How the Music of the Big Bands Defined a Generation

It was cold — to be expected on a January night in New York.  But the ticket holders filed into the gold and white auditorium of Carnegie Hall, but not to hear the New York Symphony or New York Philharmonic that night.

The chairs were on the stage, and the musicians came out and took their places, as did their conductor — Benny Goodman, The King of Swing.  He did not have a baton. He used his hand to give the downbeat, then put the clarinet to his lips and joined in the opening number, a Benny Goodman hit, “Don’t Be That way.”

And what is considered “the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history: jazz’s ‘coming out’ party to the world of respectable music” was underway.

It was the night of January 16, 1938.

The night Jon Hancock, the man who literally wrote the book on it, summed up nicely. “That 1938 concert is the stuff of legend and is probably the most widely talked about event in the history of Carnegie Hall.”

That was due, in no small part, to the end number.

It’s always hoped one builds to a great ending in any artistic endeavor, and Benny Goodman and the musicians on the stage of Carnegie Hall that night hit it out of the park with “Sing, Sing, Sing.”

Benny Goodman playing “Sing, Sing, Sing” (uploaded to YouTube by Benny Goodman – Topics / Believe SAS)

It runs 12 minutes and 8 seconds.  And if you can listen to it and not feel better, perhaps your foot tapping, your fingers snapping to the rhythm and beat, there is no hope for you musically.

The Big Band Era about to become the epicenter of modern music — the music I grew up to and listened to on the radio.  In junior and senior high school, when I’d finished my homework and was ready for bed, I’d turn on the radio and tune to the station that would give me the sweet strains of the Glenn Miller theme song, “Moonlight Serenade,” the announcer telling me, in equally dulcet tones, it was coming “from the Glen Island Casino overlooking Long Island Sound.”

The Big Bands became so popular they not only played nightspots from which they broadcast, they were booked for proms at colleges and dances at hotels, toured movie theaters to be the stage show for that week (or next), and were featured in movies.  Some, like Kay Kyser, the “Ole Professor of the Kollege of Musical Knowledge,” had weekly radio shows.

Part of my teen years were spent in record shops, in the glass-enclosed booths where my friends and I could play a record before buying it.  And the records were played on the radio at all times of the day.  I remember the semester I went off to high school with Wee Bonnie Baker’s recording of “Oh, Johnny, Oh!” playing on the car radio as my father drove me to school.

My sophomore year, the guy across the aisle from me in my creative writing class introduced me to the classics — Bob Crosby’s “Big Noise From Winnetka” and Will Bradley’s (it really was a record) “Celery Stalks at Midnight.”

I remember the summer evening before my junior year in high school when my parents and I were driving home after dinner at a favorite restaurant and the record that came on the car radio — the first time I heard it, the soft summer air coming in through car windows — “I’ll Never Smile Again.” The soft voice of Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey’s new band singer, backed by the Pied Pipers.  The song that lifted Sinatra to stardom was written by a Canadian pianist and songwriter, Ruth Lowe, after her husband died.  Not in the war, which had started then for Canada, but in surgery.

Frank Sinatra sings “I’ll Never Smile Again” with the Tommy Dorsey band (uploaded to YouTube Frank Sinatra / Sony Music Entertainment)

Its poignancy, lyrics speaking to a lost love, would make it equally popular when war came to this country.  Indeed, the music of the Big Band era was a cultural glue that held the nation together, a link between the folks back home and the guys overseas.

Some of the hit songs addressed that directly.

“I’ll Be Seeing You in all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces all day through.”

“We’ll meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.”

Others addressed the separation of wartime in a lighter vein:

“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
with anyone else but me
anyone else but me
anyone else but me ….”

Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Cocktail,” “A String of Pearls, “In the Mood,” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” were as much a part of my high school days as U.S. history, American lit, Latin and French.  His “Elmer’s Tune” was played at my senior class picnic.

Tommy Dorsey’s “Song of India,” “Opus 1,” and “Marie” threaded through those years, too.  One afternoon in college, “Boogie Woogie” was played over the P.A. system in the ballroom of one of the dorms.  It being wartime, we girls danced together, practicing up our jitterbugging steps.

The hit recording I remember most vividly at college, however, was Glenn Miller’s “That Old Black Magic.”  It was played everywhere at the time a measles outbreak landed me in the emergency infirmary ward set up at the school’s country club, a two-story house out by the lake used for social gatherings.  A number of us were placed there because there was no room at the regular infirmary.

I was still in the high-fever, chills, where-am-I?-delirium stages when the weekend parties were held downstairs and the music could be clearly heard upstairs.  To the point that I still associate my misery with the record, played over and over each evening: “That Old Black Magic … has me in its spell, That old black magic that you weave so well.  Those icy fingers up and down my spine ….”  The lyrics were appropriate there.

The Big Band music is not only a part of my early years, it’s a golden thread in the tapestry of The Greatest Generation and World War II.  A thread spun from Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump.”  Charlie Barnet’s “Cherokee.”  Erskine Hawkins’s “Tuxedo Junction.”  Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” and “Take the A-Train.”  Harry James’s “Music Makers” and “Trumpet Blues.”  (James played trumpet in Benny Goodman’s band the night of the Carnegie Hall concert.)  Kay Kyser’s “Who Wouldn’t Love You” and “Three Little Fishies.”

The Big Bands and their singers were the beneficiaries of technology, as so many movements and great changes have been.  Radio brought national attention.  Records spread the musical word to every village and farm, or high school and college.  The microphone allowed singers to simply sing, “croon,” it was said, instead of struggling to make themselves heard.  (Think opera.)

It didn’t hurt that the time saw an almost unprecedented constellation of great song writers — Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, then Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter on Broadway, and the countless others in movies who gave us songs the nation wound up singing.  Harold Arlen and “Over the Rainbow.”  Johnny Mercer and “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” not to mention two Sinatra classics, “Summer Wind” and “One for My Baby.”

Some of the songwriters are not known today, except possibly to Wikipedia, but gave us the music that the Big Bands and singers made part of our lives. One of Artie Shaw’s biggest hits, “Frenesi,” was written by the little known Alberto Domínguez for the marimba.   But one of Shaw’s other great hits was “Begin the Beguine,” by Cole Porter.  As was “Stardust,” by Hoagy Carmichael, the ultimate standard.  So much so that when I attended a press luncheon for Hoagy Carmichael during my years at the Chicago Daily News and someone asked him what it was like to have written “Stardust,” he said, it was “like having a gilt-edge annuity.”

A galaxy of stars — artists, musicians, song writers, and the technology that “gave it legs” —came together at a time that helped us deal with the stresses and strains of the Great Depression and World War II.

As we lived through those momentous times, we welcomed something we could have in common, could share, could hold onto (and feel good about ourselves or the day or the song). We found it in the courage and courtesy, camaraderie and commitment, which marked The Greatest Generation.

And the music of The Big Bands.

Featured image: Benny Goodman (third from left) with some of his former musicians, seated around piano left to right: Vernon Brown, George Auld, Gene Krupa, Clint Neagley, Ziggy Elman, Israel Crosby and Teddy Wilson (at piano) (Library of Congress)