Big Band Jazz and Its History

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Jazz has been a genre of music that stretches past racial boundaries, generational separation and societal norms. The barriers of race were broken down with the newfound expression of jazz in the early 1900s. Jazz has a breadth of emotional meaning that resonated with multiple ethnic groups aside from African Americans. In Europe, jazz was seen as a form of musical liberation. Jazz reflected that African Americans had created a music which was a profound, timely, reflection of the nation and it could attract both white and black Americans; to both play and listen to it for similar reasons. Jazz created a common cultural ground for Americans of all racial backgrounds. Jazz musicians would often perform in the same cities, to the same crowds, at the same times with the only difference proving to be their different styles, still showing the collision of the divergent cultures. Because of the flexibility of the genre, jazz blossomed into many subgenres; one of which was big band jazz. It was in this subgenre that we were able to see many phenomenal musicians and groups come to light and entertain American audiences from multiple generations. Not only that, but big band jazz also evolved in and of itself. Big band jazz was received by the listener in whichever way best conformed to the culture at the time, resulting in a tangible evolution of the genre.

Historically, the origins of jazz can be traced to the soulful, ritualistic music carried by slaves from Africa. When African slaves were thrust into American and European culture, they adapted their own culture to the English language and also to European musical instruments. They also maintained an ethnic viewpoint that was in many cases, transmitted via their music. An early example of a successful jazz musician was Ferdinand Joseph LeMott, who is better known as ‘Jelly Roll Morton’. Morton was born to a Creole family in New Orleans in 1890 and he showed a talent for performing music as a child and later became a professional piano player at 14. Morton began his career playing ragtime, and jazz emerged from ragtime and other musical influences such as blues. Morton liked to introduce himself by saying he invented jazz, and this may be the earliest claim of credit. He published ‘Jelly Roll Blues’ in 1915, and this is thought to be the earliest example of jazz sheet music. To most popular musicians during the 1920s, however, “the epitome of musical sophistication was not the New Orleans jazz of Jelly Roll Morton, but the quasi-symphonic 'sweet' jazz of Paul Whiteman. Whiteman's big band performed at concerts as well as dances. Its audience was almost exclusively white and middle class” (Teachout, 69). However, the reception of jazz was still clouded by racism in the United States. But that did not stop white Americans from enjoying an ‘African American sound’. However, despite its African origins, according to William Youngren, a distinct, significant, and creative white presence had existed in jazz from its first days. One of the most recognized examples of white Americans in the world of jazz would come to be the Original Dixieland Jazz Band – “white musicians playing the tunes and arrangements of black musicians” (Wyeth). On February 26, 1917, they released the first ever jazz record ‘Livery Stable Blues’ (Hall). This day marks the beginning of the ‘Jazz Age’; but this is a problematic first as it is a recording of a white band performing an African American music genre. Unfortunately, jazz rushed into the American mainstream without one black face because of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s newfound success (Baraka, 100). The release of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s records strongly influenced both black and white bands alike in the realm of both jazz and blues. Despite the fact that they hadn’t invented anything, their recordings sold over a million copies and introduced jazz to all of America as well as to the world (Wyeth). The unfortunate truth about how jazz became popular in American culture, is that if not made popular by white musicians, I do not believe jazz would have made it far in popularity with the American culture of the early 20th century. By favor being shown to white musicians back at that time, a larger demographic was exposed to an African American music. The racism of the past allowed those deserving to stand the test of time and have their music recognized and be what comes to mind when one thinks of jazz. There is a reason that the names Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and other African American musicians are recognized still today when we think of jazz. The rise of jazz in the 1920s would evolve into bigger bands meant to entertain.

In the 1920s, the music of jazz began to evolve into bigger band formats combining the elements of ragtime, black spirituals, blues, and European music. During the 1920s, while traveling musicians were spreading big band jazz, hotel dance bands and resident dance hall bands were also playing a role in the evolution of the big band era. Paul Whiteman, The California Ramblers, Ted Lewis, Jean Goldkette, and Vincent Lopez were a few of the successful hotel dance bandleaders of the 1920s. They made their money playing for ballroom dance crowds (Wyeth). However, despite the initial jazz craze, it was “stifled by the Great Depression. As the market for music of all kinds shrank, radio and phonograph executives shied away from jazz in favor of blander, safer forms of popular music” (Teachout, 70). But the Great Depression was not enough to stifle the jazz revolution. Large groups of jazz musicians began to play together, forming the big band jazz that became so popular in the 1930s and early 1940s. Big bands also evolved with the times. A big band typically consisted of approximately twelve to twenty-five musicians and contained saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a rhythm section. In its origins, big band jazz was quite structured and involved very little improvisation; that all changed with the introduction of swing music beginning in the 1930s. There was little following of swing and big band until 1936 when big bands began to play “a major role in defining swing as a distinctive style” (‘Listen Up! History of the Big Band’). It had evolved naturally from the blues and jazz of New Orleans, Chicago and Kansas City. What was interesting, was that different groups within big band jazz found their own individual variations and styles within swing, and in turn, those jazz groups followed a different recipe for success. For example, “Count Basie played a relaxed, propulsive swing, Bob Crosby more of a Dixieland style, Benny Goodman a hard driving swing, and Duke Ellington’s compositions were varied and sophisticated. The popularity of many of the major bands was amplified by star vocalists, such as Frank Sinatra” (‘Listen Up! History of the Big Band’). Even though there were many successful big band jazz groups and musicians, the driving success of the genre is credited to Duke Ellington and his revolutionary song, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’. As the mainstream jazz orchestras increased in size, the arrangements became more structured to avoid mass confusion for both the musicians as well as the listeners. Thus, the arranger became the focal point of the band. To still keep the mystic of the unconventional in the genre, improvisation during solos were written into the arrangements, but their location and duration were often controlled. For a better listening experience, “the big band sounds of the Dorsey Brothers, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, the Casa Loma Orchestra, and Duke Ellington’s orchestra … were all carefully arranged and the easy flowing style of the evolving jazz was becoming known as ‘swing’” (Wyeth). Swing soon became synonymous for music played with a happy, relaxed beat. Thus, the swing era was born.

The big band era of jazz is said to have started between 1935 and 1945. It was the only time in American musical history that the popularity of jazz outshone all other forms of music. And, “to many, the appearance of Benny Goodman and his big band at the Palomar in Los Angeles in August of 1935 was the start of the swing era” (Wyeth). As the new swing style emerged in the mid-1930s it took the country by storm, the popularity of swing increased as people invented new dances to complement its driving rhythm. The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem opened its doors in 1926 and for the next 20 years it became a hotbed for swing bands (‘Listen Up! History of the Big Band’). It was at the Savoy that a dance style called the ‘Lindy Hop’ was invented and refined. Through the press, recordings, and live radio remote broadcasts that the American public was introduced to the new music, and the dance craze took off.

At the same time that the American people embraced jazz and were still in the dance craze, the technological phenomenon of radio was also becoming a very popular way to listen to the evolving musical style. The radio became a common household appliance in the 1930s. By 1935, the number of American homes with radios was estimated at 23 million; which created an audience of approximately 91 million people (‘Listen Up! History of the Big Band’). This became known as the ‘Golden Age of Radio’. Studio musicians made their money as background instrumentalists for shows and commercials, but they also had Music Radio Shows be successful. Before 1934, dance and ‘sweet’ bands such as jazz still dominated the airwaves. Benny Goodman’s ‘Let’s Dance’ broadcasts, which aired regularly in 1934, were one of the first such weekly live radio broadcasts of hot jazz to be aired by a national radio network on a regular basis” (‘Listen Up! History of the Big Band’). Given the economic conditions of the time, it may be surprising to learn that during this period, advances in recording technology changed the way Americans could hear recorded music and radio broadcasts.

What also changed the frequency and method of listening to your newfound favorite dance music was the invention of the jukebox. The jukebox changed the face of popular music by making new songs available to all and often before the music was available for purchase. Swing was still the music of choice. The jukebox simply made it “readily available in speakeasies, dance spots, ice cream parlors and even drugstores” (‘Listen Up! History of the Big Band’). The record companies of the time, worried that the new device would cut into record sales, but it was actually the opposite. Exposure to the new music made it more desirable and that in turn increased record sales. Swing music was everywhere.

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Even though the new jukebox technology allowed for more people to fall in love with jazz, another major force would come into play and shake its foundation: World War II. The entire country was at war and needed the upbeat sounds associated that of the big bands. Unfortunately for the listeners of jazz, big bands were also affected by the war. Times were hard: rubber and gasoline rationing made it difficult for bands to travel. Curfews, blackouts and a 20% live entertainment tax (‘cabaret tax’) had a serious impact on live music, closing clubs and dance halls across the country (‘Listen Up! History of the Big Band’). But big bands still played a major role in lifting morale during World War II. Many band members served in the military and toured with USO troupes at the front, with even the famed band leader Glenn Miller losing his life while traveling between troop shows (‘Listen Up! History of the Big Band’). Many bands suffered from the loss of personnel and quality of bands declined at home during the war years. In this time of strife, the musical landscape of America also changed. The famous ‘sweet sound’ of the World War II-era big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, and Glenn Miller had competition: the new sound of bebop (Teachout, 72). By the end of the war, swing was waning. Many of the great swing bands broke up, as the times and tastes changed, and the ballrooms and big dance halls that had closed stayed closed. “It was 1945 and the decline of the big bands had begun. The big band movement collapsed in 1946” (Teachout, 72).

Despite the end of an era, there were those timeless musicians who still had a few tricks up their sleeves. One of jazz’s largest influences was none other than Duke Ellington, and it was Duke Ellington who showed that the listener’s culture didn’t have define the music you play. Ellington set out to define himself. Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington was born in Washington D.C. in April of 1899 with two pianists as parents. At age seven he began taking piano lessons to learn how to play the piano for himself. He developed grace and ‘pizzazz’ as a child “with his mother reinforcing his manners by surrounding him with dignified women” (Mae). This charisma is what earned him his famous name Duke. Ellington wrote his first musical composition in 1914 while he was working as a soda clerk, but what is amazing is that “even though he had been taking lessons since age seven he still couldn’t read or write music. Therefore, he composed the piece by ear calling it ‘Soda Fountain Rag’” (Mae). He buckled down and was more determined to learn how to read sheet music after sneaking into “Frank Holiday’s Poolroom as a teenager and being enchanted by the pianists there” (Mae). During this time Duke’s passion for music had grown so strong that he dropped out of high school, just three months before graduation. He even turned down a scholarship offer. Thus, he set forth on his own path of jazz.

As Ellington practiced and improved, he also built up more of a reputation. He went on to sew his roots in the very competitive Harlem, New York music scene. By this time, he had already formed his own group and he served as their booking agent setting up paid gigs. In 1927, Ellington and his band were booked at Harlem’s exclusive Cotton Club. There was also a weekly radio broadcast there which also gave him national exposure. This was in addition to the white and wealthy audiences who came nightly to witness them perform. “They had a versatile and lucrative experience playing for both White and Black audiences” (Teachout, 70). This exposure was very rare in the era of segregation, and it was a big milestone. Nonetheless, “The first important step toward recognition in the United States came, ironically, with the resurgence of jazz as a truly popular music” (Teachout, 70). As these strides were taking place, Ellington continued to gain national recognition, compose original pieces, and add members to his band. At that time, popular music was dance music; music that could be easily followed and danced too. Bubbly music to help set the tone of a fun, good time. But Ellington, a man of ‘exceptional sensitivity and imagination’, was determined to turn the dance band into a medium for serious musical expression (Teachout, 70). As the leader of the house band at Harlem's storied Cotton Club, he began to write and record such now-famous original works as 'Mood Indigo' and 'Creole Rhapsody'. The recordings attracted the attention of European commentators (Teachout, 70). Also, during this period, Duke Ellington released timeless compositions still recognized today. One piece was ‘It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)’ (1932). This piece was the “unofficial theme of the 1930s the big band era and the first jazz composition to use the word 'swing' in its title” (George, 20). There was also ‘Take the 'A' Train’ (1941) by Billy Strayhorn. Even though it was not composed by Duke Ellington, this “became the new theme song for his band, replacing ‘Toodle-O’ (George 20). It became the band's signature tune and the most immediately recognizable theme song in the jazz literature. The title comes from the 'A' train subway that ran through Manhattan to Harlem (George, 20). Ellington continued to gain national recognition, composing original pieces, and adding more members to his band. Ellington eventually went on tour in England, Scotland, and the European mainland, as did Louis Armstrong and several other important performers. They were stunned to find there was a small, but passionate, community of jazz fans overseas - and an absence of the racial prejudice that “burdened the black jazz musician's life in America” (Teachout, 70), where black bands were not permitted in many white-owned nightclubs and concert halls. European acclaim convinced many American jazzmen that their work merited serious consideration as an artful music. Ellington toured once again to Europe in 1939, with packed houses and enthusiasm and respect for him and his band members as artists; “only the threat of war cut the tour short” (George, 16).

Duke Ellington’s career did not stop there. Despite the end of the big band era in 1946, Ellington came back swinging (pun intended) in the 1950s. In the 1940s and 1950s, jazz began to lose its reputation as a ‘lowdown music’ and gained acceptance among intellectuals. Instead of the jazz jukebox of the past, jazz concerts became quite popular. As jazz evolved and expanded in new directions, major band performances occurred from the 1950s to the 1970s, though not as often as previously held. Duke Ellington and other big band leaders gave many concerts, and a group of improvising musicians made a series of nationwide tours called Jazz at the Philharmonic. In the 1950s, with changes in political and musical climates, Ellington’s career hit a few bumps in the road. It seemed like the people of America were done with big band and wanting something new and exciting, like be-bop. But Duke Ellington was not willing to be brushed aside so quickly. “After all, you’re a composer who just happens to work in jazz, and you have some of the most creative and fascinating musicians in the world still in your pit” (Cibula). Thus far in his career, he had “worked on musicals, toured Europe again, had an extensive catalog of compositions, and even attempted to take an original production to Broadway. He then began to add film compositions to his repertoire” (Mae). Duke Ellington started off by redefining his old music; this time, truly the way he wanted. ‘Mood Indigo’, his first big hit in 1930, was now “a monster stretching past 15 minutes, with so many hills and valleys that it becomes a landscape” (Cibula). Another piece Ellington had published was to have “Betty Roche scat her be-boppin’ way through a new arrangement of ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’, with band members responding to her sweet nonsense” (Cibula). His third album, ‘Blue Rose’, was “a curious pairing of Duke’s orchestral arrangements and the big-band belting of Rosemary Clooney” (Cibula). By August of 1956, Duke Ellington was on the cover of Time Magazine, and the ‘live’ album of the date was on its way to becoming his best-selling album of all time (Cibula). He had finally silenced everyone who said he was no longer relevant and that his music was old news. Suddenly, relevant was ALL he was.

Sociologically, Duke Ellington also had meaning behind his music that went beyond what was just pleasing to the ear. That was found in ‘Black, Brown, & Beige’, an orchestral explosion of what was the true gold standard in terms of his extended works, even though he only performed ‘Black, Brown, & Beige’ three times in its entirety. For this album “tries to recapitulate the whole of the African American experience” (Cibula). One can see the effort in every song and in every note, “from the ‘Work Song’ opener all the way through to Jackson’s feature on ‘Come Sunday’” (Cibula). ‘Black, Brown, & Beige’ showed the world once again that Duke Ellington could not be defined as just an entertainer; he was also a serious composer, and he did not let societal trends take that away.

Duke Ellington did not allow himself to be pigeon-holed by society as to what big band jazz was and what he should play. As Ellington continued to expand the range and scope of his compositions, he stopped calling his music ‘jazz’ and began using the term ‘freedom of expression’ instead (George, 20). He was determined and dedicated to show his love for his music and prove that it should be recognized for the level of commitment and work it represented. Duke Ellington also did not let his big band jazz be defined by the listener in whichever way best conformed to the culture at the time; instead, he let it blossom into even more. The best part about it all is he did it with finesse. Throughout his life and distinguished career, he was accomplished and inspired many other musicians. Duke Ellington’s legacy is filled with “honors, inductions, and awards including 14 Grammy’s and an honorary Doctor of Music Degree from Yale” (Mae). He is recognized as a composer, pianist, and leader of a jazz orchestra still today; as it should be, because he showed everyone that even though big band jazz was received by the listener, it did not have to align with whatever way best conformed to the culture of the time. Instead, the music could be up to the will of the artist and it could still be well received by all.

American jazz evolved to fit many eras and was adaptive and reflective of what the listening audience wanted. But beyond the listening audience, there were those who proved that their musical skills and interpretation mattered just as much. Big band jazz started out as swing-dance music meant to entertain. The musical function then changed. It changed to be appreciated in a more professional, educated way as artists like Duke Ellington were determined to be recognized as composers and innovators for their creative vision and not just their happy beat. Big band jazz, as a musical genre, shows which artists have stood the test of time; many of those who did not let themselves become pigeon-holed and confined by societal standards of the time. Big band jazz will be timeless as long as we appreciate it for all that it stood for and still represents: musical liberty.

Works Cited

  1. Baraka, Imamu Amiri. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Perennial, 2002.
  2. Cibula, Matt. ‘Duke Ellington: Still Swingin’ in the 1950s’. PopMatters, PopMatters, 25 Feb. 2018, www.popmatters.com/165707-duke-ellington-still-swingin-in-the-1950s
  3. George, Luvenia. ‘Duke Ellington the Man and His Music’. Music Educators Journal, Vol. 85, No. 6, May 1999: pp. 15-21. JSTOR. Web. 29 April 2019.
  4. Hall, Stephanie. ‘The Painful Birth of Blues and Jazz’. The Library of Congress, Library of Congress, 24 Feb. 2017, http://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2017/02/birth-of-blues-and-jazz
  5. ‘Listen Up! History of the Big Band’. Jazz Aspen Snowmass, 10 July 2017, www.jazzaspensnowmass.org/listen-up-history-of-the-big-band_blog_8052.html
  6. Mae, Anah. ‘[STAY WOKE] Duke Ellington Innovator of Big Band Jazz’. Platinum Hip Hop, 5 Feb. 2019, http://thisisplatinumhiphop.com/stay-woke-duke-ellington-innovator-of-big-band-jazz
  7. Teachout, Terry. ‘Jazz’. The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), Vol. 12, No. 3, 1988: pp. 66-76. JSTOR. Web. 29 April 2019.
  8. Wyeth, Leonard. ‘Big Bands and the Swing Era’. Acoustic Music, 2008, http://acousticmusic.org/research/history/musical-styles-and-venues-in-america
  9. Youngren, William H. ‘Black and White Intertwined’. The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 1 Feb. 1999, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/02/black-and-white-intertwined/377456/
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Big Band Jazz and Its History. (2023, January 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/big-band-jazz-and-its-history/
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