Big Bands & Jazz

In the summer of 1935, Benny Goodman was struggling as a band leader. The man who would soon be known as the King of Swing had appeared on the “Let’s Dance” national radio program for several months and despite having top-notch musicians like drummer Gene Krupa, trumpeter Bunny Berigan and pianist Jess Stacy, he was not close to becoming a household name. In New York, according to jazz historian Gary Giddins, Goodman was nearly fired for playing the hot arrangements he had picked up from popular black band leaders like Fletcher Henderson. Promoters said that New York audiences wanted bands that played “sweet and low,” with what jazz writer George T. Simon called their “syrupy-sounding saxes, emasculated brasses and reticent rhythm sections.”

Goodman took his band out on the road and the response wasn’t promising. He bombed in Denver and was urged to cancel the final engagement on the tour, the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. But he refused to give up.

On opening night at the Palomar, Goodman decided to play it safe in the first set, playing standard arrangements and sweet ballads without much flair, Giddins wrote. As a band leader, Goodman was a smart businessman but he was also a highly accomplished musician and this regular fare bored him. So he decided that he was going to crank it up in the second set and see what happened. During intermission, he had his road crew pull out the up-tempo Henderson charts and when he launched into “Sugar Foot Stomp,” he caught the crowd’s attention in a way he never expected. They hooted and hollered and jammed close to the stage, loving every minute of it. These charts, as Giddins noted, comprised the good stuff that was generally an afterthought on Goodman’s radio show. On that night — Aug. 21, 1935 — the Swing Era in big band jazz was born.

Big band had been around for more than a decade by the time Goodman changed the game. The groups came in all forms. In addition to the sweet bands with their full, lush sounds, there were novelty bands that used funny hats as well as funny tunes. They included Sammy Kaye and one of his main imitators, Blue Barron. Most of the major big swing bands of the ’30s and ’40s were built around leaders who were also impressive soloists: Goodman and his clarinet, of course, along with his main rival on the instrument, Artie Shaw; Harry James with his trumpet; the Dorsey Brothers were a band unto themselves with Jimmy playing clarinet, saxophone and trumpet and Tommy playing trombone — as did the great Glenn Miller.

Most of the big bands had singers, commonly called vocalists, and they were a major attraction. Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey, Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb, Billie Holiday with , with Earl Hines, and Joe Williams with Basie, among others.

And then there were the players better known for their small-group work who were considered forces of nature in the jazz world: Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, the classically influenced Dave Brubeck and, years later, Herbie Hancock.

All of these great names and many more are featured on the Walk of Fame.

— Jon Thurber, a managing editor of the Los Angeles Times and long time fan of jazz and big band music

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