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.
3. Glenn Miller Band, “In the Mood” (The Essential Glenn Miller; Sony Legacy, 2005 [originally recorded August 1, 1939])
Ellington named the era, Goodman broke it through, but Glenn Miller’s 1939 smash hit “In the Mood” epitomizes it even now. Miller’s ranking in the jazz firmament was always considered low, thanks to his endless rehearsals and commercial bent (the trombonist famously rebuffed critics by saying, “I don’t want a jazz band”). Listening back after 80 years, though, the spit-and-polish of his ensemble dilutes neither the rhythmic drive—I mean, this really swings—the blues essence, nor the solo power in the record. Miller’s star soloist, tenor sax man Tex Beneke, slugs it out in a duel with fellow tenor Al Klink for 16 bars; after a brass break, trumpeter Clyde Hurley throws down a flavorful 16 bars of his own. And when you consider that this was an era where jazz was synonymous with dance music, there’s really no good argument against “In the Mood” as canon.