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.
8. Cab Calloway and His Orchestra: “(Hep Hep!) The Jumpin’ Jive” (The Best of Cab Calloway; Hallmark, 1997 [originally recorded July 17, 1939])
Many of the great swing bands had a featured vocalist in their ranks; it was when the singers started to become the leaders that the Swing Era began to fade into the Crooners’ Era. Cab Calloway, though, is an exception—his remarkably rhythmic vocals and inventive use of scat made him one of the originators of swing with 1931’s “Minnie the Moocher.” He was still bringing that kind of excitement and ingenuity with 1939’s “(Hep Hep!) The Jumpin’ Jive.” He opens the song with a salvo of percussive scat syllables so strong that you almost miss when he slips into English after four bars. Calloway had one of the best rhythm sections in the business (pianist Bennie Payne, guitarist Danny Parker, bassist Milt Hinton, drummer Cozy Cole) and none of them come near to swinging the way Calloway’s vocal does. (The tenor soloist, Chu Berry, does come close.) If singers would later take the jazz out of the big bands, here’s a stunning example of the singer emphatically putting the jazz into one.