'It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ declared Duke Ellington in 1931. The dawn of the 1930s was a tumultuous time in the United States. The Great Depression, Prohibition and racial segregation was the unlikely backdrop for the birth of swing, the music of integration and celebration.
In the early 1920s the epicentre of jazz migrated from its birthplace in New Orleans up to Chicago, as key figures like Louis Armstrong moved north. The dominant style was Hot Jazz, later known as Dixieland, played by groups of up to seven musicians all improvising in unison.
Out of the speakeasies
In 1924, bandleader Fletcher Henderson brought Armstrong to New York and the Big Apple became the new home of jazz. The repeal of prohibition in 1933 helped to bring jazz musicians out of the speakeasies and into dancehalls.
Duke Ellington led the house band at Harlem’s Cotton Club from 1927, where they backed up cabaret performers, vaudeville acts and singers. Ellington’s orchestra grew to 15 members, a template for the big bands of the swing era.
It fell to white bandleader Benny Goodman to take the emerging swing style to the masses
But, in racially-divided America, it fell to white bandleader Benny Goodman to take the emerging swing style to the masses. On 12 August, 1935, the Benny Goodman Orchestra was playing at LA’s Palomar Theatre with the flamboyant Gene Krupa on drums.
When the audience met their restrained tea dance tunes with polite applause, Goodman launched the band into a set of hard swinging arrangements he’d bought from Fletcher Henderson. The dance floor erupted and the Swing Era was off and running.