This Issue of the Chronicle, we present Part #7B (The BIG Band Era) of our 12-part series of the "History of the Sounds of Modern Music." Our objective is to follow the Sounds made by innovative Humans and their Instruments that have evolved throughout the Centuries of Man-on-Earth.

Part #1 - Early Civilizations Part #2 - Pre Civil War

Part #3 - Civil War and Post Part #4 -New Orleans Scene

Part #5 - The River Boat Era Part #6- The Big Cities

Part #7A(1-2) - Roaring 20s Part #7B - The BIG Band Era

Part #8 - Pre-Rock n Roll Part #9 - The 1950s

Part #9 - The 1960s Part #10 - Woodstock Era

Part #11 - The 1970s Part #12 - The 1980s

The Classic Rock Chronicle

I Issue #14 July 15, 2024

Everything Classic Rock... the CRocker's Voice

The Classic Rock Chronicle was created to provide regularly updated Content about the "Goings-on" of the Vast, eclectic, and important Period of Classic Rock from 1964 to 1984... Come along and enjoy the ride, Mates

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History of the “Sounds” of Music Part #7B

The "BIG Band Era" Evolution of the Sounds of Music

Classic Rock

By William W. Nelson

Founder of the Asheville School of Classic Rock



The Great Depression began with the dramatic Stock Market Crash on "Black Thursday," October 24, 1929, when 16 million shares were rapidly sold by panicked investors who had lost faith in the American economy. The Crash marked the beginning of a severe, Worldwide Economic downturn that would last until about 1939. While the Crash is often cited as the catalyst, some sectors of the American economy, such as agriculture, had already been struggling throughout the 1920s. The Crisis deepened in the following days, with "Black Monday" on October 28 seeing another 12% drop, followed by "Black Tuesday" on October 29 with an additional 11% decline.

By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as president on March 4, 1933, the Banking System had collapsed, nearly 25% of the Labor Force was unemployed, and Prices and Productivity had fallen to one-third of their 1929 levels. This Economic catastrophe led to widespread hardship, with falling personal incomes, plummeting Tax revenues, and declining Profits affecting both rich and poor Countries alike.

The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 led to the decline and eventual closure of most of the Speakeasies. On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment and ending Prohibition. With the end of Prohibition, the term "Speakeasy" became obsolete as Americans could legally consume alcohol again.

After Prohibition’s repeal, Organized Crime, with its top unlawful moneymaking Racket gone, was forced to regroup and focus on other things. While some Gangsters entered the legal and licensed Liquor Business, the Laws made it harder to earn as much cash and as fast. But all was not lost as the desires of Humans spice of life needs were now biased and the demand really never ceased.

There were still the extremely lucrative Vice Rackets of Prostitution and Gambling, as well as Drug trafficking and Labor Racketeering. Organized Crime had to become more organized, but many former Rumrunners still had plenty of money stashed away for a Rainy Day. Luciano, for one, continued to enjoy the high life as New York’s Crime Kingpin, living at the luxurious Waldorf Astoria Hotel... until his Prostitution Rackets caught up with him and led to Convictions and Prison in the mid-1930s. For others, such as Lansky, Siegel, Costello, and Dalitz, the Las Vegas Dream and its Legalized Casinos were a given, starting in 1941. Las Vegas transformed from a town to a City... from a Regional curiosity to an International Resort destination by the 1950s.

Prohibition had inadvertently gave birth to an underground drinking scene. Speakeasies, became hotbeds of Social interaction and hubs of creativity in cocktail making. Bartenders, often referred to as “mixologists,” began experimenting with the limited ingredients they had at their disposal, masking the harsh flavors of poorly distilled spirits with a variety of juices, syrups, and bitters. This era gave rise to many classic cocktails that remain popular today, such as the Sidecar and the Mary Pickford.

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, cocktail culture could once again flourish openly. The following decades saw the rise of tiki bars and the popularity of Polynesian-inspired drinks, reflecting a post-war fascination with exotic travel and leisure. The Mai Tai and the Zombie are enduring legacies of this period, capturing the imagination with their tropical flavors and flamboyant presentations.

Certainly, the transition from the closing of ALL Speakeasies did not happen overnight... many of the more popular establishments that went Soft during that period rejoiced and opened ASAP. In less affluent neighborhoods, "Worker Bars" sprang up on every corner of Chicago that cashed Paychecks every Friday night for those lucky enough to have Jobs.

One example is the Howard Street Neighborhood in North Chicago... Howard Street’s Nightlife Scene was substantially aided by the Repeal, when Rogers Park, along with the Nation, became “wet.” Before then, it had been “dry,” a legacy of its close geographical tie with Evanston and Northwestern University. After repeal, a new era began... Howard Street became a popular entertainment destination for the North Shore Residents... and, on the South side of Howard almost every establishment became a Tavern. Many of them became Havens for Wannabee Musicians to practice their Talents to be a part of the BIG Bands that were forming in the more affluent areas of Cities with the recovery of active Urban Neighborhoods.

The BIG Band Emergence... The "Architects of Swing"

Let us start this Journey to understand how the BIG Band Era began... how Swing Music took the World by Storm, and who were the main Characters who took it all to the next level for about 20 years or so.

The first two prominent Large Orchestras of the 1920s were the White Bands of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman. Both featured some extraordinary Jazz Musicians at times, including Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer. With Bill Challis, Whiteman also had an extremely gifted Arranger. This resulted in some excellent hot Jazz at times, but mostly these early Bands were performing Popular Music and a form of cross-over between Classical Music and Jazz, such as George Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Fletcher Henderson

We first recognize the contribution of one Fletcher Henderson who rose to the top of the Chain when he joined the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1939... considered the end of the Great Depression...

When Harry Pace left the Company to start Black Swan Records, he took Henderson with him to be his Musical Director, a Job which lasted some 2 years.... he primarily played Piano accompaniment for Blues Singers. Henderson toured with the Black Swan Troubadours featuring Ethel Waters and Josie Miles. After hearing Cornetist Louis Armstrong (then around 20 years old) in New Orleans while on tour in April 1922, Henderson asked him to join but Armstrong refused... initially.

So, in 1924, Henderson formed his own Orchestra that became a prominent fixture in the vibrant Jazz scene of the Harlem Renaissance... his meticulous arrangements, blending intricate Harmonies and Rhythm sections, became a hallmark of the Orchestra's distinct Sounds. The Orchestra featured a roster of exceptional musicians who would go on to become legends in their own right. Notably, Louis Armstrong, who joined the Band in 1924 and made significant contributions with his Trumpet and distinctive Vocal stylings.

Other notable Members included Coleman Hawkins, considered one of the Pioneers of the Tenor Saxophone, and Saxophonist Benny Carter, who later became a prominent Composer and Bandleader. For more than a Decade, in addition to Armstrong, the Band featured a nearly unparalleled who’s who of Jazz talents. Prominent Fee Jazz Band Leader Sun Ra also worked as an arranger in the 1940s during Henderson's engagement at the Club De Lisa in Chicago. Sun Ra himself said that on first hearing Henderson's orchestra as a Teenager, he assumed they must be Angels because no Human could produce such beautiful Music.

Armstrong’s 13-month Tenure most definitely turned the Band around. Henderson was now able to steer his Orchestra into the uncharted waters of hot Big Band Jazz, combining Armstrong’s capacity as a Jazz Soloist with his expertise at leading a large Ensemble. Armstrong was not as Musically literate as the other Band Members, but he was an accomplished and revolutionary Soloist on Cornet. Hearing him play daring Solos in the Dance Music environment of the early Henderson years is an amazing experience.

Henderson’s greatness began to show after Armstrong’s departure. Instead of losing its momentum after Armstrong’s departure, Henderson’s band became home to one outstanding soloist after another, some of whom had already played in Henderson’s band and were transformed through the experience of playing with Armstrong, and many of whom joined the orchestra in the years that followed. Thus, Big Band Jazz was truly born.

By the mid to late 1920s, Henderson had fully created his sound – the first big band to play hot music. A major element in this achievement was the presence of Don Redman, himself the first great arranger of jazz. The ensembles were power-driven, and so were the numerous solos by the band’s star players. The orchestral parts and the solos were harmoniously alternating and fit seamlessly.

The clarinet trio became a Henderson trademark, contrasting with the deep, pounding sound of the brass, emphasized by the brass bass (tuba) inherited from the marching bands. Among the soloists, was a careful contrast was also created, e.g., between Tommy Ladnier’s conquering sound on trumpet and Joe Smith’s lyrical and poetic sound on the same instrument. The end result was sophisticated yet spontaneous and lively. It also had a very strong swing. And, sometimes, the music played even echoed the sounds of European folk dances. Altogether, it was a creative synthesis that produced some of jazz’s best recordings.

The year 1929, the beginning of the Great Depression, was a turning point for many bands. For Henderson, there were two additional unfortunate events. In that year, half of his band left over a controversy about management. Around that same time, Henderson himself was involved in a car accident. While he did not sustain significant injuries, his morale was permanently affected according to his wife’s testimony. Already not a great businessman, Henderson seemed to gradually lose interest in things, especially commercial success, while still producing great music.

With this in mind, one can only be surprised at what his orchestra was still able to do. New jazz greats kept flowing into the band until the very end. After Redman’s departure, Benny Carter, another jazz genius and great arranger, briefly joined the band and produced new arrangements. Then, Henderson himself discovered his immense talent as an arranger and created the definitive Henderson sound that would usher in the Swing Era. By then, the brass bass had been replaced by John Kirby’s string bass, a key element in the formation of a lighter, yet equally powerful and swinging sound. It was dance music in the best sense of the word—music that moved the body as well as the mind. The occasional presence of a commercial singer (a necessity for survival) was a minor annoyance—one that other bands, including Ellington, were similarly unable to avoid.

Beginning in the early 1930s, Fletcher's piano-playing younger brother, Horace Henderson, contributed to the arrangements of the Band. He later led a Band of his own that also received critical acclaim.

Although the Band was very popular, Henderson had little success managing it. He was well regarded as an Arranger and his arrangements became influential. In addition to his Band, he arranged for several other Bands, including those of Teddy Hill, Isham Jones, and most famously, Benny Goodman.

In 1934 Goodman's Orchestra was selected as a House Band for the "Let's Dance" Radio program. Since he needed new charts every week for the show, his friend John Hammond suggested that he purchase some jazz charts from Henderson. Many of Goodman's hits from the Swing Era were arranged by Henderson for his Band in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Lack of commercial success eventually led Henderson to disband for the first time, creating a gap in 1935. In 1936 a new band was assembled and immediately scored a major hit with “Christopher Columbus.” Leon Chu Berry had successfully replaced Coleman Hawkins on tenor. Big Sid Catlett on drums and a flamboyant Roy Eldridge on trumpet were two further additions. Despite Duke Ellington's advice, Henderson failed to take advantage of his new success and soon the band slumped again until it was dissolved one more time in the late 1930s.

Henderson would try to put together a band again several times but with no success. By then the "Swing Era" was in full boom, but he was no longer part of it, at least not as a Band leader.

Having established contact with Benny Goodman, whose all-White Band emerged in the mid-thirties, making him the “king of swing,” based on his performance at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on August 31, 1935, bringing Swing Music to the rest of the Country. Henderson started a lasting cooperation, providing arrangements for the Band and later playing Piano in Goodman’s small Combo Groups.

It has often been said that Goodman played Henderson’s arrangements better than Henderson had done with his Band, though this is probably not quite fair. Goodman played them with surgical precision, creating his own style in the process. Henderson’s arrangements were likely a major factor in Goodman’s triumph. In this way, Henderson survived his success.

As a pianist, Henderson was a minor figure. Nevertheless, his occasional solos reveal a sure musical instinct, allowing him to express much with limited means. Examples are “Rose Room” with Benny Goodman, and “Nagasaki” and “Stealing Apples” with his Band.

Henderson was born in rural Georgia to Parents involved in education... plus his Mother was a master Pianist and he started lessons at 6... after graduating with a Degree in Chemistry at Atlanta University, he moved to New York City in search of employment. Henderson shared an apartment with a pianist who worked as a Musician in an Orchestra... when his Roommate was too sick to perform, Henderson substituted, and this soon led to a job as a full-time replacement. In late 1920, he found work as a song demonstrator with the Pace and Handy Music Co.

In 1939 he disbanded his Band and joined Goodman's, first as both Pianist and Arranger and then working full time as Arranger. He reformed Bands of his own several times in the 1940s, and toured with Ethel Waters again in 1948–1949. Henderson suffered a stroke in 1950 resulting in partial paralysis that ended his days as a pianist. He died in New York City in 1952.


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