One of my favorite genres of music is what is commonly referred to as “Big Band.” I had the good fortune to stumble across a library of 78s when I was quite young (and luckily enough had a 78 RPM record player on which to play them) so I was introduced to the work of Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, Tommy Dorsey, etc. early on—and I was hooked.
Many use the term Big Band to describe a style of music but that tends to overlook the various styles within the genre. Rooted firmly in the world of Jazz and Dance music, big bands were further categorized into sub-genres, generally referred to as either “swing bands” (Count Basie) or “sweet bands” (Glenn Miller).
Big bands began in earnest around 1910 and dominated the world of jazz through the 40s. They reached the height of their popularity during what is referred to as the “Swing Era” of the 1930s and 40s which coincided with the increased availability and access to radio and record players.
And so, in this article, not only will I go into a bit more depth about Big Band music, but I’ll give you my recommended list of the 13 best big band jazz albums you need to run out and buy on vinyl!
What is a “Big Band”?
Big Band actually refers to a specific type of music ensemble.
Every big band had a leader, usually a soloist himself (there were very few female band leaders at the time) and, with this somewhat strict definition of what constitutes a big band, band leaders needed to find a way to distinguish their band from the rest of the crowd. In an effort to stand out they sought arrangers who could bring a fresh and unique sound to the group (if they weren’t talented arrangers themselves) and the best bands hired the finest musicians available.
There are many examples of talented musicians within a big band who set out on their own and formed their own groups (Harry James, Buddy Rich). At that time, vocalists were simply considered part of the band and not necessarily a main attraction on their own.
There was a tremendous amount of talent during the Big Band Jazz Era and, while their popularity has waned over the years, Big Band Jazz has continued to survive and adapt even up to today. With thousands of records from which to choose, I will attempt to break it down to the top 13 best big band albums for you to own on vinyl.
What are the Best Big Band Jazz Albums?
Let’s begin this countdown with a Tommy Dorsey album.
How do you pick just one Tommy Dorsey record for your collection? Tommy Dorsey and his band had 286 songs on the Billboard charts, 17 of those were number one. His biggest hit, “I’ll Never Smile Again”, featuring Frank Sinatra on vocals, spent 12 weeks at number 1 on the pop singles chart in 1940. So, which do you choose? You choose That Sentimental Gentleman which, by the way, is a nickname Dorsey was given due to his smooth style of trombone playing.
Released in 1957, the year after his untimely death at age 51, That Sentimental Gentleman is an assemblage of live Dorsey recordings from 1940 through 1944 including the moment when Sinatra said goodbye to the band and introduced Dick Haymes as his replacement in 1942. Not a bad thing to have in your collection.
As the Big Band era waned in post World War II America, many bands were forced to dissolve or adapt. Count Basie was no exception. He disolved his band in the late 40s and began playing in small combos and occasional orchestras.
At the urging of vocalist Billy Eckstein, Basie formed a new ensemble group in 1952, focusing less on improvisation and solos and more on written arrangements. By the mid-1950s they had become one of the preeminent backing bands for the era’s most prominent jazz vocalists.
In 1963, Basie partnered with Frank Sinatra for the first time on An Historical Musical First where the two recorded for posterity the classics “Pennies From Heaven”, “Please Be Kind”, “The Tender Trap” and “Learnin’ The Blues”. Whether you’re a Sinatra fan, a Basie fan or a fan of Swing in general, An Historic Musical First should be in your musical library.
Glenn Miller: Limited Edition
This five record anthology prepared by jazz critic George Frazier and released in 1953 features 59 RCA Victor studio and radio broadcast recordings of some of Miler’s most important works. This collection contains many of the Miller classics including “Moonlight Serenade”, “String of Pearls”, “Little Brown Jug” and “American Patrol” but, somewhat conspicuously, lacks “In the Mood.”
Presented in a handsomely bound, padded white album with gold embossed lettering, the collection also houses a 14 page booklet which includes a brief biography, a listing of important personnel, liner notes listing the recording dates of each track and several sketches of Miller. A capable trombone player and brilliant arranger, Glenn Miller created a unique style not previously heard during the big band era.
Again, many of the cuts are broadcast, not studio, recordings but they exquisitely capture a moment in Big Band history and will more than get you started on your Glenn Miller collection. Also re-released as Second Pressing in 1960.
Cab Calloway: Cab Calloway
If this record is not already on your shelf, why not? I know why not… it’s hard to find. This 1956 Epic/CBS release features some of Cab Calloway’s most iconic songs including “Minnie the Moocher”, “Miss Otis Regrets” and “The Jumpin” Jive.”
Calloway’s was among the most popular American jazz bands of the 1930s and they had a regular spot at the famed Cotton Club. Well, the Cotton Club closed in 1940 but Cab Calloway continued to perform in other venues. By the time his band broke up later in the 40s (due in part to his affinity for gambling), Calloway was a well known personality around the country. He appeared in a production of Gershwin’s “Porgie and Bess” and continued acting in several film roles.
His celebrity status is probably why this package of his most popular songs was assembled and released, but that’s just speculation on my part. If you saw his performance of “Minnie the Moocher” is the movie “The Blues Brothers” then you know he was a master of hot scat singing and improvisation. I have no doubt that this record (if you can get your hands on it) will bring you hours of listening enjoyment. Hi-dee-hi-dee-ho!
When it comes to choosing a Buddy Rich album for your record library, there’s a lot to choose from. Among the most talented swing/jazz drummers of all time he was also prolific and performed with many of the greats as well as his own band. He played with Tommy Dorsey, Benny Carter, Harry James, Les Brown, Charlie Ventura and Charlie Parker, to name a few.
He released no less than 47 albums between 1953 and 1985. Among his best is Swingin’ New Big Band, recorded live and released in 1966. This record is the first to contain one of his greatest pieces, “West Side Story Melody”, a tour de force which showcases his drumming prowess as well as his ability to blend rhythm with his band’s playing. Buddy Rich recorded live is an unmatched experience in the art of drumming and Swingin’ New Big Band is among the finest examples you can own.
I realize this is not a record for everyday listening but this is the album that kicks my holiday season into gear each year. Duke Ellington is a legend of the Big Band and Post-Bop jazz genres and his take on Tchaikovsky is spectacular. You’re no doubt familiar with the music of the classical Nutcracker Suite (even if you don’t realize it) but Ellington makes an already classic work of art SWING!
This 1960 Columbia release, recorded in mono, features nine cuts adapted by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. For my money, “Sugar Rum Cherry” (Dance Of The Sugar-Plum Fairy) is worth the price of the record which can still be found wherever you buy used records but you may want to just ask Santa to leave it under your tree.
If there is a must-have album in your Big Band record collection, this is it. After years of thinking the original masters were lost or destroyed, The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert was released by Columbia Masterworks in 1950.
Allegedly, this is the first double-album ever (Columbia having pioneered the Long-Playing record just a couple of years previously) and it contains over 100 minutes of classic Big Band material (a 12 minute version of the Louis Prima song “Sing, Sing, Sing”!) in a box secured by black binding with a four page booklet bound with the two dust sleeves. The musicians playing on this album read like a who’s who of big band legends. With Goodman at the helm, the band also includes Harry James on trumpet, Gene Krupa on drums, Lester Young on tenor sax and vibraphone player Lionel Hampton, to name a few.
Count Basie: Basie
One of Basie’s best and most critically acclaimed albums, this 1958 Roulette release is among the finest work ever produced by Count Basie and is an absolute must-have for any Big Band Jazz enthusiast.
Also known as E=MC² (and later as The Atomic Mr. Basie due in no small part to the explosive cover art), the album won Best Jazz Performance, Group and Best Performance by a Dance Band awards at the 1st Annual Grammy Awards. The songs were arranged by Neal Hefti and the high energy, unbelievably tight playing contained within will blow your mind. Basie was always known for having the most talented musicians in his group and that is evident on this record. Since this is a later release, there are elements of the BeBop influence here and there but the swing foundation is solid.
If swing is your thing, Count Basie does it best and this album is arguably his masterpiece.
I feel Harry James is among the most overlooked personalities from the Big Band era. A gifted trumpet player who began training in a strict setting while still very young, he played in Benny Goodman’s band until starting his own group in 1939. James may be best remembered for being the first well known band leader to employ Frank Sinatra and he continued to find success even after Sinatra left to join the Tommy Dorsey group in 1940.
In 1950, Columbia Pictures released “Young Man With a Horn” starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall and Doris Day. Douglas plays a gifted trumpet player who experiences the highs and lows of the music business and, well, I won’t spoil it for you. See the movie. It’s a good film but what you may not know is that all of the trumpet playing is performed by Harry James. Young Man With a Horn (the album) is not a soundtrack per se. Both James and Doris Day were under contract with Columbia and were required to record their songs from the movie for records.
In 1950 it was released in a variety of formats: four 10″ 78s, one 10″ LP, two 7″ EPs and a four 45 rpm box set. It was later expanded to include more songs and re-released as a 12″ LP in 1954. With all due respect to his past work, the music from Young Man With a Horn is among Harry James finest and it’s well worth your time seeking this gem out.
Released in 1953 by RCA Victor as a two LP box set recorded in mono, this album contains 24 tracks from, arguably, the Big Band era’s greatest clarinet player, Artie Shaw and his Orchestra. The original release came with a booklet. Sides A and B are from Hotel Lincoln’s Blue Room, recorded in 1938.
Sides C and D are from Hotel Pennsylvania’s Cafe’ Rouge, recorded in 1939. Shaw was one of the most prolific and successful band leaders of the time who, at one point, was earning $60,000 per week. Artie Shaw was unique in his approach in that he tried to incorporate Classical influences into the jazz standard of the 30s and 40s.
Possibly best remembered for his recording of “Begin the Beguine” (it’s on there) and the haunting “Nightmare” (his theme song), Shaw was a perfectionist in his playing and surrounded himself with other talented musicians including Buddy Rich and Billie Holiday who, unfortunately, is not included on this album. I chose this box set because, while Shaw was active through the 1950s, this recording captures all of his classic songs with the energy of a live performance in front of an audience.
A brilliant album (and one of my favorites). This is pure Sinatra recorded live in Las Vegas in 1966 backed by the Count Basie Band with Quincy Jones conducting. Sinatra at the Sands is a two record, gatefold, stereo release featuring over 76 minutes of material including the famous “Tea Break”, an 11 plus minute monologue from the Chairman himself.
If you were unable to attend a pre-retirement Sinatra show, this is as close as you’ll get. Released on the Reprise label, this is the first live Sinatra album released commercially. It has been re-released a number of times over the years including a couple unofficial Taiwanese printings so pay attention to which pressing you’re purchasing.
This is an odd choice from my personal collection. Bob Haggart was primarily a session musician, most notably a bass player in the Bob Crosby Band from 1935 until the band dissolved in 1942. In Chicago 1938, when some of the band were late coming back from a break, Haggart and drummer Ray Bauduc (arguably one of the top three swing drummers of all time) spontaneously wrote the tune “Big Noise From Winnetka” (Winnetka is a suburb of Chicago) with Bauduc striking the strings of the bass with his sticks while Haggart played the left hand part and whistling.
In 1963, Bob Haggart and his Big Swinging Band released their updated take on the tune along with 11 other songs. The album was released on Command records with a gatefold jacket touted as a “new and sophisticated concept in contemporary big band sound”. The inner fold of the jacket contains a brief bio of Haggart and a detailed description of each track.
The album Big Noise From Winnetka may not be listed among the greatest all-time by other outfits but this record is thoroughly enjoyable and an exciting update to the Big-Band style of the swing era. The arrangements are firmly rooted in the big band style and contain technological, stylistic and creative upgrades. It hasn’t been reissued since the 70s so you’ll have to hunt around to find a quality used copy.
A more contemporary group from Southern California, BBVD helped bring about the “Swing Revival” of the late 1990s with their hit “You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight” which was featured in the film “Swingers”.
Even though the revival has faded away, BBVD has remained active, continues to perform and release new material in the form of original compositions and cover songs (their album How Big Can You Get?: The Music of Cab Calloway is fantastic). Big Bad VooDoo Daddy (the record) is a 2017 re-release of their 1994 self-published debut CD. This version is from Lonestar records, released in Germany and pressed on clear, purple vinyl which has a limited run of 500 copies but appears to be relatively available.
Finally, of course, no list of the greatest big band jazz albums would be complete without mentioning the great Louis Armstrong. Satchmo made dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of recordings in his career which spanned from the early 20s until 1970.
Many of his records were made with small jazz groups of 5 or 7 members although he was part of several big bands including the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and his wife’s group, the Lil Harden Armstrong Band. Louis Armstrong was a gifted performer with a magnetic personality who inspired countless contemporaries as well as later generations.
Any Armstrong album is an asset to your collection, but if you have to pick just one, try to find the 1950 Decca 10 inch Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra – Classics: New Orleans To New York featuring Satchmo’s version of “Dipper Mouth Blues”, backed by Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra. Oh yeah!
As I previously mentioned, the format of the day during the Big Band Jazz Era was the 78 rpm single. After the invention of the Long Playing record by Columbia, record companies began reissuing previously released material in the new format.
As you search these records out, you will undoubtedly find re-releases and, when the material becomes public domain, foreign releases as well. The quality of these albums varies greatly depending on which version you find. For this list, I’ve attempted to choose original releases in the LP format whether containing new material or repackaged previously available music.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. And it’s not a definitive list, either. Ultimately, I hope this list gets you excited about the music from the Big Band Jazz Era and inspires you to seek out your own must-have records.
When did the “Big Band Era” end?
Interestingly, the “Big Band Jazz Era” unofficially ended in 1946 when post World War II tastes and society in general changed drastically. Recording technology improved and the first LP (Long Playing record) was released in 1948, so a few of the selections I’ve chosen are compilations of previously released material or recordings made in the later stages of the Big Band hay-day. Some big bands continued to make and record music for years after the Big Band Era ended.
What about 78 RPM records?
It’s fun to find original 78 rpm single recordings or 78 rpm “albums” (several singles packaged together in “album” form) but the difference in sound quality between those early shellac records and an LP is night and day.
Plus, modern turntables, if they play 78s at all, usually require a separate stylus or even a different platter to play them correctly. For those reasons you did not find any 78s on my top 13 list.
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