Big bands, hotel bands, and the evolution of jazz music helped set the stage for the Big Band era. This part of the discussion will attempt to provide an overview of the many external factors outside of the music itself that not only set the stage for the Big Band era to occur but also helped increase and sustain the approbation of jazz in the public’s eye.


The Big Band era is generally regarded as having occurred between the years 1935 and 1945. It was the only time in history that the popularity of jazz music eclipsed all other forms of music in the U.S. Rightly or wrongly the appearance of Benny Goodman and his big band at the Palomar in Los Angeles in August of 1935 is often referred to as the official start of the Swing era. While Benny Goodman undoubtedly had a great big band, it should be clear by now that his may not have been the “best” or even most original big band playing hot jazz music at the time. Just as Benny Goodman did not start, conceive, or bring to fruition the Big Band era on his own, so no one incident can be cited as its genesis. Rather many circumstances, incidents, conditions, and inventions seemed to all work together and should be taken into account when viewing its conception.


In the 1930s radio became a household appliance. It is estimated that by 1935, the number of homes with radios was nearly 23 million, the total audience around 91 million. This was the “Golden Age Of Radio” when shows like “The Shadow,” “Amos & Andy,” “Tarzan,” “Fibber McGee And Molly,” and “The Lone Ranger” were at peak popularity. Studio musicians made their money as background instrumentalists both for shows and commercials. Radio executives had learned in the 1920s that music shows were also successful. However, as far as nationally broadcast music shows in the years preceding 1934, dance and “sweet” bands still dominated the airwaves. The general public was still only dimly aware of the great black jazz orchestras. Benny Goodman’s Let’s Dance broadcasts, which aired regularly in 1934, were one of the first such weekly live radio broadcasts of hot jazz music to be aired by a national network on a steady, reoccurring basis.


The disc jockey, a term not used until about 1940, was also to become a significant factor in getting music out to the public. At first the large U.S. radio networks were against the idea. In the early 1930s they sternly reiterated their policies in a memorandum discouraging the use of recordings in network broadcasts. But the records were already spinning on local programs. Los Angeles radio man Al Jarvis was playing records and talking about them on a successful program called “The World’s Largest Make Believe Ballroom.” Jarvis and his program were very popular on KFWB in the small Los Angeles radio market in the early 1930s. Originally a junior assistant at KFWB, Martin Block, who had moved to New York, borrowed the same concept during the breaks in the high profile Bruno-Hauptman trial on network radio and was met with great success in 1935. Although often controversial to the musician’s union, to jazz writers, to music fans and to musicians themselves, these record jockeys, as they were called, were soon entertaining listeners with discs all over the country through the medium of radio.


Benny Goodman’s Let’s Dance broadcasts first aired in December of 1934. His was the final of several music features of the night making it a late broadcast on the East Coast. Most high school and college students, who were more apt to like hot jazz music, needed to be up early for school and did not hear these broadcasts. The subsequent U.S. tour by Goodman ending in California in which Benny Goodman was booked following his Let’s Dance broadcasts was largely unsuccessful until he hit the West Coast. The band was met with a tremendous amount of ambivalence and even scorn throughout the Midwest. The reason was the 3-hour time difference of his live broadcasts, between coasts, had enabled many of the youth out West to be tuned in nightly. They were ready and eager to greet and meet the band bringing them this new hot jazz music.


Soon live radio remotes were regularly featuring this new swing music coast to coast as nearly all the major hotels in large cities had a “wire,” as it was called, meaning a line installed for broadcast transmission. Jukeboxes were blaring, kids were dancing, record jockeys were spinning discs and talking about them and the Big Band era had arrived.