regardless of labels. His uninterrupted activity as a bandleader since 1924
has earned him a high place in each successive decade, and his
achievement is a history of Jazz in itself.
Three outstanding contributors to Ellingtonia must be mentioned. They are
trumpeter-composer Bubber Miley (1903-1932),the co-creator of the first
significant style for the band and, like his exact contemporary Bix
Beiderbecke, a victim of too much, too soon; bassist Jimmy Blanton
(1918-1942), who in his two years with Ellington shaped a whole new role
for his instrument in Jazz, both as a solo and ensemble voice; and Billy
Strayhorn (1915-1967), composer-arranger and Ellington alter ego who
contributed much to the band from 1939 until his death.
STRIDE & BOOGIE WOOGIE
Aside from the band, for which he wrote with such splendid skill,
Ellington's instrument was the piano. When he came to New York as a
young man, his idols were James P. Johnson (1894-1955), a brilliant
instrumentalist and gifted composer, and Johnson's closest rival, Willie
(The Lion) Smith (1898-1973). Both were masters of the "stride" school of
Jazz piano, marked by an exceptionally strong, pumping line in the left
hand. James P.'s prize student was Fats Waller. New York pianists often
met in friendly but fierce contests--the beginnings of what would later be
known as jam sessions.
In Chicago, a very different piano style came into the picture in the late
`20s, dubbed boogie-woogie after the most famous composition by its first
significant exponent, Pinetop Smith (1904-1929). This rolling,
eight-to-the-bar bass style was popular at house parties in the Windy City
and became a national craze in 1939, after three of its best practitioners,
Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis, had been presented
in concert at Carnegie Hall.
KANSAS CITY SOUNDS
Johnson was from Kansas City, where boogie-woogie was also popular.
The midwestern center was a haven for Jazz musicians through-out the
rule of Boss Pendergast, when the city was wide open and music could be
heard around the clock.
The earliest and one of the best of the K.C. bands was led by Bennie
Moten (1894-1935). By 1930 it had in its ranks pianist Count Basie
(1905-1984) who'd learned from Fats Waller; trumpeter-singer Oran (Hot
Lips) Page (1908-1954), one of Louis Armstrong's greatest disciples; and
an outstanding singer, Jimmy Rushing (1903-1972). The city was to put its
imprint on Jazz during the `30s and early `40s.
The great Depression had its impact on Jazz as it did on virtually all other
facets of American life. The record business reached its lowest ebb in
1931. By that year, many musicians who had been able to make a living
playing Jazz had been forced to either take commercial music jobs or leave
the field entirely.
But the music survived. Again, Louis Armstrong set a pattern. At the helm
of a big band with his increasingly popular singing as a feature, he recast
the pop hits of the day in his unique Jazz mold, as such artists as Fats
Waller and Billie Holiday (1915-1959), perhaps the most gifted of female
Jazz singers would do a few years later.
Thus, while sentimental music and romantic "crooners" were the rage
(among them Bing Crosby who had worked with Paul Whiteman and
learned more than a little from Jazz), a new kind of "hot" dance music
began to take hold. It wasn't really new, but rather a streamlining of the
Henderson style, introduced by the Casa Loma Orchestra which featured
the arrangements of Georgia-born guitarist Gene Gifford (1908-1970).
Almost forgotten today, this band paved the way for the Swing Era.
THE COMING OF SWING
As we've seen, big bands were a feature of the Jazz landscape from the
first. Though the Swing Era didn't come into full flower until 1935, most
up-and-coming young jazzmen from 1930 found themselves working in big
Among these were two pacesetters of the decade, trumpeter Roy (Little
Jazz) Eldridge (1911-1989) and tenorist Leon (Chu) Berry (1908-1941).
Eldridge, the most influential trumpeter after Louis, has a fiery mercurial
style and great range and swing. Among the bands he sparked were
Fletcher Henderson's and Teddy Hill's. The latter group also included
Berry, the most gifted follower of Coleman Hawkins, and the brilliant
trombonist Dicky Wells (1909-1985).
Another trend setting band was that of tiny, hunchbacked drummer Chick
Webb (1909-1939), who by dint of almost superhuman energy overcame
his physical handicap and made himself into perhaps the greatest of all Jazz
drummers. His band really got under way when he heard and hired a
young girl singer in 1935. Her name was Ella Fitzgerald (b. 1917).
THE KING OF SWING
But it was Benny Goodman who became the standard-bearer of swing. In
1934, he gave up a lucrative career as a studio musician to form a big band
with a commitment to good music. His Jazz-oriented style met with little
enthusiasm at first. He was almost ready to give it up near the end of a
disastrous cross-country tour in the summer of `35 when suddenly his
fortunes shifted. His band was received with tremendous acclaim at the
Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles.
It seems that the band's broadcasts had been especially well timed for
California listeners. Whatever the reason, the band, which included such
Jazz stars as the marvelous trumpeter Bunny Berigan (1908-1942) and
drummer Gene Krupa, not to mention Benny himself, now scored success
after success. Some of the band's best material was contributed by
arrangers Fletcher Henderson and his gifted younger brother Horace.
As the bands grew in popularity, a new breed of fan began to appear. This
fan wanted to listen as much as he wanted to dance. (In fact, some
disdained dancing altogether.) He knew each man in each band and read
the new swing magazines that were springing up--Metronome, Down Beat,
Orchestra World. He collected records and listened to the growing number
of band broadcasts on radio. Band leaders were becoming national figures
on a scale with Hollywood stars.
OTHER GREAT BIG BANDS
Benny's arch rival in the popularity sweepstakes was fellow clarinetist
Artie Shaw (b.1910), who was an on-again-off-again leader. Other very
successful bands included those of Jimmy Dorsey and Tommy Dorsey,
whose co-led Dorsey Brothers Band split up after one of their celebrated
First among black bandleaders were Duke Ellington and Jimmie