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JazzTimes 10: Great Recordings from the Swing Era

Big-band blockbusters that eased the world through depression and war

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.

10. Charlie Barnet & His Orchestra: “Cherokee” (The Charlie Barnet Collection 1935-47; Acrobat, 2014 [originally recorded July 17, 1939])

10. Charlie Barnet & His Orchestra: “Cherokee” (<i>The Charlie Barnet Collection 1935-47</i>; Acrobat, 2014 [originally recorded July 17, 1939])

Before it became a standard (and Charlie Parker’s lodestar), “Cherokee” was a Top 20 pop hit for Charlie Barnet’s band. A Manhattan trust-fund baby who tossed aside his socialite upbringing to play jazz, Barnet was similarly iconoclastic in his chosen career. He helped break the color barrier for the big bands (hiring Roy Eldridge, John Kirby, and Lena Horne) and unapologetically promoted Black bandleaders. He also hated “sweet” band music as much as Glenn Miller hated jazz, disdaining the commercial arrangements that record executives tried to ply him with. Still, there’s no indication here that “Cherokee” would become a sacred text for the coming jazz revolution. It’s just a canny, hard-swinging record with an arrangement (by Billy May) in the Basie tradition. As if to let you in on that joke, Barnet’s alto sax solo ends with a quote from “Lester Leaps In.” Even aside from that, both the solo and Barnet’s lead on the Ray Noble melody are in hip territory, laying down delightful staccato syncopations.

Learn more about The Charlie Barnet Collection 1935-47 on Amazon!

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all of the songs in this JazzTimes 10:


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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.