The emergence of Dixieland jazz in the 1920s inspired larger bands to form and develop more extensive and standardized arrangements of Dixieland songs. These big bands–which became known, conveniently, as “Big Bands”–were composed of ten or more musicians who sat or stood in rows while they were performing, much more like
musicians in Western Classical orchestras than those of the free-flowing Dixieland ensembles.
Because of their numbers the bands often grouped their instrumentalists together, breaking the band into three sections:
— BRASS (trumpets, trombones)
— REEDS (clarinets, saxophones)
— RHYTHM (drums, bass, piano and eventually guitar)
From the mid-’30s on big bands played a kind of music called “swing,” which was bounding, rhythmic and was meant to inspire people to dance…and dance they did!!
Even during the darkest days of World War II–maybe because the days were so dark–American youth flocked to nightclubs and danced with wild abandon. In the process
they developed steps like the Lindy Hop, which developed in the late 1920s and early 1930s as a big band-era interpretation of the Charleston, which itself was a signature dance of the ’20s. The Lindy Hop is an exuberant partner dance characterized by a
“swing out,” during which partners flail outward away from each other and then flail just as enthusiastically back, all the while each holding the other’s hand. The dance is playful and acrobatic, and thrives on improvisation. Check out this contemporary Lindy Hop competition. Holy cow! (Also check out examples of swing dances like the Balboa as performed in the 1943 short film, “Maharaja: With Hal & Betty Takier,” the Collegiate shag
and the St. Louis shag.)
A side note: though “jitterbug” has come to be accepted as a term that refers to a wide variety of swing dances, echnically “jitterbug” is not a form of swing dance, but is actually a term that refers to someone who dances a swing dance–i.e., “that Jay Sand is a real jitterbug!” Band leader Cab Calloway is believed to have coined the term when he described swing dancers by saying, “They look like a bunch of jitterbugs out there on the floor.” That said, if you want to “learn how to jitterbug” you absolutely must watch “Groovie Movie” from 1944.
“The Swing Era” lasted for almost two decades, throughout the ’30s and ’40s, during which thousands of big bands performed all over the United States, featuring America’s
best jazz musicians, both white and African-American–though rarely in the same bands. Band leaders like PAUL WHITEMAN, who some revere as “The King of Jazz,” but who others criticize as a Western classical orchestra leader who co-opted African-American
music, BENNY GOODMAN and DUKE ELLINGTON developed enthusiastic followings in the U.S. and remained popular internationally through the ’60s.
[Watch Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in an early performance (1928), featuring coronet player Bix Beiderbecke (A link mainly for grownups: Learn the sad story Bix Beiderbecke in “Wake Up Bix“) | Watch Benny Goodman perform “Sing Sing Sing” at Carnegie Hall in 1955]
After World War II big band music became even more popular, giving a war-weary nation the opportunity to enjoy itself through dance. Those who weren’t able to make it to “big city” dance clubs would listen to big band radio broadcasts from ballrooms in New York City like the Savoy and Roseland. Band leaders like TOMMY DORSEY, GLENN MILLER and COUNT BASIE, and vocalists like BILLIE HOLLIDAY, ELLA FITZGERALD and FRANK SINATRA were as popular at the rock stars of today.
[Watch Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra play “Bugle Call Rag” and “Ole Miss” in 1940 | Watch Glenn Miller and his orchestra perform one of their greatest hits, “In the Mood,” in
1941| Watch Count Basie’s band featuring Joe Williams on “The Kraft Music Hall” performing “Blee Blop Blues” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” The music starts at 1:39 after the vintage Kraft ad | Watch Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong perform “The Blues Are Brewin’” | Watch Ella Fitzgerald sing “For Once in My Life” live in Berlin in 1968 | Watch Frank “The Chairman of the Board” Sinatra at the top of his game, performing, “That’s Life.”]
In the ’50s big band fell increasingly out of favor as genres that focused on individual musicians like bebop, cool jazz and even rock became more popular. (Though Benny Goodman was certainly still all the rage in the Netherlands in 1959.) Some bands adapted, weaving these new forms into their compositions, but for the most part the big bands that continued primarily kept playing the greatest hits of the ’30s and ’40s. Big band drummer BUDDY RICH, who started with Tommy Dorsey’s band in the ’40s, was one of the more popular band leaders of the time, backing “comeback”
recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, though he did play the majority of his late career big band shows at colleges and high school gyms rather than in dance clubs.