As the lyric goes in one of the most famous swing songs of all time, “it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got no swing”. This was certainly true in the 1920s, 30s, and to an extent the 40s, but even today, swing music persists for dedicated musicians and is even the central genre in the rise of a new hybrid genre known as “electro-swing”. Indeed, swing music is a far cry from the music of today and electro swing serves to coat it with a sweet modern exterior of electro beats, electronic samples and a driving rhythm enveloping a solid jazz and swing-music core, but one shouldn’t forget the original songs which inspired generations after them and which will continue to inspire those interesting in the genre for many, many years to come. Having studied music heavily during my school and Sixth Form years, I was forcibly exposed to many great swing and jazz artists and developed a taste for these styles as well as that for big band, but have recently begun to truly appreciate some of the undeniable classics of the swing and big band era. With them music industry in the largely talentless state that it is in today, it felt appropriate to look back at a few of the best songs from an era where musical talent was paramount and music was powerful enough even to begin to transform contemporary attitudes towards black musicians.
1. Moonlight Serenade – Glenn Miller
Having recently attended a fair few big band performances around the country, by far my favourite performance that continued to move and impress me time and time again was Miller’s Moonlight Serenade. This slow, gently-swinging piece carries the signature sound of Glenn Miller and his arrangements, with the distinctive clarinet and saxophone lead with incredible warmth and brilliance given to it by the brass section of the big band. You’ll be hard pushed to find a big band that doesn’t have Moonlight Serenadeas part of its roster of songs, such is the ubiquitous nature of this song in the swing and big band consciousness and the legacy of such a beautiful piece of music that mesmerises from start to finish and even features in popular culture of the present day such as in episodes of opinion-dividing TV show Lost.
2. It Don’t Mean a Thing - Duke Ellington
This 1931 composition is synonymous with jazz and big band performance, with the memorable “It don’t mean a thing, if you ain’t got no swing” line repeating over one of the most recognisable descending jazz piano melodies ever composed. The opining violin melody demonstrates clear talent and sets the song up for a contrasting lively performance. It Don't Mean a Thing is One of the best by one of the best.
3. In The Mood – Glenn Miller
My first encounter with this glorious tune was during an episode of the one-great comedy Scrubs in which it was used as a backing track to one of the scenes. This led me to listening to countless renditions of the piece which has one of the most recognisable openers of any big band song consisting of off-beat, arpeggiated saxophones with punchy punctuation from the brass section adding musical stabs and accents. Glen Millers song is one of the greatest big bands tunes to dance to and deserves a place in this top 5.
4. Sing, Sing, Sing – Louis Prima (Benny Goodman recording)
It seems that all of the top big band songs have incredibly memorable openings, and this one is no exception. An off-beat, rolling section is played on the toms by the drummer with accents on the off-beats and is soon joined by a famous ascending lick that sounds cheeky and playful. The original was written with lyrics but it is the Benny Goodman recording that has become the most widely-recognised version of the song.
5. Stompin’ at the Savoy – Benny Goodman
This is one of the more subdued of the big band songs, but nonetheless has the walking bassline, fantastic back-and-forth between the lead instrument and the brass, and a medium-fast tempo. This song can be both relaxing or energetic depending on the mood when listening