The Swing genre represents a golden age for jazz that showed its first signs in the mid-20s, but really peaked from the mid-30s to the mid-40s. Going well into the 20s, most jazz bands still played in New Orleans or Dixieland styles in which the musicians all improvised simultaneously while staying within the boundaries of the original tune’s melody and harmony.
When cornetist Louis Armstrong joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in 1924, the band’s arranger, Don Redman, knew he had a rare talent on his hands and began to spotlight Armstrong’s melodic skills. No longer would the entire band improvise, instead Armstrong would be given the freedom to take solos to new heights while the rest of the band supplied supporting riffs. This new approach to band arranging spread and reached the public at a time when people were looking for large orchestral bands that could provide an evening’s worth of dance music. Thus the golden age for big band jazz was born.
During the 1920s, while traveling musicians were playing and spreading big band jazz, hotel dance bands and resident dance hall bands were also playing a role in the evolution of the Big Band era.
As the jazz orchestras grew in size, the arrangements had to be formalized to avoid mass confusion. The arranger became the focal point of the band. Improvisation during solos was written into the arrangements but their location and duration were controlled,Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington’s orchestra as well were all carefully arranged and the easy flowing style of the evolving jazz was becoming known as ‘Swing’.
With the early 1930s came the financial difficulties of the Great Depression that curtailed recording of the new music and drove some bands out of business. Henderson’s next business was selling arrangements to up-and-coming bandleader Benny Goodman. “Sweet” dance music remained most popular with white audiences.
Hot vs Sweet
There were also 2 different styles of Swing music:
”Sweet” Swing (people like Glenn Miller) – had less improvisation, was a bit slower, restrained with a slight swing feel, and was for the white upper class dinner parties.
“Hot” Swing (people like Duke Ellington) – was more daring, experimental, faster, with longer improvisations, stronger rhythmic drive, and a rough blues feeling.
The Big Band Era – The Swing Era
The Big Band era is generally regarded as having occurred between 1935 and 1945. It was the only time in American musical history that the popularity of jazz eclipsed all other forms of music. To many, the appearance of Benny Goodman and his Big Band at the Palomar in Los Angeles in August of 1935 was the start of the Swing Era.
Like much of American popular culture, swing crossed ethnic and racial lines freely. White, black and Latin musicians borrowed from each other constantly. But what did this sort of interchange mean? Benny Goodman, for example, a child of Jewish immigrants, became known as “the King of Swing.” The title had more to do with his commercial success–and perhaps the fact that he was white–than his musical productions. But Goodman earned the respect of white and black musicians alike when he integrated his band in 1936. Though this seems unexceptional today, in the 1930s it was not only innovative but politically explosive.
In the years just before and during World War II, the most popular swing bend were the Andrews Sisters. they were at the height of their popularity between those years, and the group still tends to be associated in the public’s mind with the war years.
After some rough years in the late 1940s, including another recording ban by the musicians’ union, big band music saw a revival in the 1950s and 1960s. One impetus was the demand for studio and stage orchestras as backups for popular vocalists, and in radio and television broadcasts. Ability to adapt performing styles to various situations was an essential skill among these bands-for-hire, with a somewhat sedated version of swing in common use for backing up vocalists. The resurgent commercial success of Frank Sinatra with a mildly swinging backup during the mid-1950s solidified the trend.
1960s–2000: Big Band nostalgia and swing revival
Though swing music was no longer mainstream, fans could attend “Big Band Nostalgia” tours from the 1970s into the 1980s. The tours featured bandleaders and vocalists of the swing era who were semi-retired, such as Harry James and vocalist Dick Haymes. Historically-themed radio broadcasts featuring period comedy, melodrama, and music also played a role in sustaining interest in the music of the swing era.