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.
7. Art Shaw and his Orchestra: “Begin the Beguine” (The Essential Artie Shaw; Sony Legacy, 2005 [originally recorded July 24, 1938])
This list has so far been dominated by upbeat, Lindy-Hop-style dance tunes. But slow dancers enjoyed the Swing Era too, and the best bands and bandleaders knew how to make a slow song swing. “Begin the Beguine”—the breakthrough hit for clarinetist Artie Shaw (then billed as “Art” Shaw) and his orchestra—may be the finest example. Those gently undulating reed calls; those smoothly prodding horn responses; the gorgeous, laid-back but still robust tutti; the perfectly shaped tenor solo by Tony Pastor. Much of the credit for this sweet but inspired record goes to arranger Jerry Gray, who had a superb ear for structural balance (and alternating orchestral colors). But it can’t be taken away from Shaw’s beautiful clarinet tone and his incisive leadership of the band, creating a balance of his own with a ginger touch and a surefire intensity.