The Big Band Era, also associated with the Jazz Era or the Swing Era, along with other types of music such as Dixieland or bop or even sometimes with ragtime, seems to be generally considered around the years of 1935 to 1955. Whatever you choose to call it, we enjoyed it as "our music." And we hear very little of it now, as you well know.
Each of the bands of that period had its own methods of identifying itself. We remember that Harry James played the trumpet, Tommy Dorsey played the trombone, Benny Goodman was a clarinetist, Count Basie played piano, Gene Krupa was a drummer and so on.
Each of the bands identified itself with a "theme song" and it was not difficult to know which band was playing simply by hearing this theme.
Each band also had a particular style of playing and a different sound. For example, it was not difficult to pick up on Wayne King, who was known as the "Waltz King," or the particular sound of Glenn Miller, who first used the clarinet along with the saxophone to carry the melody with the smooth sound. Do you have any trouble today in identifying Lawrence Welk with the sound and theme?
Many of these musicians had strong music backgrounds before becoming band leaders.
Paul Whiteman, one of the early band leaders, came from a home with great musical talent. His father was a music teacher and insisted his children know music.
Whiteman was trained as a violinist and violist. He began his musical education at age 3 and later played in both the Denver Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony. He progressed through a number of jobs and ensembles and finally established a large orchestra that traveled, not only the United States but also internationally.
A number of familiar names of those who later became famous were part of this orchestra. They include Henry Busse, Ferde Grofe, who was a fine pianist and a well-known composer and arranger, Al Rinker, Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, Jim Dorsey, Red Nichols, Joe Venuti, and Bix Beiderbecke.
Whiteman's orchestra's theme song was "Rhapsody in Blue," written by George Gershwin. Whiteman was the first to use a vocalist with the band, rather than depending on a member of the orchestra to do the singing, as had been the custom. This, of course, led to careers for many fine singers.
The music of the Big Band Era reflected the times, as a study of music history shows. The 1935 to 1955 years encompassed the years of the Depression, pre-war, the war years and the post-war years.
When we look at the words of the music, we find a big difference with today's music. Do you remember love songs like "Our Love," "And the Angels Sing," "For Me and My Gal," "Yours, "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," and "I Hear a Rhapsody?"
How about the fun tunes like "Mairzy Doats," "Ac-cen-tchu-ate the Positive," "Three Little Fishes," "Scatter Brain" and "Dipsy Doodle?" And then, of course, there were many songs that remind us of the war years, like "I'll Be Seeing You," "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year," "When The Lights Go On Again," "Lili Marlene," "A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square," and "He's 1-A in the Army and A-l in My Heart." These songs and all of the others we liked so much are just as good today as they were then, but it's hard, if not impossible, to hear them unless it's on a CD -- but they are difficult to find also.
Let's end the article with some fun. In the box, I have listed some of the big bands their theme songs. See if you can match them correctly.
Arris Johnson, Hays, is a member of the Generations Advisory Group.