite primitive today, being all ensembles except for some two-bar breaks, these pioneering recordings were very radical for their time, particularly in their display of raw emotions. Between 1917 and 1921 nearly every jazz group that recorded did their best to imitate the ODJB.

World War I ended in 1918, and in early 1919 the Original Dixieland Jazz Band became the first American jazz group to visit Europe. Having conquered Chicago and New York, the ODJB became a big hit in London, playing for nine months at the Hammersmith Palais and launching a jazz craze on the Continent. Returning to New York in 1920, the ODJB had a strong seller with their recording of “Margie,” but otherwise they began to struggle due to competition from other groups. In addition, personality conflicts resulting from Nick LaRocca’s prickly manner were hurting the band’s progress. Henry Ragas had died in 1918 during the influenza epidemic, and J. Russell Robinson replaced him without a loss in quality. In 1921, however, when both Robinson and Shields departed, the band’s sound was weakened. After January 1921 the group only recorded eight more numbers before its breakup in 1925. By then the ODJB was considered a ghost of the past, merely a historic, rather than a pacesetting, band.

Eleven years passed during which LaRocca ran a contracting business, Edwards occasionally played in society orchestras, Shields was working outside of music, Robinson became a successful songwriter, and Sbarbaro was the only ODJB alumnus still playing jazz fulltime. In 1936 LaRocca, who was still just forty-seven, was persuaded to get the band back together. All five musicians practiced until they were playing at a high level again, and soon they were appearing on the radio and making a few new recordings in New York. Their music was largely unchanged from 1920, even though it was now the swing era, and the musicians still stuck to ensembles without featuring any solos. Unfortunately, more personality conflicts arose, and the novelty of the historic group ran out. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band permanently broke up on February 1, 1938.


Although Louis Armstrong’s work during the classic jazz era made him immortal, it was only the start of a long career. Bix Beiderbecke did not survive past 1931. Beiderbecke, a cornetist with a beautiful tone and harmonically advanced style, was a quieter and cooler-toned player than Armstrong and is today thought of as his closest competitor among brassmen. Beiderbecke was also early proof that jazz, although founded by African Americans based in the South, could be played just as creatively by whites and other races or by anyone who had the musical ability and the chance-taking spirit.

Beiderbecke’s life was the stuff of legend, as was his unusual name, even while he was alive. He rose to prominence in the 1920s, hit his peak in 1927, and then quickly declined from an overindulgence of bootleg liquor. Along the way he intuitively created great music while remaining largely unknown to the general public.

Born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1903 to a conservative middle-class family, Beiderbecke showed a natural ability for the piano early in life, playing songs by ear at four. Although he was given classical piano lessons, they did not last long because he preferred to “improve” the written music, which he memorized after hearing once rather than learning to read music. He discovered jazz in 1918 when his older brother brought home a record by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and he surprised his parents by buying a cornet and practicing it constantly.

Since his life seemed to be directionless to his parents, they enrolled Beiderbecke at Lake Forest Military Academy in 1921, not knowing that the school was located just thirty-five miles north of Chicago, the center of jazz. After violating curfew a few too many times to sit in with groups in Chicago, Beiderbecke was expelled. He became a fulltime musician, playing throughout the Midwest. In October 1923 he joined the Wolverines, a new group that was Page 40  influenced by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. The band caught on for a time, recording sixteen songs in 1924. Although their recordings are mostly concise jam sessions, Beiderbecke’s cornet playing was already so lyrical and haunting that he gained a strong reputation among musicians. On “Big Boy,” Beiderbecke even took a piano solo in addition to leading the ensemble on cornet.

The Wolverines visited New York in the fall of 1924 and fared quite well. When Beiderbecke was hired away by Jean Goldkette’s orchestra, the Wolverines faded into history. He was soon fired for being unable to read music, although Goldkette promised him his job back after he mastered sight-reading.

Much of 1925 was spent in obscurity as Beiderbecke had a short stint with Charlie Straight’s band but was again fired for his inability to read music. He spent two weeks at the University of Iowa but was expelled after a drunken brawl. While gigging in St. Louis with C-melody saxophonist Frankie Trum-bauer’s orchestra, Beiderbecke worked on his sight-reading with the bandleader, and in March 1926 returned to New York and was rehired by Goldkette; Trumbauer also joined the band.

The Jean Goldkette Orchestra of 1926 and 1927, potentially the leading big band in jazz, also featured clarinetist Don Murray, trombonist Bill Rank, the swinging bassist Steve Brown, and arrangements by Bill Challis. Unfortunately Goldkette had signed with the Victor label, and the record producer who worked with the band hated jazz and disliked Beiderbecke’s ad-libbing. With a couple of exceptions, most notably “Clementine” and “My Pretty Girl,” these Goldkette recordings are disappointing. The songs are inferior, the guest vocalists do not cut it, and the band is not allowed to cut loose except occasionally during the final chorus.

For Beiderbecke 1927 was the high point of his career. In addition to working with Goldkette during the first half of the year, he began recording as the star sideman with groups led by Frankie Trumbauer. Their classic recording of “Singin’ the Blues,” which has Beiderbecke’s most famous solo and a memorable statement from Trumbauer, is one of the first recorded jazz ballads. Their other record gems included “I’m Comin’ Virginia” and “Way Down Yonder in Page 41  New Orleans.” Beiderbecke, under the title of Bix and His Gang, also led a series of freewheeling dates that are highlighted by “Royal Garden Blues,” “At the Jazz Band Ball,” and “Jazz Me Blues.” In addition, Beiderbecke composed four impressionistic piano pieces that year, futuristic music that included “Candlelight,” “Flashes,” “In the Dark,” and “In a Mist,” recording the latter as a piano solo.

The Jean Goldkette Orchestra broke up in the summer, and after a brief time performing in New York with a jazz band led by bass-saxophonist Adrian Rollini, both Beiderbecke and Trumbauer joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Although billed as “The King of Jazz,” Whiteman was aware that his oversized big band was more of a concert orchestra. Because he liked jazz, at least in small doses, he went out of his way to sign up some of the best talent. It was a prestigious association for Beiderbecke, playing with the most famous orchestra of the era.

At first the matchup worked well, but soon Beiderbecke became worn out by Whiteman’s nonstop schedule of recording dates, radio shows, and live appearances. Many records featured his short solos, including “There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears,” “San,” “Dardanella,” “You Took Advantage of Me,” and the original recording of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F. His drinking, which was troublesome by 1925, became uncontrollable by 1928.

Near the end of that year, Beiderbecke was out of action altogether, and he suffered a nervous breakdown in January 1929. Andy Secrest, a younger cornetist with a similar sound, had been filling in for Beiderbecke. Throughout 1929 he continued to decline, and on September 13 he collapsed and was sent home to Davenport. He checked into a hospital for a time and gamely tried to kick his alcoholism. In 1930 he was well enough to return to New York and make three recording dates, but his tone had deteriorated, and he returned to excessive drinking.

All of his recordings are well worth hearing, even when he was slipping. On August 6, 1931, when he was just twenty-eight, Bix Beiderbecke died from pneumonia. If he had quit drinking, he would have become one of the swing era’s stars. Instead, because of his tragic death, he is permanently associated with the 1920s.


Prior to 1920 jazz and big bands were separate, with the latter playing strictly melodic dance music. As jazz became popular, the orchestras began to open up their arrangements a bit to satisfy the dancing customers, adding short solos and more flexible rhythms.

One of the first commercial orchestras to incorporate jazz was led by Paul Whiteman. Whiteman started playing violin at seven, and he worked with the Denver Symphony Orchestra from 1907 to 1914. After a stint leading a
forty-piece band during a brief period in the navy, in 1918 Whiteman founded his own dance band in San Francisco. Originally it was just seven pieces with cornetist-trumpeter Henry Busse, trombone, clarinet, piano, banjo, tuba, and drums, but by 1921 it was up to a dozen musicians with the addition of a second trumpet, trombone, two more reeds, and violin. Whiteman relocated his band to New York in 1920, and his hit recordings of “Whispering,” “Three O’Clock in the Morning,” “Japanese Sandman,” “Wang Wang Blues,” and “Hot Lips” made him the most famous bandleader in America.

Although he was billed as “The King of Jazz” by the mid-1920s, Whiteman never intended jazz to be more than a small part of his repertoire. He was wise enough to hire technically skilled musicians who could play anything, and he utilized the talents of Ferdie Grofe, who was among the first to incorporate a jazz feeling in his arrangements. Whiteman’s goal was to “make a lady out of jazz” by taming and civilizing the wild music and performing it for a large audience. Much of the time prior to 1927, all he succeeded at was performing first-class dance music containing a bit of watered-down jazz. An early highpoint for Whiteman was a prestigious concert on February 24, 1924, at Aeolian Hall that featured the debut of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue , with Gershwin on piano.

By the mid-1920s Whiteman began to realize that, although he might have been called “The King of Jazz,” there were few actual jazz musicians in his oversized orchestra. In 1926 cornetist Red Nichols, trombonist Tommy Dorsey, and clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey played in his band, and the following year he added the remnants of Jean Goldkette’s big band, including Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, plus the Rhythm Boys with Bing Crosby. By 1929 Whiteman had also hired violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang, and his large orchestra consisted of four trumpeters, four trombonists, six reed players, a full string section, two pianos, banjo, guitar, bass sax, tuba, bass, drums, and up to six vocalists. Although some of Whiteman’s music from 1927 to 1929 was semi-classical or just plain dance music, he recorded enough jazz arrangements to be considered one of the more significant big bands of the time. After the Depression hit, Whiteman cut back his giant orchestra and became less important, being more of a historic figure rather than a relevant force by the time the swing era was flourishing.


For many African Americans in the 1920s and early 1930s, Harlem was the promised land. The black district of New York City was one of the few places in the United States where African Americans could be themselves and have a certain amount of freedom and independence from the white establishment. The freedom was a bit of an illusion, but at least during what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, African Americans could express themselves artistically in poetry, prose, theater, dancing, and music. Although jazz was somewhat separate from the Renaissance movement, both predating and outliving it, it provided the soundtrack for some of the artistic innovations.

Having set the standards for big bands in the 1920s, Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra at Roseland was a major influence on the many Harlem-based big bands by the early Depression years. The orchestras not only performed swinging jazz but also backed dance acts, variety shows, and singers, and provided dance music for customers. Among the many notable clubs that flourished in Harlem during this period were the Alhambra Ballroom, the Bamboo Inn, Barron’s, the Capitol Palace, Connie’s Inn, the Lafayette Theatre, the Lenox Club, the Nest Club, the Cotton Club, Small’s Paradise, and the Savoy Ballroom, where Chick Webb and his band reigned supreme.


It is impossible to overstate Duke Ellington’s vast accomplishments as a composer, arranger, bandleader, and pianist. He wrote thousands of pieces in his career, scores of which became standards. His arrangements, written specifically for his sidemen, were so inventive that he was able to blend together very different individualists into a unified group sound. Ellington led a band that for forty-nine years, from 1926 to 1974, always ranked near the top with no real down period artistically. As a pianist, he was initially a fine stride player, influenced by Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson, who through the decades always remained modern.

Born April 29, 1899, in Washington, DC, Edward Kennedy Ellington began playing piano when he was seven and seemed to be destined to become an artist, even earning an art scholarship to Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. By then he had been hanging out nightly at local clubs and parties where he was impressed by the local ragtime and stride pianists. Already nicknamed “Duke” due to his suave, sophisticated nature, Ellington partly learned how to play jazz piano by Page 52  slowing down James P. Johnson piano rolls to half-speed so he could copy the fingering. In 1917 he composed his first song, “Soda Fountain Rag,” and although he only knew a few tunes at the time, he was soon supplying several groups a night for parties and dances, having taken out a very large Yellow Pages ad about his band before it even existed. Although he was making a good living in Washington, DC, in 1923 Ellington traveled to New York to join Wilbur Sweatman’s band. Sweatman was well known at the time for his ability to play three clarinets at once, but he was not much of a jazz player. When the engagement ended, Ellington returned home. A few months later, banjoist Elmer Snowden formed the Washingtonians with Ellington and some of his friends, and they worked steadily in New York. A money dispute resulted in Snowden being ousted and Duke becoming the leader.

The Washingtonians worked at the Kentucky Club from 1924 to 1927, during which Ellington developed quickly as a pianist and a writer. Although the group sounded good on the two songs they recorded in December 1924, that was just a false start, and it was not until late 1926 before the Ellington sound started to emerge on records. By then the band featured trumpeter Bubber Miley and trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton, both of whom were masters at distorting their sounds with mutes to get otherworldly effects, which were nicknamed “the jungle sound.” In 1927 Ellington retained Irving Mills as his manager, started recording frequently for many different labels under a variety of names, and introduced the eerie “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Creole Love Call,” the latter with a pioneering wordless vocal from Adelaide Hall. The most important event took place on December 4, 1927, when the Duke Ellington Orchestra became the house band at Harlem’s Cotton Club. In addition to playing its own music, the Ellington big band was now performing for shows, and they gained a great deal of publicity broadcasting regularly from the establishment. Soon they were being billed accurately as Duke Ellington’s Famous Orchestra.

With Ellington writing prolifically, the band introduced such originals from 1926 to 1931 as their theme song “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” “The Mooche,” “Black Beauty,” “Old Man Blues,” “Mood Indigo,” “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” and “Cotton Club Stomp.” In 1929 he recorded his first extended piece, a rendition of Tiger Rag that took up two sides of a 78, totaling nearly six minutes. In 1931 Ellington wrote his initial extended work, the two-part Creole Rhapsody , but that was just the first step in his desire to write lengthy suites.

In Ellington’s band, more than in most others, his sidemen were of major importance. Many of the pieces Duke wrote were collaborations with his players, and virtually all of his musicians were potentially significant soloists. Rather than hiring musicians because they played ensembles well or were good sight-readers, Ellington was most interested in gathering unique voices and writing for them.

Most important in his early band was trumpeter Bubber Miley, who greatly extended the expertise that King Oliver had shown with mutes. The tones that Page 53  he achieved from his horn were eerie and quite unforgettable. Unfortunately Miley became an alcoholic, and in early 1929, Ellington reluctantly fired him after he had become quite unreliable. Cootie Williams took his place and proved in future years to be more of an all-round player, very capable of utilizing mutes but also able to play open solos influenced by Louis Armstrong. In the trumpet section next to Miley or Williams were the lyrical trumpeter Arthur Whetsol, whose tone was haunting in a different way, and the more conventional but hot soloist Freddy Jenkins. The trombonists were Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Miley’s equivalent with tone distortions but much more reliable, and the versatile valve trombonist Juan Tizol, who did not solo much but could fill in for any players including the saxophonists.

Altoist Johnny Hodges had a beautiful tone and the ability to sound very much at home on blues, stomps, and ballads. Barney Bigard was a New Orleans native who had played fine tenor sax with King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators from 1924 to 1927 but switched permanently back to clarinet to play with Ellington. His presence allowed Ellington to use the New Orleans sound in unexpected and sophisticated settings. Harry Carney, who joined Duke in 1927 and stayed forty-eight years even after Ellington’s death, was the first important baritone saxophonist in jazz, and his huge sound is still definitive. The sax section also included Otto Hardwicke, an altoist with a sweet tone that contrasted well with Miley and Nanton, although he played elsewhere between 1929 and 1931. In addition to Ellington on piano, the rhythm section consisted of banjoist Fred Guy, who switched to the nearly inaudible guitar in the early 1930s, the excellent string bassist Wellman Braud, and the colorful drummer Sonny Greer.

Duke Ellington’s orchestra was based at the Cotton Club from 1927 to 1931 and then hit the road, its real home for the next four decades. The band toured Europe for the first time in 1933 and crisscrossed the United States countless times.

There were several important new additions to the band’s personnel in the 1930s. Cootie Williams was joined in the trumpet section by cornetist Rex Stewart, who became a key soloist in 1934. Stewart’s half-valve technique of bending notes, featured on numbers including Page 54  “Boy Meets Horn,” gave Ellington a new voice to blend into the ensembles. Lawrence Brown played trombone, in addition to the tonal distortions of Tricky Sam Nanton and the fluent playing of valve trombonist Juan Tizol. Brown had strong technique, a swinging style, and a distinctive sound of his own. The saxophone section, including altoist Johnny Hodges, clarinetist Barney Bigard, and baritonist Harry Carney, was occasionally joined by Otto Hardwicke on second alto. With all of those distinctive players, the rhythm section was often overlooked. While guitarist Fred Guy was largely inaudible and drummer Sonny Greer primarily added colors, Ellington was a superior forward-looking stride pianist, and Wellman Braud was one of the top bassists of the early 1930s. When Braud departed later in the decade, he was replaced by Billy Taylor, no relation to the later pianist, with Hayes Alvis sometimes on second bass. In addition, in 1932 Ellington hired Ivie Anderson, his first fulltime singer, who had an immediate hit with “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” a tune written by Ellington three years before the swing era began.

The 1930s found Ellington writing many songs that became standards, including “Sophisticated Lady,” “Drop Me off in Harlem,” “Solitude,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “I Let a Song Go out of My Heart,” and “Prelude to a Kiss.” In addition, his recordings included a remarkable musical recreation of a train trip called “Daybreak Express,” the melancholy four-part “Reminiscing in Tempo,” and many underrated gems. Ellington was the arranger and pianist for a series of small group dates headed by his sidemen including Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Johnny Hodges, and Barney Bigard.

The rise of the swing era did not cause Ellington any difficulty because he was well established before any of the potentially competitive big bands had been formed. During 1939 and 1940 his superb orchestra became even stronger with three new additions. Billy Strayhorn, a promising young pianist-composer-arranger from Pittsburgh, became an integral, if often invisible, part of the band, contributing songs, including the new Ellington theme song “Take the ‘A’ Train,” collaborating with Duke on arrangements, and working behind the scenes. Ben Webster became Ellington’s first major tenor sax soloist, and Jimmy Blanton, who was just twenty-one when he joined Ellington in 1939, revolutionized the string bass. In addition to playing inspiring accompaniment to soloists and in the ensembles, Blanton could solo on the bass with the fluency of a guitar. He had short solos with the full band and recorded six duets with Ellington in which the pianist mostly backed the bassist instead of the other way around. Tragically Blanton’s life was very short; he was struck down by tuberculosis in late 1941 and passed away the following year. His legacy lived on through the playing of Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, and virtually every acoustic bassist in future years.

The period from 1939 to 1942 is considered to be the absolute peak for the Duke Ellington Orchestra, although the band never really had an off period. When Cootie Williams left in 1940 to join Benny Goodman this was not a fatal blow because he was immediately replaced by Ray Nance, who not only could Page 55  play cornet solos in a style similar to Williams’ but also was a fine singer and a violin soloist. Among the scores of classic Ellington recordings from this period are “Portrait of the Lion,” a tribute to Willie “The Lion” Smith, “Ko-Ko,” “Concerto for Cootie,” a feature for Cootie Williams that with lyrics was renamed “Do Nothing till You Hear from Me,” “Cotton Tail,” featuring Ben Webster, “Harlem Air Shaft,” “All Too Soon,” the original recording of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” “Just A-Settin’ and A-Rockin,” “Jump for Joy,” Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge,” Juan Tizol’s “Perdido,” “The ‘C’ Jam Blues,” Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” and a non-Ellington song that became a big hit for his new vocalist Herb Jeffries, “Flamingo.”

The Duke Ellington Orchestra was in the legendary, if short-lived, show Jump for Joy in 1940. It debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1943, introducing his fifty-minute suite Black, Brown and Beige that musically depicted the history of blacks in America. Although the piece only gained mixed reviews because it was too original to be accepted by the conservative critics of the time, one section became a definitive spiritual, “Come Sunday.” Between 1943 and 1950 Ellington appeared annually at Carnegie Hall, and in addition to playing the usual repertoire, he normally debuted an extended work each year. Among those compositions were the Perfume Suite, A Tonal Group, The Liberian Suite, The Tattooed Bride , and Harlem . Ellington, who did not like the word “jazz” because he felt that it was a restriction on his music, considered his extended works to be among his most important accomplishments.

During the 1940s there was more turnover in Ellington’s band than before. Among the new members were trumpeters Taft Jordan, Shorty Baker, and Cat Anderson, who became the greatest high-note trumpeter, trombonist-vibraphonist Tyree Glenn, who succeeded Nanton after Tricky Sam’s death, tenor-saxophonist Al Sears, the cool-toned clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, and singer Al Hibbler. Ellington had further hits in “I Ain’t Got Nothing but the Blues,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”

Duke was able to keep his big band together after the end of the swing era in 1946, partly by financing the orchestra during lean times with his song royalties. In 1951 things looked bleak when Johnny Hodges, Sonny Greer, and Lawrence Brown all departed to join Hodges’ new combo. Ellington retorted with what was called “the great James robbery” by adding drummer Louie Bellson, altoist Willie Smith, and Juan Tizol, who had departed earlier, from Harry James’ band. Ellington recorded some fine records in the early 1950s and had his last pop hit with “Satin Doll,” but the first half of the 1950s was a struggle, and it was not a foregone conclusion that he would be able to keep his big band together.

Things changed during 1955 and 1956. Hodges gave up on his group and rejoined Ellington. At the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival on a blues interlude between “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue,” Ellington turned his Page 56  tenor-saxophonist Paul Gonsalves loose. Gonsalves played twenty-seven choruses, practically causing a riot, and the performance gained worldwide headlines. Duke Ellington was back, and his band was never in danger of breaking up again.

Although always playing some of his older hits and never completely discarding the Harlem jungle sound of the 1920s, Ellington constantly looked ahead. His band was open to the influence of bebop in the 1950s, and new soloists kept Duke’s music stimulating. Among his stars of the era were trumpeters Clark Terry, Ray Nance, Cat Anderson, and Willie Cook, trombonists Quentin Jackson, Buster Cooper, and Britt Woodman, and a saxophone section—Hodges, Hamilton, Carney, Gonsalves, and clarinetist-altoist Russell Procope—that was unchanged between 1955 and 1968. Counting Ellington on piano, his band had up to thirteen possible soloists in the late 1950s. Ellington kept his own piano style modern, influencing Thelonious Monk with his percussive approach. In the early 1960s he recorded collaborations with Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, a trio with bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach, and a double big band set with the Count Basie Orchestra.

Ellington did not slow down in the 1960s, constantly circling the globe with his orchestra. He and Billy Strayhorn wrote such works as an adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite , the 1963 shows My People, The Far East Suite , and Night Creature . Cootie Williams returned to the band in 1961 after a twenty-one-year “vacation,” and for a short time it appeared that Duke was ageless, but inevitably his key collaborators began to pass away. Strayhorn’s passing in 1967 was a major blow, as was Johnny Hodges’ death in 1970. Some replacements, such as tenor-saxophonist Harold Ashby, altoist Norris Turney, and trumpeter Barry Lee Hall, were major assets during the last years. Ellington’s seventieth birthday was celebrated at the White House in 1969, and among the projects that meant the most to him during this last period was writing the music for his three sacred concerts. It all came to an end in 1974 when Duke Ellington died from cancer a few weeks after his seventy-fifth birthday. His accomplishments during his half century in the limelight are so enormous that no other jazz musician’s work is comparable.


The story of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey is particularly colorful because, although the two brothers loved and greatly respected each other, their fighting earned them the nickname “the battling Dorseys.” Jimmy was born in 1904, and Tommy followed twenty-one months later. Their coal miner father also worked as a music teacher and a band director. He started Jimmy on the cornet, although he switched to alto sax and clarinet by the time he was eleven. Tommy was taught trombone 

The Dorsey brothers began their careers as teenagers co-leading Dorsey’s Novelty Six and Dorsey’s Wild Canaries. After a stint with Billy Lustig’s Scranton Sirens, they moved to New York in 1924. Jimmy emerged as one of the first significant jazz soloists on alto, and his clarinet playing also ranked near the top. He appeared on a countless number of records in the 1920s, including with the California Ramblers, Jean Goldkette, Paul Whiteman, and Red Nichols’s Five Pennies. Tommy, who occasionally played some rough sounding trumpet, developed a very smooth tone on trombone and appeared in some of the same groups with his older brother.

Beginning in 1928 they co-led the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra that for the first five years was just a recording group. Both of the brothers were in great demand during the early Depression years for commercial and jazz sessions where their impeccable sight-reading abilities came in handy. In 1934 at about the time that Benny Goodman was thinking of starting a big band, the Dorsey brothers formed their own orchestra, having a bit of initial success. Glenn Miller provided some of the arrangements, Bob Crosby was one of their vocalists, and the band worked steadily and recorded prolifically for a year. Unfortunately, the fighting between the competitive brothers was constant, and in May 1935, while playing onstage at the Glen Island Casino, they had an argument over the tempo of “I’ll Never Say ‘Never Again’ Again.” Tommy Dorsey stormed off the bandstand and never returned. Jimmy Dorsey became the sole leader of the Dorsey Brothers band while his brother soon took over the struggling Joe Haymes Orchestra.

Tommy Dorsey’s band caught on first. Although he enjoyed taking an occasional chorus on freewheeling jazz, Dorsey emphasized the pretty side of his tone and featured himself on ballads, being billed as “The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing.” His theme song was “I’m Getting Sentimental over You.” In 1937 when trumpeter Bunny Berigan was in his band for six weeks, Dorsey had two major hits in “Marie” and “Song of India.” Tommy Dorsey featured a wide variety of music, ranging from up-tempo swing tunes and some Dixieland—particularly from the Clambake Seven, a combo taken out of his big band—to vocal ballads from Edythe Wright and Jack Leonard, and dance music. The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra hit its peak from 1939 to 1944, using Sy Oliver arrangements, heated solos from trumpeter Ziggy Elman and drummer Buddy Rich, a full string section by 1942, and such vocalists as Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, and the Modernaires. Among the hit records were “I’ll Never Smile Again” and “Opus #1.” While he had to cut back a bit after World War II, eliminating the string section, Dorsey was considered a legend and a world-famous celebrity so was able to keep his big band working.

The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra took longer to hit it big. Other than Jimmy Dorsey and a few of his sidemen, including pianist Freddie Slack and drummer Ray McKinley, his band did not have its own musical personality during the second half of the 1930s, although it worked steadily. In 1941 when his singers Helen O’Connell and Bob Eberle began sharing records, it was the equivalent Page 63  of hitting a jackpot. O’Connell sang a relatively hot chorus, Eberle sounded warm on a ballad chorus, and Dorsey provided an instrumental interlude. Hit records of “Amapola,” “Green Eyes,” “Tangerine,” and “Brazil” followed, and the Jimmy Dorsey band was finally competitive with that of his brother.

The Dorsey brothers had long since made up, but since both of their orchestras were quite successful, their collaborations in the 1940s were very rare, other than co-starring in the semi-fictional and sometimes laughably bad movie The Fabulous Dorseys . The band business started to go bad after 1945, and by 1952 both orchestras, particularly Jimmy’s, was in danger of collapsing financially. They decided to pool their resources, with Jimmy and a couple of his sidemen joining Tommy’s big band that was renamed the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. The new group emphasized nostalgia swing and dance music, although occasionally playing with some excitement. The brothers had mellowed to an extent with age while still being quite capable of arguing. Things were mostly peaceful during the last years, which included co-hosting a television series that introduced Elvis Presley to a wide public. Tommy’s sudden death in November 1956 cut short their success. A heartbroken Jimmy Dorsey, who was already ill with cancer, ironically had his first pop hit in a decade, “So Rare,” during a final record date before his own death in June 1957.


Artie Shaw was an odd person to become so famous during the swing era. As an intellectual, he wished his audience would sit quietly rather than dance wildly to his music, he hated hype, and he did not care about success except as a means for him to perform the music he enjoyed. It seemed as if the more he ran away from success, the easier it was for success to find him.

Born in 1910 Shaw started on clarinet and saxophone at the age of twelve. At fifteen he was touring with bands. After moving to New York in 1930, he settled into the life of being a studio musician, hating the music while saving his money. In 1934 Shaw quit music for the first time, moved to a farm, and worked on a novel until the money ran out and he was forced to return to the studios. For a major big band concert held on April 8, 1936, he was hired to lead a group for ten minutes between sets by more famous names. Instead of putting together an orchestra, he performed “Interlude in B Flat” on clarinet with a string quartet and a rhythm section, stealing the show and making headlines. Soon he took the radical step of putting together an ensemble consisting of four horns, a string quartet, and a four-piece rhythm section. The band lasted for a year but was too unusual to make it in the swing world.

Shaw then formed a more conventional big band, and after an initial struggle, in mid-1938 the Artie Shaw Orchestra became famous with its recording of “Begin the Beguine.” Shaw’s further successes included “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” his theme song “Nightmare,” “Carioca,” and “Traffic Jam.” Until late 1939 he led one of the major big bands, an orchestra that surpassed the popularity Page 64  of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. When the pressure of leading the top swing band began to get to Shaw, he shocked the music world in November 1939 by spontaneously leaving his orchestra while they were still performing and fled to Mexico.

A few months later Shaw returned because he needed to make some money. He led a record date on March 3, 1940, that featured a thirty-two-piece orchestra including thirteen strings. One of the six songs they recorded was “Frenesi,” which immediately became as big a hit as “Begin the Beguine.” Shaw was reluctantly on top again. Since he always wanted to work with strings, the clarinetist put together a twenty-three-piece band, with nine strings, that included trumpeter Billy Butterfield, trombonist Jack Jenney, and pianist Johnny Guarnieri among the soloists. Their recordings included the definitive version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust,” a perfect performance with brilliant solos from Butterfield, Shaw, and Jenney, and the extended Concerto for Clarinet . Also during this period, Shaw had fun playing with his small combo drawn from the big band, the Gramercy Five, that had Guarnieri switching to harpsichord; their recording of “Summit Ridge Drive” was another giant hit.

In the spring of 1941 Shaw broke up his third orchestra, but after a few months he was back with his fourth big band, a fun group featuring trumpeter-singer Hot Lips Page, trumpeter Max Kaminsky, a string section, and some alumni, including Jenney, Guarnieri, and tenorman Georgie Auld. It lasted until shortly after Pearl Harbor when Shaw broke up the band and enlisted in the navy. While in the military, Shaw led an undocumented navy band until he became seriously ill in late 1943. After his discharge he recovered and returned to the swing world. Shaw’s orchestra in 1944 and 1945 featured trumpeter Roy Eldridge, pianist Dodo Marmarosa, and guitarist Barney Kessel. On a few numbers, Shaw showed that he was not only aware of the bebop movement but could play credible bop solos himself.

The clarinetist, however, was tired of the music world, and by 1946 he recorded with a studio orchestra rather than a regular touring band. He was semi-active for a few years, led a short-lived bebop big band in 1949 that soon flopped despite playing exciting music, and emerged for the last time during Page 65  1954, heading a new version of the Gramercy Five that featured guitarist Tal Farlow and pianist Hank Jones. During this last period, Shaw showed that he was a very talented modern jazz player even if the clarinet was forever associated with the swing era.

Frustrated by the public indifference toward the Gramercy Five and the constant requests to play “Begin the Beguine,” Artie Shaw retired before the end of 1954, even though he was still only forty-four. Although he remained active as an author and a public speaker, Shaw never played in public again. He died on December 30, 2004, at age ninety-four.


A famous name by 1932 and a celebrity throughout his life, Cab Calloway was the “Hi-De-Ho Man.” He grew up in Baltimore and Chicago, gaining some experience appearing in revues, including one in which he was the relief drummer, though he was never really a musician. Calloway found his niche as an exciting vocalist and showman, influenced to various degrees by Louis Armstrong, Al Jolson, and opera singers. For a few months in 1929 he led and sang with the Alabamians at New York’s Savoy, but the band was not strong enough to survive. Calloway gained some recognition when he appeared in the Hot Chocolates show, a revue that had both Fats Waller’s music and Louis Armstrong. In 1930 Calloway took over the Missourians, a superior jazz band that had recorded fourteen numbers during the past year but was on the verge of breaking up due to the Depression and the lack of work. The ensemble was renamed the Cab Calloway Orchestra, Calloway made his recording debut with the band in July 1930, and in February 1931 the group became the house band at the Cotton Club, succeeding Duke Ellington who had gone on the road. As they had with Ellington, the regular radio broadcasts soon made Calloway famous, and after he recorded “Minnie the Moocher” on March 3, 1931, he was destined for stardom.

Calloway not only had a strong voice, but he was an inventive scat-singer whose dancing, exaggerated conducting, and gyrations on stage defined showmanship. Sometimes it seemed almost beside the point that his orchestra was full of talented   musicians because Calloway usually dominated every live performance. Some of their recordings were instrumentals, and many top players passed through the band in the 1930s and 1940s, including tenors Chu Berry and Ike Quebec, trumpeter Jonah Jones, bassist Milt Hinton, drummer Cozy Cole, and the young Dizzy Gillespie from 1939 to 1941, whose adventurous playing Calloway called “Chinese music.”

Although Calloway made many popular recordings including “St. James Infirmary,” “Blues in My Heart,” “Bugle Call Rag,” “Trickeration,” “Corinne Corinna,” “The Old Man of the Mountain,” “F. D. R. Jones,” and a variety of sing-alongs à la “Minnie the Moocher,” it was his series of tunes that featured the adventures of Minnie and Smoky Joe that were particularly famous. Their tales often referred to drugs, but these were largely overlooked or not understood by the general public in the 1930s. In addition to “Minnie the Moocher,” their exploits are covered in such songs as “Kickin’ the Gong Around,” “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day,” “Reefer Man,” “Mister Paganini,” “Swing for Minnie,” and “The Ghost of Smoky Joe.”

Cab Calloway was at the height of his fame in 1943 when he appeared in the film Stormy Weather . After the big band era ended, he was forced to cut back to a sextet, then a quartet. In the 1950s he found additional fame playing “Sportin’ Life” in a successful revival of Porgy and Bess , which seemed only right since George Gershwin had originally based the character on Calloway. After that show ran its course, Calloway was mostly semi-retired, performing now and then up until his death in 1994, always happy to sing “Minnie the Moocher” for new generations of fans.


Chick Webb, stricken in childhood with tuberculosis of the spine, grew up as a dwarf with a hunched back. Despite this major handicap, he found success in a very unlikely profession as a drummer. He was born in Baltimore, moved to New York in 1925, and was generally a leader from that point on. Webb first recorded in 1929, and in 1931 his orchestra became the house band at the Savoy Ballroom. The orchestra resided there for the rest of the decade, with Webb and his big band playing for some of the most talented, and demanding, dancers in the country on a nightly basis. Fortunately Webb and his musicians always swung hard at danceable tempos, and they became a major attraction. They also engaged in legendary “battle of the band” contests, usually winning, including against Benny Goodman and Count Basie, thanks to a home court advantage, apparently only losing once to Duke Ellington.

Among the main talents in the group was altoist Edgar Sampson, a skilled songwriter who in 1934 wrote “If Dreams Come True,” “Don’t Be That Way,” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” Although Benny Goodman had bigger hits with the latter two, Webb’s band recorded them first and had the initial success. Another early star of the band was saxophonist Wayman Carver who occasionally Page 67  took flute solos. Only Alberto Socarras in the late 1920s preceded Carver on an instrument that would not catch on in jazz until the 1950s.

In 1935 eighteen-year-old Ella Fitzgerald joined Webb’s orchestra. She had struggled through a rough childhood, including being homeless, and eventually found her way out of poverty through music. She won an important amateur contest at the Apollo Theatre the previous year, but due to her appearance and shoddy clothes, she was turned down for a job with Fletcher Henderson. Benny Carter talked Webb into giving her a chance, and when the drummer saw the audience’s enthusiastic response to her singing, Ella was hired. She quickly grew to be Webb’s biggest attraction, and although many of the songs given her to sing and record between 1935 and 1939 were juvenile novelties, she was particularly skilled on ballads. In 1938 she had a huge hit with the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and became a famous name.

Unfortunately, by then Chick Webb’s health was beginning to fail. He had heart troubles and pleurisy and on June 16, 1939, passed away at the age of thirty-seven. His final words were “I’m sorry, but I gotta go.”

Because the band was successful and had a steady engagement at the Savoy, Ella Fitzgerald was picked to lead the orchestra although she actually had nothing to do with its musical direction. After two years, by the summer of 1941, she was so popular that she went out on her own, and the vestiges of the Chick Webb orchestra broke up.


Jimmie Lunceford’s orchestra was famous for its musicianship, the tightness of the ensembles, and its showmanship. Considered to be one of the finest orchestras of the late 1930s, part of its appeal was visual, and therefore its recordings are not always up to that level, rarely approaching the heights of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, or Artie Shaw. Lunceford grew up in Denver, took music lessons from Paul Whiteman’s father, and had extensive training on many instruments. He earned a music degree from Fisk University in 1926, taught music at Manassas High School in Memphis, and gradually formed a band, the Chickasaw Syncopators, comprising his students. They recorded two numbers in both 1927 and 1930, and then Lunceford decided the band should become professional and move up North. After time in Cleveland and Buffalo, they moved to New York in 1933, and the following year they caught on.

The inventive arrangements of Sy Oliver and Ed Wilcox were a major asset as were several musicians’ ability to sing in a sort of glee club, the high note trumpet work of Tommy Stevenson, and the fine solos of altoist Willie Smith, tenor-saxophonist Joe Thomas, trumpeter Oliver, and by 1937 trombonist Trummy Young. There was also less-inspiring ballad singing from Dan Grissom. Since none of the soloists were all that major, with the possible exception of Willie Smith, the emphasis was on

The formula worked for quite a few years. Among the band’s best-loved recordings were “Rhythm Is Our Business,” “Swanee River,” “Organ Grinder’s Swing,” “For Dancers Only,” “Tain’t What You Do,” “Margie,” “Uptown Blues,” and “Lunceford Special.” When Sy Oliver was lured away by Tommy Dorsey in 1939, it was a major blow, although the young Gerald Wilson proved to be a very able replacement. Because Lunceford paid his sidemen very little, Willie Smith left in 1942. Although the band was struggling after World War II, it was still touring regularly in 1947 when Lunceford died suddenly, probably poisoned by a racist restaurant owner who had been forced to serve the black orchestra. Ed Wilcox and Joe Thomas kept the band together as best they could, but it permanently broke up in 1949.


One of the giants of the trumpet, Bunny Berigan could always be relied upon to take an exciting solo that would uplift any performance. He never should have been a bandleader because his alcoholism and general attitude made him unfit to discipline others, but he was always a star.

Berigan gained early experience playing in local bands and college groups in the Midwest. By 1930 he was strong enough to be a soloist with Hal Kemp’s orchestra. An excellent sight-reader, Berigan had a beautiful sound, a range that included deep low notes and upper register shouts, and the right spirit to play jazz, always taking chances in his solos. He was a member of Fred Rich’s CBS studio band between 1931 and 1935, other than a few uneventful months with Paul Whiteman, and appeared on numerous records, often contributing brief solos. He was at his best during this era when featured with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.

In 1935 Benny Goodman talked him into joining his orchestra. Berigan’s solos on “King Porter Stomp” and “Sometimes I’m Happy” made those recordings Goodman’s first hits, and he was part of the big band as it toured west, climaxing in the Palomar Ballroom engagement. Soon afterwards, Berigan went back to New York and the studios that paid much more. In 1937 he emerged again, spending six weeks with Tommy Dorsey’s band and recording famous choruses on the hits “Marie”   and “Song of India.” By now Berigan was seriously considering starting his own orchestra.

At first the Bunny Berigan Orchestra was off to a good start, recording regularly for Bluebird and having a major hit with his theme song, the dramatic “I Can’t Get Started.” Berigan never built on that success, and by 1938 the big band was struggling despite the leader’s fine playing. The trumpeter’s constant drinking led to lost opportunities, and he tried to let the band run itself, a fatal mistake. By the end of 1939 he was forced to declare bankruptcy and break up his orchestra. Berigan rejoined Tommy Dorsey’s big band for a few months, but this time the association did not work out, with his excessive drinking making him very erratic. In 1941 Berigan formed another orchestra, and it struggled along for a year until his health declined, and he died on June 2, 1942, when he was only thirty-three. His best recordings show just how powerful and colorful a trumpeter Berigan could be, but it is a tragedy that this great talent did not take care of himself.


It is difficult to listen to Bob Crosby sing and not feel a little sorry for him. The younger brother of the most popular vocalist of the 1930s, Bob Crosby could never hope to be on Bing’s level. He did find a niche for himself as a bandleader, but ironically his biggest hits were recordings on which he did not sing!

Crosby had gained experience singing with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in 1934. At year-end Ben Pollack’s musicians became disillusioned with their leader spending all his time promoting his girlfriend Doris Robbins’ singing career. When that band broke up they needed an ideal frontman. Jack Teagarden was their first choice, but he was unavailable, tied up in a five-year contract with Paul Whiteman. Crosby, who certainly had name recognition, accepted the offer, and at first the Bob Crosby Orchestra was a typical run-of-the-mill, second-level swing band. By 1936 the band began to form its own identity as a New Orleans-style big band, one that mixed together Dixieland and swing. By November 1937 its small group, the Bob Crosby’s Bobcats, became a major attraction. With such fine musicians as trumpeters Yank Lawson and Billy Butterfield, trombonist Warren Smith, clarinetists Irving Fazola and Matty Matlock, tenor-saxophonist Eddie Miller, pianists Bob Zurke or Joe Sullivan, guitarist-singer Nappy Lamare, bassist-arranger Bob Haggart, and drummer Ray Bauduc, both the Bobcats and the full orchestra were quite strong and exciting. Such hits emerged as “Gin Mill Blues,” “Little Rock Getaway,” “South Rampart Street Parade,” Bob Haggart’s “What’s New,” and a famous bass-drum duet on “Big Noise from Winnetka.”

After several years of success, in 1940 Crosby and his musical director Gil Rodin messed with the orchestra’s formula, moving towards commercial swing, hoping to expand their audience. When the band’s music became more routine, its audience shrunk. Coupled with the attack on Pearl Harbor, this resulted in Crosby breaking up his orchestra at the end of 1942. After spending time in the marines in 1944 and 1945, Bob Crosby starred in some B movies, hosted a television show, worked as a personality and an occasional singer in the 1950s, and hosted several reunions of the Bobcats during the fifty years between his big band breaking up and his death in 1993. He never did emerge from Bing Crosby’s shadow.


Gene Krupa was the first superstar drummer. Before Krupa made it big with Benny Goodman, drummers were almost completely restricted to the background, with the occasional exception of Chick Webb, and solos were very rare. Krupa was part of the Chicago jazz scene of the 1920s and worked in the New York studios in the early 1930s before joining the new Goodman big band in December 1934. Gradually during the next three years, he became more assertive in his playing, not just as a member of the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet but also with the orchestra. Krupa had the ability to make everything look colorful and a bit more difficult than it really was, adding a flourish to simple breaks while chewing gum and looking slightly possessed. By 1937 he was a major name, and his showcase on “Sing, Sing, Sing” drove young audiences wild.

After the success at Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert on January 12, 1938, Krupa and Goodman had an argument that resulted in the drummer leaving to form his own big band. Although his fame allowed him to work regularly, the orchestra did not develop its own personality beyond the leader until 1941. At that time, with trumpeter Roy Eldridge and singer Anita O’Day becoming major stars, the Krupa band had hits in “Let Me Off Uptown” and “Thanks for the Boogie Ride” even if Eldridge and O’Day, who shared some hip conversation on these two recordings, actually did not care for each other. O’Day was a major new voice, while Eldridge was taking his place as one of the great trumpeters, as he showed on Krupa’s recordings of “After You’ve Gone” and “Rockin’ Chair.”

The Gene Krupa big band was forced to break up in May 1943 when Krupa was framed on a marijuana rap by narcotics agents who wanted to generate headlines by arresting a celebrity. The drummer was in jail for a short time before being cleared of all charges. Benny Goodman symbolically welcomed him back to jazz, having him rejoin his orchestra for a few months. After spending half of 1944 playing with Tommy Dorsey, in August 1944 Krupa formed a new big band, one that was called “the band with strings that swings.” Although the string section was dropped in early 1945, Krupa kept this big band together through 1951.

Although very much a swing drummer who emphasized the bass drum, Krupa kept his big band open to the innovations of bebop, for a time featuring trumpeter Red Rodney and the Charlie Parker-influenced altoist Charlie Kennedy.
His most popular features after 1945 tended to be with a trio that highlighted the rambunctious tenor playing of Charlie Ventura; their version of “Dark Eyes” was often requested. After Krupa broke up his big band in 1951, he led a small group, went on some tours with Jazz at the Philharmonic, ran a drummer school with Cozy Cole, and had occasional reunions with Benny Goodman. Although easily surpassed by more modern drummers, he remained a very popular figure up until his death in 1973.


Ultimately the most popular big band of the swing era was Glenn Miller’s, although it did not catch on until four years after Benny Goodman’s initial successes. Miller had played trombone and arranged for Ben Pollack from 1926 to 1928. When Jack Teagarden joined Pollack, Miller immediately realized that his future was more in writing than in performing music, though he continued playing trombone, mostly in sections, throughout his life. He worked in the studios and was with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in 1934 and 1935 and with Ray Noble’s American band. In 1937 Miller put together his first orchestra, but it only lasted a year. The problem was that few had ever heard of Glenn Miller, and his ensemble had not developed its own sound.

In the spring of 1938 Miller tried again. By then he had adopted a signature ensemble sound, having the clarinet double the melody an octave above the sax section. This first came about years earlier when he had written some arrangements, and trumpeter Pee Wee Erwin insisted that his part be written high. When Erwin left the band, few other trumpeters could play his part so a clarinet was substituted. Miller’s second orchestra mostly struggled through 1938, and 1939 looked like its final year. Then the magic started to come together. On April 4 Miller’s band recorded its romantic theme song “Moonlight Serenade.” On April 10 its record date generated two hits in “Little Brown Jug” and “Sunrise Serenade.” The band’s fourteen-week period at the Glen Island Casino, from mid-May to the end of August, for the first time beamed Glenn Miller’s music out to the masses, and it soon became obvious that his band was the hit of the year. Its fate was sealed after recording “In the Mood” on August 1.

Why did Glenn Miller’s orchestra ultimately catch on so big? As with Paul Whiteman’s in the 1920s, Miller expertly used jazz as an important, but not dominant, ingredient in what was really a musical variety show. He alternated ballad vocals by Ray Eberle with novelty numbers featuring singer Marian Hutton, likable jazzy romps with Tex Beneke on vocals and tenor, some swinging and usually repetitive instrumentals, and set-ending “killer dillers,” up-tempo pieces often involving a drum solo. The formula worked remarkably well, and Miller had other big hits with “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” “Anvil Chorus,” “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” “Perfidia,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “I Know Why,” “Elmer’s Tune,” “A String of Pearls,” “Moonlight Cocktail,” “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree,” “American Patrol,” “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” “Serenade in Blue,” “At Last,” “Juke Box Saturday Night,” and “Tuxedo Junction,” easily outselling Erskine Hawkins’ earlier recording.

The only thing that stopped Glenn Miller’s success was the advent of World War II and his desire to serve his country. In mid-1942 after he was accepted as a captain in the Army Air Force, he broke up his band, easily the most popular in the world, on September 27. It was Miller’s dream to form a giant military orchestra and play for the troops. He had an uphill battle against red tape and conservatives who felt that military bands should stick to Sousa tunes, but he succeeded and by mid-1943 was leading the Army Air Force Band. This orchestra had a full string section, several very talented jazz musicians—pianist Mel Powell, clarinetist Peanuts Hucko, trumpeter Bobby Nichols, and drummer Ray McKinley among them—and the versatility to play anything from mood music and sentimental ballads to heated versions of the latest jazz standards. Although none of its recordings were released to the general public, the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band popularized “St. Louis Blues March.”

Glenn Miller looked forward to having his orchestra, which was based in England by 1944, performing on the European continent. The band ultimately did just that, but Miller was not there to see it. His plane to France on December 15, 1944, was shot down over the English Channel, and his body Page 73  was never found. The Army Air Force Band, led by Ray McKinley, continued for one more year. Since the end of World War II, a posthumous Glenn Miller Orchestra has always been popular, playing Miller’s hits from 1939 through 1942 for newer generations.


One of the top young trumpeters of the second half of the 1930s, Harry James became a famous star with Benny Goodman’s orchestra. A natural player, he learned trumpet from his father and at twelve was leading his own band for the Christy Brothers Circus. After working in territory bands and with Ben Pollack from 1935 to 1936, he joined Goodman when he was still just twenty-one. James’ technique was always very impressive, and he had the ability to uplift the Goodman band with his spirited and exciting solos.

In early 1939 James formed his own big band. As with Gene Krupa, it took some time for him to become successful despite his name recognition. James alternated swinging instrumentals with vocal ballads, which for a few months featured Frank Sinatra, but was unable to connect with the public. Then in 1941 after adding a small string section, he recorded an instrumental recording of an Al Jolson hit that Judy Garland had recently revived, “You Made Me Love You.” That song was such a success that James was finally in the big leagues. Other hits followed, including “The Mole,” “Strictly Instrumental,” “Sleepy Lagoon,” “Cherry,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” in 1945, and three that featured singer Helen Forrest: “I Don’t Want to Walk without You,” “I Had the Craziest Dream,” and “I’ve Heard That Song Before.” James’ ability to play heated jazz, sentimental ballads, and schmaltz made him top the polls, and when Glenn Miller went into the Army Air Force in mid-1942, James had the most popular big band in the country. His popularity grew even more when he married movie star Betty Grable. At its peak, his orchestra consisted of thirty-two pieces, including fourteen strings.

When the big band industry collapsed in 1946, James dropped the string section. Near the end of the year, he broke up his orchestra but was soon back on the road with a similar big band. James experimented with bebop a bit in 1948 and 1949 but the next year had reverted to swing and nightly nostalgic remakes of his hits. By then James was patterning his band after Count Basie’s, which seemed logical since his “Two O’Clock Jump” was just a copy of Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump.” Although he had fine soloists in altoist Willie Smith and tenor-saxophonist Corky Corcoran and he personally enjoyed the music of such trumpeters as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Chet Baker, James stopped evolving. Due to his fame, he was able to keep his big band going most of the time between 1950 and his death in 1983, but there were few surprises along the way, and he was content to play his trumpet on the same basic tunes as he had performed in the 1940s.


Lionel Hampton was one of the most loyal of Benny Goodman’s sidemen, staying with the clarinetist until mid-1940 even though he had already been famous for over three years. Hampton was originally a drummer with Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders in Los Angeles in 1929 and 1930. He had lessons on the xylophone and practiced vibes, so when Louis Armstrong on a record date in 1930 asked Hampton if he could play a bit of vibes behind his vocals, Hamp was ready. His spots on “Memories of You” and “Shine” were the first appearances of the vibes on jazz records. Based in Los Angeles, Hampton continued playing in obscurity for a few more years, working with Les Hite between 1932 and 1934 and leading his own local orchestra. In the summer of 1936 Benny Goodman was alerted about Hampton’s musical abilities so one night Goodman, Gene Krupa, and Teddy Wilson sat in with the vibraphonist, and the results were magical. Soon Hampton joined the Benny Goodman Quartet.

In addition to playing vibes, Hampton could also fill in on drums, sing, play speedy two-finger runs on the piano, dance, and excite musicians, fans, and Goodman with his enthusiasm and brilliance. From 1937 to 1940 he led a series of all-star record dates for the Victor label, using major sidemen drawn from the top swing Page 75  big bands. In mid-1940 when Goodman temporarily broke up his big band to take care of health problems, Hampton decided to form his own orchestra. Since he was a household name and a crowd pleaser, it was not long before the Lionel Hampton Big Band was quite popular. The leader was never shy about going out of his way to get applause, whether it involved literally jumping on his drum set, having his brass section screaming out high notes, or inspiring his reeds to honk away. His 1942 recording of “Flying Home,” featuring a classic tenor solo by Illinois Jacquet, became so famous that it virtually launched r&b, inspiring other saxophonists who wished to become popular to use repetition, honking, and screaming sounds.

With their exciting shows, the Lionel Hampton Big Band survived after the collapse of the swing era, mixing together swing, r&b, and bebop. Hampton led big bands on and off for the next five decades, helping to introduce such notables as singer Dinah Washington, bassist Charles Mingus, singer Betty Carter, and guitarist Wes Montgomery, a decade before he became well known. The great trumpeter Clifford Brown played on the 1953 European tour. Hampton also appeared with small groups during special concerts, had many reunions with Benny Goodman, and remained a major attraction until his death in 2002 at the age of ninety-three.


The other most obvious jazz orchestras of the swing era are those of Count Basie, Andy Kirk, and Jay McShann. Although each made it big nationally after moving to New York, they formed their sounds in Kansas City and will be discussed in chapter five.

In 1927 Don Redman left the Fletcher Henderson band for the opportunity to lead McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. A decent clarinetist and alto-saxophonist, Redman also had strong writing abilities. He was one of the very first arrangers, with Ferdie Grofe, to divide a big band into brass and reed sections. Redman developed the ability to write ensembles that sounded like harmonized solos, heard early on in his arrangements for Henderson of “Sugar Foot Stomp,” which was really King Oliver’s “Dippermouth Blues,” and “The Stampede.” Between 1928 and 1931 McKinney’s Cotton Pickers competed favorably with Henderson’s big band, introducing such songs as “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” “I Want a Little Girl” and “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.” When Redman left the Cotton Pickers in the summer of 1931 to form his own big band, the orchestra’s days were numbered; its creative vision was gone. The Don Redman Orchestra worked regularly from 1931 to 1940 but surprisingly never really caught on.

Benny Carter, who briefly led McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in 1931 and 1932, on a few occasions made attempts to lead big bands of his own in 1932, 1933, and on and off between 1939 and 1946. Despite his musicianship and resulting high-quality music, his band failed to have any hits or establish a strong Page 76  identity with the public. Coleman Hawkins in 1940 and Teddy Wilson in 1939 and 1940 had the same difficulty, as did Jack Teagarden, whose big band managed to last from 1939 to 1946, eventually bankrupting him.

The Casa Loma Orchestra was arguably the first white swing band, preceding Benny Goodman by six years. Originally known as the Orange Blossom Band and based in Detroit, it was scheduled to play at the Casa Loma Hotel in Toronto, Canada. When that hotel never opened, the band was reformed as a co-op and took the Casa Loma. Saxophonist Glen Gray was elected the band’s president, and eventually he would take over the orchestra. In the early days, guitarist Gene Gifford was the Casa Loma’s most important member contributing most arrangements, using heated riffs in many of the charts. Among the early tunes that showed the potential of swing, even if the band sometimes sounded a bit mechanical, were “Black Jazz,” “White Jazz,” “Casa Loma Stomp,” and the haunting “Smoke Rings,” the band’s theme song. When the swing era began, the Casa Loma Orchestra was soon overshadowed by Goodman and the other new bandleaders, although it had hits with the two-part remake of “Casa Loma Stomp,” the two-sided “No Name Jive,” and “Memories of You,” a high-note feature for trumpeter Sonny Dunham. The Casa Loma Orchestra survived until 1950, although Glen Gray kept the name alive later in the decade with a series of swing era recreations that covered many orchestras and featured sympathetic studio musicians.

Charlie Barnet was an unusual swing-era big bandleader in that he came from a very rich family. Although his parents wanted him to become a lawyer, in time Barnet prospered more than if he had pursued law. It took the tenor saxophonist six years, until 1939, before his band caught on, but that year’s recording of “Cherokee,” his theme song arranged by Billy May, became his first hit. Others included “Redskin Rhumba,” “Pompton Turnpike,” “Southern Fried,” “Charleston Alley,” and 1944’s “Skyliner.” Barnet, one of the first white bandleaders to have an integrated orchestra, also played alto and soprano, often paying tribute to Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He featured important contributors such as Lena Horne, singer Kay Starr, trumpeter-singer Peanuts Holland, pianist Dodo Marmarosa, guitarist Barney Kessel, and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Barnet’s group remained popular during the 1940s, and he even led a bebop orchestra in 1949, with trumpeters Maynard Ferguson and Doc Severinsen, before he broke up his band, choosing to lead part-time swing groups until his retirement in the mid-1960s.

Red Norvo had an unusual big band since he played xylophone, not switching to vibes until 1943. Norvo was married to singer Mildred Bailey, the star on many of his orchestra’s records. Eddie Sauter’s arrangements for the group between 1936 and 1938 made it possible for Norvo’s quiet instrument to be heard over the horns, and Norvo was able to keep the band together into the early 1940s. In later years Norvo worked with the Benny Goodman Sextet and Woody Herman’s First Herd, led a cool jazz trio in the early 1950s with guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Charles Mingus, and stayed active until the mid-1980s.

Erskine Hawkins, who was billed as “The 20th-century Gabriel,” could hit high notes on the trumpet yet never dominated his own band’s music. His orchestra was originally known as the ‘Bama Street Collegians and was attached to the State Teachers College in Montgomery, Alabama. By 1934 it had become independent, moved to New York, and was on its way. Hawkins was particularly adept at picking out swinging tempos that excited dancers. Based at the Savoy Ballroom for a long time, the Hawkins big band also featured trumpeter Dud Bascomb, tenors Paul Bascomb and Julian Dash, and pianist Avery Parrish. Their main hits were “Tuxedo Junction,” the 1945 “Tippin In,” and “After Hours,” which featured Parrish’s blues piano.

Trombonist Will Bradley most enjoyed playing ballads, but despite his wishes, he is best remembered for his big band’s exuberant boogie-woogie records. Born Wilbur Schwichtenberg, Bradley was happy as a studio musician in the 1930s but was convinced by promoter Willard Alexander to lead a big band with drummer-singer Ray McKinley as his unofficial co-leader. With pianist Freddy Slack as a major soloist, the Will Bradley Orchestra had their first hit, the eccentric “Celery Stalks at Midnight,” and another in 1940, the two-sided “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar.” The boogie-woogie craze was at its peak during this period so Bradley reluctantly recorded such numbers as “Rock-A-Bye the Boogie,” “Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat,” “I Boogied When I Should Have Woogied,” “Chicken Gumboogie,” “Boogie Woogie Conga,” “Bounce Me Brother with a Solid Four,” “Booglie Wooglie Piggy,” and “Fry Me Cookie with a Can of Lard.” Bradley soon became bored with much of the music, and in February 1942 he broke up the band, permanently returning to the studios.

Of all the swing-era big bands, the one that lasted the longest under the same leader was Les Brown’s Band of Renown that survived for sixty-two years. Brown, who played clarinet and saxophones, was a reliable musician although never overly exciting, and the same can be said for his orchestra. He led a big band in 1935 while attending Duke University, the Duke Blue Devils. After a period freelancing, in 1938 he formed the Les Brown Orchestra. His first major hit was the 1944 “Sentimental Journey” featuring the young singer Doris Day. Other popular Brown recordings included his theme song “Leap Frog,” “Bizet Has His Day” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Brown’s orchestra was able to survive for decades after the end of the swing era because they worked steadily as the backup band for Bob Hope’s many shows and tours. The big band was at its best for a period in the 1950s when it featured tenor-saxophonist Dave Pell, trumpeter Don Fagerquist, and singer Lucy Ann Polk, but it remained pretty consistent for decades, lasting until Les Brown’s death in early 2001.


While big bands dominated jazz from 1935 to 1946, providing employment for most musicians, the top jazz soloists often preferred to play at late-night jam sessions where they could stretch out beyond their brief solos with even the Page 78  most jazz-oriented orchestras. Small group jazz never completely disappeared, and its main center became New York’s legendary Fifty-second Street, which was nicknamed Swing Street. Within two blocks, on a typical night clubs like the Famous Door, Jimmy Ryan’s, the Onyx Club, and Kelly’s Stables were featuring Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Eddie Condon’s Dixieland band, Stuff Smith’s Onyx Club Boys, and Louis Prima plus other up-and-coming bands. During its prime decade, Fifty-second Street was jazz heaven.

Although most jazz combos of the swing era were short-term affairs, gatherings of all-stars put together for a week or two, some had independent lives and made a strong impact through their recordings and live appearances. It is remarkable how many were based in New York during this era.


One of the great stride pianists of the 1920s, Fats Waller developed into a comic personality in the 1930s. He did not neglect his piano, songwriting, or his occasional organ playing but began to sing frequently on records and show off his highly appealing sense of humor. Between 1934 and 1942, Waller recorded an extensive series of performances with his Rhythm, a sextet that usually included trumpeter Herman Autrey, Gene Sedric on tenor and clarinet, guitarist Al Casey, and drummer Slick Jones with various bassists. Throughout these dates, except when playing his own tunes and superior standards, Waller displayed his ability to turn trash into treasures. When faced with an inferior song pushed by his label, Fats often satirized the lyrics mercilessly, often to hilarious effect. Since the tunes often had no potential at all, the label was happy, as was the public who found Waller’s brand of hilarity quite refreshing.

Waller became quite famous during the second half of the 1930s, appearing regularly on the radio, recording constantly, and appearing briefly in two movies. Among his best recordings are “A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “Floatin’ Down to Cotton Town,” “Swingin’ Them Jingle Bells,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” “Hold Tight,” “Your Feet’s Too Big,” and one of the first jazz waltzes, “The Jitterbug Waltz.” Waller was also able to make such odd numbers as “Fat and Greasy,” “Little Curly Hair in a High Chair,” “You’re a Square from Delaware,” “My Mommie Sent Me to the Store,” “Abercrombie Had a Zombie,” and “Come Down to Earth, My Angel” sound worthwhile through his satire and humor.

Fats Waller would have been a natural to appear on television in the 1950s, but he was long gone by then. The partying, excessive liquor, and overeating took its toll, and on December 14, 1943, he passed away from pneumonia at the age of thirty-nine.


Stuff Smith, possibly the hardest swinging jazz violinist ever, had great success for a few years playing with his band at the Onyx Club on Fifty-second Street. Hezekiah “Stuff” Smith started working professionally in 1924 when he was fifteen. He was one of the key soloists with Alphonso Trent’s territory band from 1926 to 1930 and led groups in Buffalo for a few years. In 1936 his Onyx Club Boys were one of the biggest attractions on Fifty-second Street. The sextet matched his violin with the heated trumpet solos of Jonah Jones, with Cozy Cole driving the band on drums. The band had a hit with the novelty “I’se a Muggin’” and recorded such exciting jams as “I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music,” “You’se a Viper,” “Old Joe’s Hittin’ the Jug,” and the classic “Here Comes the Man with the Jive.” The band lasted until 1940 when Jones and Cole departed to join Cab Calloway.

Smith led trios in the 1940s with one of his best-known tunes of the era, the atmospheric “Desert Sands.” He was somewhat neglected in the 1950s until producer Norman Granz recorded him on several albums for the Verve label during which he demonstrated that he could keep up with Dizzy Gillespie. Smith moved to Copenhagen in 1965 and showed during the two years before his death in 1967 that he could still play with plenty of spirit and fire.


John Kirby was the only bassist to be a successful bandleader during the swing era, and he did it not by being a virtuoso soloist but by having a vision. He originally played tuba in the late 1920s before switching to bass and working with Bill Brown’s Brownies from 1928 to 1930, the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra from 1930 to 1933 and in 1936, Chick Webb from 1933 to 1935, and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band in 1936 and 1937. Kirby developed his sextet during the eleven months that he led a group at Fifty-second Street’s Onyx Club.

By mid-1938 Kirby had settled on the brilliant twenty-one-year-old trumpeter Charlie Shavers, clarinetist Buster Bailey, altoist Russell Procope, pianist Billy Kyle, and drummer O’Neill Spencer for his sextet. These technically superior musicians fit together very well, were able to play explosive but concise solos, and had cool soft tones, particularly when Shavers played muted. Their light and mellow sounds looked towards cool jazz of the 1950s, yet their repertoire included swinging versions of classical pieces, atmospheric works such as “Dawn on the Desert” and “Nocturne,” and transformations of such standards as “Rose Room” and “Royal Garden Blues.” During their prime from 1938 to 1941, the John Kirby Sextet had their own unique place in music, being a major contrast to the much louder and less subtle swing orchestras.

Unfortunately, the glory did not last long. In mid-1941 Spencer was forced to leave the band after contracting tuberculosis, which killed him three years later, and Procope and Kyle were drafted a year later. All three were replaced by musicians who sounded similar, but in 1943 Shavers departed to work as a freelancer, and he was irreplaceable. Kirby struggled on, sticking to the same sound. By 1946 the band was considered old hat, and Kirby reluctantly broke up the sextet. He never gave up his dream and even had a reunion for a 1950 Carnegie Hall concert, but that event was poorly attended and both Shavers, who was with Tommy Dorsey, and Procope, who worked with Duke Ellington, had permanent jobs waiting for them elsewhere. Some say that John Kirby died of a broken heart in 1952 when he was just forty-three.


Pianist-arranger Raymond Scott, who was born Harold Warnow, led one of the great novelty groups of all time. A studio musician who worked for CBS, Scott organized his Quintette in 1937. During its two years, it certainly made an impact. Its episodic music had no improvising, with every note including the solos being worked out beforehand, and quite remarkably, the very complicated parts were memorized rather than written down. The Raymond Scott Quintette had hits with “Powerhouse,” “Twilight in Turkey” and “The Toy Trumpet” and recorded such picturesque numbers as “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House,” “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” “Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner,” “Bumpy Weather over Newark,” and “War Dance for Wooden Page 81  Indians.” Many of the songs became a staple of Warner Bros. Cartoons. Raymond Scott, having made his point, returned to the studios where he conducted much more conventional music during the rest of his career.


Art Tatum was arguably the most remarkable musician ever to play jazz. His blinding speed on the piano was without precedent outside of classical music, the way that he voiced chords and his unusual harmonies were at least thirty years ahead of their time, and his imagination was always very fertile. There have been several cases through the years of young pianists hearing an Art Tatum record and being convinced that at least two if not three pianists were playing.

Tatum was born with cataracts causing total blindness in one eye and partial vision in the other. There is no explanation for where his musical genius came from. Having started on piano as a child, he was working regularly at sixteen in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, in 1926. Tatum appeared often on the radio and in 1932 was moved to New York as one of two pianists to accompany Adelaide Hall’s singing. After his recording debut backing Hall, he recorded several solos, most notably an incredible version of “Tiger Rag” in 1933. From then on, he was primarily heard as a solo pianist. Some criticized him for not being able to play with other musicians, but as it turned out the opposite was true. Most other musicians were simply afraid to get on the bandstand with Tatum for he could make anyone sound old-fashioned in comparison.

Because he was black, nearly completely blind, and beyond any simple musical category, Tatum spent much of his life playing solo piano in bars and at parties. He loved to perform at late-night jam sessions, and once when he dropped in on a Fats Waller performance, Waller announced to the audience, “God is in the house.”

After years of mostly playing solo, from 1943 to 1945 Tatum led a trio on Fifty-second Street that also included guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart. The trio gave Tatum a rare opportunity to play off other musicians, and even if he could not change keys and tempos at will in this format, he enjoyed exchanging witty ideas with the other musicians.

Tatum was occasionally presented at concerts and appeared on television in the 1950s but was always largely unknown to the general public. Producer Norman Granz recorded Tatum extensively in the 1950s, both as a soloist and in all-star groups with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, Ben Webster, Benny Carter, and Roy Eldridge. Art Tatum died from a blood disease, uremia, in 1956 at the age of forty-seven. His playing has still never been equaled.


Boogie-woogie, when a pianist’s left hand plays a double-time repetitive eight-note pattern on blues, was very popular in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In the late 1920s it was a great favorite at parties and jam sessions, especially with Meade Lux Lewis’ famous “Honky Tonk Train Blues.” With the rise of the Depression, boogie-woogie largely disappeared except as an influence. Later in the decade, however, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra’s recording of “Boogie Woogie,” based on Pinetop Smith’s 1920 recording, became a hit, soon followed by Will Bradley’s “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar,” and other big band boogie-woogie records. At the height of the boogie-woogie fad, the Andrews Sisters had their big seller in “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy.”

At John Hammond’s Spirituals to Swing concert in December 1938, boogie-woogie was presented at Carnegie Hall featuring three pianists playing as a remarkable trio. Albert Ammons, who performed in Chicago clubs in the late 1920s, had started recording in 1936 with his Rhythm Kings. Meade Lux Lewis worked during the Depression at manual labor shovel gang and driving a taxi. He had been rediscovered by producer Hammond, who got him to record a newer version of “Honky Tonk Train Blues” and revived his career. Pete Johnson had started out as a drummer in Kansas City, not switching to piano until 1926 at age twenty-two. He was part of the city’s legendary late-night jam sessions, often teaming up with Big Joe Turner, who worked as a singing bartender. Although Johnson and Turner were featured at the Spirituals to Swing Concert, including on “Roll ’Em Pete,” they had not yet recorded.

The successful concert resulted in Ammons, Johnson, and Lewis all having productive careers, recording as a trio, in various duets, and as soloists. Big Joe Turner went on to fame as an unchanging but always spirited blues singer, performing swing, r&b, rock and roll, including a major hit in “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and jazz until his death in 1985.

There were other fine boogie-woogie pianists during the swing era. Most notable was Jimmy Yancey, who was the movement’s father figure. Yancey, a groundskeeper at Comiskey Park for the Chicago White Sox, had a gentle and subtle style which was perhaps most notable for his funny habit of ending every song in E-flat, no matter what the tune’s key.

Boogie-woogie’s popularity peaked between 1938 and 1942 but has survived through the years. Its influence can be heard at least indirectly in the playing of many modern jazz and rock and roll pianists.


Vocalists were in great demand during the swing era, with virtually every jazz big band featuring a female singer and often a male vocalist too. Those who could swing the words were always able to find work singing the many high-quality songs by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Harry Warren, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, and others, with words by Porter, Berlin, Al Dubin, Ira Gershwin, Larry Hart, Johnny Mercer, Yip Harburg, Andy Razaf, and other major lyricists.

The swing era’s top male jazz vocalists in addition to Bing Crosby, who had moved largely to pop music, were Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Big Joe Turner, Billy Eckstine with Earl Hines, and the best of the male band singers, Jimmy Rushing. Like Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey, most other male vocalists with big bands, unless they were musicians, focused on ballads.

Nearly every big band had a female vocalist. Among the best were Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb, Helen Ward with Benny Goodman, Helen Humes with Count Basie, Ivie Anderson with Duke Ellington, Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa, Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman, Dinah Washington with Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday with Count Basie and Artie Shaw, and Helen Forrest with Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Harry James. Four other singers had important careers that went beyond singing with a particular orchestra: Mildred Bailey, Lena Horne, Maxine Sullivan, and Lee Wiley.

Although always suffering from an inferiority complex due to her weight, Mildred Bailey was one of the finest jazz singers of the 1930s and 1940s. After going to school in Spokane, Washington, she moved to Los Angeles in 1926 where she sang on the radio. After Paul Whiteman heard her sing at a party in 1929, she joined his orchestra, becoming the first fulltime female singer. Bailey was inspired by Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith but had a very distinctive little girl-like voice that contrasted with her appearance. A fine blues singer, she helped to popularize “Georgia on My Mind,” which she recorded in 1931, and “Rockin’ Chair.” After marrying xylophonist Red Norvo in 1933, she co-led a big band with her husband during the first half of the swing era. They were dubbed “Mr. and Mrs. Swing,” but neither the band nor the marriage lasted, and they were divorced in 1943. At the height of her career in 1944 and 1945, Bailey hosted a regular radio series, but her health soon faded, and she died in 1951 when she was just forty-four.

Early in her career, Lena Horne was part of the jazz world. Famous for being a beauty, she started singing and dancing at the Cotton Club in 1934, worked with Noble Sissle’s Orchestra in 1935 and 1936 and Charlie Barnet in 1940 and 1941, and recorded with Artie Shaw. With her looks she was naturally picked to appear in movies, but being black during an era when black actors and actresses usually had terrible stereotyped roles was difficult. Because Horne would not accept undignified parts during her years at MGM, other than the major black films Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather , she was confined to cameo appearances in a variety of white films, usually just performing a song that could easily be cut from versions shown to the South’s segregated audiences. There was no room for glamorous black movie stars in the 1940s. So instead, Lena Horne continued singing, drifting away from jazz toward cabaret and middle-of-the-road pop music by the 1950s.

Throughout her career, Maxine Sullivan uplifted tunes by singing them fairly straight, swinging lightly and changing notes here and there. A very subtle singer, she had a pleasing voice that was influential. At sixteen she was discovered while singing on the radio in Pittsburgh and was soon making records with pianist Claude Thornhill as her musical director. Her second record date in 1937 produced a huge hit with a lightly swinging version of the Scottish folk song “Loch Lomond.” Soon Sullivan was recording other folk songs, including “If I Had a Ribbon Bow,” “Annie Laurie,” and “Down the Old Ox Road,” and adding her warm voice to such ballads as “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and to light swing tunes. After marrying John Kirby in 1938, she recorded often with that cool jazz band, which perfectly framed her voice. Sullivan had a radio show for two years, Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm , spent a dozen years outside of music after retiring in the mid-1950s, later in life married stride pianist Cliff Jackson, and made a full comeback starting in 1966. Maxine Sullivan’s final twenty years before her 1987 death were busy, and she never seemed to get tired of singing “Loch Lomond” for her fans.

Lee Wiley, a smoky cabaret singer with indescribable charisma, was a favorite of Eddie Condon and some of the traditional jazz musicians. She started out singing commercial music with Leo Reisman in the late 1920s and for a few years was closely tied with composer Victor Young, performing with radio orchestras. She was the first singer to record complete songbooks dedicated to the work of one composer. Between 1939 and 1943 she recorded songs by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and Harold Arlen in sets of eight songs, including definitive versions of “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “Glad to Be Unhappy,” “Down with Love,” and “Let’s Fall in Love.” Wiley was married to pianist Jess Stacy for a time in the mid-1940s and sang with his short-lived big band. Often backed by Eddie Condon’s Dixieland musicians, her ballads provided a break from the more freewheeling performances. Although she recorded some excellent albums in the 1950s, including Night in Manhattan , most did not sell well, and she recorded only once after 1957.


One of the most important non-musicians in jazz history, John Hammond made a major impact on jazz, particularly in the swing era. Born in late 1910, Hammond was part of a wealthy family and was educated at Yale. From the beginning, he had a great love for black music and was an early fighter against racism. By 1932 when he was twenty-one, he was already working hard in the music business, setting up a record date for the Fletcher Henderson orchestra. He discovered Billie Holiday in 1933 and arranged for her first record dates, produced Bessie Smith’s final record session, and produced American jazz sessions for the European market when there seemed to be no market for freewheeling jazz in the United States. He was a friend of Benny Goodman, later his brother-in-law, encouraged him to form his first big band, and persuaded him to fill his library with Fletcher Henderson arrangements. In 1935 Hammond teamed Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson for a series of classic recordings, and he was a behind-the-scenes force in forming Benny Goodman’s trio with Wilson and Gene Krupa. Late that year in Chicago, he was scanning the radio dial and discovered Count Basie’s orchestra broadcasting from Kansas City. After writing about Basie in some publications, he persuaded Basie to come East in 1936.

It is difficult to imagine the swing era without John Hammond. In 1938 and 1939 he organized two famous Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall. Among those featured at the 1938 concert were Big Joe Turner, the Count Basie Orchestra, the New Orleans Feetwarmers with Sidney Bechet, several major blues artists, and the Boogie Woogie Trio of Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson. If they had survived, Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson would have certainly been at the concert. The 1939 Spirituals to Swing concert featured James P. Johnson, Ida Cox, Basie’s band, the Kansas City Six, and the Benny Goodman Sextet. One of the stars was guitarist Charlie Christian, who Hammond had discovered a few months earlier and had flown from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles to meet Benny Goodman. Hammond also produced many records for Columbia between 1937 and 1943.

After serving in the military, Hammond felt out of touch with the jazz world and never developed a taste for the new bebop music. In the 1950s he produced a series of superior mainstream swing dates for the Vanguard label that featured top swing era veterans, and from 1959 to 1975 he was an important force at Columbia Records. During that era he helped discover guitarist George Benson, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. In 1967 Hammond organized a third Spirituals to Swing concert, and he produced sessions as late as the 1980s, passing away in 1987. Although his dominant personality and self-righteous views could rub some people the wrong way, Hammond deserves to be saluted for his fights against racism and his skills as a talent scout.


Swing was king from 1935 to 1942, but the deepening of U.S. involvement in World War II and a variety of other factors killed the big band era by 1946. With wartime gasoline rationing, it became much more difficult for big bands to travel. The draft claimed some key players who were often replaced with teenagers, and some bandleaders enlisted, including Glenn Miller, Bob Crosby, and Artie Shaw.

The Musicians Union called a recording strike for August 1, 1942, to protest against radio stations broadcasting records for free. No commercial records were made until the Decca label settled in September 1943, with some of the larger companies, Columbia and Victor, not recording until November 1944. Nonunion singers were free to record, and this twenty-seven-month gap allowed them to take over popular music. There were still broadcasts, radio transcriptions—recordings made specifically to be played on the radio—and “V Discs,” records that were made for servicemen overseas, but the ban made it very difficult for new orchestras to catch on. The broadcasts, radio transcriptions, and V Discs add a great deal to the legacy of big bands from the first half of the 1940s, but they were not for sale to the general public then.

In addition to the lack of opportunities for new big bands during 1942 to 1944, many of the established orchestras, other than Duke Ellington’s, were simply running out of ideas and becoming predictable if not stale. The younger creative musicians were starting to look elsewhere, participating in late-night jam sessions that resulted in bebop, getting more lucrative work in smaller r&b groups, or finding joy in reviving Dixieland. This drain of creativity hurt swing.

Particularly ruinous was the cabaret tax enacted in 1941, forcing clubs and dance halls to pay 30 percent of their ticket sales if they permitted dancing. Big swing bands became too expensive, and smaller nightclubs with combos made more money than large dance halls. Dancing was separated from jazz, and jazz’s audience shrunk dramatically.

After World War II ended in 1945, musicians who had worked for next to nothing during the Depression wanted livable salaries, which were mostly impossible due to the smaller audience. Big bands also had the difficulty now of being associated with the World War II years, and they were thought of as old-fashioned. Even if the swinging orchestras had somehow survived these difficulties, they would have been killed by the rise of television, which encouraged people to get free entertainment at home rather than go out dancing.

Many big bands broke up in 1946, the survivors, in 1949 and 1950. Since then many have asked, When are the big bands coming back? Until thousands of fans rediscover the joy of dancing to swing orchestras, the answer is, never, at least not on the level of the swing era. Fortunately, records do survive.

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