The most important song for every classic big band was its theme song. Heard at the open and close of live performances and radio broadcasts, themes established a band’s distinct musical character and identity. The best band themes were richly evocative and wove magical, musical spells that haven’t dissipated with the passage of time.
This week on SDPB Radio’s Big Band Spotlight we’re featuring theme songs of over a dozen of the most famous orchestras of the Swing Era.
To those who grew up listening to the great big bands playing live on the radio, nothing stirs up memories as strongly as hearing a favorite band’s theme song. During the Swing Era, big bands broadcast nightly from ballrooms, theaters and hotels around the country; places with romantic names like Glen Island Casino, the Meadowbrook, Elitch’s Gardens, Cafe Rouge and the Aragon. Because there were so many orchestras competing for listeners up and down the radio dial, a band’s theme had to be distinctive, unique and immediately identifiable.
Some bands had rollicking swing tunes as their themes. Count Basie opened his broadcasts with the riff-filled “One O’ Clock Jump.” Duke Ellington used Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” as his theme. Les Brown chose the catchy, energetic “Leap Frog.” Benny Goodman’s opening theme song, “Let’s Dance,” was based on a classical work by Carl Maria von Weber, Invitation to the Dance.
Other groups used dark, moody tunes for theme songs. Artie Shaw’s identifying theme was the ominous “Nightmare.” Fellow clarinetist and bandleader Woody Herman opened his performances with a slow blues, “Blue Flame.” Goodman closed his broadcasts with Gordon Jenkins’ mournful “Goodbye.”
Harry James used the 19th-century Italian tune “Ciribiribin” to show off his soaring, virtuosic trumpet. Jimmy Dorsey’s theme “Contrasts” featured his liquid alto sax. Younger brother Tommy’s theme “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” beautifully showcased his remarkable, lyrical, upper-register trombone and phenomenal breath control.
The most enchanting band themes were those with a gorgeous romanticism that still raises goosebumps: Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall,” Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra’s “Smoke Rings,” and, of course, Glenn Miller’s richly evocative “Moonlight Serenade.”
For those who grew up listening to late night big band broadcasts, I imagine theme songs create the same, powerful waves of nostalgia that later generations feel for the opening themes of favorite TV shows. But no television show ever had a theme that can match the expressiveness and musicality of the greatest big band theme song.
Here’s a clip of the Count Basie orchestra playing “One O’Clock Jump” from the 1943 movie Reveille with Beverly. The tenor sax soloists are Don Byas and Buddy Tate. The trumpeter is Buck Clayton and I believe the trombonist is Eli Robinson. Drummer Jo Jones gets a few seconds of camera time and Basie, of course, is at the piano.