The Essential Swing-era Playlist
Every summer at Lincoln Center seasoned dancers and curious revelers come together for what is truly a rite of passage in the life of a New Yorker: dancing under the stars to some of the best live dance bands during Midsummer Night Swing. To get us in the mood, drummer and bandleader Evan Sherman shared some of his favorite swing tunes with us.
A note from the curator: If you can listen with headphones or good speakers, your experience will be enhanced!
This features the incredible "All-American Rhythm Section" of Count Basie (piano), Jo Jones (drums), Walter Page (bass), and Freddie Green (guitar), grooving like one being, along with the rest of the orchestra. The beautiful tenor saxophone solo is played by Paul Gonsalves, who is infamous for snoozing onstage during performances with Duke Ellington's band. Jimmy Heath says one of the reasons he and John Coltrane switched from alto to tenor was because when they played in Dizzy's big band in 1950, Paul would have all the solos on tenor saxophone and his sexy sound had all the women chasing after him.
Composer: Richard A. Whiting
Bandleader: Earl Hines (1949)
Count Basie said Earl "Fatha" Hines was "the greatest piano player in the world." The first sound we hear is Hines's foot setting the time to bring in the drummer and bassist. When trumpeter Buck Clayton enters, the intensity becomes heightened and Hines's longtime drummer, Wallace Bishop, switches from brushes to sticks, throwing jabs with his snare and bass drum, demonstrating his admiration for the newest blossom in jazz—at that time known as "bebop." The drummer then shows his slickness by switching seamlessly from sticks back to brushes at the start of the clarinet solo. Hines's piano solo displays his extensive palette of sounds and textures while restraining himself from playing more (they only had so much space on the 10" record). Arvell Shaw, Hines's bandmate from Louis Armstrong's band and originally a tuba player, switched to the acoustic bass like many other early jazz bassists. Shaw's funky bass lines propel the band into the swing vortex.
Sleepy Time Gal
Composer: Richard A. Whiting
Bandleader: Jimmie Lunceford (1945)
Jimmie Lunceford never became as famous as some of the other swing bandleaders, perhaps because he never had a big hit and died in 1947. His band was known for their exciting arrangements that were attractive to young, energetic dancers. This romantic number features wicked saxophone soli!
Cotton Club Stomp
Composers: Harry Carney / Duke Ellington / Johnny Hodges
Bandleader: Duke Ellington (1930)
From 1927 to 1931, Duke Ellington had a residency at the Cotton Club, a Harlem nightclub that presented black entertainment, catering to a young, "whites-only" bourgeoisie crowd. Part of Ellington's gig was to provide "jungle" music for revues featuring singers, dancers, actors, and comedians in elaborate floor and stage shows. "Cotton Club Stomp" likely featured a number of dancers, with each section accentuating a variety of distinct characters. Use your imagination!
Any Old Time
Composer: Artie Shaw
Bandleader: Artie Shaw (1938)
This is a fox-trot composed by clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw featuring Billie Holiday, making Shaw the first white bandleader to hire a full-time black female singer to tour the segregated South in the U.S. Right after making this record, Holiday left the band because audiences were too hostile and the record companies wanted a more "mainstream" singer. This track features a brilliant orchestration, along with the divine vocals of Lady Day. The beat is propelled by a young Buddy Rich.
Benny Goodman and his drummer Gene Krupa were known as the "Kings of Swing." This is a masterful orchestration by Fletcher Henderson, one of the inventors of the big band idiom. Composed in 1926 by Irving Berlin, this pop song remains known and loved by many to this day.
Frank Sinatra's first single! It did not make the charts in 1939, but maybe we can bring it some further recognition now? This beautiful arrangement spotlights a young ‘Ol Blue Eyes purveying deep romance, and the band is swinging! I love the sound of the saxophone section emulating a string section.
Want more Frank? Check out our Sinatra playlist.
Composer: Harry A. White
Bandleader: Chick Webb (1937)
From Burt Korall’s Drummin’ Men: “Chick Webb was ‘the man’ on the drums in the 1930s. No other drummer of the period played with such flair, facility, and imagination. He brought jazz drumming to a new level of adventure and maturity. […] He had been accidentally dropped on his back, and several vertebrae were smashed. Because of this, Webb never grew to full size; he was rendered a hunchback and suffered a great deal of pain throughout his life. Drums gave him an interest and a means to build up his body.”
Webb, who was 4’ 9”, led his resident big band at the glamorous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in the 1930s. The Savoy, which could fit 4,000 dancers, was among the first places in the U.S. to allow an integrated clientele. Their “no discrimination” policy led to the rise of elite dancers, such as the Lindy hoppers. Popular from the start, a headline from March 20, 1926, reads “Savoy Turns 2,000 Away On Opening Night – Crowds Pack Ball Room All Week.”
The Full Playlist
About the curator
Having received his first drum set at age 5, New Jersey–native Evan Sherman began his true drum education when he witnessed one of his heroes—Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones—perform live when he was 8. After exploring rock and classical music, he discovered jazz and his passion for it at age 13. A couple of years ago, while still a student at the Manhattan School of Music, Sherman started his own 17-piece big band that has gone on to earn a reputation for presiding over some of the most raucous late-night dance parties in town at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, right here at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Photo by Michael Weintrob