Famous Jazz Musicians of the 1930s - The Document Records Store

Famous Jazz Musicians of the 1930s


Famous Jazz Musicians of the 1930s

In the 1930s we move from the “Jazz Age” to the “Swing Era”. New York is now the Jazz Capital of the World, although other cities, such as Chicago and Kansas City, enjoy a thriving Jazz scene. With Hollywood firmly established, many of the big bands spend more time on the West coast. New York continues to host the major radio stations. 

Here we look at seven highly influential musicians who defined the decade.

Benny Goodman

Born in Chicago on May 30 1906, Benny Goodman was to become the first major swing band leader. He played the clarinet which brought an instantly recognisable identity to his music, whether playing with his big band or one of his smaller groups.

The son of Russiian immigrants, Goodman first learned the clarinet at ten years old. Aged 12, Goodman joined the band at Hull House, a settlement house. He quickly mastered the clarinet, playing in many local bands and turning professional in 1921.

Having dropped out of school at 14 to pursue a career in music, Goodman joined Ben Pollack’s band aged 16. He made his recording debut with Pollack in December 1926; two years later he recorded his own debut album, “A Jazz Holiday”.

Goodman left Pollack in 1929, moving to New York as a freelance musician on recording sessions, on the radio and in Broadway musicals. Some of the artists he played with included Fats Waller, Bessie Smith and Ted Lewis.

He also recorded under his own name, achieving chart success with “He’s Not Worth Your Tears”, “Riffin’ The Scotch” (sung by a young Billie Holiday and “I Ain’t Lazy, I’m Just Dreamin’” with vocals by Jack Teagarden. 

The Benny Goodman Orchestra was founded in 1934, their first performance being at Billy Rose’s Music Hall.

A number one hit, “Moonglow” and two subsequent top ten successes, “Take My Word” and “Bugle Call Rag” led to a regular radio slot on NBC’s “Let’s Dance” which was broadcast on Saturday nights.

Goodman’s six month tenure on “Let’s Dance” brought six top ten hits before he switched from Columbia Records to RCA Victor, scoring a further five chart successes before the end of the year.

The Benny Goodman Orchestra  went on tour in 1935. Featured instrumentalists included trumpeters Ziggy Elman and Harry James, pianists Jess Stacey and Teddy Wilson, as well as  Gene Krupa on drums. Lionel Hampton would later join the tour.

A spectacular performance at the Palomar Ballroom was universally applauded as the birth of the Swing era. Goodman went on to perform in a number of Hollywood movies and introduced the “First Lady Of  Song”, Ella Fitzgerald, with a number one hit in 1937.

An historic production in 1938, also featuring Count Basie, took place at the Carnegie Hall in New York, which was the first Jazz concert to be featured at the iconic venue.

A radio broadcast of “Roll ‘Em” featuring Benny Goodman and his Orchestra can be found on DOCD-1009

Goodman had lost such star players as Harry James and Gene Kruba by 1939 and faced considerable competition from upcoming bands led by Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller. His remarkable successes throughout the decade, though, had already justified his title as “The King Of Swing”.

 Fats Waller

Fats Waller became famous for his comedic radio performances during the 1930s but was one of the most accomplished ‘Stride’ pianists of his generation.

Born Thomas Wright Waller in Harlem, New York in 1904, “Fats” was taught the piano by his mother at the age of six. He went on to play the reed organ, string bass and violin. By the time he was fifteen, Waller had dropped out of school and was playing organ at the Lincoln Theatre.

Edward Waller was a baptist minister and had high hopes for his son to follow him into the church. Following the death of his mother in 1920, Fats moved into the home of his music tutor Russell B.T. Brooks; an introduction to Jazz pianist James P. Johnson secured  Waller’s future in the music business.

Waller made his recording debut in 1922, cutting “Birmingham Blues” and “Muscle Shoals Blues” for Okeh Records. During the 1920s he could be found backing various Blues singers in the studio (DOCD-1019 accompanying Ada Brown and DOCD-5662 with Maude Mills are two examples).

Outside the recording studios Fats Waller could be found entertaining at ‘rent parties’ and clubs, as well as movie theatres.

Waller was beginning to forge a reputation as a composer; his collaborative work with poet / lyricist Razaf producing three musicals: “Keep Shufflin’”; “Load of Coal” and “Hot Chocolates”, the latter including “Ain’t Misbehavin’” which went on to become a smash hit for artists such as Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.

Waller’s recording career really took off when he joined Victor Records in 1926, where he recorded hits such as “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “The Joint is Jumpin‘.”

His fame spread throughout the 1930s with his radio work on “Paramount On Parade” and “Radio Roundup” from New York and “Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club” out of Cincinnati.

Waller became disenchanted with his comedic, irreverent reputation from his radio work and following his European tour in 1938, he recorded the more contemporary piece, “The London Suite”.

Having already appeared in movies, Waller performed in “Stormy Weather” in 1943 with Lena Horne and Bill Robinson. Waller’s hectic lifestyle and subsequent health problems would bring his life to a premature close later that year.

Count Basie

William J. Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey on August 21, 1904, the son of two musicians: his father Harvey Basie played mellophone while his mother Lillian, his first music teacher, was a pianist. 

As a child, Basie helped his mother with her home laundry business. He also worked at the Palace Theatre, assisting the projectionist. One day the theatre pianist didn’t show up so Basie filled in. He did such a good job that he was invited back.

Basie’s early influences were the stride pianists, particularly Fats Waller, although he initially wanted to play drums. He realised his shortcomings in that direction when he first heard future friend and collaborator Sonny Greer play.

Basie’s professional career began with a touring Vaudeville company. Stranded in Kansas City following a cancelled tour, Basie joined Walter Page’s Blue Devils. Fellow band members included trumpeter Oran ‘Hot Lips’ Page and vocalist Jimmy Rushing, both of whom would later join Basie’s own band.

Basie left The Blue Devils in 1929, playing in various local bands before joining Bennie Moten’s Band, taking over as leader following Moten’s death in 1935. This band morphed into Count Basie and his Cherry Blossom Orchestra, the first time Basie was professionally called ‘Count’ after a radio announcer first coined the epithet.

Basie and his orchestra moved to Chicago when their music came to the notice of impresario John Hammond. They then performed in Buffalo, NY before an engagement at New York’s Roseland Ballroom.

They made their recording debut with Decca Records in January 1937, “One O’ Clock Blues” charting in September of that year. Concerts in Chicago and Boston followed as the band expanded.

The orchestra made their mark during an extended stay at New York’s Famous Door club in 1938. “Stop Beatin’ Around The Mulberry Bush”,featuring Jimmy Rushing as vocalist, hit the top ten later that year. 

The first half of 1939 saw Basie and his band in Chicago, switching from Decca to Columbia Record, then travelling to the West Coast in the autumn. During the 1940s Basie appeared in a number of movies, continuing to make hit records, later signing for RCA Victor.

Count Basie can be found backing Blues singer Helen Humes on DOCD-1020.

Basie toured with his band until his death in 1984; the orchestra bearing his name continues to perform to this day.

Jimmy (and Tommy) Dorsey

The first son of Thomas Francis Dorsey, Sr, and older brother of fellow band leader Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy was born in Shenandoah, PA on February 29, 1904. Jimmy, who played both clarinet and alto sax, was one of the top bandleaders of the swing era.

Thomas senior, a miner who taught music and had his own brass band, wanted a better life for his sons; he taught them from a young age and encouraged them to pursue careers in the music business.

Jimmy, having played cornet in his father’s band from age seven, switched to the trombone and turned professional at nine years of age with J. Carson McGee’s King Trumpeters in New York.

The brothers joined forces to form Dorsey’s Novelty Six in 1920, then acquired an engagement at an amusement park in Baltimore MD as Dorsey’s Wild Canaries. During this time they became one of the first Jazz bands to be featured on radio.

Jimmy moved to New York, joining Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra in 1925, playing with musicians of the standard of  Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, and Frankie Trumbauer. A year later Jimmy joined Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, followed by his younger brother. By this time Jimmy was an established reed player, alternating between clarinet and alto; Tommy played trombone, sometimes trumpet.

The brothers settled in New York, playing as session musicians on records, in musicals and radio. They formed The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in 1927, recording for Okeh Records. They enjoyed their first top ten hit with “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” in 1929, featuring a young Bing Crosby on vocals.

In 1934 the brothers started touring, signing to Decca Records the same year. Bing’s younger brother Bob Crosby joined them in recording “What A Difference A Day Made” which reached the top ten.

They enjoyed several hits in the ensuing months and seemed ready to become one of the frontrunning swing bands. They received a major setback in 1935 when, after working with each other for many years, the tensions between the siblings exploded during a gig at the Glen Island Casino, resulting in Tommy storming off the bandstand in mid-performance.

Jimmy continued recording as the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra until Tommy formed his own band. Jimmy renamed his band, Jimmy Dorsey & His Orchestra, reuniting with Bing Crosby on the radio show “Kraft Music Hall” until 1937.

Benny Goodman took advantage of the fallout between the Dorsey Brothers and quickly established himself as “The King Of Swing”. Tommy’s band soon gave Goodman some competition; Jimmy, although not so successful as his younger brother, did achieve a number one hit with “Is It True What They Say About Dixie?” in June 1936.

After leaving the Crosby radio show, Jimmy went on to enjoy considerable chart success which cemented his popularity throughout the remainder of the decade and the first half of the forties.

Louis Armstrong features with Jimmy Dorsey And His Orchestra on DOCD-32-20-20.

Chick Webb

Although Chick Webb may not be held in such reverence as his contemporaries, such as Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington or Count Basie, his is a story of triumph over adversity in his relatively short life.

Born on February 10th, 1905 in Baltimore, Maryland, Webb was afflicted from a young age with congenital tuberculosis. Small in stature due to curvature of the spine, Webb overcame these handicaps to battle it out with the best bands of his time at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.

Following advice from his doctor to play a musical instrument to build up his dexterity and muscle tone, a young Webb saved his newsboy earnings to buy his first set of drums. He became proficient enough to turn professional at eleven years old.

He moved to New York City in 1925 and was regularly leading his own band at the Savoy from 1931. The Harlem venue was famed for its battles of the bands. Webb invariably beat Goodman and Basie, on one occasion causing Goodman’s shell-shocked drummer, Gene Krupa to leave the bandstand. Only Ellington managed to score a solitary victory over Webb.

In 1935 a 17 year old Ella Fitzgerald joined Webb’s band. Webb became Ella’s legal guardian and enjoyed his biggest hit record with Fitzgerald’s debut “A Tisket-A-Tasket”. 

Sadly, Webb’s health declined and he passed away at the age of 34. Ella Fitzgerald led the band until it broke up in 1942.

Coleman Hawkins

Born on 21st November 1904 in St. Joseph, Missouri, Coleman Hawkins brought the tenor saxophone from what was generally seen as a novelty instrument to the forefront of Jazz musicianship.

At five years of age Hawkins learned the piano, switching to the cello at seven; two years later he was learning the tenor sax. He soon developed his own sound, turning professional at the age of twelve.

Blues singer Mamie Smith gave Hawkins a job with her band, The Blues Hounds in 1921 when he was sixteen. Hawkins recorded with Smith during his two year tenure with her band, in addition to some instrumentals with the band.

Hawkins joined the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1923. Some of his early recordings, backing Blues singer Mattie Hite, can be found on Female Blues Singers Vol 9 H2 1923 – 1930 (DOCD-5513).

Hawkins stayed with Henderson for a decade, joined by Louis Armstrong in 1924. Armstrong’s arrival signalled a change from the band’s staccato sound to a more swinging style.

During his time with Henderson Hawkins, or ’Hawk’ as he was affectionately known, had become the recognised top soloist with his instrument. 

From 1934, Hawk spent five years in Europe, beginning with the Jack Hylton Orchestra in England, then playing with a number of bands across the continent. In 1937 Hawkins recorded with Benny Carter, Django Reinhardt, Stefane Grappelli, Alex Combille and Andre Ekyan. With war looming Hawkins returned to the US in 1939.

Hawkins recorded his most famous tune, “Body And Soul” in 1940. During the 1940s Hawkins played with and encouraged many of the younger upcoming musicians, including Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. 

Lester Young

Lester Young was an innovator in his playing of the tenor saxophone. His lighter way of playing, the notes flowing over the bars, contrasted greatly with the hard hitting style of his contemporaries, in particular Coleman Hawkins, whom he replaced in the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. This contrast made for a short term stay with Henderson as the other musicians could not play with Young’s subtle, more melodic approach.

Young was born on August 27th 1909 at Woodville, MS. He learned several instruments before playing the alto sax at age 13.  Young played in a well established family band but, refusing to tour the South, he left home, joining  Art Bronson’s Bostonians. By this time he was playing tenor.

Young freelanced in various bands, including Walter Page’s Blue Devils, Eddie Barefield, Benny Moten and King Oliver. He joined Count Basie’s Band in 1934 before replacing Hawkins in his ill-fated tenure with Fletcher Henderson.

Back with Basie, Young was able to flourish. Basie paired Young with Herschel Evans, an adventurous move bringing two tenors to the fore. Although Evans played in a darker style, the two complemented each other.

Young made his recording debut with Basie in 1936. After the band moved to New York, in addition to his recordings with Basie, Young worked with Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson. 

Holiday and Young became very close but, according to Jazz Critic and author, Dave Gelly in his biography of Young, “Being Prez”, they were never lovers. Holiday gave Young his nickname “Prez”, while he was the first to call her “Lady Day”.

Young’s hip talk reportedly brought into the English vocabulary the term ‘cool’ as well as referring to money as ‘bread’.

Young suffered a torrid time after joining the army as the US joined the Second World War. Thinking he would be entertaining the troops, just as white Jazz artists Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw were, Young found himself designated as an ordinary soldier. He was court martialed for smoking marijuana and refused to take up basic training.

Young’s experience of racism in the army, along with the Jim Crow South he suffered during his early life, affected Young for the rest of his life.


Jazz in the 1930s was the common thread through the Great Depression, prohibition – then the repeal leading to speakeasies being legitimized and the threat of war in Europe. Swing bands dominated the music scene. Towards the end of the decade soloists were being encouraged to improvise. This would lead to a revolution in Jazz following the Second World War.

Guest Post Written by Paul Forrest. Copyright: 2020 The Document Records Store.”