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.
9. Woody Herman and His Orchestra: “Blues in the Night” (The Woody Herman Collection 1937-56; Acrobat, 2017 [originally recorded September 10, 1941])
Woody Herman, like Duke Ellington, was simultaneously a star bandleader and a dweller on jazz’s cutting edge. He would commission work from Igor Stravinsky, pioneer bebop in the big-band format, and give some of jazz’s most brilliant musicians their starts. Here, though, Herman is in pure swing ballad form, taking the lead vocal himself with a surprising authenticity. It’s not the slang and the accent (though he handles both admirably and without condescension), but the use of blue notes and the rhythmic surety that makes this non-blues “Blues in the Night” seem like the real thing.