Big Bands and Bandmasters

What big band leaders defined jazz and American music in the early decades of the twentieth century?

Those black musicians whose names are commonly associated with the big band era are Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway. Much credit is given to Fletcher Henderson (1877–1952), who in 1921 became musical director for the Black Swan label, a black-owned company. His career began to soar when he became bandleader for Harlem’s Club Alabam, and his orchestra became one of the dominant bands in New York. By the next decade his was one of America’s most important black musical groups. A number of black musicians who would form their own bands later own had their start with Henderson. Don Redman (1900–1964) came from musically talented parents in Maryland. While playing with Fletcher Henderson, he developed a new jazz sound, playing the clarinet and saxophone. He became known, however, as an arranger, combining European classical, African-American brass band, and church music. His big band aesthetic influenced many big band leaders who followed him. He left Henderson’s band in 1927 and later formed the Don Redman Orchestra, whose residence was at legendary Connie’s Inn in New York City. The work of Henderson and Redman helped to usher in the Swing Era.

In Chicago, Earl “Fatha” Hines (1903–1983) became notable as the Swing Era was born. He first played the trumpet and then the piano, and formed his own band in 1928. For many years his style of piano playing influenced pianists. Legendary personalities who emerged from his band included Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Billy Eckstine, and Ella Fitzgerald. The most prolific bandleader of the Swing Era was Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899–1974). He dropped out of high school in his native Washington, D.C., and made a living by playing the piano around town. He and his band moved to New York City in the early 1920s. The band spent four years at the Hollywood Club, later known as the Kentucky Club, and also recorded their music for sale. The group became the Cotton Club’s house band in 1927, and then left in 1931. Billy Strayhorn joined the orchestra in 1938 and helped it along its most fertile period. Strayhorn composed or collaborated with Ellington on over two hundred works, the most notable being “Take the A Train.”

Count (William) Basie (1904–1984) began playing the piano as a teenager and studied with Fats Waller. Basie’s own band, formed in 1935 in Kansas City, Missouri, took the flowering of that city’s style to Chicago and New York City. He is said to have helped to invent big-band swing. The band established itself as one of the leaders in jazz. Basie performed extensively until the 1970s, using slide piano. His was an almost exotic sound heard during the Big Band Era. In 1959, Basie was the first black man to win a Grammy Award. He was also the first black from the United States to have a band give a command performance before Queen Elizabeth.


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