Let My People Swing!
10 Influential Swing-Era Musicians
Swing's birth has been traced by some jazz historians to Chick Webb's stand in Harlem in 1931, but they noted the music failed to take off because the onset of the Depression in earnest that year killed the nightclub business, particularly in poor black areas like Harlem. Fletcher Henderson, another bandleader from this period who needed work, lent his arrangement talent to Goodman. Goodman had auditioned and won a spot on a radio show, "Let's Dance," but only had a few songs; he needed more. Henderson's arrangements are what gave him his bigger repertoire and distinctive sound. The show was on after midnight in the East and few people heard it, but unknown to them, it was on earlier on the West Coast and developed the audience that later led to his Palomar Ballroom triumph. The audience of young white dancers favored Goodman's "hot" rhythms and daring swing arrangements. "Hot Swing" and boogie woogie remained the dominant form of American popular music for the next ten years.
With the wider acceptance of swing music around 1935, larger mainstream bands began to embrace this style of music. Up until the swing era, jazz had been taken in high regard by the most serious musicians around the world, including classical composers like Stravinsky; swing on the contrary, with its "dance craze", ceased being regarded as a de-generation towards light entertainment -- more of an industry to sell records to the masses than a form of art. Some musicians, after failing at serious music, though, switched to swing.
Large orchestras had to reorganize themselves in order to achieve the new sound. These bands dropped their string instruments, which were now felt to hamper the improvised style necessary for swing music. This necessitated a slightly more detailed and organized type of composition and notation than was then the norm. Band leaders put more energy into developing arrangements, perhaps reducing the chaos that might result from as many as 12 or 16 musicians improvising spontaneously. But the best swing bands at the height of the era explored the full gamut of possibilities from spontaneous ensemble playing to highly orchestrated music in the vein of European art music.
A typical song played in swing style would feature a strong, anchoring rhythm section in support of more loosely tied wind, brass, and later, in the 1940s, string and/or vocals sections. The level of improvisation that the audience might expect at any one time varied depending on the arrangement, the band, the song, and the band-leader.
The title of this piece is taken from the 2006 re-release of a 1995 recording by alto saxophonist, Larry Elgert. Each of the artists listed below developed styles that influenced later musicians into bebop and beyond and set the stage for jazz to become the valued art form it is today. Without their innovative creativity during this unique musical era, today the people might not be swinging!
Fletcher Henderson (December 18, 1898 - December 29, 1952) - Pianist, arranger, and leader of one of the most influential big bands in jazz, Fletcher Henderson was a key figure in the development of the ensemble jazz style known as swing. Henderson formed a dance band in New York in 1923. The band soon distinguished itself in two ways: the engagement of Louis Armstrong as principal soloist placed greater emphasis on swinging improvisation and the arrangements by Henderson and Don Redman codified the roles of the sections within the ensemble to replace the collective improvisation of early jazz groups. Nearly all big bands subsequently followed their example. A poor businessman, he was forced to dissolve his band several times, but his arrangements played a key role in the success of Benny Goodman in the late 1930s and provided a template for much of the music of the swing era. For a detailed biography, click here.
Duke Ellington (April 29, 1899 - May 24, 1974) - One of the most influential individuals in jazz history, Ellington’s professional career began when he was 17, and by 1923 he was leading a small group of musicians at the Kentucky Club at New York City who became the core of his big band. Ellington is credited with being one of the founders of big band jazz. He used his band as an instrument for composition and orchestration to create big band pieces, film scores, operas, ballets, Broadway shows and religious music. Ellington was responsible for more than 1,000 musical pieces. He drew together instruments from different sections of the orchestra to develop unique and haunting sounds such as that of his famous “Mood Indigo.” For a detailed biography, click here.
Coleman Hawkins (November 21, 1904 – May 19, 1969) - With his unique, raspy tone, and his command of harmonically detailed improvisation, Coleman Hawkins became the preeminent tenor saxophonist in swing music. Coming to prominence as a member of Fletcher Henderson's big band, Hawkins absorbed the style of Louis Armstrong and developed the smooth legato phrasing and robust tone that set the technical standard for all tenor sax players. He worked in Europe and soon after his return recorded “Body and Soul”, which became a commercial success and one of the masterpieces of improvised jazz. Hawkins was the first important tenor saxophone soloist in jazz. He was receptive to the harmonic advances made by younger players, who widely acknowledged his influence. Hawkins’ influence lasted throughout the advent of bebop and later styles, as instrumentalists attempted to reach for his level of harmonic sophistication and virtuosity. For a detailed biography, click here.
Count Basie (August 21, 1904 – April 26, 1984) - In his monumental second volume on the history of jazz, The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller delays his attempt to define swing until, some two hundred pages into the book, he introduces Count Basie in a section titled "The Quintessence of Swing." Schuller states: "That the Basie band has been from its inception a master of swing could hardly be disputed…. For over forty years [Basie] has upheld a particular concept and style of jazz deeply rooted in the Southwest and Kansas City in particular. It draws its aesthetic sustenance from the blues, uses the riff as its major rhetorical and structural device, all set in the language and grammar of swing." Indeed, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, the "All-American Rhythm Section" combined with leader and pianist Count Basie to propel Basie’s band from relative obscurity in a Kansas City nightclub to world renown as the leading purveyor of swing. The Basie band originated an infectious pulse whose essence was a clean, unified, four-beats-to-the-bar swing. For a detailed biography, click here.
Johnny Hodges (July 25, 1906 - May 11, 1970) - One of the greatest alto-saxophone stylists in jazz, Johnny Hodges was encouraged and influenced by Sidney Bechet in the mid-1920s. When he joined Duke Ellington's orchestra in 1928, he quickly became one of the most important solo stars in the band and a real pacesetter on the alto sax. Although Hodges could stomp with the best swing players and was masterful on the blues, his luscious playing on ballads has never been topped. Featured on a countless number of performances, Hodges was an indispensable member of Ellington's orchestra in the 1930s and 1940s. The playing style of Johnny Hodges was unchanging and always managed to sound fresh. For a detailed biography, click here.
Art Tatum (October 13, 1909 – November 5, 1956) - Much about the life of legendary pianist Art Tatum remains ambiguous: his birth date; the cause of his blindness; the musicality of his parents; his exact niche as a musician; his association with classical musicians; and his ability to play as a group member. However, upon listening to the recorded artistry of this genius, it seems clear that his immense talent has made him one of the greatest pianists ever heard. Virtually every jazz pianist active today, whether knowingly or innocently, owes some debt to Tatum who, in the 1930s, transformed jazz piano’s lexicon for all time. Indeed, major players of other instruments trace their development to having listened to the new concepts Tatum brought to the keyboard. Jazz critic/writer/producer Leonard Feather has called Tatum "the greatest soloist in jazz history, regardless of instrument." For a detailed biography, click here.
Ben Webster (March 27, 1909 – September 20, 1973) - Along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, Ben Webster was one of the three titans of the tenor saxophone during the swing era. His sound could be growling and rough on up-tempo tunes, or graceful and sensitive on ballads. His best known for his time spent in Duke Ellington’s band, in which he was the leading tenor soloist for about eight years, from 1935 to 1943. He recorded a version of “Cotton Tail” that is regarded as one of the gems from that period. Webster spent the last decade of his life and career as a jazz celebrity in Copenhagen, Denmark. His sensual, breathy tone and wide vibrato were his trademarks, and he became one of the master interpreters of jazz ballads. For a detailed biography, click here.
Benny Goodman (May 30, 1909 – June 13, 1986) - Goodman was a jazz clarinetist and leader of the most popular band of the swing era. He formed a big band in 1934, using arrangements by Fletcher Henderson. The band's sensational broadcast from Los Angeles's Palomar Ballroom in 1935 is seen as the beginning of the swing era. Goodman's band featured trumpeters Bunny Berigan, Ziggy Elman, and Harry James and drummer Gene Krupa, all of whom would establish big bands of their own. Goodman's small group was among the first racially integrated ensembles known to a wide public. Goodman was also a noted classical clarinetist who championed 20th-century music. His virtuosity and immense popularity earned him the sobriquet “King of Swing.” For a detailed biography, click here.
Lester Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959) - With his horn up and out at a 45-degree angle, Lester Young’s presence on the bandstand was striking. Six feet tall with green eyes and reddish hair, Young was the archetypal hipster, wearing flashy double-breasted suits and pork-pie hats. His phrases, both in words and music, became legendary among other musicians. With the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s, Young defined the ideal for solo improvisations. In the 1950s, he associated with the bebop innovators, such as alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, but he remained singular, a bridge between the hot jazz and the cool. Critic John Hammond, writing for Down Beat magazine in 1937, called Young "without a doubt the greatest tenor player in the country … the most original and inventive saxophonist I have ever heard." For a detailed biography, click here.
Roy Eldridge (January 30, 1911 – February 26, 1989) - One of the most exciting trumpeters to emerge during the swing era, Roy Eldridge's combative approach, chance-taking style and strong musicianship were an inspiration (and an influence) to the next musical generation. He was influenced by saxophonists such as Coleman Hawkins and developed a fast, nimble technique matched with harmonic sophistication. He played with Fletcher Henderson and was featured with the big bands of Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw in the 1940s. His sophisticated use of harmony, including the use of tritone substitutions, his virtuosic solos exhibiting a departure from the smooth and lyrical style of earlier jazz trumpet innovator Louis Armstrong, and his strong impact on Dizzy Gillespie mark him as one of the most influential musicians of the swing era and a precursor of bebop. For a detailed biography, click here.
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