A little guide to the big bands: part 1

October 29, 2011

Swing isn't usually the kind of jazz I listen to, but a friend aked me to put together a playlist on spotify. I thought I'd throw in a few comments on what's in there. Like I said, I'm not a huge expert in this genre, so take this stuff as a layman's intro. This playlist covers the big  band era, which effectively spaned the 20s, 30s and 40s. By the end of WWII, big bands were starting to die out. I'll try to cover some fo the more transitional folks (e.g. Stan Kenton) and the Big Band revival figures in the next post.

Paul Whiteman

This guy wasn't leading the best of the early big bands—in fact a lot of his music is more "dance" music than swing—but becuase he had popular appeal (and was white) he got records made earlier then a lot of the bands who were doing "real" jazz. Most of his stuff is a little polite, but it's worth knowing about becuase his was the name most people probably thought of when soneone said the word "jazz" in the 20s.

  1. Whispering (one of his biggest hits, this is more of a pop tune gently swung than true swing)
  2. Happy Feet (features Bing Crosby and Joe Venuti, an awesome jazz violinist)
  3. Hot Lips (another big hit for Whiteman from 1922)

Fletcher Henderson

Henderson lead the first true swing band. Nearly ever important black jazz musician probably played with this guy at some point. His own piano playing was pretty average, but he was able to recognize and recruit talent like nobody else. 

  1. King Porter Stomp (Henderson's band recorded this in the 20's. A vertiabe swing standard, it really took off when Benny Goodman's band played Henderson's arrangement in 1935. The tuen itself is very old: Jelly Roll Morton wrote this for his friend Porter King back around the turn of the century).
  2. Henderson Stomp (recorder in NYC in '26, this is what people mean when they talk about "hot" jazz)
  3. Carolina Stomp (Louis Armstrong joined the band in '24 for a year, and with him they did some of their best work. You can here him in this tune)
  4. Sugarfoot Stomp (another Armstrong classic)

Benny Goodman

People called him the "King of Swing", and the title was pretty well-deserved. Probably the first big band to introuduse hot jazz to a mass audience. Goodman was himself an excellent clarenetist. Maybe, along with Artie Shaw, the best jazz clarenetist of the century.

  1. Japanse Sandman 
  2. Blue Skies (both of these date from Goodman's tenure with the Victor label during the early 30s, and are among his best. A nice Goodman clarinet solo on the latter). 
  3. Undercurrent Blues (This was recoded sometime between 1945 and 1949, so much later. Goodman's flirting with bop a bit here and I like the results.)
  4. Goodbye (A slower number that really shows off Goodman's skills as a performer)

Duke Ellington

One of my jazz heroes. An excellent musician and bandleader. He didn't just do swing: he was the equal of Gershwin or Cole Porter as a song writer and composed a number of ambitious, long-form works (see: Black, Brown, and Beige). He moved from swing to bop effortlessley, and was a big influence on a newer generation of musicians like Thelonius Monk and Cecil Taylor).

  1. Birmingham Breakdown (one of the first tunes where Ellington's genius becomes apparent, from Novemebr 26, 1929)
  2. Prelude in C Sharp Minor (a jazz verison of the famous Rachmaninoff Prelude, good representative of early/middle-period Duke)
  3. Jack The Bear (from a legendary concert Ellington gave at Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943. You get to hear a bit of his voice at the beginning of the track.)
  4. C Jam Blues (Late period Ellington, a live recording of a concert at the Blue Note in 1959)
  5. Take The "A" Train (One of Ellington's most famous tunes, from the same concert. Billy Strayhorn was the composer of that tune, and actually sits in here at the piano)
  6.  Dimenuendo in Blue/Crescendo in Blue (This pair of performances is the most famous of one of the the most legendary in Jazz history.)

Cab Calloway

In his time, Calloway was probably the best-known of the black band leaders. 


  1. Minnie the Moocher (This was his best-known song. One of my favorites, too, although I like Duke's instrumental version better)
  2. Harlem Hospitality 

Count Basie

Basie was originaly a Fats-Waller-style stride pianist, but pared that style back over time. His ensemble grew into one of the most influential of the swing era. 

  1. Honeysuckle Rose (A swing classic and a good example of Basie's style as a pianist)
  2. Jumpin' at the Woodside (the original version of this swing standard. The Woodside was a famous dance club of the 30s and 40s)
  3. Cherokee
  4. Oh, Lady Be Good
  5. Segue in C. The previous recordings were from the 30s, when Basie and Swing were at the hight of popularity. By the time of this concert in the 60s, you can hear them heading more and more into bop.

This playlist is a really basic intro. I tried to choose tracks from high-quality, representaive albums, so if you hear a track you like, take a look at the album.

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