Swing Music and the Big Band Era

NDIM Guide to Jazz

Are swing and big band music the same thing?

Let’s get one thing straight right away. Swing music is a style, just like traditional jazz and bebop are styles of music played by certain groups of musicians at a certain time in history. Styles can be revived, but there is always a time at which a certain style of music evolved, became popular, and eventually developed into or was replaced by something else.

Big band, on the other hand, is a format, and as such is has existed in jazz music from the swing era right into the present. There are big bands who played swing (Count Basie, Artie Shaw), bop big bands (Dizzy Gillespie’s big bands), progressive big bands (Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington), and even modern/experimental big bands (such as Carla Bley’s work with large groups).

Duke Ellington’s compositions and arrangements for his big band weren’t often classifiable as ‘swing.’

The terms “swing” and “big band” are not really interchangeable, though you will hear people use them that way. One reason for this is that big bands dominated jazz music during the swing era. Many people feel that the arrangements of these bands as well as the music they played truly constituted the “golden age” of jazz music.

It’s important to remember that swing music was primarily dance music and the bands that played it in clubs and halls were really playing for a dancing crowd. Big bands could play jazz of any kind, and many of these arrangements did not lend themselves to dancing.

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Another reason for the music of big bands being associated with swing music is that at about the same time swing died out (post World War II), it became almost impossible to keep a large band on the road profitably. Count Basie managed it until about 1950. Stan Kenton radically changed the style of music he was playing. Duke Ellington simply continued to write his innovative music for a large ensemble, and his prolific writing kept his group recording and touring for his entire life.

Swing Music: Big Band, Small Band (Spotify)

Still, even the few big bands who managed to record and tour after the end of the swing era were losing money by doing so. Even Dizzy Gillespie, one of the most successful musicians of the bebop post-swing era, lost money for most of the time he kept his bebop and Latin big bands together. One of the reasons behind this is simple: jazz music decreased in popularity and record sales since the swing era. In other words, the swing era was the last time that jazz music and American popular music were one and the same.

Big Band Development

The early 1930s saw the formation of large bands by Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. These leaders increased the size of a typical band from a high of ten members to around fourteen or so members. They also jettisoned the traditional jazz use of the tuba and the banjo as rhythm instruments, replacing them with the standup bass and guitar. The beat of the music also changed. The rhythm section now emphasized the four-to-the-bar beat, rather than the two-beat emphasis that had been seen in New Orleans style jazz. The syncopated figures that were played by the horn sections over this beat were punchier and the syncopation more surprising than it had formerly been.

Fletcher Henderson Band, Wrappin’ It Up, 1934

The bandleaders themselves had considerable prestige, often being seen as excellent instrumentalists in their own right, rather than merely conductors. Because there was a great deal of music being played, often for dancing and for long periods of time, the musicians could no longer just remember their parts, and so the importance of arrangements grew, as did the prestige of the arranger.

At the height of the swing era, the bands could be recognized based on factors such as the instrumental style of the leader, the sound and style of the arrangments, and the individual voices of the primary soloists within each organization. Improvisation itself, which had been fairly free-flowing at the height of the polyphonic New Orleans style, was much more restricted within the framework of big band arrangements and swing music. Solos were plotted out in the arrangement, with space left for a certain soloist’s choruses, and arranged backing was written for the ensemble to provide a counterpoint and, in many cases, a springboard for the soloist to work off of.


Benny Goodman Orchestra performs “Sing Sing Sing” featuring drummer Gene Krupa
From the film ‘Hollywood Hotel’ 1937

Swing music is generally recognized to have “taken off” around 1935 with the arrival of Benny Goodman. Though Henderson, Ellington, Bennie Moten, and Count Basie laid the groundwork for the music that became swing, Goodman did much to popularize it and make it the music of the young people of the day. His appearance at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles is thought to have been one of the defining events in the history of jazz and of swing music in particular.

The Savoy Ballroom was a hotbed of swing music and dancing

Young people flocked to hear Goodman’s exciting band, engaging in energetic new dances such as the Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, and Shim Sham. There’s no question that the athletic dancing that became part of swing culture was part of the attraction to young people, even though Goodman himself felt that the dancing detracted from the musical quality of the band’s performance. Swing music, and not rock & roll, was one of the first defining elements of mass youth culture, and one of the first to be commercially exploited, albeit many years after it originated.

Lindy hoppers at the Savoy Ballroom

Swing is also generally seen as a highly democratic form of music and one that did much to relax the racial divisions of the country. People from all walks of life embraced the music, including young and old listeners, male and female, black and white. Indeed, some of the venues where swing music was played were racially mixed (though clearly the minority) and Benny Goodman hired and recorded with black musicians. Still, there were plenty of divisions and it would be a long time before the country would even attempt to become truly integrated.

By the time that World War II came around, bands such as Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and Glenn Miller had become quite popular playing a more commercialized version of swing music. Even though black musicians such as Ellington and Basie were well known and had become revered as important cultural icons, there were many bands led by black musicians who were not given the acclaim they deserved. These included Chick Webb, Jimmie Lunceford, and Earl Hines.

The commercialization of swing music, World War II, and the 1942 Musicians’ Union recording ban were all elements leading to the demise of the swing era and the rise of a new style of jazz called bebop.

One thought on “Swing Music and the Big Band Era

  1. Count Basie managed it until about 1950.
    I saw Count Basie in London at least twice during late 50’s early 60’s and he was certainly there in 1965.

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