The Great Big Bands And Their Leaders
Big bands dominated American music throughout much of the early and mid-twentieth century. They played jazz, swing, and the popular tunes of the day, appearing on stage, on the radio, and in films. Their leaders often became celebrities, and these bands frequently fostered and introduced to the world some of our most beloved entertainers. This guide is an introduction to the great big bands, their music, and the CDs and movies with which you can enjoy them.
Paul Whiteman, "The King of Jazz," had the premier band in the country during the 1920s. Everyone who was anyone at that time played for him. Famous jazz musicians associated with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra include Bix Biederbecke, Joe Venuti, Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, Eddie Lang, Frankie Trumbauer, and Tommy Dorsey. A piano-and-singing group called the Rhythm Boys were part of Whiteman's orchestra between 1926 and 1930. This trio was comprised of Harry Barris, Al Rinker, and the young Bing Crosby. Crosby, of course, would go on to become the most prolific and successful singer of the century. To learn more about his music and films, click on the link to read my guide It's a Bing Crosby World!
Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to write Rhapsody in Blue, and his orchestra debuted that famous piece in 1924 with Gershwin on piano. The Rhythm Boys' most popular song was "Mississippi Mud," written by Harry Barris and James Cavanaugh. Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra starred in the 1930 Technicolor motion picture King of Jazz.
Recommended Paul Whiteman CD: Bix 'n' Bing.
Born in New Orleans, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong was a trumpeter and singer who played cornet with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band before starting his own band, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five (later Hot Seven) in 1925. Three years later he formed Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra; that band was one of the most popular jazz bands through the 1940s. While many trumpeters have tried to imitate Satchmo, few have succeeded in even approximating his unique sound. Armstrong is truly a jazz icon.
Some of Armstrong's early hits are "St. Louis Blues," "Heebie Jeebies," "Stardust," and "Ain't Misbehavin.'" Pops, as Armstrong was also known, is credited with popularizing scat singing. After the big-band era came to a close, his fame continued and grew. Later hits by Armstrong include "What a Wonderful World," "Mack the Knife" (from Three Penny Opera), "When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)," and "Blueberry Hill." He also appeared in many films, notably Pennies From Heaven (1936), High Society (1956), and Hello, Dolly! (1969).
Gifted clarinetist Benny Goodman was the "King of Swing," a sobriquet given him by his drummer, Gene Krupa. Goodman's orchestra was crucial in spreading swing music across the country. They achieved great success playing at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles while on tour in 1935 and rocketed to fame, becoming the first jazz band to play a concert in Carnegie Hall. Goodman's style of music was new and exciting, and his orchestra included many musicians who would eventually start their own bands, such as Krupa, Harry James, and Lionel Hampton.
Benny Goodman's opening theme song was "Let's Dance." He closed performances with "Goodbye." Other notable songs recorded by Goodman are "King Porter Stomp," "Down South Camp Meeting," "Bugle Call Rag," "One O'Clock Jump," "Stompin' at the Savoy," "And the Angels Sing," "Roll 'Em," "Goody Goody," "Sometimes I'm Happy," "Moonglow," and "Sing, Sing, Sing."
Recommended Benny Goodman CDs: Benny Goodman Swingsation, Beny Goodman and His Orchestra Sing, Sing, Sing (Bluebird), and The Very Best of Benny Goodman.
During his time playing with the Ben Pollack Orchestra, Benny Goodman's roommate was trombonist and arranger Glenn Miller. Miller started his first successful band in 1938. Playing on radio broadcasts the following year gained the band national acclaim. In 1942, despite having the most popular band in the country, Miller decided his talents could best help the servicemen by improving morale and modernizing military music. He volunteered and became a captain in the Army Specialists Corps. Miller was transferred to the Army Air Corps and organized the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band, which entertained hundreds of thousands of troops in live performances and on radio broadcasts at home and in England. In December 1944, the airplane transporting Miller to Paris where he was to make preparations for a Christmas concert disappeared and was never found.
When many people think of the music of WWII, the songs which come to mind are those of Glenn Miller. The sound of Miller's music is always distinctive. His theme was "Moonlight Serenade;" his other famous songs include "In the Mood," "Tuxedo Junction," "Little Brown Jug," "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," "A String of Pearls," "Pennsylvania 6-5000," "American Patrol," "(I've Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo," and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)." An excellent biopic, The Glenn Miller Story (1953), stars Jimmy Stewart in the title role and June Allyson as Miller's wife.
Tommy Dorsey was "The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing," whose theme song was appropriately "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." He and his older brother Jimmy, a saxophonist, both played in several popular bands, including Whiteman's, before forming their own in 1934. The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, which included Bob Crosby (Bing's younger brother), didn't last long, though, on account of arguments between Tommy and Jimmy. Tommy was known for being rather temperamental. After the split, he started his own band and had great success. (Jimmy also had a band.) Famous members of Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra include Frank Sinatra, Bunny Berigan, Sy Oliver, and Nelson Riddle. Sinatra developed his skill by trying to sing the way Dorsey played trombone. The Dorsey brothers reunited as a band in 1953.
Tommy Dorsey's smooth playing style and exemplary range made him one of the best jazz trombonists. His band was also noted for exciting, energetic swing. Some of the many hits by Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra include "T.D.'s Boogie Woogie," "Opus One," "Opus Number Two," "Liza Jane," "Goofus," "Trombonology," "Marie," "Don't Take Your Love From Me," "Indian Summer," "The Song Is You," and "I'm in the Mood for Love." Tommy Dorsey is featured in several films, including the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney musical Girl Crazy (1943), Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), and The Fabulous Dorseys (1947), in which Tommy and Jimmy play themselves in their own biopic.
Recommended Jimmy Dorsey CD: Dixie By Dorsey/Dorseyland Dance Parade.
Artie Shaw began playing the clarinet as a teenager. He was influenced by Louis Armstrong and travelled to Chicago in the late 1920s to hear Satchmo perform. Several times throughout his career, Shaw retired from performance and pursued other interests, including writing, but when he and his orchestra were playing, they were one of the most popular and profitable outfits in the country. Shaw was a perfectionist, and he liked to experiment with new sounds for his band. He made history in 1938 as the first white bandleader to hire an African-American female singer as a full-time band member. She was Billie Holiday. Shaw joined the military during the war. He and his band enlisted in the Navy and entertained troops in the Pacific.
Both great clarinetists, Shaw and Goodman have two different sounds. Goodman's playing is rich and darker, while Shaw tends to play in higher registers with his amazing range and has a brighter timbre. Artie Shaw's theme song was "Nightmare," but he is better known for such hits as "Begin the Beguine," "Frenesi," "Summertime," "Stardust," "Concerto for Clarinet," "Deep Purple," "Moonglow," "I Cover the Waterfront," "To a Broadway Rose," "The Continental," and "I Get a Kick Out of You." Shaw has a prominent role playing himself in the Fred Astaire musical Second Chorus (1940).
Harry James began playing the trumpet as a child in a circus band; his parents were both circus performers. Later, he played for Ben Pollack before joining Benny Goodman's Orchestra for about three years. James enjoyed great success with Goodman. He is featured prominently on many of the band's most popular recordings, especially "Sing, Sing, Sing." At age 23, James left Goodman to start his own band. Although Sinatra is most remembered as being associated with Tommy Dorsey in the early years of his career, Sinatra was actually discovered by Harry James in 1939. He spent about a year with James' band before signing with Dorsey. James later had Dick Haymes sing with his band, as well as Helen Forrest and Kitty Kallen.
James was a remarkable trumpeter by any standards. He could play classical and jazz with equal facility and had fantastic technique. His sound on the trumpet and distinctive flair make his playing instantly recognizable. Some of his best recordings are "You Made Me Love You," "I've Heard That Song Before," "The Flight of the Bumble Bee," "James Session," "I'll Get By," "All Or Nothing At All" with Sinatra, "Sleepy Lagoon," and James' theme song, "Ciribiribin."
You'll hear Harry James' music in the Woody Allen movies Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Radio Days (1987).
Recommended Harry James CD: Harry James & His Orchestra: I've Heard That Song Before.
Whiteman, Armstrong, Goodman, Miller, Dorsey, Shaw, and James are the hallmarks of big band music. They are the best of the best from an era that featured many amazing musicians, and listening to their recordings is an excellent way to familiarize yourself with this musical genre. I hope you enjoyed this guide and have fun exploring big band music. Thanks for reading!