BY JAY GALEN, ILLUSTRATED BY COURTNEY GRANNER
Blasting horns. Lots of them – in perfect unison. A driving rhythm section. Up-tempo instrumentals. And couples exhibiting a new form of personal expression – swing dancing.
It was the 1930s, and the floor at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, Cotton Club, and Apollo Theater was the place to jive, lindy, jitterbug, push, whip, and shag to big bands led by such luminaries as Chick Webb, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, and Lionel Hampton.
The big band format proved to be a fertile field for the art of drumming. It was during this era in music that the drummer moved from the background into the spotlight. Hallelujah!
Though the heyday of swing was relatively short-lived (the ’30s, ’40s, and into the ’50s), it left an indelible mark on jazz lovers, dancers and musicians the world over.
If your CD collection is seriously devoid of swing music, don’t worry. We’ve compiled a list of recordings that are really squawking. Enjoy! And remember, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
Benny Goodman and His Orchestra (Bluebird)
Gene Krupa, drums
The great Benny Goodman has to top the list simply because he was, well, “The King of Swing.” This LP is a phenomenal collection of Goodman’s most memorable recordings. As they used to say back in the day, “Hey Gate, ain’t nothing icky here. This is in the groove.” Arrangements by Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Mundy, Gordon Jenkins, Mary Lou Williams, Edgar Sampson, and Bill Basie shine thanks to a band full of brilliant players, especially drummer Gene Krupa. His tom-tom solo on “Sing, Sing, Sing” is still considered by many to be one of the most exciting solos ever played.
Count Basie Orchestra
Prime Time (Pablo)
Butch Miles, drums
Without question, Count Basie was the force in jazz. Prime Time offers up a wealth of stellar performances and solos. And check out the Sammy Nestico arrangements. If you’ve ever played in a high school or college big band, you’ve no doubt played Sammy’s killer charts. And then there’s drummer Butch Miles. Listen closely and you’re apt to hear a little bit of Sonny Payne combined with Buddy. Too cool.
Count Basie Orchestra
Live in Sweden (Roulette)
Louie Bellson, drums
There are two significant reasons for having Live in Sweden in your collection. One, it’s a live recording. Two, Louie Bellson commands the drum throne. On this LP, the Basie Orchestra is infused with Bellson’s special fervor. His performance is simply filled with amazing technicality and musicality. A must for any drummer’s collection.
Ellington at Newport (Columbia)
Sam Woodyard, drums
While Basie may have been the most influential bandleader of the swing era, Duke Ellington is inarguably the most important composer of the time. Case in point: Duke’s appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Check out “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue.” Paul Gonsalves’ 27-chorus tenor sax solo caused such a ruckus, the crowd danced uncontrollably and wailed as loud as the band. The LP is filled with such classics as “Sophisticated Lady,” “Take the ’A’ Train” and “Skin Deep.” This LP represents a remarkable encore at the end of an era.
Chick Webb & His Orchestra
Spinnin’ the Web (Decca/GRP)
Chick Webb, drums
Chick Webb was hunchbacked, small in stature and a giant among drummers and jazzers alike. Proof of his prowess can be heard on every track of Spinnin’ the Web. Webb’s signature sound and Edgar Sampson’s arrangements gave this band its distinctive personality. The band was all about gettin’ down on the upbeat. Fact is, they were one of the first big bands to combine African rhythms with Western chords and harmonies. Goodman and Krupa went to school on Webb. And Webb paved the way for drummers like Rich and Bellson. All of which made Chick Webb & His Orchestra one of the finest swing bands of the 1930s.
Drummin’ Man (Columbia)
Gene Krupa, drums
What can I say about Gene Krupa that hasn’t been said before? Hunt down this two-LP box set, play it loud, and weep. Drummin’ Man contains 32 of Krupa’s best recordings, including “Drum Boogie,” “Let Me Off Uptown,” “Body and Soul” and “Bolero at the Savoy.” This robust collection features outstanding performances by singer Anita O’Day, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, tenor man Charlie Ventura and of course Krupa himself.
Encore: Woody Herman 1963 (Philips)
Jake Hanna, drums
In 1963 this fine LP took the Grammy for best instrumental jazz performance. Herman’s real skill as a bandleader was his ability to cast just the right people for the band. Throughout the band’s many incarnations, some of the finest players worked for Herman. On this LP, drummer Jake Hanna shreds on the smokin’ track “Caldonia.”
New Concepts in Artistry of Rhythm (Capitol)
Stan Levey, drums
This album from 1952 really swings. Kenton, being one of the most controversial of big band leaders, had a cult following. There’s a cut on this LP, “Invention for Guitar and Trumpet,” that’s truly outrageous. Guitarist Sal Salvador and trumpeter Maynard Ferguson tear it up as drummer Stan Levey swings the band hard.
Artie Shaw & His Orchestra
Begin the Beguine(Bluebird/RCA)
Buddy Rich, drums
Artie Shaw – one of jazz’s finest clarinetists – led not one, not two, but five successful big bands. All of them were distinctive, all of them memorable, but none more so than his band of 1938 featuring tenor man George Auld, vocalists Helen Forrest and Tony Pastor, and the genius of Buddy Rich. Is it any wonder why this orchestra was the most popular in the world?
Cab Calloway Orchestra
Cab Calloway Orchestra 1940-1941(Classics)
Cozy Cole, drums
Cab Calloway was one of the true great entertainers of the swing era. He could sing, scat, and dance. Remarkably, he started his career playing the piano and then switched over to drums. As a bandleader, his talent was equally brilliant. This compilation demonstrates just how powerful the band actually was. It features trumpet giants Dizzy Gillespie and Jonah Jones and drummer Cozy Cole.
Clarke-Boland Big Band
At Her Majesty’s Pleasure (Black Lion)
Kenny Clarke, drums
Kenny Clarke, the father of bebop drumming, and pianist/composer Francy Boland were among the top European orchestras of the ’60s and early ’70s. This LP really showcases Boland’s stellar arrangements. And check out drum battle between Kenny Clarke and Kenny Clare on “Doing Time.”
Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra
Opening Night: Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band at the Village Vanguard(Mosaic)
Mel Lewis, drums
If you’re a big band fan, this CD should be an essential part of your collection. The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra was an exciting band. “Opening Night” highlights the abilities of a powerful cast: Hank Jones, Jerome Richardson, Pepper Adams, Snooky Young, Jerry Dodgion and Eddie Daniels, to name a few. As for Mel Lewis, he played for the music, displaying simplified chops and the optimum of swing. In short, this band kicks.
Duke Pearson Big Band
Introducing Duke Pearson’s Big Band (Blue Note)
Mickey Roker, drums
Some of today’s best jazz players cut their teeth in Duke Pearson’s band – guys like Chick Corea, Lew Tabackin and Randy Brecker, for starters. Columbus Calvin Pearson, nicknamed “Duke” after Ellington, was an accomplished pianist and composer. This 1967 LP can best be described as “hip” big band music thanks to the memorable and unpredictable arrangements.
Terry Gibbs Dream Band
Dream Band, Volume 1 (Contemporary)
Mel Lewis, drums
Put a pair of mallets in this guy’s hands and watch out. Terry Gibbs performed his magic at lightning speed. Even most of his ballads were played in double time. The Dream Band featured an all-star lineup including tenor man Bill Holman, pianist Pete Jolly and drummer Mel Lewis. You’ll love these recordings.
Night & Day (Giant Records)
Tris Imboden, drums
Chicago? Granted, we’re well past the ’40s and ’50s with this one. But in 1995, Chicago released a collection of jazz standards paying homage to that great swing era. For those not hip to big band, this CD is an electrifying introduction to such classics as “Goody Goody,” “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “Take the ’A’ Train,” played Chicago style. Tris Imboden and the entire band swing these tunes with a refreshing kick. Yep, it’s jazz that rocks.
Lionel Hampton & His Orchestra
Live at the Metropole Café(Hindsight Records)
Wayne Robinson, drums
This is the LP if you want to hear Hampton really stretch out. Within this tight ensemble, Hampton gives us some groundbreaking solos on such tunes as “How High the Moon” and “Flying Home.” This is hardcore swing. The Hamp was so happening, a vibraphone he played for some 15 years is now on display at the National Museum of American History!
Stomp It Off (GRP)
Jimmy Crawford, drums
While Lunceford’s band was short on soloists, the band itself was incredibly tight and swingin’. This compilation LP features some of the band’s best recordings including their biggest hit, “Rhythm Is Our Business.” The Sy Oliver arrangements are particularly good. The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra was also the first of its kind to spotlight high-note trumpeters. It’s a good bet Maynard Ferguson loved this band. We know that Stan Kenton did.
Complete Maynard Ferguson on Roulette (Roulette)
Rufus Jones, drums
How high can you go? Ferguson possessed the biggest lungs in the brass world. At one point, he could play higher than any other trumpeter could. Better still, he was amazingly accurate. This three-LP set shows Ferguson at his peak. The music is full of energy and high-caliber, high-powered musicianship. A word of advice: Place your fine crystal far from the speakers.
Al Jones, Kansas Fields and Art Blakey, drums
To say that Gillespie’s importance to jazz and big band was monumental is an understatement. In addition to leading two of the finest big bands in history, Gillespie was one of the first to add Afro-Cuban jazz and bebop to the mix. Recorded in 1951,Champ is a stellar example of what bop is all about.
Carnegie Hall Concert (Bluebird/RCA)
Moe Purtill, drums
“In the Mood,” “Moonlight Serenade,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” “A String of Pearls,” and a host of other memorable songs are precisely why Glenn Miller dominated popular music. They’re also why Miller has proven to be one of the most enduring figures of the swing era. His music was sweet, soothing and joyous all at the same time. One of the hottest tunes off the Carnegie Hall LP is, without a doubt, “Jim Jam Jump.”
Buddy Rich Big Band
Big Swing Face (Pacific Jazz)
Buddy Rich, drums
Naturally, we saved the best for last. On this LP, the Buddy Rich Big Band was in its early prime nailing charts by Bill Holman, Shorty Rogers, Bob Florence and Bill Potts, among others. I’d be remiss, however, if I failed to mention other stupendous Buddy recordings. Try playing along to “Chicago” and “I Can’t Get Started” on The New One! (Pacific Jazz), or pop in the fabulous Mercy MercyLP (World Pacific). Face it, Buddy was the Chairman of the Board.