Big Band music became popular during the Swing Era from the early 1930s until the late 1940s and evolved with the times. A big band typically consists of approximately 12 to 25 musicians and contains saxophones, trumpets, trombones, singers, and a rhythm section. The terms jazz band, jazz ensemble, stage band, jazz orchestra, society band and dance band are used to describe a specific type of big band. Swing music began in the 1920s and flourished through the early 1930s, although there was little mass audience for it until around 1936. Up until that time, it was viewed with ridicule and looked upon as a curiosity. After 1935, big bands rose to prominence playing swing music and held a major role in defining swing as a distinctive style.
There was a considerable range of styles among the hundreds of popular bands. Many of the better known bands reflected the individuality of the bandleader, the lead arranger, and the personnel. Count Basie played a relaxed propulsive swing, Bob Crosby more of a dixieland style, Benny Goodman a hard driving swing, and Duke Ellington’s compositions were varied and sophisticated. Many bands featured strong instrumentalists, whose sounds dominated, such as the clarinets of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman, the trombone of Jack Teagarden, the trumpet of Harry James, the drums of Gene Krupa, and the vibes of Lionel Hampton. The popularity of many of the major bands was amplified by star vocalists, such as Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey, Helen O'Connell and Bob Eberly with Jimmy Dorsey, Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb, Billie Holiday and Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie, Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest with Harry James, Doris Day with Les Brown, and Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman. Some bands were society bands that relied on strong ensembles but little on soloists or vocalists, such as the bands of Guy Lombardo and Paul Whiteman.
White teenagers and young adults were the principal fans of the Big Bands in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. They danced to recordings and the radio, and attended live concerts whenever they could. They were knowledgeable and often biased toward their favorite bands and songs, and sometimes worshipful of the famous soloists and vocalists. Many bands toured the country in grueling one-night stands to reach out to their fans. Traveling conditions and lodging were often difficult, in part due to segregation in most parts of the United States, and the personnel often had to perform on little sleep and food. Apart from the star soloists, many personnel received low wages and would abandon the tour and go home if bookings fell through. Personal problems and intra-band discord could affect the playing of the group and drinking and addictions were common. Turnover was frequent in many bands, and top soloists were often lured away to better contracts. Sometimes bandstands were too small, public address systems inadequate, pianos out of tune. Successful band-leaders dealt with all these hazards of touring to hold their bands together—some with rigid discipline (Glenn Miller), some with canny psychology (Duke Ellington).
Big Bands played a major role in lifting morale during World War II. Many band members served in the military and toured with USO troupes at the front, with Glenn Miller losing his life while traveling between troop shows. Many bands suffered from the loss of personnel and quality declined at home during the war years. An ill-timed recording strike in 1942 worsened the situation. Vocalists began to strike out on their own and by the end of the war, swing was giving way to less danceable music including bebop. Many of the great swing bands broke up as tastes changed. The Big Bands were an integral part of the American way during the 20th century with 1936 to 1945 the peak.