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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.

6. Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra: “Flying Home” (Flying Home: His 48 Finest 1930-1949; RETSP, 2012 [originally recorded May 26, 1942])

6. Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra: “Flying Home” (<i>Flying Home: His 48 Finest 1930-1949</i>; RETSP, 2012 [originally recorded May 26, 1942])

“Flying Home” was an established hit—recorded in 1939 by Benny Goodman’s sextet, featuring Lionel Hampton on vibes and Charlie Christian on guitar—well before Hamp recorded his version in 1942. In fact, it was already his theme song by then. Yet this version was an even bigger hit, and one that made its featured soloist a star. His name was Jean-Baptiste “Illinois” Jacquet, and he was 19 years old when he stepped up to the microphone with his tenor sax. To his great fortune—and chagrin—he blew a solo on “Flying Home” so iconic that not just he, but his successor saxophonists in the band, were forced to recreate it, note for honking note, every night afterward. Really, though, the sax solo is just the icing on the cake. The tune itself (written by Hampton and Goodman) is as catchy and swinging as jazz got in wartime America, and it’s full of rhythmic hooks that dancers could really sink their teeth into.

Learn more about Flying Home: His 48 Finest 1930-1949 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.