Death knocked at the door of the big US swing bands in December 1946; Woody Herman and seven other bands called it quits and let him in. This demise had been coming for sometime. There is fairly universal agreement that the causes were a combination of the effects of the war, the draft, petrol rationing, midnight curfews, and the amusement tax of 20% on all night clubs that included dancing. To this should be added the lack of men to dance with.

Then there was the growing ennui amongst the musicians who were restricted by their band’s particular ‘sound’, lack of solo opportunities, and overworked harmonic formulae. Even when the bands did play, they were restricted from recording by the AFM (the musician’s union) from 1942- 1944.

To these causes should be added the growing resistance of black musicians to the indignities they had to suffer whilst on the road, and their desire to create their own more virtuosic music that allowed time for individual expression. They, and an increasing number of younger white musicians, wanted to play music for listening, not dancing to.

This explanation is not exhaustive. The rise of the crooner and the fading out of traditional dancing styles in favour of jive, and the expense of maintaining a large orchestra all played their part. Of course, ‘swing’ bands still existed, ‘cryovacked’ for an ageing audience. Benny Goodman ran with pickup bands until 1950, and the Glen Miller Orchestra was reconstituted in 1956. Some would include the continued success and popularity of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, although Basie disbanded for a time in 1948, and again in 1950. But they never fitted the swing formula, being at their hearts creative jazz bands.

Although there was a mainstream increase in small jazz groups, the line used to trace the development of non-swing bands can start with any number of musicians, arrangers, or composers. The ones proposed in this article are not sacrosanct, but it would be hard to exclude any of them.

Of immediate notice is Claude Thornhill. The Terre Haute pianist and arranger served his apprenticeship with the bands of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, played on early Billie Holiday recordings and with Ray Noble. He formed his own band in 1939 and used as its theme the former A Fountain in Havana, written for Noble and now retitled Snowfall.

His position as an inaugural post-swing bandleader was determined by the musicians that he gathered around him. First came Gil Evans in 1941, whose arrangements built on the musical vision that was Thornhill’s own. This is best illustrated by their early collaboration on Buster’s Last Stand, described by Allen Lowe as ‘a bravura swinger unlike anything else of its time’.

Thornhill disbanded his orchestra in 1942 but re-established it at the war’s end. Evans returned and brought along in short order Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, and Red Rodney. The band made some iconic bebop recordings including Anthropology, Robins Nest, and Donna Lee. All the musicians who played with Thornhill in this short-lived post-war band acknowledged their debt to him as a man who saw the future of jazz but respected its past.

Whilst Thornhill was working with one group of future icons, Woody Herman surrounded himself with another. In 1947 he formed the Four Brothers Band, also known as The Second Herd. Their saxophone section was Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff , Herbie Steward, and Stan Getz, while other musicians included Al Cohn, Gene Ammons, Lou Levy, Oscar Pettiford, and Shelley Manne.

Their sound is unmistakably ‘Big Band’ with multiple instruments playing in unison. On recordings, each tune was sequestered within the typical 3-minute time frame required for the 78 rpm records. Clearly a big band sound, but without the edge of get-up-and-dance. There is no doubt that the arrangements have escaped the confinement of that which was Swing.

By Ken Raphael.