top of page

The Big Bands

Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman and his Big Band with vocalist, Peggy Lee, from the film Stage Door Canteen, 1943 (United States Public Domain)

It was the rock-n-roll of the 1930s and 1940s. It was upbeat. It made you snap your fingers and tap your feet. It got you up and dancing the foxtrot and the jitterbug. The teenagers and young adults loved it, while some parents thought it was the Devil’s music. A few US states below the Mason-Dixon Line wanted it banned because it was too evil, too rebellious, and far too sexual.  Some called it Swing. Others called it Jazz. There were sweet bands. There were hot bands. It was the Big Band era, with Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and others leading their own orchestras. The era produced many individuals who left their employers and went out on their own to develop prominent careers, such as drummers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, singers Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Billy Holiday, and Doris Day. And others like Harry James and Ziggy Elman on the trumpet, Lionel Hampton on the vibes, and Teddy Wilson on piano.

The Big Bands were before my time. A Baby Boomer, I was raised on the rock-n-roll of the early 1960s. I listened on the radio to Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys…then came the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964 to change everything. I can still remember all those screaming girls! Interest in the Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones, and others followed for me. Then one evening after Hockey Night in Canada—in my late high school years--when my parents were visiting friends, I went to the living room to look through the LPs my parents had in the side of their hi-fi. Remember the terms, LP and hi-fi?  I saw Glenn Miller’s Greatest Hits and I read the cover. Hmmm. I put the record on and actually enjoyed it. This was the music from the World War II generation.  Songs like In the Mood, Tuxedo Junction, Chattanooga Choo Choo, and the St Louis Blues March.

From then on, I have been an avid listener of the Bands and have read several books on them. I have my personal favorites, of course. Although it was the Glenn Miller recordings that first aroused my interest, I found as time went on that Miller’s music—his stateside civilian band--was a little stiff for me, especially after finding out through research that a lot of people didn’t like working for him because he drove them too hard and didn’t leave any room for improvising. Once I graduated from high school, started working and had my own money, I turned to some of the more free-wheeling bands for my listening pleasure, such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, both clarinet players, and excellent ones at that. They called Goodman the “King of Swing,” and Shaw the “King of the Clarinet.” I also listened to Count Basie,  the Dorsey brothers, Gene Krupa, and the Andrew Sisters. They all got the joint-a-jumping.

What we call modern dance music may have started  around World War I. Jazz, as it was called in the earlier years. The war over, the Roaring Twenties unfolded. Flappers. Bootleggers. Money everywhere. Jazz music evolved, but it was a restrictive style, with very little improvising.  The main centers were Chicago, New York and Kansas City. Brothers Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey may have invented the first, true-blue Big Band of any distinction when they formed the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in 1934. In the group was trombonist Glenn Miller, drummer Ray McKinley, who later joined the Glenn Miller band, and vocalist Bob Crosby, brother of Bing. A year later, it broke up when Tommy had a falling out with his brother and left to start his own band. The same year, Benny Goodman was making news in the east with his hard-driving style, with talented notables Gene Krupa, Harry James, and Teddy Wilson. But Goodman’s success was limited. Complaints were coming in that his music was too fast and too loud. He then sent his band on a western tour, but played only to dismal crowds. By the time they reached  Denver, Goodman was ready to pack it in.

Then they booked into the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, California, before a big crowd on August 21, 1935. The Palomar was the biggest of its kind on the west coast. The dance floor could fit 8,000 people with ease. For the men they charged 40 cents, and the women 25 cents. After a few stock arrangements, Goodman could sense he was losing the kids. At the break, drummer Gene Krupa, supposedly said to his leader, “If we’re going to die, Benny, let’s die playing our own thing.” They came out charged, switched to their fast stuff and everything clicked. The thousands there were caught up with the music, jitterbugging the night away, while millions listened in on the live radio broadcast of it. It’s been said that Swing was born that day. Maybe, maybe not. Goodman, at the very least, took Swing to greater lengths. Four years later, after some extensive renovations, the Palomar burned to the ground.

Up to the end of the decade, Big Bands now toured North America to meet their many crazy, enthusiastic fans who were buying their records at alarming rates. At one point about 50 nationally-famous bands were recording and/or hitting the road on a series of grueling one-night stands that were tough on everybody. Leaders and business managers faced constant turnovers in staff. Drinking and other addictions were becoming a menace. And the pay was low. WELL, It was the Depression. What made Swing respectable was Benny Goodman’s invite to the hallowed Carnegie Hall in 1938, making Goodman’s orchestra the first Swing band to appear there. They got that joint a jumping, too, looked on by the swizzle-stick crowd of New York City high society in their starched collars, and fancy, full-length  dresses.

During World War II, Glenn Miller kept Swing’s respectability intact by signing up with the US Army Air Force and taking his brand of music overseas to Great Britain, where he recorded and played live before the American troops. In my opinion, his Army Air Force band was Glenn Miller at his best, with some outstanding arrangements, like Flying Home and Jeep Jockey Jump.  By then he had probably learned a few things that he didn’t know back home with his civilian band. He did have some trouble stateside at first with the Army brass who thought that the traditional military music was good enough for the troops because it was certainly good enough for them in World War I. To this, Miller replied, “Tell me something, are you guys still flying the same planes as World War I.” Artie Shaw, on the other hand, joined the US Navy and took his band to the Pacific Theatre of Operations and performed live to the troops over an 18-month period. Sometimes he played as many as 4 concerts a day, with many of those in the battle zones such as Guadalcanal. When he returned to the States, he was exhausted. But at least he went back alive. Glenn Miller never returned. He was reported missing after taking a flight over the English Channel on December 15, 1944. His band was waiting for him to arrive in liberated Paris, France, where they were to play for Army troops who had taken the country after D-Day.

The roof began to cave in for the Swing orchestras in the summer of 1942, when the musicians back home called a strike against the American recording companies over royalty payment disagreements. As a result, no union musician could record in any studio across the US. By the time the strike was settled in mid-November, 1944, the damage had already been done. Also, the war depleted the bands of personnel who had signed up to fight. And the gas rationing killed the one-night stands. Almost as soon as the strike commenced, the recording companies went to Plan B by cutting records that featured the popular vocalists of the day, such as Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bing Crosby. Many in the know realized the writing was on the wall for the bands during a specific Benny Goodman gig on December 30, 1942 at New York City’s Paramount Theatre. There, when Goodman introduced Frank Sinatra to the crowd, all the girls went into a screaming frenzy , and this was 22 years before the Beatles. The females kept up the antics for minutes, not letting up until well after Sinatra finished the first song. It was a milestone. From that day on the singers took over, slipping the bands to second place.

By the end of World War II, the Big Band run was over. But Swing produced many memorable recordings. Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy by the Andrews Sisters. Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodman, thanks to the great drum solo by Gene Krupa. (By the way, Krupa’s parents wanted him to be a priest. Yeah, right). There was Sentimental Journey sung by Doris Day of the Les Brown Orchestra. Drumboogie by Gene Krupa, which he recorded with his own band. Artie Shaw did Begin the Beguine, Duke Ellington did Take the A Train and It Don’t Mean a Thing, and Tommy Dorsey performed Marie. We can’t forget At the Woodchopper’s Ball by Woody Herman and Cherokee by Charlie Barnet. All classics.

My all-time favorite is Bugle Call Rag by Benny Goodman. If that doesn’t get you tapping, then you must be dead. Check it out on YouTube, and you’ll see what I mean. Actually, check out the other classics, too, the ones mentioned above.

Cut a rug, you hepcats!


bottom of page