Joe’s History of Jazz
Jazz 3A – The Swing Era Part 1

Historically, the 1930s are called The Great Depression, which began with the crash of the stock market in October, 1929. The exuberance of the Jazz Age started to drain away with the fortunes of much of the country, though the repeal of the 18th Amendment ending Prohibition in December of 1933 breathed new life into the scene.

The recording industry, at the onset of the Depression went into great decline and really didn’t pick up again until about 1935 when Swing really took off. In Jazz history, the decade of the 1930s is called The Swing Era and the Age of the Big Bands. In fact, the popularity of swing music continues all the way through WWII.

Duke Ellington, who makes a national name for himself in this period, is joined by Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, and Glenn Miller. In Paris at this time, we see a European jazz sound emerge with such names as Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli, and Josephine Baker adding to the chanson of Edith Piaf.

It’s hard to pin swing down. Technically, this form features “accented triplets (shuffle rhythm), suitable for dancing” ( Swing time (in terms of time signature) indicates 6/8, 9/8 or 12/8, though an argument is made that that the shuffle rhythm applied to music played in common time (4/4, but you knew that) is sufficient. It’s the swing feel that matters. The steps in swing dancing (to the extent that I managed to learn them) involve counts of 4.

Swing music comes from three distinct angles:

  • Musicians and band leaders themselves composed their own tunes,
    Ellington, Dorsey, Miller’s In The Mood
  • Bands arranging songs originally composed for Broadway shows in the swing style,
    The Gershwins’ songs from Girl Crazy were especially popular in the early 30s; many of Cole Porter’s Broadway songs were jazz hits (and continue to be standards).
  • Composers from outside both of those threads – Tin Pan Alley in Manhattan where professional songwriters had their offices dating back to the 1880s. Noted Tin Pan Alley composers include the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Jerome (Show Boat) Kern, and Porter.
    Not far away from Tin Pan Alley sits the Brill Building where Goffin and King, Lieber and Stoller, Greenwich and Barry, Sonny Bono, Pomus and Shuman, and Phil Spector composed hits in the 50s and 60s. (There’s a playlist to be had just of the fantastic songs to come out of that one piece of real estate. I’m pretty sure at least one recent Broadway musical was inspired by those songs).

Clarinettist and band leader Benny Goodman (tracks 1-4) was known as The King of Swing. Interestingly, Goodman (born in 1909) was the son of a Polish tailor and a Lithuanian girl who met in Baltimore before moving to Chicago. As a Chicago teenager, he was in a band with Bix Biederbecke. In the late 1920s he recorded in bands with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey and in the early 30s made recordings with (among others) drummer Gene Krupa, and vocalists Jack Teagarden and Billie Holiday.)

In 1934, Goodman contracted with NBC to perform on the weekly Let’s Dance program. In order to have enough music, he arranged to purchase swing arrangements from composer/bandleader Fletcher Henderson. King Porter Stomp (track 1) was a hit in 1935.

Now before reading the Wikipedia article on Benny Goodman, I was familiar with his work – I had a few albums including 1956 recordings of two Mozart pieces for clarinet recorded with the Boston Symphony. I even taped a postcard image of Goodman to my clarinet case (I took lessons in the 90s from a member of the SF Opera’s orchestra – alas not a smidge of his talent rubbed off on me). That said, I had not heard of this breakthrough 1938 performance at Carnegie Hall (The following is lifted right from Wikipedia – there’s no escaping the full original quote):

 The concert began with three contemporary numbers from the Goodman band—”Don’t Be That Way,” “Sometimes I’m Happy,” and “One O’Clock Jump.” They then played a history of jazz, starting with a Dixieland quartet performing “Sensation Rag”, originally recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1918. Once again, initial crowd reaction, though polite, was tepid. Then came a jam session on “Honeysuckle Rose” featuring members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands as guests. (The surprise of the session: Goodman handing a solo to Basie’s guitarist Freddie Green who was never a featured soloist but earned his reputation as the best rhythm guitarist in the genre—he responded with a striking round of chord improvisations.) As the concert went on, things livened up. The Goodman band and quartet took over the stage and performed the numbers that had already made them famous. Some later trio and quartet numbers were well-received, and a vocal on “Loch Lomond” by Martha Tilton provoked five curtain calls and cries for an encore. The encore forced Goodman to make his only audience announcement for the night, stating that they had no encore prepared but that Martha would return shortly with another number.

By the time the band got to the climactic piece “Sing, Sing, Sing“, success was assured. This performance featured playing by tenor saxophonist Babe Russin, trumpeter Harry James, and Benny Goodman, backed by drummer Gene Krupa. When Goodman finished his solo, he unexpectedly gave a solo to pianist Jess Stacy. “At the Carnegie Hall concert, after the usual theatrics, Jess Stacy was allowed to solo and, given the venue, what followed was appropriate,” wrote David Rickert. “Used to just playing rhythm on the tune, he was unprepared for a turn in the spotlight, but what came out of his fingers was a graceful, impressionistic marvel with classical flourishes, yet still managed to swing. It was the best thing he ever did, and it’s ironic that such a layered, nuanced performance came at the end of such a chaotic, bombastic tune.”[27]

This concert has been regarded as one of the most significant in jazz history. After years of work by musicians from all over the country, jazz had finally been accepted by mainstream audiences. Recordings were made of this concert, but even by the technology of the day the equipment used was not of the finest quality. Acetate recordings of the concert were made, and aluminum studio masters were also cut.

That would have been something to attend. After learning of these recordings, I didn’t listen to much else for a while. One O’Clock Jump was a signature tune for Count Basie and Sing Sing Sing became (and might already have been) Goodman’s own signature tune.

One thing to listen for in the three tracks I’ve selected is that you can feel the swing in the mid-tempo arrangement of One O’Clock Jump, the relatively slow Body and Soul and the very fast Swingtime in the Rockies.

New Jersey native William James “Count” Basie (tracks 5 and 6) spent the mid-20s cutting his teeth on the vaudeville circuit. In the 30s his band featured vocalist Billie Holiday who already had a career in her own right. Sadly they never recorded together. From his early recordings, I’ve shared Roseland Shuffle and his own take on One O’Clock Jump.

Duke Ellington, who you’ve already met, spent the early 30s primarily performing on radio and on tour. That said, he had hits in this period, notably with It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing [track 7]). This would be a signature number for Ellington long into his career (a 1961 recording with Louis Armstrong is particularly tasty) as well as for artists including Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. (And the phrase “it don’t mean a thing” sneaks into some weird places including industrial band Skinny Puppy’s 1996 song Death.)


I’m not sure the addition of vocalists to swing/jazz acts was anything that new in the 30s. What may be new is that many of the vocalists in the 30s and later (as noted regarding Billie Holiday above) started as guests with existing acts went on to have careers of their own.

Ethel Waters (track 8) actually got her start in the teens, working the same clubs as Bessie Smith. In the 20s, she sang both pop and blues. (Columbia had a ‘race music’ series – it’s probable that all the big labels separated music marketed to whites from music marketed to others. Billboard, prior to the rock and roll era had ‘race music’ charts.) In the 30s she sang at the Cotton Club as well as in an Irving Berlin Broadway revue.

Smith was still touring in the early 30s, though in some obscurity. Her last recordings were made with John Hammond (who was starting to record Billie Holiday at the same time) in 1933 and these sessions included some attempts at swing, but Hammond himself preferred the blues work in these sessions and those are the sides that were released. Bennie Goodman and Jack Teagarden are both listed as performing on these sessions. (tracks 9-12)

Hammond’s an interesting one to bring in. He’d recently graduated Yale (and in 1933 this meant you were male and white), but insisted when he could on using integrated bands on his records and pushed white band leaders to bring in black musicians. ( He made his name primarily as a producer, and almost exclusively for the Columbia label to which he signed such talents as Holiday, and later Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and (after his retirement) Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Billie’s recordings in the 30s, however, were mostly for smaller labels, but under her own name. Indeed, at one time the name on the records was Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra. In 1937 she did sweet versions of the Gershwins’ Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off and They Can’t Take That Away From Me (the latter usually associated with Sinatra though many have recorded it). (tracks 13 and 14)

Louis Prima, a trumpeter and vocalist who would continue to record and perform swing music well into the 1960s made his first recordings in the mid-30s with Joe Venuti and later with Pee Wee Russell before forming the Louis Prima Jump Band. (Perhaps you know the song I Wanna Be Like You from Disney’s The Jungle Book? Yeah, that’d be Louis Prima as the king of the orangutans.) (tracks 15-17)

In 1939, Harry James (a trumpeter in that Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall show) contracted a young Frank Sinatra to sing with his orchestra. They recorded a number of tracks, that year, but in November of that year, James released Sinatra from his contract so that he could accept an offer from the much bigger Tommy Dorsey. (track 18)

In the next instalment we’ll hear from Reinhardt and Grapelli, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Al Jolson and quite a few others.