Swing! That’s what they called it. And I fell in love with it. I even have Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” for the ringtone on my phone. That’s how much I love it.
Swing music was popular in the late thirties and forties and is often associated with the Second World War. This upbeat music provided a fun outlet for young people and a way to escape the world-wide political turmoil. Famous “Big Bands” performed live in venues around the country and on the radio. Some bands appeared regularly on radio broadcasts that reached regional and sometimes national audiences making it the most popular music of the day. Local bands, phonograph records and juke boxes brought the swing music to every city, small town and country village. The most popular “Big Bands” made it into the movies where we can see them today.
My first exposure to “swing” music was watching those old movies and I was hooked. I’ve never been much of a fan of musicals, but the ones that featured big bands always caught my eye and my ear. I can remember trying to jitter-bug in our living room while one of those old musicals played on the TV.
My favorite of the swing era is Glenn Miller and his orchestra. Miller not only led the band but, like most of the big band leaders, he also wrote and arranged music for the band. And like most band leaders he played an instrument which in Miller’s case was trombone. The bio-pic “The Glenn Miller Story,” starring James Stewart and June Allyson, features many Miller favorites like “Tuxedo Junction,” “String of Pearls,” “In the Mood,” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000.” Made in 1954 the movie tells of Miller’s rise to fame, his Army service and his tragic death in 1944. My favorite film featuring Glenn Miller and his orchestra is “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941) where a magnificent performance of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” is captured on film, dance routine and all. There’s also a performance of one of my favorite Glenn Miller songs “In the Mood.” Another good movie featuring Miller and his orchestra is “Orchestra Wives” (1942) with Jackie Gleason, George Montgomery, and Cesar Romero as band members. The music includes “I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” and “Moonlight Serenade,” Miller’s theme-song.
We can’t talk about swing music without talking about Benny Goodman. His “hot” clarinet brought jazz out of the night clubs and juke joints and into Carnegie Hall. To learn more about “The King of Swing” watch “The Benny Goodman Story,” a 1955 movie starring Steve Allen and Donna Reed, with Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. A favorite film of mine featuring Benny Goodman is “Stage Door Canteen.” Made in 1943 it depicts the real canteen in New York City and features cameo appearances by numerous movie stars of the time, as well as lots of fun music and dancing. Other WWII films featuring Goodman are “Syncopation” (1942), “The Powers Girl” (1942), “The Gangs All Here” (1943) and “Sweet and Low Down” (1944).
Talk about a trumpet player! Harry James played the swingingest trumpet of the era. He and his band, the Music Makers, were also featured in Hollywood musicals during the 1940’s. Watch “Springtime in the Rockies” from 1942 which starred Harry’s future wife, Betty Grable. Harry James also appears in “Private Buckaroo” (1942) and “Best Foot Forward” (1943). Experience his “Concerto for Trumpet” in “Private Buckaroo.”
The Dorsey Brothers – Tommy and Jimmy
Brothers Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey organized a band in the 1920’s, playing and recording together until 1935 when the two musically talented siblings split and formed their own bands. Tommy, the trombone player, hired Frank Sinatra away from Harry James in 1940. Sinatra’s appearances and recordings with Tommy’s orchestra between 1940 and 1942 garnered Frank’s first big successes. You can catch an early Frank Sinatra performance with Tommy’s Dorsey’s band in the movie “Ships Ahoy” (1942).
Brother Jimmy played clarinet and saxophone as the leader of his own orchestra. The 1942 film “The Fleet’s In” showcased Jimmy’s band performing the famous “Tangerine” and “I Remember You.” If you are a fan of Abbott and Costello you can catch Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra in their film “Lost in a Harem” (1944). Another fun film featuring Jimmy’s orchestra is “Four Jills in a Jeep” from 1944. Stars Kay Francis, Carole Landis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair play themselves on a USO tour of Europe and North Africa in a non-sensical movie with no real plot and meant only to entertain.
Other Swing Performances
The harmonizing Andrews Sisters perform “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” in the 1941 Abbott and Costello comedy “Buck Privates.” The upbeat “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” is sung by Bing Crosby in “Here Come the Waves” (1944).
Numerous movies made during World War II utilized swing music as part of their soundtracks. Most of these films showed the big bands as themselves playing in night clubs or in front of audiences. I especially enjoy watching the musicians perform. Nothing like struggling to play an instrument in a high school band to give you an appreciation for the immense talent of the musicians. Watching the dancers is fun, too.
The young people of that era were our parents and grandparents. And, yes, they were young once. Swing music was their music. Thanks to the preservation of the old films as well as the recordings from that time we can enjoy this same music. And we can imagine what life was like back then. Check out some of the many video clips on Youtube.
Note that the low-resolution poster images in this post qualify as “fair use” under the copyright laws. My intent is only to illustrate the discussion of the films depicted in the posters.