Big Band Orchestras of the 1940s

Written by lorena cassady
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Big Band Orchestras of the 1940s
As a composer and big band leader, Duke Ellington had a significant influence on American jazz. (Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Big band orchestras reached their peak of popularity between 1935 and 1945, the only time that jazz music dominated all other forms in the United States. The jukebox and the radio disc jockey were significant factors in big band success and the latter phenomena started to make a dent in record sales. This ultimately led to the rapid demise of the big band era starting in 1942 with the American Federation of Musicians recording ban. It wasn't until 1944 that all of the major record companies agreed to pay royalties to the union. Many bands survived, however, and some continued to be successful into the '50s and beyond.

Glen Miller

Between 1940 and 1943 the Glen Miller Orchestra had a total of 55 Top Ten hits including "In the Mood" and "Tuxedo Junction," which were both inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1942, after receiving an officer's commission in the U.S. Army, Miller formed a service band to entertain the troops. He disappeared on December 15th, 1944 after boarding a transport plane to Paris.

Tommy Dorsey

Though the popularity of Tommy Dorsey's big band peaked between 1935 and 1937, between 1940 and 1946 the band partnered with greats like Frank Sinatra, Buddy Rich, Chuck Peterson and Jo Stafford. Famous recordings include "Well, Git it!," "Be Careful, It's My Heart" and "Blue Skies." Dorsey was one of the few big band leaders, along with Artie Shaw and Harry James, to include a string section in his band.

Lionel Hampton

After working with Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman in the '30s, vibraphone player Lionel Hampton formed his own big band in 1940. It became one of the most popular big band jazz ensembles in the United States and included greats like Clifford Brown, Illinois Jacquet, Cat Anderson and Quincy Jones. "Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop" was a big hit in 1945.

Stan Kenton

Stan Kenton formed his first orchestra in 1941 but it didn't really catch on until 1943, with the popular hit "Eager Beaver" and a new contract with Capitol Records. Soloists with the band included Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Anita O'Day and June Christie. Kenton called his music "progressive jazz," and he presented his musicians as a concert orchestra rather than a dance band. Other popular hits included "Across the Alley From the Alamo" and "Tampico".

Count Basie

Count Basie is considered one of the most important swing era band leaders. Except for a brief period in the '50s, he led a big band from 1935 until his death in 1984. While the 1942 recording ban slowed him down, between 1945 and 1946 he released a series of hits including "Red Bank Blues" and "I Didn't Know About You." The popular "Open the Door, Richard!" was released in 1947. Basie broke up his big band at the end of the '40s, but re-formed it in 1952.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington held his big band together for almost 50 years, between 1926 and his death in 1974. He is considered the most important jazz composer, using his skills to showcase band members such as Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams, who stayed with him many years. Hits from the '40s include "A Slip of the Lip (Can Sink a Ship)" and "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me."

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