The Big Band Swing Era
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Published: Thu, 04 May 2017
It is said by historians, that they believe the Big Band Swing era dates back as early as the 1920s in early routes of jazz. It wasnt until the 1930’s ranging into the 1950’s, when the Big Band era became more known. Although it is called Big Band, its name can often be misleading. A Big Band consists of an orchestra with anywhere from six to as many as twenty-five musicians. Each band varies with the amount of musicians. The Big Band Swing era got its name based off of the smooth jazz beat and dance that is incorporated with it. The terms jazz band, jazz ensemble, stage band, jazz orchestra, society band and dance band can be used to describe a specific type of a big band. (Wikipedia: Big Band )
In 1932, a dance orientated band, Duke Ellington composed and recorded a song called “It Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” (The World Book Encyclopedia: J,K). The name of this song says a lot about how popular and important the Swing Era was too many people. This type of music was especially important during the time of World War II and leading America out of the Great Depression, by lifting morale. Today, The Big Band Swing Era is known for its unique components and style, which still holds a special place in hearts of millions of Americans.
There are two famous Big Bands that stand out among several other Big Bands. They are the bands of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, who also played with his brother Jimmy. Glenn Miller’s band, also known as orchestra, was distinctive in a way that he combined the sounds of the clarinet with four saxophones. Glenn Miller said, “A band ought to have a sound all of its own. It ought to have a personality.” (The World Famous Glenn Miller Orchestra) Glenn miller was an excellent trombonist and believed very strongly in the music he performed. During the time of 1926-1938, he played the trombone in several bands including the band of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. In 1935, he recorded for the first time under his own name. Some of his well known hits were Sunrise Serenade, Moonlight Serenade and Wishing (Will Make It So). On April 13, 1940, he played at Sunnybrook Ballroom located here in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until the year of 1942, when he entered the U.S Army. While in the Army, he disappeared during an air journey leaving his music behind.
The band of Tommy Dorsey was also known as the Dorsey brothers. The Dorsey brothers played in bands together as early as in the 1920’s. Tommy Dorsey played both the trumpet and trombone. Throughout the Swing era, Tommy Dorsey was ranked among the top two or three big bands. His orchestra had about fifteen top ten hits in the late 1930’s. The Dorsey Brothers broke the charts with their recording of Coquette. Also, with their recording with Bing Crosby called “Lets Do It” (lets fall in love), broke into the top ten. By this time, they had one of the hottest bands in the country. In 1935, Jimmy left Tommy to go on and play music on his own. The Dorsey brothers both passed away in the late 50’s. As well as Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers also played at the Sunnybrook Ballroom.
Instruments found in big bands were trumpets, saxophones, trombones, drums, pianos, acoustic bass, and guitars. Instruments varied depending on the bands instrumentation of choice. Composers, arrangers and band leaders would switch things up and use more or fewer players in each section. The sections consisted of brass, string, percussion and vocal. Music of the big band was written in strophic form with the same phrase and chord structure repeated several times. In big band music, we also see a chorus that follows the twelve bar blues form, or thirty-two-bar following a (AABA) song format. Solos were also a part of most big bands.
Swing dancing itself was one of the main components of the swing era. The music was represented in the dance, as dance partners (male) would twirl their partners around. Swing dancing is a lively dance which takes up a lot of energy. During this time period, swing dancing released tensions of the depression and the world in war times. This dance is intended for all ages. Some types of dances incorporated with the swing era are; Fox trot, Jitterbug and the Charleston.
Big Band “Swing” still exists today. In fact it is becoming popular again, much like it was in the 30’s throughout into the 50’s. Swing Kat Entertainment located at the Ballroom on High in Pottstown, offers lessons on dances that strived during the swing era. On occasion, they have live Big Bands that perform; mostly bands that replay such music, like that of the Dorsey Brothers and Glenn Miller along with several other composers and songs. Sunnybrook Ballroom, also located in Pottstown has events that get the community together to re- shape and make today’s generation aware, as well as to be a part of the swing era. An organization called The Philadelphia Swing Dance Society holds swing dancing events at the Commodore Barry Club located in Philadelphia. Sometimes big band can be heard playing on the radio on wxpn’s station 88.5. Many people enjoy this type of music and swing dance that’s involved. The younger population also participates in events and enjoy getting their swing on.
Many people enjoy reliving the swing era and look forward to community gatherings. Much like during the swing era, many people would come from all over the nation to attend dances and live performances. On April 15th at the Sunnybrook Ballroom there was a swing dance event that marked the 66th anniversary of World War II. During this event the eighteen piece Swing Fever Dance Band performed its annual “USO Canteen Show,” featuring music of Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers (Staff).
On Saturday April 16, 2011, I attended a live performance of a Big Band called the Slicked up Nines and swing dance at Swing Kat Entertainment in Pottstown. This band consisted of nine musicians all being men. Each band member was playing a different instrument. I thought this was an awesome experience to hear the instrumentation and witness people swing dancing for the first time. I myself was sucked into the rhythm of the music and felt the dance floor come alive.
Instruments that the Slicked up Nines played were the following; drums, saxophone, bass, trumpet, baritone, guitar, finger tambourines and a wood block. The musicians were very involved with the music as well as the crowd. Two musicians, who were playing the saxophone, would swing their instrument from side to side. The two instruments that I feel that bring the big band alive are the saxophone and bass. The saxophone gives the music its jazz routes and the base sets the pace and rhythm for swing dancing. I was familiar with all the instruments I saw, other than the finger tambourines and wood block. These instruments were not included in the research in which I performed.
Along with hearing music from the swing era, I was also fortunate to experience a few songs based off of west coast swing. The only new instrument I saw with this type of swing was the electric guitar. This gave the music a nice touch. Some songs that the Slicked up Nines performed were slower songs that used less percussion and more bass. One song that stuck out to me the most had lyrics that were catchy. This song had the words “chew tobacco” as a chorus. Not all of the songs that were played had vocal sounds in them.
This was a friendly environment which had all kinds of age groups present. Many people dressed up in clothing which was worn during the swing era, as well as girls/ladies wearing dresses and men wearing dress shirts and cackies. The dance floor came alive as the band and swing dancers got fully involved in the music. The dance floor was built, so that it would bounce as people would dance on it. I found this to be a really cool feature and felt like I was back in the time period of the big band swing era.
At times the music would get really fast as the men would swirl their partners around. Here, everyone danced with everyone and it didn’t matter who, or where you were from. At the end of each song, the gentlemen would dip their partner. I thought that this was an interesting feature to swing dancing. Another component that I found to be interesting was that the songs would end real suddenly. This is much different than most of the songs we find today. Types of dances that I saw were the Fox trot, Jitterbug and the Charleston. Out of these three dances, I found that the Fox trot seemed a little more relaxed then swinging around the dance floor. Overall this was a fun clean event for everyone. I especially enjoyed the live band performance.
During intermission, while the band took a break there was another event that took place. This was called the birthday circle. The person running the event called anyone to the center of the dance floor with a birthday in April. After this, the people remaining in the room gathered around in a circle. Those who were in the center would pick a partner and would switch dance partners. Everyone who wanted to dance with those who shared a birthday in April had a chance too. This was really cool and fun to watch.
Here I saw for myself that the big band swing still exists to a small extent, due to many age groups that find interest in it. For anyone looking for a different taste of music, I would recommend it for anyone. For me this was a fun experience and I feel that the more that people come familiar with the swing era, the more popular it will continue to be today. The swing era is something that will remain in people’s hearts for many more years to come.
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