After talking about pop music as a gateway for beginners to connect to lindy hop, I started thinking about how to get dancers more deeply invested in and knowledgable about vintage jazz/swing/big band. Some of that comes from time and exposure. Some of it comes from encouraging them to learn about the music, talking about it, sharing favorite songs, proclaiming “I love this song” when a great song comes on. We also need to ensure that information is available to start their own journey of exploration.
Here is a musical buffet of vintage songs. One hundred different songs by one hundred different artists. I’ll post twenty a day for the next five days. I’ve listed them alphabetically by author’s first name because that’s how I searched my music collection. Also, there’s no rhyme or reason to the songs I picked for each artist. Sometimes, I picked a classic like Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail,” and sometimes I picked lesser known songs like Glenn Miller’s “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” If I left out a favorite song or a favorite artist, it wasn’t meant as any kind of slight, and you should just add them to the comments.
Also, I didn’t list the recording info because the idea is for this to be an inspiration. Look up the artist and see what else they’ve recorded. Find different versions of the song by the same artist or by other artists. Allmusic.com is a great resource where you can look up artists, read their biography, see their discography, and get a list of similar artists. For beginners, I’ve highlighted some artists that I think are good to start with.
- “Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)” – Andrews Sisters. The Andrew’s Sisters were the most successful female singing group of the time. Their collection goes far beyond the few well known hits that always get played. Its worth looking through their collection for some real gems like “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh” and “Hold Tight.”
- “Drinking Wine, Spo Dee O Dee” – Andy Kirk & His Clouds of Joy. Besides having the best band name ever, Andy Kirk recorded some solid tunes in the 30’s and 40’s. He never reached real fame with his band, but many great sidemen came through his band including Don Byas, Fats Navarro, and for a short time, Charlie Parker.
- “Watch the Birdie” – Anita O’Day. Anita O’Day started out with Gene Krupa’s band (featuring trumpeter Roy Eldridge), and these recordings from the 1940’s are the most approachable for dancers. In her later recordings, she started incorporating be-bop into her soloing. There are still some good tunes from those years, but you have to hunt for them a little more.
- “Grabtown Grapple” – Artie Shaw. Artie Shaw seems to be the new chosen one among swing DJ/music aficionados. There are some amazing tunes, but Artie Shaw ran five different bands during the swing era, each one distinct. Sometimes, his arrangements are fantastic for dancing, and other songs are more appropriate concert fare. Some of my favorites from him include “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” “Scuttlebutt,” and “I Got the Sun in the Morning.”
- “That Da Da Strain” – Ben Pollack. Never a major success himself, his band employed future luminaries such as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Harry James. His bands maintained a New Orleans style jazz while moving in to the more heavily arranged big band era. He was a direct predecessor for Bob Crosby and Matty Matlock who also meld New Orleans jazz with big band arrangements.
- “Moten Swing” – Bennie Moten. Moten was a ragtime pianist who ran a very successful territory band in the 1920’s. Count Basie eventually took over for Moten on piano, and many of the musicians for Moten went on to form the core of Basie’s band. Bennie’s band knew jazz, and could swing hard.
- “All the Cats Join In” – Benny Goodman. Nicknamed “The King of Swing,” Benny Goodman reminds us just why clarinet is a jazz instrument. I’ve been listening to Benny Goodman tunes for over ten years, and I still find new songs from him that are great for dancing. He has an immense catalog of very danceable music.
- “Swing High, Swing Low” – Bert Firman. A classically trained British violinist born in 1906, Firman redeemed himself by leading dance orchestras. Firman was playing all of the ballroom music of the day, so there’s more than just swing there, but he does have a number of tunes that remind us that is wasn’t just Lindy who hopped the Atlantic.
- “The Way You Look Tonight” – Billie Holiday. Lady Day had a voice like no other. Too bad she ran it into the ground with booze, drugs, cigarettes, and hard livin’. Her early recordings often suffer from inferior recording technology, and her later recordings often suffer from her inferior vocal quality. I find it tough as a DJ to find songs of hers that I really want to play for dancers, but such an immense talent deserves some listening.
- “(I Love The) Rhythm in a Riff” – Billy Eckstine. Eckstine had a booming, smooth baritone voice. He recorded with Earl Hines, and successfully recorded ballads in a time when African American singers were relegated to singing novelty numbers or blues. After leaving Earl’s band, he formed his own forward looking group that included Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan.
- “T’Aint What You Do” – Billy May & His Orchestra. Arranger and trumpeter, Billy May, started with Charlie Barnett before working for Glenn Miller, Les Brown and Frank Sinatra. While his band has some solid recordings, his real legacy lies in the classic arrangements for other artists (Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me”) that he left with us.
- “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” – Bix Beiderbecke. Beiderbecke was a premier cornetist in the 1920’s, eventually playing for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra which premiered “Rhapsody in Blue.” His career was cut short by his untimely death in the early 30s, the byproduct of a hard lived life of boozin’.
- “Swingin at the Sugar Bowl” – Bob Crosby and His Orchestra. Bob Crosby is a personal favorite of mine. He was the younger brother of Bing Crosby. He couldn’t read music and couldn’t play an instrument, but he was a good enough singer. His bands, though, packed some major talent and knew how to swing hard. He also fronted a smaller, dixieland inspired subset from his band called the Bobcats that was also very successful.
- “Wolverine Blues” – Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band. Scobey worked solidly through the 1930’s. In the 1940’s, he joined in the dixieland revival that was taking place, fronting his own band. Unfortunately, he died of cancer in his 40s. Something tells me he had a lot more great music in him.
- “Mama’s Gone, Goodbye” – Bobby Hackett. Hackett recorded the famous trumpet solo on Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls.” His trumpet playing was smooth and easy, with a relaxed feeling even on uptempo numbers as on his recording of “Everybody Loves My Baby” with Jack Teagarden.
- “When the Saints Go Marching In” – Bunk Johnson. According to himself, Bunk Johnson was a central figure in jazz, influencing Louis Armstrong and playing with all the greats. According to scholars, Bunk on Bunk is bunk.
- “Ain’t She Sweet?” – Bunny Berigan. Besides having a great nickname, Bunny Berigan was a fairly successful musician during his day. He was known as a risk taker in his solos, usually to great success but occasionally ending in entertaining failures. Like many jazz musicians, he drank hard and died young, forever to be immortalized by the box sets of his music.
- “Boo-Wah Boo-Wah” – Cab Calloway. Cab had a tremendous voice, but often gets overlooked as a serious musician because he was such an immense showman who often did novelty numbers. My favorite story of Cab is that he once played a gig (in Europe maybe?) where the sound system wasn’t working, so he just told the band to play and sang over top of them. That’s a serious set of vocal chops to project over a full band!
- “Gangbusters” – The Cats and The Fiddle. The Cats and The Fiddle are extremely popular with dancers today, but they never had a record break into the charts. A vocal harmony group following in the footsteps of The Mills Brothers, they found regular work and lasted longer than many of their counterparts.
- “Shake Rattle and Roll” – Charlie Barnet. This is not the Rock and Roll tune you’re thinking of. This is a classic, mellow swing tune recorded by a millionaire playboy. Barnet pushed to integrate bands in the mid 30s, and achieved personal success with his own band in the early 40s when he was a household name with hits such as “Skyliner.”