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Big Band in the Barracks: Looking Back At The Music of WWII and the Greatest Generation

"Here, there and everywhere, the stamping foot of the boogie piano player sets the tempo for nimble feet that dance the jitterbug," Pete Smith, the narrator for the 1944 short film "Groovie Movie," chimes.

Swing and Big Band helped to define a culture and an era when great nations clashed on the battlefield in all corners of the globe. The music and dance of the late 30s and early 40s gave men and women an opportunity to forget the bleak woes of war and come together to mingle and "cut a rug" to the tunes of the time's jazz greats.

The Rise of Swing and Big Band

Big Band grew out of the jazz music of the 1920s and consisted of a mix of improvised and written sets. The standard arrangement for a big band was a 17-piece orchestra — typically, 5 saxophones, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones and a 4-piece rhythm section.

By the early 30s, Swing became its own style played by bands that were led by artists such as Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lunceford and Cab Calloway. Swing is distinguished primarily by a strong rhythm section, a medium to fast tempo and the unique "swing" style — a combination of elongated and shortened beats produced by the fixed attacks and accents of the musicians.

By 1935, roughly two-thirds of American households owned a radio. Thus, swing music quickly grew in popularity outside of the nightclubs. Many bands produced records, and names such as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw became household staples.

But Swing didn't stop with the music — swing dancing grew alongside it. Dance halls and clubs were filled with "jitterbugs" performing the Lindy Hop, Balboa and Shag.

Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," recorded in 1940, was a popular tune that stormed the air waves and permeated clubs and dance halls.

Big Band Goes to War

When the United States entered the war in 1941, swing music went to war, too. Jazz music provided comfort for families at home and soldiers abroad. Many musicians were drafted into the military and took their music with them. Some of them led military jazz bands that traveled the world to boost the morale of troops.

Glen Miller entered the Army in fall 1942 and was placed in the Army Air Force. Initially, he played trombone for a 15-piece dance band at Maxwell Field, Ala. Miller was then allowed to form a large military marching band, from which he drew musicians to form smaller service band orchestras — many of them were featured on CBS Radio's weekly service band broadcast "I Sustain the Wings."

In 1944, Miller got permission to form a 50-piece band, the Army Air Force Band, and go to England to perform for troops. They gave at least 800 performances. On Dec. 15, 1944, Miller was to fly from England to Paris to play for soldiers on the continent. His flight disappeared over the English Channel and Miller was declared Missing in Action.

Below is a 1944 live recording of Capt. Glenn Miller and his AAF Training Command Band.

Artie Shaw was another popular musician and band leader who joined the military during the war. He enlisted in the Navy and formed a band that served in the Pacific Theater. His band played for Sailors and Marines, as much as four times a day, all around the Pacific for 18 months. Shaw returned afterwards physically exhausted and was medically discharged.

For the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, who were not able to listen to live music, the U.S. War Department, collaborating with various recording companies, shipped V-Discs — "V" for Victory — overseas. Many popular singers, big bands and orchestras of the era recorded special V-Disc records.

Here's a song recorded on a V-Disc by Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

Swing Ain't the Only Thing

There were dozens of other hit songs listened to by American military members abroad and at home.

The Andrews Sisters originally recorded "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" in 1941 before the United States entered the war and introduced the song in the Abbot and Costello film "Buck Privates." It became one of the iconic songs of World War II.

"We're making these V-Discs just for you," the Andrews Sisters say, addressing U.S. troops in the recording below. "And along with them, we wanna send all our love and kisses."

In 1942, Vera Lynn recorded "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover." The song was written by Walter Kent and Nat Burton before the United States entered the war. Germany had been bombing Great Britain in 1940 — the Battle of Britain — and the song looked forward to a time when peace would reign again in the skies over the Cliffs of Dover.

In 1943, Walt Disney Productions created "Der Fuehrer's Face," an animated propaganda short film featuring Donald Duck working in a factory in Nazi Germany. The theme song, written by Oliver Wallace, became popular when the parody band Spike Jones and His City Slickers released a version of it.

Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters together recorded a version of the song "Don't Fence Me In," in 1944. The song sold over a million records and remained on top of the Billboard charts for eight weeks.

What other songs do you enjoy from the World War II era?

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