Big band jazz orchestras dominated the music scene in the big band era, from the 1920s through to the 30s and 40s. Usually comprising at least ten members, with large brass sections, the era of big band jazz was a special time in music history.
The swing era saw the rise of incredibly talented big band leaders, who composed stunning, complex, and energetic orchestral arrangements, which often accompanied swing dance. Amongst the big band leaders were many of the greatest jazz composers of all time.
Big bands often played swing music, with the swing era running from around 1933 to 1947. However, big band orchestras also played other genres besides swing, often incorporating diverse elements from jazz and classical music.
Let’s dive in to discover the most famous big band jazz orchestras whose music is still celebrated today.
14. Ella and Her Famous Orchestra
Often referred to as the ‘Queen of Jazz,’ Ella Fitzgerald is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest female jazz singers of all time. She is known for her exceptional tone, as well as her scat singing.
Fitzgerald’s music career took off as part of the Chick Webb Orchestra, who performed at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. After Webb’s death in 1939, Fitzgerald became the new bandleader. The band was renamed Ella and Her Famous Orchestra.
Over the course of her career, she also performed with Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and the Count Basie Orchestra.
Fitzgerald received thirteen Grammy Awards in her time, and was presented with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967.
13. Artie Shaw and His Orchestra
Artie Shaw was the bandleader of one of the most popular big bands of the 30s and 40s.
His most famous songs include his recording of Cole Porter’s ‘Begin the Beguine’ (1938) as well as ‘They Say’ (1938), ‘Thanks for Everything’ (1939), and ‘Frenesi’ (1940).
Artie belonged to a number of other bands and orchestras in his time, including the Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra. In his own orchestra, he employed the likes of Buddy Rich on drums, and Billie Holiday on vocals.
Artie was known as an innovator and experimenter, blending many elements of classical into his jazz arrangements and compositions, rather than dance elements that were more popular.
In 2004, he was presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in honour of his contributions to music.
12. Gene Krupa Orchestra
Gene Krupa was a big band leader, composer, and jazz drummer who was seminal in the world of modern drumming.
His legendary drum solo on Benny Goodman’s 1937 song ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ helped to raise the general opinion on the role a drummer could play in a band. After rising to fame as an essential member of Benny Goodman’s band, Gene and Benny fell out. This led to Gene forming his own band. He also played in Tommy Dorsey’s band for a spell.
Gene Krupa’s orchestra went on to become one of the most popular jazz orchestras of the era, with the bandleader releasing nearly thirty albums under his name.
Apart from his influence as a bandleader and being one of the best-known drummers of the big band era, he has been credited as the father of the modern drum kit, more or less defining the standard for drum kits ever since.
11. Gil Evans and His Orchestra
Gil Evans is a pianist, composer, and band leader best-known for his collaborations with Miles Davis. One of the great minds of jazz, he helped develop modal jazz, cool jazz, and free jazz. He rose to prominence after the swing era, so in this respect he is a little different from many of the others on this list.
Gils Evans did not lead a touring big band, but he composed and arranged for jazz orchestras, and released several albums with his big band orchestra. In the 80s, his orchestra regularly played at the Sweet Basil Jazz Club in Greenwich Village, New York. This led to the release of several albums from Gil Evans and the Monday Night Orchestra.
Gil Evans has also collaborated extensively outside the world of jazz. His orchestra has performed with Sting, and has also performed Evans’ arrangements of Jimi Hendrix’s catalogue.
Some of Evans’ most significant contributions include his work on the Miles Davis albums Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), Sketches of Spain (1960), and Quiet Nights (1962).
Although these records were released under Miles Davis’ name, it is widely acknowledged that Gil Evans arrangements and orchestrations were equally important as Davis’ role in the records.
10. Woody Herman and The First Herd
Woody Herman was a clarinettist, saxophonist, singer and big band leader known for his innovation. He led several different bands (sometimes referred to as his ‘herds’), all of which were successful in their own right.
Herman first became known for his blues orchestrations, performed by his big band which was also known as The Band That Plays The Blues.
In 1944, Herman formed the First Herd, which was his most commercially successful band, and was a swing band heavily influenced by Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Despite their success, the group disbanded in December 1946, along with several other big bands – for which reason many historians consider 1946 as the year when the big band era finished.
His later bands including The Four Brothers Band and The Young Thundering Herds were smaller in their makeup than his big bands of the 40s.
9. Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra
Dizzy Gillespie was a jazz trumpeter, composer, and band leader. He is one of the most famous jazz musicians of all time. Along with Charlie Parker, he was seminal in the development of bebop. He was also a key figure in Afro-Cuban jazz.
Gillespie cut his teeth in the world of big band jazz as a member of several different orchestras, including the Frank Fairfax Orchestra, Edgar Hayes Orchestra, Teddy Hill Orchestra, and Cab Calloway Orchestra.
As well as his own big band orchestra, Gillespie wrote for other big band leaders including Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey, and Ella Fitzgerald. Naturally, his own big band compositions were influenced by bebop, as well as Afro-Cuban jazz.
In 1989, Gillespie was awarded with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
8. Buddy Rich Big Band
Buddy Rich was a jazz drummer, songwriter, and band leader. He is one of the most influential and famous jazz drummers of all time, as well as one of the greatest big band leaders.
Rich’s first foray into the world of big band music came in the late 30s, as a member of the Bunny Berigan Big Band and Artie Shaw’s orchestra. He also worked with the Vic Schoen Orchestra who accompanied the Andrews Sisters.
In the 40s, Rich played in the bands and orchestras of many other greats, including Tommy Dorsey, Benny Carter, Les Brown, and Charlie Parker. He also collaborated on an album with fellow big band drumming legend Gene Krupa. Krupa described him as the greatest drummer to have ever lived.
Rich led the Buddy Rich Orchestra from 1945 to 1948, which featured the vocals of Frank Sinatra. In 1966, he formed the Buddy Rich Big Band which also achieved significant success despite performing and recording well after the heyday of big band jazz.
7. Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Louis Armstrong is one of the most famous names in jazz music. Known primarily as a trumpeter and vocalist, Armstrong was also a band leader.
Armstrong’s first big band was the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, which he joined in 1924.
In 1928, Armstrong became the frontman of Caroll Dickerson’s Orchestra, which was eventually renamed after Louis Armstrong, releasing one record under the name Louis Armstrong and His Stompers. Armstrong later joined Luis Russell’s orchestra, and in 1935, took it over. The band took on Armstrong’s name, with Russell acting as the musical director.
With interest in big bands dwindling in the post-war era, Louis Armstrong’s later projects were with smaller bands, the most famous of which was Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars.
6. Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra
Jimmy Dorsey was a clarinettist, saxophonist, and one of the most popular big band leaders of all time. His brother, Tommy Dorsey, had a similarly successful career as a big band leader.
In his early days, Jimmy Dorsey played with a number of different jazz orchestras, including the Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra, and the Nathaniel Shilkret Orchestra. He also played with Hoagy Carmichael and His Orchestra, and notably played clarinet on his classic 1930 song ‘Georgia on My Mind.’
In 1927, he formed The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra along with his brother. The pair fell out, and in 1935 Tommy left the band, and the orchestra was renamed in Jimmy’s name. However, in 1953 the pair re-formed. Glenn Miller was also famously a member of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.
One of Jimmy Dorsey’s most famous songs is ‘Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)’ which featured Bing Crosby on vocals. He had eleven number one hits including ‘Blue Champagne’ and ‘So Rare.’
5. Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra
Tommy Dorsey was a trombonist, composer, and big band leader. He was the younger brother of Jimmy Dorsey, and achieved a similar level of success. His fame was also enhanced by appearing in a number of films.
Along with Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy was part of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra for a large part of his career. However, after leaving the band in 1935, he formed his own big band, which was hugely successful.
Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra featured a number of famous names from the big band era, including the likes of Buddy Rich on drums, and singers including Frank Sinatra and Connie Haines. It was one of the most popular and most famous big band orchestras of the swing era.
Tommy had a total of seventeen number one hits. His hits included his signature song ‘I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,’ ‘Opus One,’ ‘Song of India,’ and ‘I’ll Never Smile Again.’ Like many others on the scene, Tommy disbanded his orchestra in 1946.
4. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
Duke Ellington was a jazz pianist, a composer, and one of the most famous big band leaders of all time. Ellington was one of the most prolific composers of the big band era, with dozens of his pieces becoming jazz standards.
Ellington’s orchestra rose to prominence out of the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York. Leading his orchestra from the piano, Ellington was known for his charisma and creative arrangements. His public persona, and a number of film appearances in the 30s, further bolstered his popularity.
He was well-known for his ability to write three-minute compositions that would fit on a 78 RPM vinyl. However, being influenced by a wide range of genres, including classical music, Ellington often sought to experiment and expand. In the vein, while his band performed the swing music that was popular at the time, Ellington’s capabilities and interests extended far into the realms of jazz.
Ellington had sixty-nine Billboard 100 hits, including three number ones, which were ‘Three Little Words’ (1930), ‘Cocktails for Two’ (1934), and ‘I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart’ (1938).
Amongst his extensive list of honours, Ellington was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966.
3. Benny Goodman and His Orchestra
Benny Goodman was a clarinettist and big band leader known by many as the ‘King of Swing.’ His big band was seminally important for the reputation of swing, and became one of the most popular swing bands of the era.
As young as fourteen, Goodman was hobnobbing with major players in the scene, as he joined a band featuring renowned trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. In 1926, he went on to join his first big band, which was the Ben Pollack Orchestra. In 1928, Goodman played with the likes Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey as members of the Nathaniel Shilkret Orchestra.
Goodman finally formed his own band in 1934, with a regular slot at Billy Rose’s Music Hall. Some of the famous members included Bunny Berigan on trumpet, Gene Kruga on drums, and Helen Ward on vocals. It was this band who have often been credited as starting the swing era.
His greatest hits include ‘Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing),’Let’s Dance,’ ‘Jersey Bounce,’ and ‘Goodbye.’ Goodman is also noted for leading racially integrated bands in an era where racial segregation was common.
2. Glenn Miller Orchestra
The Glenn Miller Orchestra may well be the most famous big band to have ever existed. Formed in 1938, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra was the most commercially successful swing band of the era, and one of the greatest charting groups of the century.
As opposed to some of the great virtuoso players on this list, Miller was most respected as a composer. As well as writing for his own orchestra, he wrote for a number of other names on this list including Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.
Glen Miller’s orchestra rose to enormous popularity during their spell at the Glen Island Casino, New York, which began in 1939. During a four-year period they dominated the scene, with Glenn Miller releases spending a cumulative total of six hundred and sixty four weeks in the charts.
The band released one hundred and twenty one singles, with sixty-nine becoming top ten hits, and sixteen reaching number one. Some of these hits include ‘Little Brown Jug’ (1939), ‘Moonlight Serenade’ (1939), ‘In The Mood’ (1939), ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ (1941), ‘A String of Pearls’ (1941), and ‘American Patrol’ (1942).
Glenn Miller and His Orchestra go down in history as one of the greatest swing bands of all time.
1. Count Basie Orchestra
The Count Basie Orchestra is one of the most famous jazz orchestras of all time, and is the longest-standing by a significant margin. Founded by pianist, composer, and big band leader William ‘Count’ Basie in 1935, the band continued to perform for decades after the swing era ended.
The Count Basie Orchestra is the only band on this list that continues to perform to this day, now under the direction of Scotty Barnhart. It is for that reason, as well as the enduring legacy of Count Basie, that his orchestra tops this list. Count Basie led the orchestra from its inception until his death in 1984.
Over the years, the band has featured some of the greatest names in jazz. Singers have included the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Billie Holiday. Some of the great instrumentalists have included trumpeters Joe Keyes and Oran ‘Hot Lips’ Page, tenor saxophonist Lester ‘Prez’ Young, and guitarist Freddie Green.
Some of the orchestra’s most famous hits include ‘One O’Clock Jump’ (1937), ‘Lester Leaps In’ (1939), ‘April in Paris’ (1955), and ‘Everyday (I Have the Blues)’ (1955) – all of which have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame thanks to their significance.
Count Basie holds an extensive list of honours and accolades. In 1958, he became the first African-American to receive a Grammy award. In 2002, Count Basie was honoured with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
His orchestra lives on in the memory of the big band era.
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