Big Bands are a music ensemble group featuring a dozen or so members led by a charismatic band leader. Big Band on the radio added rhythm and musical excitement to homes across America and the world and introduced African-American musicality to a bigger audience. During the Great Depression, musicians were looking for work and many could be hired at a lower salary. This took band groups from four or five individuals to a bigger group dynamic adding to the complexity and depth of the sound.
To those of us who grew up after the Greatest Generation, the soundtrack for the Second World War is Big Band Swing Music. It is nearly impossible to hear a few bars by the Dorsey Brother, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, or Benny Goodman without visions of pretty girls in pretty dresses and carefully coiffed hairdos dancing with clean-cut, handsome young men in khaki or sailor-blues.
There is much more to American Wartime culture than Swing Dancing, just as there is more to Big Band Music than Wartime Newsreel dancing. Evolving circuitously from New Orleans Jazz, Big Band Swing was more than the music of a generation it would exist as an art form in its own right.
"It Don't Mean a Thing…"
As the nineteenth century was drawing to a close, Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" became Ragtime's first hit. Interest in Ragtime would quickly fade after Joplin's death in 1917, but the form's syncopated-marching beat and athletic bass lines would influence musicians in New Orleans who were picking up cast-off instruments from military units which disbanded at the port when the Spanish American War ended.
New Orleans Jazz moved North with the Great Migration to become a nightclub staple in Chicago and Harlem. The enticing rhythms soon attracted white audiences, which made the form acceptable for white musicians to emulate.
By definition, Big Band Music is jazz performed by an ensemble, typically ten or more instruments. A group this large can easily become unwieldy and requires a firm hand on the part of the bandleader to produce music. Additionally, larger venues were required, not only to allow room for such a large band but also to allow a large enough crowd to pay all the players in such a large outfit.
The answer was to turn to dance music which would fill the halls. This discouraged some of the raucous improvisations that marked traditional Jazz, which perfectly suited the more controlling bandleaders. However, there was always room in the arrangements for a hot soloist.
Pretty Girls to Sell the Song
A song that could be sung was remembered the next day and might attract more fans to the live show. Until electrical amplification advanced, the band usually drowned out the singer. Better microphones and amplifiers not only allowed crooners to sing with Big Bands but also made it possible for bandleaders to hire girl singers.
It is difficult to judge just how scandalous it might have been for an unchaperoned young lady to be on the road with ten or more young musicians, but the situation was not uncommon. In some cases, an aunt or mother might travel with the band for appearance's sake. Sometimes the girl singer wound up married to the bandleader or another member of the outfit.
A few of the ladies whose career was boosted by Big Band exposure includes Doris Day who sang for Jimmy Jones, Bob Crosby, and Les Brown; Ginny Simms whose gig with Kay Kyser led to her film career, Ella Fitzgerald whose appearances at the Apollo Club amateur nights led to gigs with Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and several others; and Benny Goodman Orchestra vet Peggy Lee.
From the Dance Halls to the Airwaves
Advances in electrical engineering led to another way for bandleaders to pay the bills, namely by allowing regular remote broadcasts of the bands' performances. There were, of course, studio shows featuring Big Bands, and most popular Comedy Variety shows featured an Orchestra, often with the bandleader acting as a foil for the show's headliner.
Remote broadcasts were often what music fans wanted to hear. Whether you were back on the farm, cutting a rug on the front porch with your best girl, in a downtown apartment living room with her parents just down the hall, or stuck in a barracks far from home wishing she was in your arms, the radio brought the music of your lives to life.
Some of the most popular Big Band radio broadcasts of the era:
Quick Reference Guide to Big Band Radio Broadcasts:
|Series Title||Years||Artist||About the Show|
|Al Goodman and His Orchestra||1935-
|Al Goodman and His Orchestra||One of Broadway's most successful musical directors, in this collection bandleader Al goodman brings his celebrated outfit to the airwaves in several remote and studio broadcasts.|
|Americas Popular Music||1930s-1940s||Like so much of American Culture, the center of Swing Music began to move to the West Coast during the War. "America's Popular Music" was produced in Hollywood for our Boys in Uniform.|
|Artie Shaw Collection||1938-
|Artie Shaw||Many Bandleaders are in contention for the title of "King of Swing", but considering not only the amount of time he spent in the business, the amount of success he enjoyed, and the number of future greats who worked for him, our vote goes to Artie Shaw.|
|B.A. Rolfe and His Orchestra||1934||B.A. Rolfe||As a kid, B.A. Rolfe played trumpet on the vaudeville circuit while touring with his father. Later, he ran a silent movie studio before forming an orchestra and began a run as the house band at the Palais d'Or restaurant and became a pioneer of remote broadcasting.|
|Broadway in Review||1953||Various||"The Sweethearts of Country Music", Opry Stars Lulu Belle and Scotty Wiseman hosted this fun Breakfast-time Music and Variety show from the heart of Hill-billy country.|
|Various||Danceable music from Hollywood was the hook for Chesterfield Time. Listeners got to enjoy the seductive tones of pretty Alice Faye and others.|
|Chrysler Showroom||1949||Danny Kaye||Danny Kaye shares laughter and song while showing us the newest Chrysler cars.|
|The Cocoanut Grove Ambassadors||1932||Phil Harris||One of the swankiest nightclubs in Los Angeles, the Cocoanut Grove featured the Phil Harris Orchestra before Phil went to work for Jack Benny.|
|Various||CBS built a reputation as the "Tiffany Network", and Columbia Presents featured some of the most prestigious names in the Music Industry.|
|The Fitch Band Wagon||1938-
|Various||Originally a showcase for the era's Big Bands that pitched shampoo and haircare products, The Fitch Bandwagon eventually morphed into a situation comedy starring band leader Phil Harris and his pretty wife, Alice Faye|
|5 Friendly Footnotes||1930||Freddy Rich Orchestra||The Friendly Five Shoe Company sponsored the Freddy Rich Orchestra in this fun quarter-hour program. While running the house band at the Waldorf Astoria, Rich hired several future Swing greats, including the Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman.|
|Fred Waring Collection||1947-
|Fred Waring and his Orchestra||Fred Waring was a perfectionist who had his Orchestra rehearse each number in three different styles because they never knew which he could call on them to perform.|
|GI Journal (G.I. Journal)||1943-
|Various||The Armed forces Radio Service was run "by G.I.s for G.I.s" but had enormous support from the Hollywood Showbiz Community, and many A-list Stars provided performances for free. G.I. Journal was one of the service's most popular shows.|
|Glenn Miller||Describing herself as a "fat little girl who never went anywhere without her violin case", Gisèle MacKenzie pitched the Air Force Reserve on Air Time.|
|The Harry James Show||1939-
|Harry James||After learning to play from his Circus bandleader father, trumpeter Harry James played for Ben Pollack and Benny Goodman before starting his own outfit.|
|Join the Navy||US Navy Band||Navy Cmdr Charles Brendler conducts the US Navy Band playing jaunty martial music in this syndicated program for Navy Recruiting Command.|
|Kay Kyser Kollege of Musical Knowledge and Kay Kyser Guest Appearances||1937-
|Kay Kyser||Bandleader Kay Kyser was a popular figure on the campus of UNC, and he would translate that enthusiasm into his Kollege of Musical Knowledge quiz show.|
|Kelvinator Country Club of the Air||1936||Mortin Gould Orchestra||An extended commercial for electric refrigerators, The Kelvinator Country Club show featured singer Donald Novis and Morton Gould's Orchestra.|
|The Land's Best Bands||1951||Various||As the Cold War deepened, Navy Recruiting turned to Big Bands to attract young men to crew the highly technical new ships and aircraft of the modern Navy.|
|Lawrence Welk Radio Appearances||1944-
|Lawrence Welk||The Original "Champaign Music Maker", Lawrence Welk's popularity on the Radio was almost too much for the young accordion player to deal with.|
|The Les Brown Show||1953||Les Brown||The Navy turned to Les Brown and His Band of Renown to drive recruitment in the 1950s as the Service was increasing its technological prowess as the Cold War deepened.|
|Live at Mark Hopkins Hotel||1929-
|Anson Weeks Orchestra||At the end of the Roaring Twenties, The Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco's Nob Hill District was the place to be seen. The Anson Weeks Orchestra helped to introduce several acts destined for later stardom.|
|Lud Gluskin and His Orchestra||Lud Gluskin||Lud Gluskin was destined to get into the Music Business. He eventually became CBS's Music Director.|
|Various||To help GI's get the best entertainment, Magic Carpet on the Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast the biggest acts from the most popular clubs in the country.|
|Various||A staple of the Hummert Radio Factory, Manhatten Merry-Go-Round brought the best of the Big Apple's nightclub scene to the air.|
|Meredith Willson's Musical Revue||1935-
|Meredith Willson||Meredith Willson was a long-time radio presence but he came into his own hosting a summer replacement for Fibber McGee and Molly.|
|Notes from Your Soldier's Notebook||1945||334th Army Service Band||Presented by the Army to tell the folks back home what their boys were up to while they were serving, Notes From Your Solier's Notebook told stories and featured uplifting music.|
|Philco Summer Hour||1944-
|Paul Whiteman||A summer replacement program in 1944, Paul Whiteman led the Philco Summer Hour in a series of cool offerings.|
|The Prudential Family Hour||1945||Al Goodman Orchestra||The Prudential Family Hour gives us a weekly offering of fine music.|
|The Ray Anthony Show||Ray Anthony||After the Glenn Miller Band broke up when its leader joined the USAAF, trumpeter Ray Anthony struck out on his own. In this show, he plays in syndication for the US Marine Corps Recruiting Service.|
|Serenade in Blue||1954-
|US Air Force Bands||The 'Blue' in Serenade in Blue was not from melancholy, but the Blue in the uniforms of the Airmen performing the delightful music on this Recruiting program|
|Spike Jones||Musical Madness reigns supreme when Spike Jones, the clown-prince of Big Band music takes to the air with his City Slickers.|
|Spot Light Revue||1948||Spike Jones||After proving their reliability as a summer replacement for Charlie McCarthy in 1945, Coca Cola sponsored Spike Jones and the City Slickers on Spotlight Revue.|
|Squibb Show Music from the House of Squibb||1943-
|Lyn Murray||Squibb made a dental powder and hired the Squibb Orchestra, led by Bif Band veteran Lyn Murray to pitch it.|
|Theater of Hits||1954||US Marine Corps Band||Show tunes seem like an unlikely style for the United States Marine Corps Band, but they were used for recruiting on Theater of Hits.|
|This Is Paris: The Maurice Chevalier Show||1949||Maurice Chevalier||Hoping to attract post-War US Tourist dollars and National Sympathy, French Radio turned to Maurice Chevalier to develop This Is Paris for American audiences.|
|Xavier Cugat Recordings in Old Time Radio||Xavier Cugat||Classicly trained with Cuba's Teatro Nacional Orchestra, Xavier Cugat helped to bring hot Latin Rhythms to North American listeners.|