Big Band Swing: A Discussion of its Initial Popularity and Eventual Downfall

     The Swing Era (1935-1945) was the last time in history in which jazz has been the main music genre in the public eye. According to jazz historian and author, Scott Yanow, on the Swing Era, “jazz orchestras dominated pop charts” and “teenagers and young adults danced to jazz-orientated bands.” So how did big band jazz gain such widespread popularity? And why isn’t it a dominant genre in today’s music scene? There were a number of factors that led to its success as well as several reasons that swing is not a main music genre today. 

    Big band swing is one of the oldest genres of jazz. It was heavily influenced by ragtime, blues, and dixieland jazz. In the 1910s, the popular New Orleans dixieland bands had the building blocks of swing, and these bands traveled up the Mississippi river to Chicago, spreading their music along the way. One example of a dixieland band is King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band which Louis Armstrong played with. Oliver’s band had a much different instrumentation than the big bands of today. It consisted only of a Bass player, a Drummer, a Pianist, a Clarinetist, a Trombonist, and two Trumpeters (Armstrong and King Oliver). Groups like these could be considered the very start of big band jazz because they have a reed, trombone, trumpet, and rhythm section, but they were too small to be a formal big band. However, when bands like Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra and Benny Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra came around, big band swing music truly began as an entity on its own. 

    These bands had the same instrumentation, but twice as large of a horn section. The early swing bands were largely riff based, which refers to each section of the band playing and repeating a melodic idea over and over. “One O’ Clock Jump” by the Count Basie Orchestra is one example of this. Many of these big bands started in Kansas city, so the style was referred to as such. Even Charlie Parker, who later pioneered bebop, was in a Kansas City swing band before he moved to New York. 

    Duke Ellington and his arranger Billy Strayhorn advanced the big band sound even further by creating exciting and unique arrangements that explored colorful harmonies and had more complex rhythms than the conventional Kansas City charts. The Duke Ellington Orchestra went on to become one of the most successful jazz groups of all time, regularly playing on radio shows and eventually television programs.  

    There are also social reasons as to why swing became popular. Before swing music existed, the nation’s general morale was low due to the tragedies of World War I (1914-1918) and the Great Depression (1929-1939). Americans were looking for reasons to be happy again; likewise, they were listening for optimism in music. And, because swing is a lighthearted, dance-based music, people took a liking to it quickly. This psychology may have also aided swing’s popularity during World War II (1939-1945), with the rise of Glenn Miller’s band. The public was interested in soothing and easy-listening songs, such as Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” so that they could forget about their troubles.

    Advancements in technology also helped swing enter the public’s radar. Technology advanced dramatically after World War I, and this gave the media had new ways to reach audiences. Radios became commonplace in the average American household and programs such as Let’s Dance, which hosted Benny Goodman’s swing band, began to broadcast jazz live across the nation. Radios gave Americans a new source to quench their thirst for feel-good entertainment during wartime. When Goodman toured the west coast with his band, he was greeted with an unexpectedly large crowd: fans of his radio program. 

    The World Wars also affected big band swing; both positively and negatively. The Wars spread jazz to other countries due to American troops being stationed abroad. For most European countries, big band swing was their first experience with jazz. The draft of World War II had the negative effect of splitting up a lot of big bands. And, when the musicians came back from overseas, most big bands were being edged out in the music industry by smaller groups, such as the much more economically efficient piano trios. With the rise of gas prices and an increasingly competitive music scene in the United States, big band jazz became a dying art. Duke Ellington led one of the most successful big bands of all time, and he had this to say about the financial issues of a leading a big band:

    “I had so many expensive people in the band, and you know it’s the highest payed band in the world. I mean the individuals are the highest paid, the men in the band, they get the money; I get the kicks. I wish I could afford this payroll.” - Duke Ellington

Even today, big band swing groups are not very common. Most are usually supporting a vocalist in more of a pop music setting. 

    The Swing Era was a golden time period for big band swing music. And although it is not as popular today as it used to be, the legacy that the music left behind remains. There are tens of thousands of quality recordings of big band swing music, and the musicians who played on those records have made their mark on the world.