Swingin’ in the 1930’s:
A decade innovative music
Towards the beginning of the 1930’s, the nation was grasped by the effects of a Great Depression. The economy was on hold, but the music was not. As the 1930’s began to take shape, they gave birth to a new era of music. The melancholy sound of the early years of the Depression had left people in search of something revitalizing.
Around 1931, the Black bands, led by such greats as Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, began to develop the Swing style which would not formally appear for another two years. Simply put, they began to change the make-up of the band, and the time of the pieces. For example, Ellington and Henderson were both responsible for transforming the rhythm section (piano, bass, drums, guitar). Until then, the rhythm section consisted of a piano, tuba, banjo, and drums. Ellington and Henderson took out the tuba and banjo and added a string base to the ensemble. With later advances in technology, the guitar was added to replace the banjo. In regards to time, the two leaders evened things out by taking the “march” time of 2/4 and added a more laid back, steady 4/4 time. (Erenberg, 29)
meter (time), the role of the bandleader himself became the foundation for
which he would select his ensemble. As with all bands, orchestras, and chamber ensembles, a conductor is always a necessary commodity. The “big bands” as the swinging bands were named, were previously led by a “conductor” of sorts. Taking a step towards the age of swing, the bandleaders became known for their instrumental abilities, as well as their conducting. In fact, groups began to be formed around the bandleader’s instrument. The bandleader became the most important aspect of the new big bands; however, the sidemen were of great value as well. Among the most famous swing songs ever written, is Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” which features two alto sax and two tenor sax solos by two of his sidemen. Without these soloists [sidemen], the Glenn Miller Orchestra would not have had the same success with “In the Mood.” (Simon, 4, 11)
Swing attracted the youth with it’s lively beats and it offerings of visions of freedom. Another large contributor to the attraction of the youth, was swing’s ability to make them dance. Such dances as the Charleston, Jitterbug, Lindy Hop, Shag, and Shim Sham filled the young people with the greatest feeling of “well-being.” All of the sudden, young people had a fun and safe thing to do that helped to integrate different ethnicities. On a side note, the dancing that attracted the masses, was frowned upon by such leaders as
Behind all major movements, there is a certain ideology. The ideology of swing was based on a yearn for “exceptionalism”, “ethnic pluralism”, and “democratic equality.” Many of the young people who took up the swing religion, completely ignored ethnic boundaries. Many dancers were white and many were black. Swing helped to create an acceptability amongst African-Americans, whites, and Spanish-Americans. This idea behind swing brought about such a response, that by 1940, many had attributed swing as being “America’s most distinctive contribution to the world’s musical culture.” However, this swing ideology took a dive at the sight of World War II. (Stowe, 142-143)
In Germany during the 1930’s, the radio was among the most useful ways to spread Nazi propaganda. However, even the Germans got tired of hearing the same mono-tonic propaganda over the waves all the time. Joseph Goebbels, German minister of propaganda at the time, announced that air waves used only for entertainment would be acceptable. Of course, the ethnic acceptability that swing brought with it remained the “antithesis” (conflict) of the Reich. When the war finally came to life, the German policy towards swing
would gain supporters. They actually took certain swing pieces and changed the lyrics to accommodate both the mass of swingers and the Nazi propaganda. Anti-Semitic slurs were not uncommon among these new lyrics. (Bergmeier and Lotz, 136, 144)
was clarinetist Benny Goodman. He is often referred to as the “Pied Piper of Swing.” He got his start in the jazz scene in 1926, and in 1934 he formed a band of his own. Among his many works during his career included his swing show “Let’s Dance” on NBC in 1935. Benny Goodman would later go on to achieve huge success with his swing-defining, “Sing, Sing, Sing.” As did most of the bandleaders of the swing era, Benny Goodman helped to jumpstart certain careers. One of them was that of the late Glenn Miller. (DBJ, Benny Goodman)
Perhaps among the most famous band leaders of the swing era, was Glenn Miller. A dedicated trombonist, Miller traveled with many orchestras and landed a job with Ben Pollack, who had also recruited Benny Goodman. Miller played with both Pollack and Goodman, later moving to New York to play with the Dorsey Brothers. In 1934, Glenn Miller became the musical director for the
Dorsey Band. It would not be until 1937, however, that Miller put together his
own band. This first “Glenn Miller Orchestra” disbanded early on, only to be replaced by the second orchestra. It was with this second Glenn Miller Orchestra that in 1939, Glenn Miller struck gold with the sounds of “Tuxedo Junction,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” and the infamous “In the Mood.” (Glenn Miller Orchestra, 1-2)
In all of Glenn Miller’s success, we cannot help but remember the great
Tommy Dorsey, with whom Miller made many recordings. Tommy Dorsey, like
Miller, was a trombonist, and also played trumpet. Early on in his career, Tommy, with his brother Jimmy, held the dancers with captivating music at every performance. While the brothers were still playing in their big band, Tommy Dorsey gained large success as a soloist on trombone. In 1935, the two broke up and Tommy proceeded to build his own career even further. In the latter part of the 30’s and early 40’s, Tommy Dorsey would harness one of America’s all-time favorite singers, Frank Sinatra. With Dorsey’s swing, and Sinatra’s “sing”, the Dorsey band achieved enormous fame. (DBJ, Tommy Dorsey; Dorsey)
Among the last of the great bandleaders of the 1930’s, was Count Basie . Born in Redbank, New Jersey, he began is musical career on the piano. His first job was in the vaudeville circuit. After leaving Jersey for Kansas, Basie landed a gig in the Reno club in 1936. Basie and his orchestra were picked up
Kansas City that Basie signed a contract with Decca Records. From then on, Count Basie would lead two orchestras in his time, pumping out the swing to keep the masses in gear. Among his more notable pieces were “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside”, recorded between 1937 and 1939. (DBJ, Count Basie)
the hearts of those devoted to the art of swing. Their significance in the swing scene is seen in the history books. The 1930’s surely saw music in a different light, and every band had their own way of swinging.
In summation, swing was an innovative turn in the world that forever changed music. Of all the innovations, inventions, and good ideas that came out of the 1930’s, swing is on top. It was a lively pastime, that brought people out of the depression and onto the dance floor. Those who adopted it, did so with full force, and let it become a religion. Those who played it, loved their work and continue to pass it on. In the words of the great Duke Ellington,
“It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing!”
Dorsey, Tommy. Boogie Woogie (CD), liner notes. Intersound Records, 1996.
Downbeat Jazz (DBJ): Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie. Online.
Glenn Miller. Glenn Miller Orchestra. Online.