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.
2. Benny Goodman and His Orchestra: “King Porter Stomp” (King Porter Stomp; Prism Leisure, 1986 [originally recorded July 1, 1935])
The story is too good not to repeat. The Benny Goodman Orchestra had played its way across the country in the summer of 1935, from New York to Los Angeles. It was a disaster, with Goodman broke and considering ending the band by the time they reached L.A. on August 21. Sure enough, the crowd at the Palomar Ballroom that last night paid their first set—full of stock “sweet” arrangements—little notice. But drummer Gene Krupa cornered Goodman during intermission to say, “If we’re gonna die, Benny, let’s die playing our own thing.” As the second set began, Goodman called “King Porter Stomp”—their latest record—and suddenly the crowd bought in, going crazy when trumpeter Bunny Berigan did his solo. It inaugurated the swing craze. Contrary to general belief, there is no recording of that night’s triumph, but this is the record—blazing Berigan solo and all—that those young dancers at the Palomar had been so excited to hear.