The Sound of an Era


On the evening of August 21, 1935, a dilapidated bus carrying the Benny Goodman Band pulled up in front of Los Angeles’s Palomar Ballroom. The band had just completed a disastrous cross-country tour and the spirits of the musicians matched the condition of the bus. Even the band’s bespectacled leader had doubts about keeping the band together. The 26-year-old Goodman had recruited the best white jazz musicians in New York during the winter of 1934-35 to play what was then called hot music for the National Biscuit Company’s Let’s Dance radio program. When the show ended in the spring the band embarked on their disastrous tour, playing for audiences that wanted standard band arrangements rather than hot jazz. Yet, on this warm August evening Goodman and his band had arrived at the right place and at the right time to change popular music forever. The Benny Goodman Band’s enagement at the Palomar Ballroom provided the overture to the Big Band Era.

In the comparatively unsophisticated music business of the mid-1930s, neither Goodman nor his men knew that their recordings were selling well in California. West coast college students and teenagers bought the band’s records after hearing the live radio broadcasts. Unknown to the band, a receptive audience awaited.

Goodman began the evening playing standard dance tunes desired by the Palomar’s management. Meanwhile, the young fans who came to hear “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and “Bugle Call Rag” sat in the fifty-cent cheap seats in the back of the ballroom wondering if this band was the same one they had heard on the radio and records. After a few sets, Goodman, disgusted by the entire tour and resigned to break up the band, said to his men, “The hell with it, if we’re going to sink we might as well go down swinging.” Goodman called for “King Porter Stomp.” Trumpeter Benny Berigan stood up and blew the first notes across the dance floor. Suddenly, a roar of approval came from the opposite end; the music and cheering met in the middle and a generation found its music. Within two years big band swing became the nation’s dominant popular music.

The music called jazz evolved from the African-American community. By the 1920s, black band leaders such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were playing jazz the only way they knew how — unadulterated, like straight whiskey. Most whites never heard black bands, nor were they ready for real jazz. Therefore, Paul Whiteman, who claimed the title “The King of Jazz,” and other 1920s “Jazz Age” white bands brought the music to popularity by presenting it like a mixed drink — plenty of fruit and sugar to cover the straight whiskey of jazz.

When the roaring twenties ended, the Jazz Age generation found the hangover of the Great Depression as their reward. Popular favor turned to the slower, more tradtional music of the hotel dance bands of Guy Lombardo, Abe Lyman, and Wayne King. Meanwhile, crooners Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo sang sad, mournful tales about lost loves, “Just One More Chance”; lost fortunes, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime”; and lost pride, “Just a Gigolo.”

The Jazz Age, the crooning singers, and the hotel dance bands belonged to the World War I generation. This generation’s children were in their mid-to-late teens in 1935; they wanted no part of their parents’ musical lament. These youngsters listened for their own sound — something new and exciting. So, when Benny Goodman’s white band began playing unfiltered black swing music, he drew on a receptive young audience. Other white band leaders quickly followed “The King of Swing” to popularity, playing big band swing. In 1938, when Goodman dressed swing music in a tuxedo by performing a concert at Carnegie Hall, jukeboxes, dance halls, and the radio were dominated by big swing bands like those of Artie Shaw, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and Charlie Barnet. In addition, many black bands such as Duke Ellington’s, Jimmy Lunceford’s, and Count Basie’s also shared the spotlight.

With the advent of war in Europe, the Big Band Era’s sound and tempo began to soften. During the summer of 1939, the band destined to dominate popular music for the next three years enjoyed its first success, drawing huge crowds to the Glen Island Casino, just north of New York City. Glenn Miller’s first big band failed in 1937, but his second attempt resulted in one of American popular music’s most famous and successful operations. With hits like “In the Mood,” no one doubted the band’s ability to swing; nevertheless, it was the “Miller Sound” — a clarinet playing the melody one octave higher than the reed section — that gave the band’s slow dance numbers the distinctive style that sold millions of records and sent Glenn Miller’s band to the heights of popularity.

While the 1940s brought Glenn Miller to the forefront, the new decade also brought the Second World War and all its problems, problems that would eventually end the Big Band Era. Yet the war also gave the big bands a glorious finale, as swing music became the sound of liberation to conquered people overseas.

For the big bands, the war’s initial disruption came from the nation’s first peacetime draft, which swept young musicians from the bandstands. Ozzie Nelson’s band reacted to the personnel shortage with a song called, “We’re Looking for an Alto Man Who Also Plays the Baritone and Doubles on the Clarinet and Wears a Size 37 Suit.” After Pearl Harbor some band leaders enlisted. Artie Shaw went into the Navy and led a band that toured the South Pacific. But the most famous service band was Glenn Miller’s. Although over the draft age, Miller applied for and received a captaincy in the Army Air Force where he formed a big swing orchestra that eventually became known as the American Band of the Supreme Allied Command. In December 1944, while flying from England to France, Captain Miller’s plane vanished over the English Channel. The band, under the direction of drummer Sergeant Ray McKinley, continued to entertain American troops in Europe until the war’s end.

Back on the home front, a government tax on dance floors together with gas and tire rationing spelled the end of big band touring for the duration of the war. The bands were still heard on radio and on records, but then on August 1, 1942, they eliminated their own record sales by going on strike. James Caesar Petrillo, the feisty president of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), refused to allow his musicians to record a note of music until the recording companies paid the musicians higher royalty fees. The only exception was V-discs made for U.S. Government distribution to fighting men overseas. Unfortunately for the musicians, the AFM record ban created a major unintended consequence: The strike freed the band singers, most of whom were not union members, from the chains of the bandstand. Using choral groups in the background to replace the musicians, the band singers recorded on their own. Frank Sinatra led the way, leaving Tommy Dorsey for a solo career in late 1942. Mayhem greeted Sinatra’s first live solo appearance at New York’s Paramount Theatre when his young female “Bobby Soxer” fans nearly rioted. The record ban ended in the fall of 1944, when RCA Victor and Columbia finally capitulated to the union. It was a pyrrhic victory; the unleashing of the band singers together with other wartime problems began eroding the popularity of the big bands.

When the war ended in the summer of 1945 the big bands seemed as popular as ever, but over the next eighteen months public favor dropped and the cost of running a big band rose, toppling many bandstands. In December 1946 some of the most famous aggregations disbanded: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Les Brown, Harry James, Benny Carter and Jack Teagarden. Most of these leaders reformed their bands within the next few years, but only their famous names kept them working. Never again would big bands have such overwhelming control over pop music. The years 1935-1945 represent the only time in musical history when the general public supported the widespread operation of large dance bands and orchestras. By so doing, they gave a unique musical sound to this memorable era.