The Big Band era began in the mid-1920s when dance bands started playing orchestrated jazz. Until then jazz had been like the blues, not written in notation and based on musical improvisation. Big bands broke the mould and played music prepared in advance and notated on sheet music. This allowed a wider range of organised sound and many big bands consisted of up to 19 musicians, playing saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a rhythm section. The first phase of swing came just before the war and was based on a white jazz played by orthodox musicians. Whilst black orchestras started the movement back in the 20s this had been tempered for white audiences. Fletcher Henderson was keen to experiment with the new musical form and arranged his music in the style now described as "big band." He reintroduced improvised soloing and gave back the rhythm driven quality of original "jazz," to the genre.
Musical techniques now included playing sections of music against one another in counterpoint or musical dialogue. This was mixed with reiterating one particular phrase of music (a process called riffing) and the melodies, rhythms, and even the lyrics were often improvised by the musicians and vocalists. As happened a decade later with rock’n’roll, the original black artists were totally eclipsed by their white contemporaries as big bands led by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey took centre stage.
Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were the star clarinetists of the era and divided swing fans into rival factions of those who loved one or the other. Benny Goodman played popular tunes which got the crowd on their feet; Artie Shaw was the musician’s musician who preferred to play music that people listened to. Artie Shaw’s version of Cole Porter’s, Begin the Beguine is considered by many musicologists to be the greatest pop song ever recorded.
Not only does it feature Artie Shaw’s sublime solo it is combined with a crisp call and response between the reeds and horns in the band making it a superb example of swing. Ironically the record company did not think much to it and released it as a B side to Indian Love call. Fortunately US DJs soon found out which was the real musical gem and gave Artie a massive hit.
Benny “The Professor” Goodman, was hailed the "King of Swing", "Patriarch of the Clarinet", and "Swing's Senior Statesman" who had established himself as a very successful session musician by the late 20s. After the war as music tastes changed, Benny was able to cope with emerging Be Bop and Cool jazz styles whereas Artie found it impossible and by the fifties was almost unknown.
Thomas Francis Dorsey Jnr was trombonist who played for a short time with his brother Jimmy in the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Constant bickering meant the siblings soon parted and became rivals. Whilst both bands enjoyed great popularity during the war years Tommy's orchestra was more successful. Much of this success was attributed to Tommy Dorsey’s adaptation of Fletcher Henderson’s original orchestral arrangements. Something which he publicly acknowledged and by doing so was instrumental in introduced many white big band fans to the original black jazz orchestras.
Two other popular big band stars of the war years were Woody Herman and Glen Miller. By the end of the Second World War, Swing had lost a lot of its popularity and there may well have been several factors which contributed to this.
In 1941 the American Society of Authors, Publishers, and Composers (ASCAP) were in dispute with the Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) and wanted money from the radio networks to use their member's songs. A standoff resulted and for almost a year ASCAP songs were banned from airplay and or remote usage. In addition networks imposed a "no ad-libbing" clause on all live broadcast performances. This meant solos required prior approval before broadcast which effectively removed improvisation which was key feature of the new Swing. Further industrial action took place between 1942 and 1944 and again in 1948 when strikes ensued. Singers were less affected than musicians and many of the big band singers became popular through the medium of records, radio and film during this time. The availability of a reliable microphone meant softer baritones and middle range voices could be heard at live performances. The big band era developed the genre of "pop standards" and big band singers like Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Shore became huge stars.
Baritones sang with conversational ease and the style became known as crooning, or singing in American. Rudy Vallee started the movement when he traded a megaphone for the more sensitive microphone.
Rudy Vallee style of crooning was emulated by singers like, Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Steve Lawrence, and Jack Jones.
The Neapolitan School of crooning came as a fusion between Al Jolson and Carlo Buti's styles of singing with Russ Columbo (The Romeo of radio), as its leading force. His voice was used to overdub the singing voices of non-singing movie stars such as Gary Cooper and Lewis Stone and this brought his singing to millions long before he was known as a recording artist. His first hit was "You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)" (1931) and his personal performances were all the more memorable because as a bella figure he dressed immaculately in a spotless white suit (like George Raft). Sadly Russ died in his mid twenties but the Columbo’s family of crooners included Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Dean Martin, and Elvis Presley.
Bing Crosby was voted the most popular man in the world by American GIs and was credited as doing more to keep their moral high than any other living person.
A third form of crooning called Cool School was deriving from the harsher toned ancestry of early Louis Armstrong to culminate in smooth and relaxed delivery epitomised by Nat King Cole. He established a style which others like Mel Torme, Johnny Ray, Johnny Mathis, Frankie Laine, and Tony Bennett, among many other all followed.
Worth a listen
Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra
Down South Camp Meetin’ (1934)
Tommy Dorsey /The Sentimentalists (vocalists)
On the Sunny side of the street (1945)
Begin the beguine Artie Shaw (1938)
Benny Goodman Orchestra
Why don’t you do it right Benny Goodman Orchestra (1942)
At the woodchoppers’ ball Woody Herman (1939)
(Major) Glenn Miller and the American Band of the AEF
In the Mood
Keep cool fool (1941)
Have I stayed away too long
Don’t fence me in (1945)
You call it madness (but I call it love) (1931)
As time goes by (1931)