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Music of the swing era:great swing musicians and songs

Updated on November 30, 2012
midget38 profile image

Michelle is a professional freelance writer who loves music, poetry, pets, and the arts. She is a techno-geek as well.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman | Source

Benny Goodman

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

Lester Young
Lester Young | Source

Lester Young

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
The Andrews Sisters | Source

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

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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 Orchestra
Glen Miller Orchestra | Source

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

Fletcher Henderson

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.

Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra | Source

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?

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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

Tuxedo Junction

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.

Conclusion

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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    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Merry Xmas, Epi!

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 4 years ago

      Merry Christmas to you my friend and continued health, happiness and prosperity for you and your family in the new year.

      lake erie time ontario canada 11:54am

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Epi!! Thanks for your kind comments and coming by!! I love Jazz too and am glad to connect.. ied to find the Music and Writing group but there are a few so am not too sure which one it is...will do more scouting!! Thanks for coming by and a merry Xmas!

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 4 years ago

      How ironic to tell you that I am currently listening to a fabulous recording of Duke Ellingtion Piano trio album from 1953 called Piano Reflections which I simply adore when I found this world class hub presentation of yours because I know my jazz and you really did a number here - big time - a hubbravo to you and happy holidays from Colin and his cats - and wishing you continued health , happiness and prosperity into the new year. lake erie time canada 9:39pm and I will post this to a FB group called Music and Writing

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks Vinaya!

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 5 years ago from Nepal

      I know very little about this genre. Thanks for this short but informative hub.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      I love In the Mood, Pamela! I was a teen in the early 90s, so I am definitely not of this era...but I grew up with it because my dad plays this music on liners and at pubs too. So I kind of followed along and learned the jazz piano. Thanks for sharing, Pamela.....it's an unforgettable era!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

      My parents loved this music and I grew up hearing it all of my life. I have a real appreciate for the big band era. My "parents song" was "In the Mood" by Glen Miller. You did a fantastic job of including the best. I love so many of the ones you featured. Excellent hub!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      I guess the perception was that it was a bit loud,probably, with the trumpets and all, but it sure is very danceable! Thanks for coming in again and sharing, I really appreciate it!!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Hello, Austin, thanks for the connect and for the follow too! Am glad to get to know another jazz lover. It's a truly elegant musical form! So glad that you like the many musical greats we have here. So cool that you saw Duke Ellingon live!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Martie! I was born in the Punk metal/ hard rock era, but my dad plays this music, so I grew up with it in that sense. It's a really groovy era! Thanks for coming by and sharing!

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

      You know something midget, back in the teen days swing- big band music was pretty uncool with the peers and self. That opinion has changed considerably since, however. Your fine hub on swing is shared with pleasure!

    • austinhealy profile image

      Bernard J. Toulgoat 5 years ago from Treasure Coast, Florida

      You couldn't have hit a more sensitive nerve with this hub. Congratulations and thanks for a topic too rarely brought up on Hubpages. As a big band era fan and jazz enthusiast in general, I was thrilled to read it and happy to report that I have at least some music and/or songs from every name you have mentioned in your article. A great moment in my life : Duke Ellington's live concert in Paris in 1963.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 5 years ago from South Africa

      I was also born too late for the swing area - I am a rock-and-roll-baby. But I love Swing - never fails to create romance.

      Excellent hub, featuring the greatest swing musicians and songs! Going to post a link to this in the music group.

      Pianist greetings to you, midget :)

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      The Jitterbug is really a sassy and romantic jive, I'll say! Thanks for sharing, Denise....I'm sure it brings great memories!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Audrey!! It's mine as well, and so it is written! I am so glad to connect with a fellow music and poetry lover too!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Paula! I am so glad to connect with a fellow music lover! My dad is musician too and into the big band/blues/jazz era. These albums are precious!! Thanks for sharing, and will look into writing more of these hubs!!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Great hub! I love swing music and my late husband and I loved dancing to this type of music. He was an awesome dancer. :)

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 5 years ago from California

      So much great music and musicians! One of my favorite musical eras!

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Having a musician Dad (sax)....and being exposed to music music music all our young life...my sister and I gained a strong appreciation for the Big Band Era!! We knew all the songs...all the words and loved to listen and of course, dance to it all.......I have many many "albums" and listen to them frequently.....Great Hub! Love it. up+++

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Eddie, hi!! Thanks for coming by, glad you like it!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Alastar! Each of them were.....love them all, though the swing sound can be a bit over the top sometimes with the addition of trumpets and all! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      I think swing is very much taken for granted in that sense!! Thanks for sharing, Who!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

      Brilliant midget I truly enjoyed this one and look forward to so many more to follow.

      Eddy.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

      These are some great compilations. What a show-stopper with Chattanooga choo choo- the Glenn Miller band were the Beatles of their day. Speaking of Duke Ellington, me pops once heard an Afro Amer women say to him: Duke, youse the luckiest man on de earth. Duke gave her a grin and said I knows I is, I knows. Love his piano style, what a great talent. And Satchmo, whew, one of a kind!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks so much, Hatter!

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 5 years ago from United States

      Nice work, midget. I wonder if very many folks realize the great influence that the Swing Era, and it fabulous listing of fine musicians and songs, has on today's world of music? thanks for this wonderful work, my friend, whonu

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Great hub!FBed and tweeted it off. Thank you.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Jo!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Old Blue Eyes had a fab voice, I must say. King of vocal swing! Thanks for sharing, Linda!

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 5 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Fun and informative hub! I'm glad to see Ol' Blue Eyes made the list, I do enjoy Frank Sinatra's music. Well done and I feel like going swinging now! :)

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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Oh Michelle!....This one, I'm keeping just for the pleasure. Thank you.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Yup, been playing since I was little, classical at first then took lessons from a teacher who happens to teach blues piano. It's a great form of piano...not boring, and technically challenging! Thanks for sharing...and I'm so glad to connect with a fellow pianist!

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 5 years ago from London

      Michelle I didn't know that you were a pianist! I 'm really amazed, especially that you are educated in the jazz/blues/swing area. I respect this music so much as it is folk and easy to listen but quite difficult and intricate technically to be played..

      by the way I'm playing the piano as well :) ,, only classical though and in a moderate level

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Jackie, I can completely understand why some of it may sound quite over the top, and essentially, really it is. Especially when there are so many trumpets involved. But I guess that's the spirit of Big Band....melodious, but loud music. Thanks for sharing! I love Chatttanooga too, of all these, it's my favorite!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      I can completely believe it, Bill. It's an awesome sound...I was a teen in the time of Guns and Roses, Nirvana......so that doesn't make me of this era, but I completely grew up with Sinatra and the rest because of my Dad. It's a little loud, but the tunes and really melodious. Thanks for sharing.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I was born in 1948 and you had better believe my early years were surrounded by the Big Band music....and I admit, even today I love the sound. Great hub Michelle....sharing of course.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Carol! Thanks for coming by! I guess many did not live long lives due in large part to the war that was happening at the time.....amongst other factors too. Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Janine! Thanks for coming by. I think you must've enjoyed yourself with your grandparents....this music is not of our era, in fact, way out, but really rousing. I personally love Miller and Chattanooga too! Thanks for sharing!!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 5 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I have to admit some of this I just don't care for but a lot of it I do. Some is fantastic but like the Three Stooges, some of them go overboard for me. Love ones like the Chattanooga, very uplifting. A great musical history lesson, thanks!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

      Loved this hub and getting to know the great musicians of the past. You covered the topic so well. Interesting to note many of them did not have very long lives. Sharing this fun hub..and a big vote up+++

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 5 years ago from New York, New York

      Michelle, you made me think of my grandparents this morning, because these were musicians and songs that they grew up with and loved, especially The Glenn Miller Band, Sinatra and The Andrew Sisters. My grandfather and his brother actually taught me a few steps of the Jitterbug to In the Mood, when I was younger. Seriously some great memories and have to thank you for sharing here!! Have of course voted way up and shared all over as always!!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      A review of music from the swing era.