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Ten Swing Era Musicians


Below are ten musicians from the swing era, the days of jazz when dance halls were packed to hear and dance to the best big bands from around the country. Although swing was popular music, artists such as the ones listed developed styles that influenced later musicians, into bebop and beyond, setting the stage for jazz to become the valued art form it is today.

1. Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952)

Courtesy of ASV Records
Henderson, a pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader, led one of the most popular bands in New York in the 1920s and 30s. He is responsible for hiring Louis Armstrong, bringing him to the Big Apple from Chicago in 1924, and in the process opening up the creative possibilities in jazz. Benny Goodman jumpstarted his popular big band with a handful of Henderson’s arrangements, and in the 40s Henderson joined the group to become Goodman’s full-time arranger.

Read my artist profile of Fletcher Henderson.

2. Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

Courtesy of Columbia Records
Considered one of the most important composers in American music, Duke Ellington rose to fame during the swing era, performing weekly at New York’s Cotton Club. He led his band through decades of recording and performing, and his compositions and arrangements, which were written with his loyal band members in mind, experimented with harmonic and formal devices that are studied to this day. Many pieces in his repertoire are now considered jazz standards.

3. Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969)

Courtesy of Enja Records

With Coleman Hawkins’ unique, raspy tone, and his command of harmonically detailed improvisation, he became the preeminent tenor saxophonist in swing music. He developed his style as a member of Fletcher Henderson’s big band, and later toured the world as a soloist. His 1939 recording of “Body and Soul” is one of the landmark improvisations in jazz history. Hawkins’ influence lasted throughout the advent of bebop and later styles, as instrumentalists attempted to reach for his level of harmonic sophistication and virtuosity.

4. Count Basie (1904-1984)

Courtesy of Bluebird RCA Records
Pianist William “Count” Basie began to garner attention when he moved to Kansas City, a hotbed of jazz, in 1929, playing with Bennie Moten’s big band. He formed his own group in 1935, and they became one of the most popular bands in the country, performing in Kansas City, Chicago, and New York. Basie’s piano style was sparse and precise, and his compositions were bluesy and rousing. Some of his most famous recordings were made with singers, including Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennet.

5. Johnny Hodges (1906-1970)

Courtesy of Bluebird RCA Records

Hodges studied briefly with Sidney Bechet, who influenced the alto saxophonist’s syrupy, lyrical sound, with a fast voice-like vibrato. In his 38 years with the Duke Ellington orchestra, Hodges developed his signature sound, and was often featured in the band. His unique tone and approach to melody have helped define lyrical saxophone playing throughout the development of jazz.

6. Art Tatum (1909-1956)

Courtesy of Pablo Records
A prodigious talent, pianist Art Tatum was ahead of his time. Although not associated with any of the great swing bands, Tatum was the premiere keyboardist during the swing era. He could play stride piano in the style of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, but took his music beyond the conventions of jazz at the time. His technique was spectacular, and he employed his harmonic knowledge, learned by ear, to construct elegant lines at breakneck tempos. His virtuosity and harmonic innovations set the standard for bebop musicians in the 1940s and 50s.

7. Ben Webster (1909-1973)

Courtesy of 1201 Music
Webster, along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, was one of the three titans of the tenor saxophone during the swing era. His sound could be growling and rough on up-tempo tunes, or graceful and sensitive on ballads. His best known for his time spent in Duke Ellington’s band, in which he was the leading tenor soloist for about eight years, from 1935 to 1943. He recorded a version of “Cotton Tail” that is regarded as one of the gems from that period. Webster spent the last decade of his life and career as a jazz celebrity in Copenhagen, Denmark.

8. Benny Goodman (1909-1986)

Courtesy of Blue Note Records
The son of poor Jewish Immigrants, clarinetist Benny Goodman moved to New York from Chicago in the late 1920s. In the 30s, he began leading a band for a weekly dance radio show, for which he bought several of Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements. Credited with making the music of black musicians, such as Henderson, popular among white audiences, he is therefore considered instrumental in the bolstering of swing music. He is also considered one of the best jazz clarinetists of all time.

9. Lester Young (1909-1959)

Courtesy of Verve Records

Lester Young was a tenor saxophonist who spent his childhood touring with his family’s band on a variety of instruments. He moved to Kansas City in 1933, and eventually joined Count Basie’s big band, where his warm tone and relaxed, melodic approach on the tenor was not often well-received by audiences who were used to the harsh, aggressive sound of Coleman Hawkins. However, his style became very influential on Charlie Parker’s playing and consequentially on bebop in general. Young was known for an eccentric personal style that involved not only his playing, but also his clothes and his manner of speech. His nickname, “Prez,” was given to him by Billie Holiday.

10. Roy Eldridge (1911-1989)

Courtesy of Original Jazz Classics
Trumpeter Roy Eldridge is seen as a bridge between swing music and bebop. Coleman Hawkins largely influenced him, and he was a sought-after musician in New York, playing in big bands led by Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw. His proficiency and ease in all registers of the trumpet, as well as his double time melodic lines, served as a model for bebop musicians, especially Dizzy Gillespie.
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