If you want to transport yourself to the golden age of jazz you simply must get acquainted with the following titans of the era. Their music will take you back in time!
The 1920s, 30s, and 40s, were a robust era of jazz or "big band" swing music. In fact, swing dominated the airwaves well into the 1960s, when rock began to take hold. For the most part, a blend of jazz, blues, and boogie-woogie made up the pop (popular) music of the day.
When it comes to jazz, most everyone seems to recall Frank Sinatra; that giant of the jazz age who managed to spread his career over most of the 20th century— many of his songs linger on our radios even now. But there are many more "vintage" artists one ought to get acquainted with if one is ever searching for a musical trip back in time. We've put together a little list so you can get started!
1) Ella Fitzgerald
From: Virginia, U.S.A.
Years active: 1935 - 1975
Known as the "Queen of Jazz", Ella had a long career that carried her well into retirement age, though her fame peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of her songs have become jazz classics, and her voice is instantly recognisable. Listen to one of Ella's more famous performances below:
2) Glenn Miller
From: Iowa, U.S.A.
Years active: 1937- 1944
Glenn Miller has had an outsized impact on the genre of jazz for the short time he was famous. Declared missing in 1944 somewhere over the English Channel, he only became a well-known composer a few years before his death. However, as his orchestra appeared in two major films and was employed by the U.S. military during the Second World War, Glenn Miller was a household name in the 1940s. His most famous tune In the Mood is still often heard today (especially in films), but my personal favourite is Moonlight Serenade.
3) Duke Ellington
From: Washington D.C., U.S.A.
Years active: 1924 - 1974
Known simply as "the Duke", Edward K. Ellington was a prolific composer, with over 1000 compositions to his name. He and his band first gained widespread recognition when they landed a regular gig at the famed "Cotton Club" in New York City. Duke was an excellent pianist (a skill he picked up from his parents) and regularly conducted his band from behind the piano. When he died after 50 years of playing and recording music, Ella Fitzgerald is said to have remarked: "A genius has passed." He was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1999.
4) Billie Holiday
From: Philadelphia, U.S.A.
Years active: 1929 - 1958
Eleanora Fagan, or "Billie Holiday" as she was known, got her start in a place where many jazz artists of the age did— in New York City nightclubs. She became a commercial success in the 1930s, and had a string of hits through the 1940s. Fame, however, eventually took its toll on Billie, and she struggled with drug abuse before passing away of cirrhosis at just 44 years old in 1959. She was awarded four Grammy awards posthumously and her music is much admired to this day.
5) Vera Lynn
From: London, England
Years active: 1933 - 2017
What the Andrews Sisters were to wartime America, Vera Lynn was to wartime Britain. For many, she was the voice of their generation, and her concerts were an important effort in keeping up morale in Britain during the darkest days of the Second World War. After the war, many of her songs went on to become chart-topping hits in America. She was the best-selling female artist in the U.K. as of 2017 and Britain mourned the loss of a cultural icon when she passed away in 2020.
6) Fats Waller
From: New York, U.S.A.
Years active: 1922 - 1943
Thomas "Fats" Waller started playing the piano at 6 years old, and was a professional organist by age 15. At 18, he became a recording artist. In 1926, he was kidnapped after a performance, brought to a large hotel party, and shown to a piano at gunpoint— it turned out to be Al Capone's birthday party! Waller played for the crowd, simply glad the gangsters meant him no harm. Waller went on to tour the U.K. and compose a hit Broadway musical over the course of his career. Sadly, his life was cut short by pneumonia, and he died aged just 39.
7) Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey
From: Pensylvannia, U.S.A.
Years active: 1928 - 1956, 1957
The Dorsey brothers were a famous duo, yet also both famous in their own right, with each brother having conducted his own orchestra. It would seem the brothers took after their father who was also a bandleader. Tommy was famous for his unique trombone playing style and is especially well-known for the music his orchestra recorded with Frank Sinatra in the early 1940s. Jimmy on the other hand, was a clarinetist and saxophone player, and his band provided accompaniment for Bing Crosby in the late 1930s.
8) Benny Goodman
Years active: 1926 - 1986
Like his contemporaries Glenn Miller & Jimmy Dorsey, Benny was a clarinet-playing bandleader. Known as the "king of swing", his sold-out concert at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1938 is credited as the moment that American jazz— which had started out in nightclubs and had been mostly popular among the working classes— finally went mainstream. Goodman remained a popular musician in both the classical and jazz genres throughout his life, and played his last concert just six days before he died at the age of 77.
9) The Andrews Sisters
From: Minneapolis, U.S.A.
Years active: 1937 - 1953 (1956-1966)
Having sold an estimated 80 million records, the Andrews Sisters were no minor American trio. Consisting of sisters LaVerne, Maxene, and Patricia (Patty), the sisters started touring from a young age to support their family financially. Their fame peaked during the War years, and the band broke up in the early 1950s. They reunited in 1956, but their commercial success was limited. Over the course of their career, the sisters shared the stage with nearly every major jazz orchestra and crooner of the era.
10) Bing Crosby
From: Tacoma, U.S.A.
Years active: 1926 - 1977
Born in Washington state, Harry "Bing" Crosby moved to California as part of a duo singing act in 1925. It wasn't long before people started taking note, and in 1931, his first solo radio show made him famous. By 1948, Bing had been declared the "Most Admired Man Alive" and his music was purported to have filled nearly half of all the radio time allotted to music in the same year.
He became the most successful male musician of his era, and an award-winning actor to boot. There is really no one we could compare him to today. Bing Crosby was an American icon, and Frank Sinatra, whose own singing style was modelled after Bing's, would follow in his shoes.
11) Dean Martin
From: Ohio, U.S.A.
Years active: 1940 - 1989
Born into an Italian-American family in Steubenville, Ohio, Dino Paul Crocetti had a fairly standard upbringing for his era, but found work doing all kinds of odd jobs until he finally broke into the music business. Dean was a real "man's man" who bootlegged liquor as a kid, boxed as a teen, and was drafted into the U.S. Army as an adult (he was given a medical discharge 14 months later). Dean Martin was notoriously funny, and got his start in the entertainment industry by combining his musical talent with slapstick comedy. His career peaked in the 1960s and 70s, by which time he was a household name with his own TV show. His music continued to sell well among those who preferred the older, crooning style of music to the then-trending rock and roll.
12) Louis Armstrong
From: New Orleans, U.S.A.
Years active: 1918 - 1969
Louis Armstrong grew up in abject poverty in the American south at a time when black people were treated very poorly. He worked a variety of jobs before eventually finding a home in the music scene as both a trumpet player and vocalist. Apparently, Armstrong got his trademark rasp from a long cold after performing on a steam ship early in his career. In the mid-1930s, he even had surgery on his vocal cords to try and repair them, which rather than helping, only made his rasp more distinct. It's hard to believe that such a coincidental turn of events would create one of the most iconic voices of the twentieth century!
This is by no means an exhaustive list of jazz musicians. This is just meant to get you started! Over the last hundred years, big band conductors, composers, and crooners have given us some of the greatest music ever to grace the airwaves. Go out there and discover as much of it as possible, because a great way to experience a bit of history is to groove along to some of these classic hits.