Big Band and Swing Music Era

Artie Shaw Playing


Swing is the jazz style that emerged during the early 1930s and emphasized big bands. Propelled by the popular Benny Goodman, it spilled into the late 1940s and then remained popular in recordings, film, and television music long after its main proponents had disbanded.

Most swing-style groups had at least 10 musicians and featured at least three or four saxophones, two or three trumpets, two or three trombones, piano, guitar, bass violin, and drums. Guitarists, bassists, and drummers offered repeating rhythms that were sufficiently simple, buoyant, and lilting to inspire social dancers, the style’s largest audience.

Musicians strove for large, rich tone qualities on their instruments. Solo improvisers did not seek intricacy in their lines so much as lyricism and a hot, confident feeling that was rhythmically compelling. For these reasons, the musical period of the 1930s and 1940s has been called the swing era and big-band era. Not all dance music played by big bands of the 1930s and 1940s was jazz. A large segment of the public, however, considered almost any lively, syncopated popular music to be jazz.

Journalists and jazz fans drew distinctions between bands that conveyed the most hard-driving rhythmic qualities and extensive solo improvisations and those that conveyed less swing feeling and improvisation. The former was called swing bands or hot bands (for example, the bands of Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk, and Duke Ellington). The latter were called sweet bands (for example the bands of Glenn Miller, Wayne King, Freddy Martin, and Guy Lombardo). Many listeners, however, did not make such distinctions. They considered all the big dance bands to be swing bands.

This is not surprising because all the bands (even Guy Lombardo’s) did play some jazz and even the honest of swing bands (like Duke Ellington’s) featured some sweet numbers. Conversely, some of the biggest hits by Glenn Miller’s sweet band contained brief jazz improvisations and conveyed a quite danceable swing feeling.

An instructive illustration for this confusion regards Tommy Dorsey’s immensely popular bands of the 1940s. The groups had first-rate jazz-oriented accompanists, swinging arrangements, and a number of top-notch jazz improvisers. Yet huge portions of their repertory were composed of ballads and vocal features. Therefore, though jazz historians don’t usually give Dorsey’s bands much attention, jazz musicians generally confer high respect upon them.

Though there were large dance bands before the swing era, big-band music as a concept for music fans developed most firmly during this era and persisted for decades thereafter. This has caused ambiguity in labeling because, for example, record store clerks often catalog big-band music as though it were a single style, despite the many different harmonic and rhythmic approaches that new ensembles of similar instrumentation have used dance the swing era.

Large ensembles have performed almost every kind of jazz: swing, bebop, cool, hard bop, free jazz, and jazz-rock fusion. Not all big bands are swing bands and so big-band style should not be used routinely to designate the jazz of all large ensembles. But many consider the big band to denote an idiom, not just instrumentation. Also note that there were important jazz improvisers in the swing era, such as Art Tatum and Django Reinhardt, who did not earn their reputations in the context of big bands and there were others, including Lester Young, Charlie Christian, and Coleman Hawkins, who often made their best recordings in small-band formats, though most of their livelihood and exposure came initially as soloists in big bands.

Swing Style

The swing players, generally speaking, were more schooled than their predecessors. Playing exactly in tune was often a more important issue than the feeling of the part. In early New Orleans Dixieland for example, the feeling of the phrase was of much more concern than any other aspect of playing.

Some distinction should be drawn between the African-American and white bands in this matter. The white bands tended to avoid inflections that would disturb the ensembleís blend. Because of their size and the nature of the sectionalization, everyone in the ensemble had to conscientiously start and stop each note together.

There was a protocol that was silently agreed upon. Some bands played a bit on top of the beat and some played a trifle behind the beat. A newcomer to a band would do well to listen intently to the rhythmic approach of that particular group in order to fit well into the ensemble.

The African-American bands generally had a looser ensemble style that reflected more individual inflections. The Count Basie band became an ensemble machine. Its controlled balance among players has seldom been rivaled. However, even that balance was a result of listening more than reading. The musical reading skills of the players were not necessarily their strong point. The notation of the arrangements could not possibly reflect such nuances of performance interpretations.

Progressive Swing

Progressive swing, also known as Progressive Jazz was an extension of the jazz orchestras following the decline of the big band era. The style is closely associated with the output of Stan Kenton beginning in the late 1940s, however, the term applied to a number of bands and small groups who played a darker sound than their big band era counterparts. Moreover, Progressive Swing was modernistic with a more dissonant harmonic turbulence, as rebellious as swing could get.

The term, Progressive Swing, is referred to in the post-bop era as Progressive Jazz and hence has become synonymous with modern jazz. A few examples of Progressive Swing are Stan Kentonís “Chorale for Brass, Piano and Bongos” recorded in 1947 and “Invention for Guitar and Trumpet” in 1952. Boyd Raeburn also performed Progressive Swing for a short time with output that included “Boyd Meets Stravinsky” which his orchestra recorded in 1946.

Big Band

Big band refers to a jazz group of 10 or more musicians, usually featuring at least three trumpets, two or more trombones, four or more saxophones, and a rhythm section of accompanists playing some combination of piano, guitar, bass, and drums. Big-band music as a concept for music fans is identified most with the swing era, though there were large, jazz-oriented dance bands before the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s and large jazz-oriented bands after the swing era. Classification difficulties occur when music stores shelve recordings by all large jazz ensembles as though it were a single style, despite the shifting harmonic and rhythmic approaches employed by new ensembles of similar instrumentation that have formed since the swing era.

By lumping the music of all large jazz bands together marketers overlook the different kinds of jazz that large groups have performed: swing (Duke Ellington and Count Basie), Bebop (Dizzy Gillespie), cool (Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Shorty Rogers, Gil Evans), hard bop (Gerald Wilson, Charles Mingus), free jazz (some of Sun Ra’s work after the l950s) and jazz-rock fusion (Don Ellis’s and Maynard Ferguson’s groups of the 1970s). Not all of them are swing bands.

Many listeners consider big band to denote an idiom, not just instrumentation. For them, the strategies of arranging and soloing that were established during the 1930s link all large jazz ensembles more than the different rhythmic and harmonic concepts distinguishing those of one era, for example, bebop, from those of another, for example, jazz-rock. Another important consideration that journalists and jazz fans of the 1930s and 1940s drew was the distinction between bands that conveyed the most hard-driving rhythmic qualities and frequent solo improvisations and those that conveyed less pronounced swing feeling and improvisation. The former were called swing bands or hot bands (for example, Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands). The latter were called sweet bands (for example, the bands of Glenn Miller, Wayne King, Freddy Martin, and Guy Lombardo).


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