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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.

5. Tommy Dorsey Orchestra: “Opus One” (Greatest Hits; RCA Victor, 1996 [originally recorded November 14, 1944])

5. Tommy Dorsey Orchestra: “Opus One” (<i>Greatest Hits</i>; RCA Victor, 1996 [originally recorded November 14, 1944])

Like Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey was a trombonist and big-band leader who achieved enormous success; also like Miller, Dorsey was not really a jazz player. Unlike Miller, however, Dorsey wanted a jazz band, and he achieved that when he brought arranger Sy Oliver on board. Oliver wrote “Opus One” and arranged it for Dorsey; the band had already hit big with it (from radio broadcasts and live performances) when they finally recorded it in November 1944. The arrangement itself is a masterpiece, riding on a relentless but low-key riff from the reeds and countermelody from the strings. (Yes, strings.) Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco has two killer solos, while pianist Milt Golden has another; the brasses crescendo all over the place. It’s an arrangement that takes its cues from the Count Basie Orchestra: relaxed feel, riff-based section passages, high-polish brass. (It’s no coincidence that Oliver would soon become an indispensable writer for the Basie band.)

Learn more about Greatest Hits on Amazon!

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

JazzTimes 10: Essential Erroll Garner

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.