What Is a Swing Orchestra?

The swing orchestra reigned during the only time in America when a form of jazz was the most popular genre of music, also known as the Big Band Era or Jazz Age. A loud rhythm section with a drum kit and bass backed up a mini-symphony of brass instruments like trumpets and woodwind instruments like the saxophone. The band’s leader commanded the stage from the center, introducing solo performers and keeping the audience engaged.

The bandleader, whether it was Louis Armstrong on trumpet, Benny “King of Swing” Goodman on clarinet, or Count Basie on piano or drums, frequently performed with the swing orchestra and was often the most famous member. He or she would only pause for interlude banter and to reroute the music, which was said to “swing” or roll naturally through each melody. Unlike many earlier and later jazz forms, the swing orchestra stuck to the basic form of each song, leaving improvisation to the soloists and singers. This made dancing easier and led to swing’s dominance in dance halls.

Many consider Benny Goodman & His Orchestra to be the first swing band, as they performed at the Pallomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935. Although this is when white audiences became aware of the danceable form, Chick Webb, an African American, deserves much of the credit for introducing it four years earlier in a Harlem ravaged the Great Depression. A few decades later, when Elvis Presley brought white people into the fold of rhythm and blues, another African American creation, a similar phenomenon occurred.

Swing music emerged in the mid-1930s as a more organized, staged form of jazz, popularized swing band leaders such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller on radio, stage, and records. Swing became popular not only in the United States but also in other countries, where it was broadcast on Armed Forces Radio and featured in USO shows. When the soldiers returned home, the art form died out.

Audiences began to prefer artists like Frank Sinatra’s pop crooning style, and traveling with large orchestras became prohibitively expensive. The swing orchestra and its mostly upbeat, melodic sound faded from favor after World War II ended in 1945, but not before generating millions of new fans for the jazz form that gave it life. Several regional acts continue to keep the old style alive while infusing it with newer flavors from sources such as rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and salsa.