There had been big bands before, for example Walter Page and his “Blue Devils” (featuring Count Basie) and also Duke Ellington’s orchestra was some 10+ musicians strong when they started playing in the cotton club in 1927.
But around the turn of the decade in 1930, Fletcher Henderson and his orchestra were clearly the number one of the big bands in terms of popularity. Even though the incorporation of “Bubber” Miley helped Duke Ellington to play a hotter style, they could not match Henderson’s popularity.
At that same time Bennie Moten recruited Count Basie, Walter Page and Oran Page for his orchestra. They developed what later would become known as the “Basie sound”, a simple and riff-filled Swing sound. It had the typical elements of the Kansas City Jazz of that time, most notably the so-called “head arrangements”, where big bands often played by memory, composing and arranging the music collectively, rather than sight-reading as other big bands of the time did. And the frequent, elaborate riffing by the different sections.
A year later in 1931, Chick Webb and his orchestra became the house band in the New Yorker “Savoy Ballroom”. While they were probably not as influential and revered as for example Goodman, they were feared in the so called “battle of the bands”, which were held often in the Savoy.
The Great Depression was already taking its toll on the music industry and bands were struggling to make a living. This affected even very popular ensembles like Fletcher Henderson’s. Henderson decided to sell his arrangements to other musicians to get an additional income. And Benny Goodman was at the time in constant need for new arrangements as in 1935 he had started performing in “Let’s Dance”, a weekly radio show which was broadcasted nationwide.
Despite his appearances in “Let’s Dance”, Benny Goodman was struggling at that time as well and apparently was close to dismantle his orchestra. But then in August 1935 he started a three week engagement in Los Angeles which was a huge success. Some people claim that engagement to be the “start of the Swing Era”.
In the same year when Goodman kickstarted the Swing boom, Bennie Moten died. Count Basie took over many of the musicians from Moten’s band and formed his own orchestra, where he further developed his style.
A year later, Basie and his orchestra moved from Kansas City to Chicago and then in 1937 to New York. Initially, they were not playing at the same level as the reigning orchestra from Fletcher Henderson, but they improved quickly.
During those years singer became more influential and important for bands. In 1935, Chick Webb featured a very young Ella Fitzgerald in his band, while Billie Holiday recorded with Benny Goodman and worked with Count Basie and Artie Shaw.
Meanwhile, Benny Goodman had risen to become the “King of Swing”, also because as a white band, they got strong support from radio networks. In 1939, the former reining King, Fletcher Henderson, gave up his band and started to work for Goodman as piano player and to write arrangements for him.
In the same year Chick Webb died. He had toured with his band until the end, so the musicians had an income in that difficult time.
The year before in 1938, Benny Goodman had played the famous concert in the Carnegie Hall in New York. He was the first Jazz musician to play in the prestigious venue and it became one of the first records to sell over 1 million copies. You should have it in your record collection!
Duke Ellington never entered into the battle for having the most popular Swing orchestra. While his orchestra had grown to 15 musicians in the middle of the 1930ies and they could certainly swing, its strengths were mood, nuance, and richness of composition. The Duke expressed his view clearly in his statement “jazz is music, swing is business”. In the US he had largely an African-American following, while his greatest successes he probably had in Europe.
While he might not have had the “King of Swing” status, Duke Ellington remained very successful throughout the recession and also into the early 1940ies. He was a master in producing hits, which were then limited to three minutes in length, as this was all that could be captured on one 78rpm record side. While Duke Ellington tried to go beyond the three minutes, those pieces were not overly successful.
And Louis Armstrong? 1930 to 45 seem to have been quite an unsteady phase in his life. He moved frequently between cities before he settled in New York in 1943. He was plagued by contractual problems, but obviously was also suffering from racial discriminations. On top of that, he got issues with his lips due to the extensive trumpet playing.
He was able to solve the contractual issues and the problems with the mob when he hired a new manager. While being a superstar, even somebody like Louis Armstrong needed a white man on his side to be able to get through without problems. He also escaped his troubles at home with extensive tours in Europe. The first tour in 1932 was not a great success, due to bad preparation and management, but he returned to the old continent between July 33 and the end of 34 with a great success.
The second problem forced him to sing more. He soon realized that with a combination of music and show he was most successful.
Despite the issues mentioned above, he stayed very relevant and successful through the 1930ies and early 40ies. Radio and film were important for his success, he became the first African American to host a sponsored, national broadcast.
Towards the end of the decade, the recession was over and the economy started growing again. People wanted to enjoy life after the hard years, liked to dance and Swing was the soundtrack to their life then.
Different styles had emerged – for example, Benny Goodman was known for his hard-driving Swing, Count Basie for his simple and riff-filled Swing and Duke Ellington for his highly-developed Swing.
With the success, the music became clearly more commercial. Improvisation and innovation were less important, the hitparade was key for most of the musicians.
In the still strongly segregated United States, the white orchestras of Goodman and Shaw had clear advantages in the commercial battle and started to dominate the scene. They had learned the tricks and licks of the African-American artists and started to refine them.
White band leader also started hiring black musicians, although this made touring very difficult. Black musicians often could not stay in the same hotels and restaurants as their white band colleagues.
This was clearly the time when Jazz had its peak in terms of popularity.