The first great period in popular music – music that emerged from the black and white dance bands of the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s, before receiving universal popularity during the Great Depression which followed the stock exchange collapse of 1929. During the Depression, radio broadcasts helped raise the spirits of the American population, keeping them dancing and singing to the popular tunes of the day, supplied by the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley.
It really all began with Benny Goodman although it could be argued that the seeds were sown when Louis Armstrong came to New York in 1924 to join the Fletcher Henderson band. Louis’ dynamic playing, his phrasing, his “hot” solos and the way he helped the band to swing created a new exciting style of dance band. The black bands were the first to absorb this new music with ballrooms all around the country being filled with dancers doing new steps like the lindy-hop. It took a little longer to infiltrate white society which didn’t really happen until the Stock Market crash of 1929 led America, and the world, into the Great Depression. The music and entertainment industries suffered, leaving more and more Americans relying on the free entertainment that was available to them from their radio sets. By 1934, ninety per cent of American homes owned a radio and when NBC carried out a survey they discovered that dance music was far and away the most popular type of program on the air. Following the survey, NBC launched a nationwide radio program called “Let’s Dance,” featuring the Benny Goodman orchestra. The weekly program was broadcast coast-to-coast over the NBC network of more than fifty stations.
By the early 1930s Fletcher Henderson and his musical director Don Redman had worked out what was to become the basic pattern for the swing bands of the 1930s – the interplay of the brass and reed sections, usually in a call-and-response fashion or with one section playing supporting riffs behind the others and a number of featured solos being included between the arranged passages. When Benny Goodman found that he needed a much larger supply of new band arrangements to satisfy the demand created by his “Let’s Dance” program, his friends encouraged him to approach Fletcher Henderon. Fletcher was having a lean time so he agreed to supply them. The music that was coming from the Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson partnership was to become the dominant influence on American popular music. This exciting new dance music captivated both young and old as a new era of dance bands began to take over the American musical scene. Following the “Let’s Dance” program, the Benny Goodman orchestra took-off on a cross-country tour finishing up on the 21st August 1935 at the famous Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Whilst the weekly program had been broadcast late at night in New York it had been relayed by the NBC to be heard at peak time, three hours earlier, on the West Coast – thereby reaching a much wider audience with many listeners organising weekly dance parties.
When the Benny Goodman orchestra appeared that night, in person, at the Palomar and started playing their favourite Fletcher Henderson arrangements to an audience that had heard them before on their radios, the place erupted – the Swing Era had arrived. The music was soon to dominate the American social world with almost very nightclub, ballroom and restaurant featuring swing music. The Depression seemed left behind as Americans, of all ages, danced the foxtrot to the gentle ballads and lindy-hopped and jitterbugged to the “hot” numbers.