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.
4. Chick Webb and His Orchestra Featuring Ella Fitzgerald: “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (20th Century Masters: The Best of Ella Fitzgerald, Hip-O, 2006 [originally recorded May 2, 1938])
Drummer and bandleader Chick Webb was a well-known and much-feared figure among New York dancers and the jazz world in general, known to outswing all comers in Battles of the Bands at the Savoy Ballroom (where his band was resident). It was the addition of 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald to his band in 1935 that made him a star—and their 1938 recording of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” that brought him to his zenith. Even before Ella’s sung a note, though, the power of the swing is already obvious in Van Alexander’s arrangement. Yet the Webb band was an ensemble group: It’s the singer who’s the soloist here. Her flawless articulation and phenomenal rhythm take the swing from solid to transcendent. The song became a standard, Webb became rich, and Ella became a major star in her own right, keeping “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” in her concert repertoire for the rest of her long life.
Learn more about 20th Century Masters: The Best of Ella Fitzgerald on Amazon!