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« Architecture, Insane and Sane | Main | Donald Westlake R.I.P. »

January 01, 2009

The Best Swing Band Was ...

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Although I was born at the height of the swing band era, I didn't become familiar with that music until I became a teenager. That's when a Seattle radio station (KJR) began playing a lot of classic cuts.

The Wikipedia entry on swing is here. I don't agree with some of the details, including the list of bandleaders and sidemen. But that might be ignorance on my part; after all, I haven't paid a lot of attention to the history of swing since the days of my early enthusiasm.

That small matter aside, I thought I'd toss out a sample list of swing band leaders for your consideration. I have my favorite, and swing-fan readers surely have theirs. In Comments, feel free to include other bands.

For starters:

  • Charlie Barnet

  • Count Basie

  • Cab Calloway

  • Tommy Dorsey

  • Duke Ellington

  • Benny Goodman

  • Glen Gray

  • Woody Herman

  • Glenn Miller

  • Artie Shaw

My favorite?

Benny Goodman, of course.



posted by Donald at January 1, 2009


For pure swing, Basie is my favorite. Goodman and Ellington right behind. Although Woody Herman's band from the 50s absolutely killed.

Posted by: JV on January 1, 2009 2:40 PM

What, no mention of Bob Wills or Spade Cooley?

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on January 1, 2009 2:59 PM

Forgot to mention Louis Bellson's band from the 70s. Great, great band with some amazing players. Also, not really swing but still a big band: Jaco Pastorius' band in the 80s.

Damn, haven't listened to big band in a long time, might just have to start the new year out with some.

Posted by: JV on January 1, 2009 3:10 PM

The Goodman concert at Carnegie Hall was wonderful music. For just one track, though, listen to Ella singing with the Chick Webb band: "Sing me a swing song and let me dance". Blisserama.

Posted by: dearieme on January 1, 2009 6:12 PM

How d'ye like Roger Wolfe Kahn?

(Clicking through to the version of the same tune by Whispering Jack Smith is good fun too.)

Posted by: dearieme on January 1, 2009 6:24 PM

Toss up between Benny Goodman and Count Basie. My favorite swing tune ever: Benny Goodman's "Jersey Bounce." I play it every day on the piano to warm up.

One of the great things about Sirius radio is the channels for all the various musical genres and eras.

I listen to a lot of big band stuff. Sirius even plays the B tunes, so I'm hearing stuff I never heard before.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on January 1, 2009 6:45 PM

Ellington is by far the best of these band leaders, but he wasn't really swing. Just an amazing artist really, with only Louis Armstrong for competition as the best jazz artist ever.

But, as for pure swing, I'd go with Basie, though Goodman isn't far behind.

Posted by: Thursday on January 1, 2009 7:27 PM

No Harry James? Come on!

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on January 1, 2009 8:24 PM

Dr. Weevil, you are right. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys must be included in this list.

And kudos to Asleep at the Wheel for keeping Will's legacy alive.

As Waylon Jennings said: "In Texas, Bob Wills is still the king."

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on January 1, 2009 8:42 PM

I love Bob Wills, but I don't think he was working in the same genre as Duke Ellington or Artie Shaw or those guys. Instrumentation and style is just too different -- Wills never had horn players anywhere near as good as the great jazz big bands, but his fiddlers and steel guitarists were great. His sound was more raw. He had a bigger influence on both rock and country than the big band people did, but isn't really a major jazz figure.

Posted by: MQ on January 2, 2009 12:00 PM

I don't know all the bands you've listed, but of those whose recordings I am somewhat familiar with, I'd ultimately go with Goodman, although partisans of Basie will get no argument here.

Ellington is something of an enigma to me. Player for player, his '30s band and the '50s revival can stand up to anyone. Yet, despite that and his and Billy Strayhorn's estimable songwriting (I know this is heretical) there is something effete, over-intellectualized about Ellington's output. He seemed to feel jazz was vulgar, needed to be polished and refined to the nth degree. The soloists and sections are wonderful in their way, but overcontrolled and thin-blooded.

Glenn Miller's and Tommy Dorsey's bands are just too slick and commercial for these ears.

Posted by: Rick Darby on January 2, 2009 1:32 PM

Rick -- I'd say we're on the same page. I left out commentary on various bands so as to give commenters plenty of leeway.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 2, 2009 2:25 PM

MQ: No one said Bob Wills (or Spade Cooley, who beat him in a head-to-head battle of the bands) was a major or minor jazz figure. The subject was swing bands, and I think they both qualify.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on January 2, 2009 3:13 PM

Rick, that's a good observation about Ellington. His bands did not swing as hard as some. Definitely not the dance band that Basie and Goodman were. Duke was more interested in orchestration and pushing the boundaries of big band composition and arrangement, which is what I love about his music. But yeah, more about the head than the feet.

Posted by: JV on January 2, 2009 3:23 PM

And what about Les Brown?

Posted by: ortega on January 2, 2009 3:38 PM

Shoot fire!

You left out one of the best great western swing bands:

Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys

You hurt mah feelins'....!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on January 2, 2009 5:58 PM

Teagarden apparently was no fan of Ellington. I must say that I'm a great fan of many of Ellington's tunes.

Posted by: dearieme on January 2, 2009 7:01 PM

My parents' favorite music, and my son loves it, but I only just started listening to it.

Stan Kenton isn't really swing but I loved the brilliance of his sound.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 2, 2009 7:45 PM

Being from Chicago, I tend to like Benny Goodman the best as well.

Posted by: Robert on January 2, 2009 8:20 PM

From across the pond: Ted Heath. Really great band.

Ah, it's been fun thinking about this. I played trumpet from 6th grade through college and listened to TONS of big band, and jazz in general. Kind of stopped listening to it since I stopped playing.

For any trumpet players out there, particularly if you every played lead, here's a great video of the best lead trumpet player ever, long-time Ellington lead, Cat Anderson. Screaming like no one before or since:

Posted by: JV on January 2, 2009 8:49 PM

Wow, a guy that could run a great swing band AND be Prime Minister of the UK is one multi-talented cat.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 2, 2009 10:12 PM

Of course, he wasn't a very good Prime Minister, so maybe "multi-talented" is the wrong word.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 2, 2009 10:14 PM

Now that Harry Wilson, though, that was one smokin' hot hepcat!

Posted by: PatrickH on January 2, 2009 10:15 PM

Like they said in Sultans of Swing:

And Harry doesn't mind
If he doesn't make the scene
He's got a daytime job
[Prime Minister! - ed.]
He's doin' all right

Posted by: PatrickH on January 2, 2009 10:19 PM

But he was better than Thatcher, right? Or is it the other way around?

Posted by: Sister Wolf on January 3, 2009 9:37 PM

Say it, Sister! Thatcher couldn't swing at all. Too stiff-necked to just cut loose and jive, and her tone and timbre and dynamics were all wrong: too precious, too self-conscious, too plummy.

Good thing Donald didn't try to nominate her, or JV mention her. That would have just been too much, even for me.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 4, 2009 12:49 AM

Thatcher was more of a bopper. With her handbag.

Posted by: dearieme on January 5, 2009 8:55 PM

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