Priceless performance by the Ellington band at its greatest. Solos by Ray Nance on violin, Tricky Sam Nanton on trombone, Rex Stewart on trumpet and Ben Webster on tenor sax. Some consider Duke Ellington to be a figure comparable to J.S. Bach or Mozart. I agree.
Count Basie Orchestra playing “One o’ Clock Jump”, one of their standards. In distinction to Ellington, Basie’s compositions, including this one, are more like 4 or 5 note “riffs”. They are used as a context for interplay between different sections of the band and solos from the top musicians of the 1930s outside of the Ellington orchestra—like saxophonists Lester Young and Buddy Tate, and trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry Edison. Clayton and Tate are featured in this performance.
Ellington preferred to call what he played “American music” rather than jazz. He was the first to start performing in concert halls, even though Count Basie is probably better known for his Carnegie Hall performances that were part of the Spiritual to Swing concerts produced by the leftist John Hammond.
Cab Calloway was an immensely popular musician who was cast in a Betty Boop cartoon singing “Minnie the Mooche”. He played “Sportin’ Life” in a movie version of “Porgy and Bess” in the 50s, and had a role in the Blues Brother movie as well. He often sang about drugs, from “Reefer Man” to this performance of “Kickin’ the Gong Around”. You have to wonder if Michael Jackson got the idea for the moonwalk after watching this clip. Frankly, I think Cab was a much better dancer.
Benny Goodman in great performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing” from the 1937 movie “Hollywood Hotel”. Goodman worked closely with John Hammond, the Columbia Records executive alluded to above. Like Hammond, Goodman was committed to New Deal cultural leftism and was the first white bandleaders to feature a Black musician—vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.
Gene Krupa, Goodman’s drummer, started his own big band. He hired Anita O’Day, one of the greatest pure jazz singers, who created some controversy by a performing in a duo with African-American trumpet player Roy Eldridge “Let Me Off Uptown”. When John Chilton, the author of an Eldridge biography, was asked about the difficulties Eldridge faced as a Black man in a white band, he replied:
He worked with Gene Krupa, whose band he joined as a star member. The experience was great for him on the bandstand, but when he got off, even though Krupa was the most broad-minded person in those days, he encountered problems. For instance, when they got to a hotel, the employees would inform him that the room he booked had mysteriously become unavailable, that the hotel was now completely booked up. Roy devised a very clever scheme to combat this by entering the hotel lobby with his suitcase and telling the employees that it was for Mr. Eldridge’s room. That way they gave him the key and he was in, and they then couldn’t get him out. At any rate it was an indignity to have to go through that. A very famous circumstance involving bigotry occurred while they toured the North. Someone wouldn’t serve Roy in a restaurant, and it ended up with Krupa hitting the bigot, and having to pay a fine. Of course, the rest of the band supported Gene, but the audience had no idea these traumas were going on in the background.
Artie Shaw had other things in common with Benny Goodman besides being a clarinetist. He was also a Jew: Arthur Jacob Arshawsky. And like Goodman, he was sympathetic to the left but even more so as the wiki on Artie Shaw points out:
In 1946, Shaw was present at a meeting of the Independent Citizens’ Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. Olivia de Havilland and Ronald Reagan, part of a core group of actors and artists who were trying to sway the organization away from communism, presented an anti-communist declaration which, if signed, was to run in newspapers. There was bedlam as many rose to champion the communist cause, and Artie Shaw began praising the democratic standards of the Soviet constitution. In 1953, Shaw was brought up before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his leftist activities. The committee was investigating a peace activist organization, the World Peace Congress, which it considered a communist front.
Unlike Goodman, Shaw evolved into a post-swing musician working with small bop-oriented groups when the economic basis for big bands had dried up. Here’s the Shaw band performing the exquisitely named “Shoot the Likker To Me John Boy” in 1939. There’s a very young Buddy Rich on the drums.
Next up is Youtube clips of big bands from the post-swing era, like Woody Herman’s.