Before the 1930s, small ensembles, usually consisting of a trumpet, trombone, clarinet, tuba or bass, banjo or piano, and drums, performed jazz. Each instrument had a specific role in the ensemble, and aside from the melody, parts were often improvised. This sectionalized approach carried over into the big bands of swing music, which instead featured a section of three or four trumpeters, three or four trombonist, five saxophonists who often doubled on clarinets, a piano, a bassist instead of a tuba player, a guitarist, and a drummer.
Swing band arrangements were in large part composed, often of simple, repeated material, or “riffs,” that alternated between contrapuntal lines and intense unison rhythms. Improvisation was given a more featured role, and soloists would play while the rest of the band, aside from the rhythm section, dropped out or played arranged background lines.
One explanation for swing music’s popularity was that its driving intensity and abandon represented pleasure and freedom in a time when the country was steeped in hard times. The Great Depression caused Americans to suffer, and dancing to swing music was a way for people to forget their worries. During the 1930s, swing came to symbolize joy and ease, the weight of which was reflected in Duke Ellington’s piece, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”
Important Swing Musicians
- Count Basie – Regarded as one of the finest bandleaders in jazz, Count Basie led his orchestra for almost 50 years. His band was known for playing simple, often bluesy arrangements where the focus was on the easy rhythmic feel, an aspect of swing that bands of the area strove to achieve.
- Gene Krupa – Krupa rose to fame in the 1930s while playing drums with Benny Goodman’s band, displaying his flamboyant style on recordings such as Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” He is considered one of the most influential drummers in jazz not only for his playing, but also for his role in standardizing jazz drumming technique.
- Buddy Rich – Rich’s powerful and fast drumming made him one of the most famous big band drummers of all time. He played with Artie Shaw, Benny Carter, and Frank Sinatra, and led his own successful big band into the 1980s, years after the heyday of swing.
- Freddie Green – Known for having defined the role of guitar in a big band setting, Freddie Green enjoyed a 50-year career with Count Basie’s orchestra. His style of guitar playing was noted for its harmonic precision and the way it interlocked with the drums.
- Tommy Dorsey – Dorsey’s lyrical trombone playing became one of the signature sounds of the swing era, and his big band one of the most popular. His band featured Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Frank Sinatra, and many other top musicians.