10 Important Swing Era Jazz Musicians
Learn about key artists who dominated the swing era scene
The swing era is known as the days of jazz when dance halls were packed with people eager to listen and swing dance to the best big bands from around the country. During this period, artists developed styles that influenced later musicians and subsets of jazz, from bebop and beyond. Here is a list of 10 swing era musicians who set the stage for jazz to become the valued art form it is today.
Henderson played a key role in opening up the creative possibilities in jazz. A multi-talented man, Henderson was a skilled pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader. He led one of the most popular bands in New York in the 1920s and 30s. With an ear for talent, Henderson was responsible for hiring Louis Armstrong and bringing him to the Big Apple from Chicago in 1924. Benny Goodman jump-started his popular big band with a handful of Henderson’s arrangements, and in the ’40s Henderson joined the group to become Goodman’s full-time arranger.
Read my artist profile of Fletcher Henderson.
Considered one of the most important composers in American music, Duke Ellington rose to fame during the swing era by performing weekly at New York’s Cotton Club. He led his band through decades of recording and performing, and his compositions and arrangements, which was written with his loyal band members in mind, experimented with harmonic and formal devices that are studied to this day. Many pieces in his repertoire are now considered jazz standards.
With his unique, raspy tone combined with his command of harmonically detailed improvisation, Coleman Hawkins became the preeminent tenor saxophonist during the swing era. He developed his style while a member of Fletcher Henderson’s big band. Later, he toured the world as a soloist. His 1939 recording of “Body and Soul” is considered one of the landmark improvisations in jazz history. Hawkins’ influence lasted throughout the advent of bebop and later styles, as instrumentalists attempted to reach for his level of harmonic sophistication and virtuosity.
Pianist William “Count” Basie began to garner attention when he moved to Kansas City—a hotbed of jazz—to play with Bennie Moten’s big band in 1929. Basie then formed his own group in 1935, which became one of the most popular bands in the country, performing in Kansas City, Chicago, and New York. Basie’s piano style was sparse and precise, and his compositions were bluesy and rousing. Some of his most famous recordings were made with singers, including Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennet.
Hodges studied briefly with Sidney Bechet, who influenced the alto saxophonist’s syrupy, lyrical sound with a fast, voice-like vibrato. In his 38 years with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Hodges developed his signature sound and was often featured in the band. His unique tone and approach to melody have helped define lyrical saxophone playing throughout the development of jazz.
A prodigious talent, pianist Art Tatum was ahead of his time. Although not associated with any of the great swing bands, Tatum was the premiere keyboardist during the swing era. He could play stride piano in the style of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller but took his music beyond the conventions of jazz at the time. Tatum employed his harmonic knowledge, which was learned by ear, to construct elegant lines at breakneck tempos. His virtuosity, technique, and harmonic innovations set the standard for bebop musicians in the 1940s and 50s.
Webster, along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, was one of the three titans of the tenor saxophone during the swing era. His sound could be growling and rough on up-tempo tunes, or graceful and sensitive on ballads. He is best known for his time spent in Duke Ellington’s band, in which he was the leading tenor soloist for about eight years from 1935 to 1943. His recorded version of “Cotton Tail” is regarded as one of swing era’s gems. Webster spent the last decade of his life and career as a jazz celebrity in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The son of poor Jewish Immigrants, clarinetist Benny Goodman moved to New York from Chicago in the late 1920s. In the ’30s, he began leading a band for a weekly dance radio show, for which he bought several of Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements. Credited with popularizing the music of black musicians, such as Henderson, among white audiences, Goodman is considered instrumental in the bolstering of swing music. He is also considered one of the best jazz clarinetists of all time.
Lester Young was a tenor saxophonist who spent his childhood touring with his family’s band. In 1933, he moved to Kansas City where he eventually joined Count Basie’s big band. Young’s warm tone and relaxed, melodic approach on the tenor sax was not often well-received by audiences used to the harsh, aggressive sound of Coleman Hawkins. However, his style became very influential on Charlie Parker’s playing and consequentially on bebop in general. Young was also known for his eccentric personal style that manifested itself in his playing, clothes, and manner of speech. His nickname, “Prez,” was given to him by Billie Holiday.
Trumpeter Roy Eldridge is seen as a bridge between swing era music and bebop. Largely influenced by Coleman Hawkins, Eldridge was a much sought-after musician in New York and played in big bands led by Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw. His proficiency and ease in all registers of the trumpet and his double time melodic lines became a model for bebop musicians. Eldridge was an influence on later jazz musicians, like Dizzy Gillespie.