Swing Era Artists

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Swing Era Artists

Armstrong | Basie | Ellington | Fitzgerald | Goodman | Hawkins | Henderson | Holiday | Miller | Waller | Young

LOUIS ARMSTRONG (1901-1971) Trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong was the first jazz musician to combine musical brilliance with a cultivated public persona as entertainer (bandleader, film actor, comic). His virtuoisity as a soloist led to abandonment of the previous standard practice in jazz of concentrating on individual instruments' relation to the group as a whole, and to increased importance of solos.

Armstrong established the rhythmic approach to improvisation which became known as "swinging," and which led to swing as a specific genre of jazz. In the 1936 book Swing That Music, Armstrong discussed his personal experiences in jazz, as well as the evolution of jazz and the transition from jazz to swing.

COUNT BASIE (1904-1984) Renowned pianist, composer, and big band leader William "Count" Basie studied piano as a child with his mother, and was later influenced by James P. Johnson and mentored by Fats Waller. A vaudeville accompanist, Basie settled in Kansas City in 1927 when he found himself there without enough money for fare back east. There, Basie played with the Bennie Moten band, and he became the band's leader upon Moten's death in 1935. The band included saxophonist Lester Young, trumpeter Buck Clayton, and trumpeter-composer Thad Jones. By 1936, Basie's band was playing regular gigs at the Reno Club, from which there were many late-night radio broadcasts, often reaching as far as Chicago. Jazz critic and producer John Hammond heard one of these broadcasts and travelled to Kansas City to write about the band for Down Beat and to arrange a contract with the MCA talent agency.

Count Basie's band's work at Decca (1937-1939) and at Columbia (1939-1946) constitute some of the best-loved swing ever recorded: "One O'Clock Jump," "Jumpin' at the Woodside," "Taxi War Dance," "Miss Thing," "Lester Leaps In," etc. The Count Basie band was known for playing with the tightness and versatility of a smaller group, and for experimenting with innovative new rhythms which would inspire the transition into bebop.

Basie's orchestra disbanded in 1950. The subsequent band Basie formed in 1952 relied less heavily on the improvisational power of soloists, and more on the organizational power of arrangers.

DUKE ELLINGTON (1899-1974) An influential pioneer of the big band form. Composer, bandleader, and pianist Ellington brought prestige to jazz and, particularly, swing. He has been referred to as America's greatest composer in any genre. His fifty years as orchestra leader left thousands of compositions, ranging in size and scope from standards to extended suites.

Ellington's study of classical piano began at age seven, and his middle-class parents encouraged him to pursue it as a career. A year after beginning to play professionally, at seventeen, however, Ellington turned away from the classical style. Having been captivated by ragtime as a teenager, Ellington began to play jazz exclusively.

In the early 1930s, Ellington's exotic "jungle style" captivated white audiences at the New York Cotton Club. As his career progressed, Ellington turned more and more towards concert, rather than nightclub or dance-hall settings. His stylistic innovation of grouping instruments from different sections of the band broke from the swing standard of pitting one instrument against another, and resulted in rich, unique sounds.

In the 1950s, the tecnological move to the LP, which allowed extended play of twenty-five to thirty minutes per side, released the restriction of time, and Ellington started writing extended pieces. Among these was the Such Sweet Thunder suite, inspired by Shakespearean themes.

Ellington's songs "Mood Indigo," "Solitude," "In A Sentimental Mood," and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" remain pop standards. The fact that he also created film scores, operas, ballets, Broadway shows, church music, and symphony orchestras contributed to Ellington's own prestige, and to that of the jazz and swing genres as a whole.

ELLA FITZGERALD (1917-1996) Fitzgerald's three-and-a-half octave range scat singing earned her popularity and critical acclaim throughout a sixty-year career. She entered show business after winning a talent show in 1934, becoming the featured vocalist at the Savoy Ballroom, as a member of Chick Webb's band. In 1942, Fitzgerald launched her successful solo career. Beginning in 1946, she was the vocalist for the popular "Jazz at the Philharmonic." Fitzgerald created her first of a series of nineteen "songbook" albums in 1956. Each album was devoted to the work of a particular American songwriter (Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Johnny Mercer, etc). These albums attained a wide popularity outside of the scope of the typical jazz audience and also helped define the canon of American popular song. Her swing/bop style remaining largely unchanged throughout her long career, Fitzgerald remains one of the jazz artists most popular with a non-jazz listening public.

BENNY GOODMAN (1909-1986) Goodman's pioneering work as a clarinetist and orchestra leader earned him the title "King of Swing." He was crucial in inspiring the movement of jazz from the margins to the mainstream. To many, the popularity he achieved, particularly with white audiences following a famed performance at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on August 21, 1935, signified the official beginning of the "Swing Era." By 1937, Goodman's performances were complete with screaming fans and ecstatic, jitterbugging bobby-soxers rushing the stage.

In 1935, Goodman helmed the first interracial popular jazz band: the Benny Goodman Trio, with drummer Gene Krupa and pianist Teddy Wilson. This was one of many small groups in which Goodman played, in addition to his big band. This small-group swing inspired a return to the traditional jazz heritage of smaller performance groups. Goodman thus indirectly inspired the genesis of post-Swing modern jazz, a style he did not favor.

As a clarinet soloist Goodman received praise for technical cleanliness. Notorious for perfectionism, he was purportedly a difficult boss as bandleader.

The "King of Swing" was immortalized in the 1955 biopic The Benny Goodman Story.

COLEMAN HAWKINS (1904-1969) Pioneer of improvisational tenor saxophone, bringing the marginalized instrument to its central place in jazz. He uncovered the emotional expressiveness of an instrument previously viewed as limited in dramatic potential. Hawkins played in Fletcher Henderson's big band from 1923 to 1934, and subsequently left the band to tour Europe. Revered as one of the first horn players to employ complex chord progressions in jazz, Hawkins is considered one of the genre's greatest improvisors. The version of "Body and Soul" Hawkins recorded in 1939 was a jazz landmark in its simultaneous respect from musicians and popularity with record buyers.

FLETCHER HENDERSON (1898-1952) A graduate of Atlanta University in chemistry and mathematics, graduate student Henderson began playing music professionally upon arrival in New York in 1920. He became a bandleader in 1923. Coupled with the rhythmic innovations of Louis Armstrong, Henderson's creation of a new style of orchestration for big-bands is seen as the groundwork for Swing. Henderson employed a call-and-response format. This interaction between sections of reeds and brass allowed Henderson's written arrangements to retain an improvisational feel. As his orchestrator, Henderson contributed to the success of Benny Goodman.

BILLIE HOLIDAY (1915-1959) Influenced by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday is considered one of jazz's greatest vocalists. Her improvisational genius left its mark on popular standards, and she introduced the memorable "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless the Child."

Holiday's father was a guitar and banjo player in Fletcher Henderson's band, and she entered the world of professional music as a teenager, signing with Columbia Records in 1933. Holiday had received no formal musical training, but quickly proved she could hold her own with swing's best. Her first recordings were with the bands of Benny Goodman and Count Basie, and she toured with Count Basie and Artie Shaw in 1937 and 1938.

Earning the nickname "Lady Day," Holiday attained great popularity in the New York club scene during the 1940s. Her post-war Decca recordings, epitomized by the hit "Lover Man," were extremely successful.

However, struggles with heroin addiction led to a certain unevenness in quality, particularly by the 1950s, when Holiday recorded with Verve Records. In 1959, Billie Holiday died of a kidney ailment.

GLENN MILLER (1904-1944) An enormously popular trombonist, composer, arranger and bandleader, Miller's music has come to serve as a sort of shorthand for the perseverant American spirit in the years leading up to, and during, World War II. The Glenn Miller Band was known for its romantic ballads on one hand, and for jubilant, energetic hard swing on the other.

After a brief period of study at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Miller joined the Ben Pollack orchestra in California in 1924. Following a decade of steady work, in 1937 the ambitious Miller formed the first of several bands which would mark his meteoric rise. After the failure of this band, one formed a year later signed with Victor Records and recorded "Moonlight Serenade," which exhibited the characteristic strong clarinet of Miller's work.

With success at Long Island dance hall Glen Island Casino, Miller's band rose in popularity throughout 1939, achieving a huge hit with "In the Mood" in 1940.

Miller appeared in two of the most successful big-band centered Hollywood films: Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942).

In 1942, Miller gave up his position as leader of America's most popular swing band in order to serve the war effort. After a standard stint in the Army Air Force, Miller became leader of the band at the Technical Training Command at Yale University. In June 1944, this band was transferred to England, where it played dances, concerts, broadcasts, and recording sessions daily. Once France was liberated, the Air Force band was to transfer to Paris. The band arrived there for a Christmas broadcast, but Miller himself never made it, his small plane having been lost in the English Channel on December 15.

Miller's posthumous popularity was enormous. In 1953, a saccharine biopic The Glenn Miller Story, achieved great success.

Miller's brand of swing remains a window, for many, onto a uniquely American spirit and exuberance during a particularly trying time. Some critics question the Glenn Miller Band's place in the jazz canon, arguing that its style is at times far removed from the jazz tradition. Nevertheless, the superbly complex structure of Miller's swing pop standards gains praise as uncommon for popular music.

FATS WALLER (1904-1943) A brilliant stride pianist and composer ("Honeysuckle Rose," "Ain't Misbehavin'"), Julliard-trained Fats Waller attained significant commercial success. Many believe, however, that this popularity occurred at the expense of full artistic freedom. Waller cultivated a slapstick comic persona; his humorous vocals appealed to a mainstream audience which may not have been willing to recognize Waller's true artistic abilities.

Although Waller's minister father had expected his son to devote his life to religion, Waller began work as an organist at age 15. He studied with James P. Johnson, who proved a great influence.

Soon after his first recordings in 1922, other jazz and blues artists took note of Waller's great composition skill and began recording versions of his songs.

Waller's immense popularity led to touring success on the West Coast and in Europe during the 1930s. He also appeared in successful films, most notably 1943's Stormy Weather. The stress of legal battles over alimony contributed to Waller's abrupt death of pneumonia at age 38.


LESTER YOUNG (1909-1959) A product of the Kansas City Jazz scene of the mid-1930s, Lester Young broke onto the national scene as a member of Count Basie's band. Earning the nickname "Pres" (or "Prez") after Billie Holiday called him the "president of tenor saxophonists," Young's unique improvisational style left its mark on swing and inspired such modern jazz musicians as Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and John Coltrane. His style was characterized by a "swinging" lightness of texture, a relaxed divergence from many of the swing orchestrations of the 1930s.

Young's most influential work includes "Taxi War Dance," "D.B. Blues," and "Lester Leaps In."


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