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Music of the swing era:great swing musicians and songs
Fun Facts about the Swing Era
- The Swing Era began when musicians began to adopt Swing Eigths.
- A lot of emphasis was placed on improvisation
- It can be traced to the larger bands like those of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and of course, Fletcher Henderson.
- Because of the swing eighths, the addition of trumpets, saxophones and jazz piano, the bands produced a fuller sound.
- It used a lot of upbeat scat singing.
As a pianist who loves swing, jazz and the blues, the swing era certainly brings back many memories. Even though I am not part of this Golden Age of Music (am supposedly a child of the Axl Rose/Guns and Roses era), lessons in jazz and blues piano certainly helped me to connect with the essence of swing.
Also known as the Big Band era, the Swing era was a time when danceable, catchy and most importantly, evergreen jazz numbers were introduced to the world. Swing music was the most popular music in the United States in the years between 1935 and 1946, made popular by legendary greats like Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra among others.
Swing grew as a result of creative music improvisation that has always been popular in America. It is a fusion of musical styles from all over the world. These songs were often unheard of arrangements that were catchy because of that bounce that often got people off their feet and on the dance floor. Familiar material was popularized by artistes like Benny Goodman and came with a Harlem oriented flavor.
Jazzblues brought great musical talents like Louis Armstrong, Billy Holiday, Count Bassie and many other greats. Bebop rose, till many bands were forced to disband with the onset of World War 2.
The swing era certainly brings to all of us, even those without that era, dear and to-be-cherished memories. Time for some dancing!
Famous Swing Musicians
Without these legendary greats, the music scene today certainly would not be the same. They contributed their creativity, talent and lent that zing to the era of Swing. What I note here as I write this is that these musicians had a warm connection with each other, yet wer able to develop their own styles.
Duke Ellington (1899 - 1974)
Thought of as one of the most influential musicians in the swing era, Duke Ellington rose to fame as he performed weekly in the New York Cotton Club. His band stayed with him through decades of recording, producing such evergreens as “Take the A train”, “It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing”, and “In a sentimental mood.”
A creative mind, he experimented with harmonic and formal devices that are now considered jazz standards.
Duke Ellington In a Sentimental Mood
Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969)
Hawkins had a unique, raspy tone and an unquestionable command of musical improvisation, a style he developed as a member of Fletcher Henderson’s Big Band. He became famous later touring as a soloist. His 1939 composition Body and Soul has become a landmark improvisation in Jazz History. His influence has lasted through Bebop and later styles as well.
Coleman Hawkins Body and Soul
Counte Basie (1904-1984)
A great pianist, Basie began to garner attention when he moved to Kansas, a jazz hotbed, and began playing with Bennie Moten’s Big Band. He broke off from the band to form his own group in 1935 and they became one of the most popular bands in the country. The sparse precision of his piano style was catchy and rousing. He made famous recordings with the likes of Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet. He developed a style known as the Basie Boogie.
Count Basie Orchestra
Art Tatum (1909-1956)
A man ahead of his time, Art was a prodigious talent. Not really associated with any swing bands, he was a premier keyboardist during the time. What was fascinating was that his spectacular harmonic knowledge and technique was developed completely by ear. He used it to construct elegant, beautiful harmonic lines played at breakneck tempos. His music set the standard for musicians of bebop in the 1940’s and 50’s. Listen to his version of Tea for Two.
Art Tatum Tea for Two
Ben Webster (1909-1973)
Along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, Webster was one of the three titans of the saxophone during the swing era. He was versatile, and his style could growl through uptempo or sensitive ballads. He recorded a version of Cottontail that is seen as one of the gems from the period. He spent the last years of his career as a celebrity in Denmark.
A son of Jewish Immigrants, Benny Goodman moved to New York from Chicago in the late 1920s. He began leading a band for a weekly radio show in the 1930s. He is credited with bridging racial divides, making the music of black musicians popular among Caucasian audiences, therefore considered as instrumental in the bolstering of swing music. He was also thought of as one of the best jazz clarinetists of all time.
Benny Goodman Sing SIng SIng
Another of the three tenor saxophone greats, Lester Young began his career in music touring with his family’s band. Versatile, he played on a variety of instruments. His more relaxed style of music was not often accepted by those more used to Hawkins’ harsher style. He became influential on bebop eventually, and was given the nickname Prez by Billy Holliday.
Lester Young These Foolish Things
The Andrews Sisters
So it is time for a little female power. The Andrews Sisters were a highly successful close harmony group during this era comprising Maxene Angelyn Andrews, LaVerne Sophia Andrews and their sister, Patricia Marie, they sold well over 75 million records. They made hits like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy was an early example of rhythm and blues. Their hits have been covered by Bette Midler and Christina Aguilera. A personal acapella favorite of mine is Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy
The Andrews Sisters - Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)
Armstrong came to prominence as a Cornet and Trumpet player in the roaring ‘20s. He was given the nickname Satchmo or Pops. A foundational influence on Jazz, Armstrong had a distinctive, gravelly voice which could be heard in songs like What A Wonderful World and his popular, best selling rendition of Aint Misbehavin’. Armstrong developed his cornet playing in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. His artistry allowed him to be an unquestionable influence on music of the time. Together with jazz vocal greats like Ella Fitzgerald, he developed the technique of ‘scat singing”, a popular vocal technique among jazz singers which involves musically vocalizing random sounds.
Glen Miller/The Glen Miller Orchestra (1904-1944)
A must-mention name in the Big Band Era, Miller and his Orchestra brought unforgettable, catchy and danceable compositions to audiences. One of the best selling recording artistes from 1939 to 1943, he led one of the best know big bands of the era. Evergreen (yes, I still jive to this) hits include In the Mood, Chattanooga Choo Choo and Tuxedo Junction. He and his band unfortunately disappeared in the bad weather over the English Channel in 1944 when he was asked to perform for the US troops. His official Military Status remains as Missing In Action. Many theories and books, like I Kept My Word: The Personal Promise Between a World War 2 Army Private About What Really Happened To Glen Miller by Clarence B Wolfe.
Fletcher Henderson Wrapping It Up
Famous for being a bandleader who groomed greats like Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, I must definitely not leave him out of this list. He was instrumental to the swing era and the influence of his prolific black orchestra was vast. He was a director for the Black Swan label from 1921 to 1923. He provided solo accompaniment for many blues and jazz singers. He formed his own band which began playing at the Club Alabam and became widely known as the best African American band in New York. Originally a dance band, the addition of Louis Armstrong showed him that there could be a great potential for jazz. The band then grew into jazz greatness.
A legendary Big Band vocalist : Frank Sinatra
Truly a legendary singer of the era, Sinatra, a bobby soxers idol, released his first record The Voice of Frank Sinatra in 1946. Signed to Columbia Records, he made such hits as My Way, Strangers in the Night and Come Fly With me.
1940 marked the birth of Sinatramania, which lasted into the 1950’s. He won the award for Best Supporting Actor in From Here to Eternity. He released several critically acclaimed albums after signing with Captiol records in 1953.
Sinatra’s generation was the first of the era to grow up with the microphone. He and others after him began using a personalized, softer and more nuanced style. What was truly outstanding and drew audiences was his incomparable vocal range.
On a personal note, what is special about Sinatra was how my grandfather emulated him and constantly sang his songs. His perennial favorite was My Way, which my grandfather sang and recorded himself before passing away from cancer. We played the song as the hearse was being taken from the church at his funeral.
Who is your favorite Big Band musician?
Glenn Miller - In The Mood
My favorite songs of the swing era
There are many songs I could have listed here, but these are some personal favorites, I hope you enjoy them!
In the Mood
Originally arranged by Judy Garland and Andy Razaf, this is a must-mention song of the big band era. Miller’s version topped the charts in 1940 and was featured in the movie Sun Valley Serenade. National Public Radio included this piece on “The 100 most important musical works of the 20th Century.” What makes this piece outstanding are the rhythmically displaced, separated arpeggios. The accent riffs played by trumpets and trombones in the introduction to the song also lend it its very catchy dance quality.
As Time Goes By
As Time Goes By
Written by Herman Hupfield, As TIme Goes By was originally written for the Broadway Musical Everybody’s Welcome and sung by Frances William.
It was reintroduced most famously in the 1942 film Casablanca. It is listed on National Public Radios list of Top 100 American Musical Works.
This version, in the movie Casablanca, is sung by Frank Sinatra.
Tuxedo Junction Glenn Miller
By Erskine Hawkins and rearranged later by Glen Miller, this has got to be one of the all time Big Band favorites. The original version by Hawkins and his orchestra went to nmber 7 on the National Hit Parade.
Miller made the song even more popular, and it went to a number one on the Billboard Charts. Miller’s version sold 115,000 copies in the first week of its release, with its slower tempo and slowed trumpet fanfares. It was an inspiration for an all girl group, The Tuxedo Junction.
Mack the Knife Louis Armstrong
Mack the Knife
It is a little hard to believe that Louis Armstrong’s upbeat recording of this song actually began as a ballad, performed as part of the Threepenny Opera. It focuses on the supposed worst of the worst in society, meaning beggars, thieves and killers. The message was that these criminals were not as bad those corrupted and in power. The idea of a charming (watch out ladies) gangster is the idea behind Mack The Knife. It was first composed on a whim by Bertroit Brecht and made famous later by Louis Armstrong. A famous version was also recorded by Bobby Darin.
Chattanooga Choo Choo - Glenn Miller
Chattanooga Choo Choo
Chattanooga Choo Choo
Written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, this catchy piece was recorded by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra and became one of the most famous dance numbers of the Big Band era. It was written as the two gentlemen travelled on the southern railway’s Birmingham Special Train and they passed the southern Tennessee city of Chattanooga. It reached sales of 1,200000 on February 10th, 1942.
The swing era certainly shaped music to become what it is today. These legendary greats and songs will forever be etched in the minds and hearts of many.
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