Swing, Bands, and Leaders

How Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington Revised Jazz

The Swing Era

This blog post is about swing, which was the successor to the New Orleans style. Following is a timeline of early jazz history. Notice that swing was the second form of jazz to evolve.

  • 1890-1915 – Ragtime, blues, and brass bands (not yet jazz)
  • 1915-1935 – New Orleans style
  • 1935-1945 – Swing
  • 1945-1960 – Bebop and West Coast jazz

The swing era, which began percolating in the late 1920s, was marked by large ensembles, strong band leaders, and pop-sensible songs.

Swing’s most prominent revision was replacing chaotic polyphony with streamlined homophony. (Polyphony is two or more melodies at a time, and homophony is one melody at a time.) This revision was realized by the soloists, who stopped improvising simultaneously and began improvising sequentially. Unlike New Orleans jazz, swing used improvisation sparingly, usually saving the technique for sections of the song specifically designed for soloists (Norton/Grove 794).

Jazz’s rhythm was also revised during the swing era: the two-beat feel of Ragtime and New Orleans jazz was replaced by the four-beat feel, which was marked by equality between the four beats of the bar. By contrast, two-beat rhythm accents beat 1 and beat 3, which gives the music a “boom-chick” feel. Musicians who played with the new four-beat rhythm were said to be “swinging” (Columbia University Jazz Glossary).

The term swing is also connected to a succession of dance crazes that swept the country during the 1920s and 1930s. These dances were marked by high-tempo and exaggerated undulations. Specific swing dances included the Lindy Hop, Lindy Charleston, Shag, and Balboa.

Swing music relied on head arrangements, which were memorized sequences detailing the principle tune, the ensemble play, and the solo assignment.  

The typical jazz group during the swing era was called a big band. Not only did it feature more players than the typical New Orleans combo, but it also possessed a reconfigured rhythm section that replaced the tuba and banjo with the upright bass and guitar.

This rest of this blog post explores two swing-era superstars: Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952) and Duke Ellington (1899-1974).

Both musicians were frontiersmen of the genre. Henderson is considered the most consequential talent scout in jazz history, and Ellington is considered the most consequential composer.

Henderson and Ellington were part of a trend that saw middle class, well-educated, and occupationally-wayward young, black men take up music careers. Since African-American folk traditions like blues, ring shouts, and field hollers were largely unknown to these youngsters, their contributions stemmed from other sources—namely, music theory and pop sensibility. Henderson and Ellington offered a fresh perspective on a style that was becoming stale and dusty by 1925 (Collier 178).

The result of their efforts was a sleek, polished form of jazz ready-made for popular consumption.  In a sense, the swing era saw jazz music grow up, put its pants on, and conquer the world.

Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952) was the original swing-band leader.

Fletcher Henderson was the original swing-band leader. One of his primary contributions to the swing genre was to reconfigure the ensemble into two voices: the saxophone section and the brass section. With his orchestra dichotomized in this way, Henderson could achieve special effects based on the call-and-response technique (New York Times Essential Guide to Knowledge 170).

Fletcher Henderson was born in Georgia in 1897 and grew up in a middle-class black family. His father was a school principal and his mother was a teacher. He learned the piano from his mother as a boy, and he went on to study math and science in college as a young adult (“Fletcher Henderson” para 2).

Henderson majored in chemistry, but after college he found it difficult to get a job as a black chemist. Consequently, he turned his full attention to music (Collier 178).

During the early 1920s, Fletcher Henderson became the piano demonstrator for Black Swan records, which was a position that had him playing Tin Pan Alley sheet music for prospective buyers. Simultaneously, he busied himself playing piano accompaniment for blues singers like Ethel Waters (Norton/Grove 359).

In 1922, he created his own band. Within the next few years, Henderson had secured steady gigs at Club Alabam and at the famous Roseland Ballroom in Times Square. This latter venue, which catered to whites, often featured music provided by blacks. The Roseland Ballroom was widely regarded as the best place for dancing in the whole city (Giddins and DeVeaux 123).

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington (1899-1971) is the most important composer in jazz history.

Ellington is regarded as jazz music’s most prolific and meaningful composer. He brought the genre into the realm of art music by composing choral works, tone poems, suites, piano solos, and musicals in a jazz style.  All told, Ellington wrote over 1,300 pieces (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 871).

Duke Ellington is the most important jazz composer to date, which likely means he’ll be the most important jazz composer in history. (Jazz is no longer hugely popular, and modern jazz composers operate in near anonymity.)

Ellington was responsible for reimagining the possibilities of jazz texture, timbre, and arrangement. One of his mainstays was to employ unusual and novel combinations of instruments and timbres. The growling trumpet is a particularly conspicuous character of Ellington’s sound.

Like Henderson, Ellington was from a middle-class background, grew up on the East coast, and made his mark playing music in swanky New York City ballrooms during the late 1920s.

Duke Ellington was born in Washington D.C. in 1899. He was raised by a middle-class black family and learned the piano as a youngster. His father was a pianist who worked in the White House as a butler, and his mother, also a pianist, was the daughter of a former slave (“Duke Ellington” para 6).

Ellington was possessed by a peculiar character of dignity and ease as a child. This countenance earned him the nickname “Duke” (Giddins 107).

Ellington was talented in multiple disciplines as a youth. He was an especially talented painter, and his skill in this area earned him a scholarship to the Pratt Institute (Giddins 107).

Despite his talents for the visual arts, Ellington was more enamored by music. In particular, he greatly admired stride-piano players like James P. Johnson. As a late teenager, he taught himself the stride style, began composing his own rags, and formed his own band.  By 1923, he had worked hard enough to earn a residency at New York City’s Hollywood Club, which, after an insurance fraud-fire, became the Kentucky Club.

Ellington began recording music about this same time: his first record was cut in 1924.

In 1927, one of the most significant advancements in his career occurred when he secured a long engagement at the Cotton Club, which was in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. The Cotton Club gig was especially fortuitous for Ellington because his performances there were broadcast on the radio—thus, earning him a huge audience (Giddins 109).

Ellington selected his bandmates carefully. He preferred inventive players with unique timbres because this allowed him to compose music specifically tailored to their sound. Bubba Miley (1903-1932), who was a trumpeter for Ellington’s band from 1923 to 1929, possessed a unique timbre driven primarily by his use of the plunger mute (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 870).

In 1927, Miley collaborated with Ellington on a track called “Black and Tan Fantasy,” which prominently displayed the plunger-mute sound.  

Ellington went on maintaining a band and touring for fifty years until his death in 1974 (“Duke Ellington” para).

Swing Culture

Swing, as it related to society, was more than just a music genre. A complete understanding of swing must include an awareness of the cultural climate that existed in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s.

During this time, there was a mutual fascination between black and white Americans. This fascination was propelled by the physical space that existed between black and white people due to segregation. The separation provided room for stereotypes to evolve. One such stereotype was a character of exoticness ascribed to black people, music, and culture.

One way the “exotic” stereotype manifested itself was in floor shows, which were performances held on ballroom dance floors of fancy jazz clubs that featured jazz music, suggestive dancing, and jungle themes.

Floor shows , which featured suggestive dancing, jungle themes, and jazz music were common during the swing era.

Many places of entertainment in New York City began featuring floor shows. The Roseland Ballroom, the Cotton Club, and the Kentucky Club all featured this form of entertainment.

Since floor shows were so popular, the resident bands could practice and perform consistently night after night. Consequently, the swing style became highly refined and perfected, which was something the New Orleans style never achieved.

Henderson’s and Ellington’s bands became superb because they rehearsed, arranged, and performed jazz music, night after night, for decades while enjoying full financial support.

Works Cited

Collier, J.L.  The Making of Jazz:  A Comprehensive History.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company. 1978. Print.

“Coleman Hawkins.” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 8  July 2016. Web.

Columbia University Jazz Glossary. http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/jazzglossary. July 2017.

“Ella Fitzgerald” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 8  July 2016. Web.

Giddins, G., & DeVeaux, S. Jazz. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. 2009. Print.

Giddins, Gary. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge: A Desk Reference for the Curious Mind. New York: St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

Szwed, J. F. Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz. Narr. by Grover Gardner. Blackstone audio, Inc. 2000. Audio.

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