When Big Band was King

While the Second World War raged on, a cultural renaissance was taking place on the streets of Los Angeles and music led the way. Many new types of music were introduced to audiences in the United States: bebop, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, mambo and most importantly, Big Band swing captured the nation. Big Band swing is a derivative of the earlier Big Band jazz of Afro-Cuban origin. It typically refers to a musical ensemble consisting of 12 to19 musicians, with saxophones, trumpets, trombones and a rhythm section. This style of music became popular as a result of its catchy dance tunes, uninhibited sound and wildly arranged solos by both leaders and sidemen.

Big Band swing and zoot suit attire was first popularized on stage by Cab Calloway, a singer, songwriter and bandleader. Mexican actor, singer and comedian Germán Valdés, known popularly as Tin-Tan, contributed to the popularity of zoot suit attire by introducing Mexican audiences to Pachuco swing and Caló.

Lalo Guerrero: Father of Chicano Music

Eduardo “Lalo” Guerrero. (Courtesy of Dan Guerrero)

Eduardo “Lalo” Guerrero. (Courtesy of Dan Guerrero)

Eduardo “Lalo” Guerrero is the genius behind several of the upbeat 1940s Chicano Big Band music in Zoot Suit. Acclaimed as the Father of Chicano Music, Guerrero was born on December 24, 1916 in Tucson, Arizona and died on March 17, 2005. His work covered the spectrum of Latino music producing a variety of different sounds including swing, boleros, corridos and salsa. He was one of the first Chicano composers to write music about the Chicano movement and Chicano life, including songs about César Chávez and migrant farm workers. Lalo Guerrero is considered to be one of the most influential and important Chicano musicians of the twentieth century.

Los Chucos Suaves

(Music and lyrics by Lalo Guerrero)

Antes se bailaba swing,                      They used to dance the swing,
Boogie-woogie, jitterbug.                    Boogie-woogie, jitterbug.
Pero esto ya torció.                             But that has all changed,
Y este es lo que sucedió.                     And this is what is happening today.

Pachucos suaves bailan rumba,          Cool Chucos dance the rumba,
Bailan la rumba y le zumba.                Dance the rumba and the zumba.
Bailan guaracha sabrosón,                 Dance the tasty guaracha,
El botecito y el danzón.                      The botecito and the danzon.

Cada sábado en la noche                   Each Saturday night,
Yo me voy a borlotiár                          I go to dance,
Con mi linda pachucóna.                     To stir my hips
Las caderas a menear.                        With my pretty pachucona.

Ella le hace muy aquellas                    She takes on airs,
Cuando empieza a guarachar.            When she begins to guarachar
Al compas de los timbales,                  To the beat of the timbales.
Yo me siento petetear.                        I want to die right there.

Zoot Suit Boogie

Cab Calloway. (Courtesy Ernest R. Smith)

Cab Calloway. (Courtesy Ernest R. Smith)

Partner dancing was a popular form of social recreation for young people in the 1940s. Like the music, the dances of this period were a fusion of many styles and were created when a new song hit the charts. This was the case with Cab Calloway’s song “The Jitterbug.” Almost immediately after being written, a new dance craze was born. The Jitterbug traced its roots to nightclubs in Harlem, just as Mambo the Latin equivalent of Big Band swing, traces its origins to La Tropicana night club in Cuba. Swing dances of this time were a result of much cross cultural fusion as African Americans were responsible for creating such swing versions as the shag and Lindyhop. Similarly, Latinos began to combine and recreate the Cuban Mambo and Rumba into what we know today as Salsa and Cha-Cha-Cha.

Mexican actor and entertainer Tin Tan (German Valdez) popularized the zoot suit for Latinos in the US and Mexico. El hijo desobediente, 1945. (

Mexican actor and entertainer Tin Tan (German Valdez) popularized the zoot suit for Latinos in the US and Mexico. El hijo desobediente, 1945. (