The Big Band Chronicles

Various Artists

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The Big Band Chronicles Review

by William Ruhlmann

John Gilliland's audio documentary The Big Band Chronicles is a collection of commentary, interviews, and excerpts from records and radio shows running more than five and three-quarter hours. The four-cassette box set is subtitled "The Lively Story of Swing Music in the '40s." A more accurate description would be "The Lively Story of American Popular Music in the '40s." Gilliland narrates that story in roughly chronological order, from the start of the decade, when swing bands ruled, all the way to 1949, by which time the bands were nearly moribund. But the story of the big bands is only part of the tale he tells, despite the album's title. In fact, according to him, the big bands were on the way out starting with America's entry into World War II in late 1941 and the onset of the musicians' strike that closed recording studios in the summer of 1942. The story is as much about the rise of singers out of the bands as it is about the bands themselves. And by the final tape, Gilliland is devoting himself largely to talking about the great Broadway musicals of the late 1940s such as Kiss Me, Kate and South Pacific. Along the way, he employs interviews he seems to have conducted himself with such principals as singers Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Peggy Lee, and Patty Andrews, bandleaders Harry James, Tex Beneke, and others, songwriters including Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Van Heusen, and Jay Livingston, and journalists George T. Simon and Ralph J. Gleason. There are also excerpts from remarks by other major figures including Frank Sinatra that seem to have been borrowed from other sources. Also borrowed are the frequent musical passages (usually just a chorus or so) taken from hit records of the decade. As an aural history, The Big Band Chronicles is highly anecdotal and loosely organized. But it maintains the listener's interest throughout, and it provides a good overall sense of what American popular music was like in the 1940s, a decade during which tastes and styles changed considerably.