Big bands were already a staple of jazz by the early 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1935 that they graduated from a staple to a mania. The next 10 years were what is now known as the Swing Era, the popular apex of jazz music in America and a danceable, often joyful antidote to the Great Depression.
Too often, we think of modern jazz as beginning with Parker and Gillespie in 1945, consigning the times before that to a sort of “prehistory.” Aside from historical incorrectness, that misses out on how much fun, and how creatively inspired, much of the music from the Swing Era was. Even some of the most rabidly commercial bands of the day occasionally struck real musical gold, and it’s a mistake to relegate them to some darkened corner labeled “nostalgia.”
The tunes on this list are all from the Swing Era’s big bands; small combos had great (and popular) moments too, but it was the large ensembles that were the icons of the age. They’re also all big hits, so even if you prefer a catch-all compilation to the albums listed here, these tunes won’t be hard to track down. And if some of them don’t set your heart to dancing, chances are better than average that they’ll set your feet to it.
1. Duke Ellington Orchestra: “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (The Essential Duke Ellington; Sony Legacy, 2005 [originally recorded February 2, 1932])
Seems too easy, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s something of a cheat: The Ellington band recorded “It Don’t Mean a Thing” three full years before the swing craze began. Nevertheless, it’s the song that gave a name to an era, not to mention a manifesto. Even more important than that—this record has everything. A scat intro from Ivie Anderson, with tough accompaniment from primeval jazz bassist Wellman Braud; solos by Duke’s stars, plunger trombonist “Tricky” Sam Nanton and altoist Johnny Hodges; a joyful Anderson shout vocal, with baritone saxophonist Harry Carney providing counterpoint; Ellington’s experiment with crossing horn and reed sections in the background; even a saxophone soli. And on top of all that, it’s true to its name: One of the hardest-swinging tunes in the Ellington catalogue (or anyone else’s).