Contrary to its cultural origins, jazz music has forever been a music of progress; a genre that not only leans into the enhanced power of the democratic collective, but also embraces and celebrates the creative expression of the individual, inherently making evolution and advancement central to the ethos of jazz. While many evolutions in the music have been precipitated by artistic and creative catalysts, the Swing era was unique in that its rise and fall were driven largely by economic factors, and especially the radio!
Many associate swing music with the 1930s and ‘40s, and in our collective memory it accompanies events like the Great Depression and World War II. But the early swing bands were first formed in the early 1920s, with groups like Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians, and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra occupying popular ballrooms and speakeasies like the Ambassador Hotel, the Cotton Club, and the Roseland Ballroom. These groups provided levity and entertainment in the period of Prohibition, not only to eager live audiences but also over the airwaves with the growing popularity of radio, powerful economic forces that fueled a growing roster of musicians and bands that could be heard night after night across the nation. These early bands established new norms of music-making in the improvised realm of jazz, employing greater musical forces and requiring greater organization (i.e. composers and arrangers). Arrangers like Don Redman developed thrilling ways of harmonizing different sections of the orchestra, or pitting them against each other, ultimately cementing a more-or-less standardized “big band” instrumentation featuring trumpets, trombones, saxophones, and rhythm section.
The dawn of the Swing era is often pinned to Benny Goodman’s famed appearance at Los Angeles’ Palomar Ballroom in 1935, but Goodman was merely following in the footsteps of the many bandleaders already established at that point. While gig and recording opportunities dried up through the Great Depression of the ‘30s, radio continued to drive the popularity of swing music. Not only were live performances broadcast nationwide as they had been for years, but the format of radio itself underwent a sea change, shifting its focus to playing pre-recorded music on the airwaves. The radio provided a free source of entertainment to the masses, making swing music the popular music of the period.
Just as Goodman began his meteoric rise to fame, union musicians began to look askance at this new paradigm, where, during an economic crisis, radio broadcasters and record producers continued to rake in record profits, yet none of the gains seemed to come through to the musicians themselves. In 1942, the American Federation of Musicians went on strike, an event that became labeled “The Recording Ban.” For more than two years, the ban prevented swing bands and their musicians from earning a living through broadcasts and recordings. Historically, many swing bands made their living by touring regionally and nationally, but this mode of distribution was also cut off in the early ‘40s with rubber and gasoline rationing, a nationwide restriction to help the war effort. By the time both restrictions were lifted in 1945, enough time had passed that musicians had moved on to develop alternative means of making and presenting music, leading to a new style known as bebop (and laying the groundwork for modern jazz in the decades to follow).
Unlike any other style or period in jazz history, the Swing era was driven largely by its commercial success, delivered to the American public on 78s and live radio. It was the radio especially that introduced “hot” jazz and swing to the broader American public, making it the most popular music in America then. Though it may not be live today, you can still hear all of your favorite swing bands on the radio each and every day on Jazz 93.5!