Big Band Swing: 1930-1945

Another development in the 1920's, as freewheeling jazz bands threatened to pre-empt the traditional dance orchestras playing from written arrangements, was the initiative to adapt the spontaneous jazz sound to written music. Through the 1920's, dance orchestra leaders coped with incorporating jazz effects (syncopation, blues, etc.) into their dance arrangements. By the late 20's, a number of dance orchestras, among them, the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, The Benny Moten Orchestra, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, had perfected jazz arrangements and through intensive rehearsing, reading musicians began to "lift the music off the page."

Spontaneous jazz was effectively married to European notation and the new style was known as Big Band Swing. Though the new style was in place by the late 1920's, its discovery by the national dancing audience was delayed for five years by the Great Depression, during which live entertainment was put on hold and few bands had engagements. The vibrant new style broke out when the youth of Los Angeles heard the touring Benny Goodman Swing Orchestra at the Palomar Ballroom and caused a virtual riot. From that point on Swing, felt as a release from the doldrums of the Depression, became the new, streamlined jazz of the moment and the pop music law of the land. The Goodman band had lit the fuse and Swing bands criss-crossed the country playing for every kind of dance event, from high school and college "sock hops," to "jive jams" at juke joints, to hip, athletic lindy hops at Harlem clubs.

Swing in its heyday developed into three substyles: the hard driving, blues-based Kansas City Swing, the smoother and more restrained swing called Sweet Swing, to which white teens danced the "Jitterbug," and the high-tension, streamlined swing called Harlem Swing, to which black dancers danced the "Lindy Hop." An important sociological function of the Swing Era was to begin to lessen the tensions between black and white Americans, serving as an initial stepping stone toward the eventual dissolving of Jim Crow segregation.