Swing Music in the 1930s
Each chapter will cover approximately one decade of the history of jazz music, including the different styles of jazz, famous composers, how the music affected the culture and vice versa and what factors led to its demise (or lack thereof).
Chapter One: Jazz: 1900- 1920
Chapter Two: 1921-1930
Chapter Three: 1931-1940
Chapter Four: 1941- 1950
Chapter Five: 1951-1960
Chapter Six: 1961-1970
Chapter Seven: 1971-1980
Chapter Eight: 1981- 1990
Chapter Nine: 1990- present
The Swing Era began
The Swing Era began in the 1930s. It was derived from New Orleans style jazz. Many jazz scholars date the beginning of the swing style to 1935 and Benny Goodman (also known as the “King of Swing”). Henderson, Ellington, and Count Basie were some artist that laid the framework for swing, but Goodman was the one who popularized it. Another reason swing was so successful, was because it was known for being one of the most “democratic” styles of music . It united the country because all people could relate to it, young and old, black and white, male and female.
The swing era was the last time that American popular music and jazz were one and the same. This occurred because swing was a completely new and energizing jazz style. The beat changed from two beat bars (in New Orleans style) to four beat bars in swing. Improvisation was also more restricted in the swing style.
“Big Bands” was the term coined for bands that played mostly swing style music. “Swing” and “big band” are terms that are often used interchangeably, but incorrectly so. There is a myth that these two terms mean the same thing, but on the contrary, “swing” refers to the style or technique of the music while “big band” refers to the format or arrangement.
These big bands were bigger for a few reasons. Microphones were not widely used until the mid-1940s so a band that needed more sound to fill a larger hall needed more people. Band numbers boosted from 8-10 in New Orleans style jazz up to 12-16 in the Swing style. A band usually consisted of 3-4 saxophone players, 2-3 trumpets, 2-3 trombones, a piano, guitar, bass violin, and a drum set.
There were two types of big bands during this period. The “swing” or “hot” bands played rhythmically stimulating pieces with extensive solos. People like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, and Andy Kirk all had these swing big bands. On the other hand, “sweet” bands had less swing feeling and shorter solos. The bands of Glenn Miller, Wayne King, Freddy Martin and Guy Lombardo were sweet bands.
Composer and Arrangers
The King of Swing
As mentioned earlier, Benny Goodman is credited with popularizing the swing style music. The King of Swing was born in May 1909 and grew up in the Chicago ghetto. He began taking clarinet lessons from Franz Shoeppe at a young age. His teacher despised jazz. When he was fourteen his father died and he had to go to work to help support his family. At seventeen, he made his first recording and his career began when he was nineteen when Ben Pollack heard his recording and hired him. He played with different bands throughout the country. In 1938, his was the first band to play at Carnegie Hall. He wasn’t completely focused on jazz, however. He spent time on classical works by people including Bela Bartok and Aaron Copeland to name a couple. He remained well known in the jazz world from 1930s well into the 1980s as a clarinetist, composer, and arranger. For many years, a clarinet player was considered to be playing incorrectly unless they were playing “Goodman style”.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in April 1899 in Washington D.C. He began taking piano lessons when he was seven years old but was more into baseball than anything else at that age. As he grew older, his piano lessons became a thing of the past. But then one summer while on vacation, he heard of an amazing ragtime pianist by the name of Harvey Brooks. He sought Brooks out and Brooks taught him some piano tricks and shortcuts for playing jazz piano. When Duke got home, he said it was the first time he’d “been able to get off the ground.” He finally had a passion to play and thus, his career was born. Duke Ellington passed away in 1974 but his legend lives on in the hundreds of compositions that are still around.
William Basie was born in August of 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey. When he was younger, he originally wanted to play the drums but there was too much competition between him and another friend so he chose the piano instead. He toured with different and acts and groups until he joined the Blue Devils. He stayed with them until the early 1930s when they broke up. Soon after that, he joined Bennie Morton’s band. In 1935, Bennie Morton died, and Basie along with a few members from that band, came together with a few others to form Count Basie’s band. Basie’s band was known all over the country for their ensemble capabilities. They were a model for “ensemble rhythmic conception and tonal balance.”
James Fletcher Henderson was born in December 1897. He lived in a middle class family and received a degree from Alabama University in Chemistry. He moved to New York City soon after graduation and formed his own band in 1922. This band was soon known as the best “colored” band in the New York. He was not very interested in managing the band so it fell apart. In 1939, he joined Goodman’s band as a pianist and arranger and soon as a full time arranger. Henderson had a stroke in 1950 and lost partial control of his body. This paralysis forced him to give up piano and he died in 1958 in New York.
Demise of the Swing Era
The Swing style of jazz was the first music style to be commercialized. It was this commercialization along with World War II, and the American Federation of Music’s ban in 1942 that led to the demise of swing into the bebop era. This ban forced the members to stop making records until the record company agreed to pay each time a song was played on the radio or juke box. It took two years for some cases to settle and musicianship to return to normal.
Thus, as the swing music declined, so did the popularity of big bands. Another type of swing followed the decline of the big band era. Progressive swing, otherwise known as “rebellious swing” came into play. This type of swing was characterized by a darker sound than their big band counterparts. There were also fewer people in the group. After the swing era ended, jazz bands decreased in record sales and in popularity. There was a revival of the swing period in the mid 1990s, but nothing has been able to top the period of glory for the swing