Powerscaling Big Bandleaders

Louis Barnes
9 min readMay 18, 2023
The Glenn Miller Orchestra

I won’t lie to you, I’m in a bit of a writer’s slump right now. Finding the inspiration to write about jazz music can be tough, especially with all the other distractions and obligations in my life (especially when there’s no financial incentive to write). Regardless, I’ve had a craving to write something for some time now, despite having not a clue about a topic. In order to get that writing fire going again, I thought it would be fun to write a lighthearted piece about jazz bandleaders.

If you don’t know what powerscaling is, it’s the hallowed internet tradition of looking at the feats of what’s usually manga, anime, or cartoon characters and rating them in terms of how powerful they are. Powerscaling discussions are fun thought experiments to do for theoretical crossovers.

Big bandleaders are the closest thing to anime characters that I can think of jazz-wise. It takes a lot of power to command such a large force that is a big band. Throughout the mid-20th century, bandleaders made names for themselves as they toured the world, playing the magical music that is big band swing. Not only that, but many of these people have collaborated with each other in the past, making them perfect for powerscaling.

With the stage being set, I present to you:

The Official (pending) Bandleader Tier List!

I made this tier list on tiermaker.com

D Tier (Jimmy Dorsey, Gordon Goodwin):

A thing that greatly upsets the powerscaling community (besides anything not being exactly as their personal preference) is “undeserved” characters being in D Tier. I considered taking D tier off this list but ultimately decided against it because it wouldn’t be as authentic. Also, many may notice that there isn’t an F, or Fraud tier. That’s because I genuinely believe that each person on this list is an extremely talented individual. The fact that they appeared on this list compared to the hundreds not on this list means that they have the stuff to compete.

Now that the formalities are out of the way, let’s talk baseball: Why did I put Jimmy Dorsey and Gordon Goodwin in D tier? Simply because they don’t have the impact that the bandleaders above them have. Dorsey is a woodwind specialist bandleader, along with the brother of Tommy Dorsey. The Dorsey brothers were pretty much inescapable if you knew anything about jazz throughout the mid 20th century. Gordon Goodwin was a bit of a delight to put on this list. Anyone who took jazz band at an American high school is probably familiar with Goodwin’s works. He played a lowkey significant part in my coming up, so he’s on on this list.

C Tier (Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Chick Webb, Maynard Ferguson):

Thad Jones and Mel Lewis were an unbeatable combo together. They went on to record some unforgettable things together. My personal favorite from them is Dedication, partly because of the intro, but also because of that sweet album cover. Chick Webb is an undeniable figure in the bandleader community. Webb was known to challenge other drummers to battles of the bands and completely blow them out of the water with his explosive playing. Maynard Ferguson was an eye-catching choice as I was compiling and ranking this list. Known for his extremely high notes and his expressive trumpet dismounts, he knew what it took to be a bandleader.

We’re moving into the B and A tiers now. This is where boys become men, enemies become lovers, and champions are made. Many stand up to the trial, only few are rewarded with these ranks.

B Tier (Sun Ra, Gil Evans, Earl Hines):

Now I’m a HUGE Sun Ra stan, so it hurt me personally to put him in B Tier. A wrote an article about Ra in the past and his cult personality. He was one of the fathers of the Afrofuturist movement and truly was ahead of his time, both musically and aesthetically. Springtime Again is one of the few pieces of music to make me stop in my tracks and truly listen to what I was hearing.

Gil Evans is probably in the top 5 jazz writers/producers of all time. His solo work is amazing by himself, but his work with Miles Davis stands at a cut above the rest. Works like Birth of The Cool and Miles Ahead stand Miles Ahead of your average jazz article. The reason why he’s in B tier and not A tier is because I feel like Evans lacks the essence of a true bandleader. Evans is no doubt a talented conductor, but only a decent bandleader.

jazz pics that go hard (Left: Miles Davis, Right: Gil Evans)

Earl Hines isn’t a name that you hear a lot in jazz circles these days, but his legacy still stands. Many jazz players and enthusiasts considered Hines to be one of, if not, the greatest jazz pianist. Hines’ big band was a historic one, due to the barriers that he broke. He was the first big band to extensively travel the deeply segregated American South in the early 30s, performed for the famous Al Capone, and is even credited for “modernizing” the concept of the jazz piano with his play style. It would be a crime to place him any lower.

A Tier (Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey):

For all intents and purposes, I truly believe that Count Basie is the prototype for all great jazz bandleaders. The story of the Count Basie Orchestra is similar to many big bands that became popular in the swing era. Basie found a passion for jazz in his early childhood, hung around music clubs, observing the local talent, gathered a ragtag group of band members, found a music club to regularly headline at, got enough talent and clout to record music, constantly switch out band members over the years, toured the country, performing at many music clubs, slowed down during WWII, toured Europe in the decade after the war, and continue to perform and record music until their disbandment/death. Basie was 1 in a million, but the story of many people out of there.

Charles Mingus in A tier may upset many jazz fans. Mingus is one of the greatest jazz bassists and composers of all time, responsible for what I think are some of the greatest jazz albums of all time, such as Mingus Ah Um and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Mingus certainly had the ego to back up his greatness with a fiery temper and a no-BS mindset. Now the reason why Mingus is in the A tier and not the S tier is that Mingus played a wide variety of music. If he were alive today and saw that he was only referred to as a big bandleader, he would scoff at that idea. The music that Mingus played transcended the boundaries of jazz music. It’s not just swing music or bebop or dance music, it’s everything everywhere, all at once. It would be unfair to call this man one of the greatest in one thing when he tried so hard to achieve more than this thing if that makes sense.

charlie mingus with the glock?!?!?!?!?

Benny Goodman was *the* first popular jazz bandleader, it would be criminal to put him any further down on the list. Listening to Goodman’s clarinet made me realize how prominent the clarinet was in swing music. The clarinet isn’t utilized as often in jazz music as it was back in the 30s and 40s. Bandleaders like Goodman were responsible for putting the clarinet on the map and deserve their flowers for it. Benny Goodman was a talented bandleader, but his work in his smaller ensembles was nothing to shrug off either. He collaborated with jazz giants such as Mary Lou Williams and even George Benson whilst in his small ensembles. Benny Goodman is an interesting case in the big bandleader scene and his legacy still stands to this day.

Tommy Dorsey is another household jazz name. Ask your grandparents (or even your parents) if they recognize the name, and they would probably know who he was. Tommy Dorsey along with his brother Jimmy made large careers out of themselves in the swing era. Like many big bands out there, WWII killed the scene. The two brothers came together to do mostly television appearances. Regardless, the Dorseys are an integral part of the swing scene and it would be criminal to exclude them from the list. The reason why Tommy is higher on this list is because he was more popular back then. But he wouldn’t be in this spot without the support from his brother. That’s why he’s mentioned in this paragraph.

There are few men out there who achieve greatness that exceed exceptionality. These men represent the best that humanity has to offer, and we should all celebrate the fact that we share the same genes as these titans of history. This is the…

S Tier (Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway):

I want you to imagine a big band song right now. It’s In The Mood, isn’t it? Do you know who’s responsible for that song? That’s right, none other than Glenn Miller. When you think about swing music, Glenn Miller is the first thing that pops up in my head. The Glenn Miller big band has played countless jazz standards such as In The Mood (mentioned above), Little Brown Jug, Tuxedo Junction, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Moonlight Serenade, and many others. But to take things even further, Miller’s big band was one of the few to get *even more famous* during WWII by being one of the few military jazz big bands. His career was cut short after going MIA in a flight over the English Channel. One can only imagine the heights that his career would reach had he survived the war. Glenn Miller was a jazz titan taken from the world too soon.

There’s no denying it, Duke Ellington was one of the greatest American composers of all time (it’s rumored that he has over 2000 compositions to his name). Ellington had a monster of a career, recording with virtually every jazz musician in his lifetime. But besides the compositions and the collaborations, his aesthetic was a huge part of his persona. He called himself “Duke” and acted like he was a part of high society. This was a radical thing to do in the 20s, especially as a black man. Ellington has had many feats in his career, but my favorite from his was his 1956 concert at the Newport Jazz Festival, where he had his alto sax player, Paul Gonsalves, play 27 choruses to a crowd going absolutely wild. Duke Ellington embodied everything jazz and devoted his life to it. Going through his works, you can really see it.

The concept of a singer/bandleader wasn’t that new in the scene, but Cab Calloway took it even further. Calloway was known to add vaudeville dances to his big band routine. Fun fact: Calloway was the first African-American man to sell 1 million records. He had gotten so famous to the point that he had scored multiple film appearances throughout his career. His dances have even been rotoscoped into animations! But why is Calloway at the top of this list? Because this man understood what it meant to be a bandleader. He understood showmanship and went above and beyond the normal requirements for a bandleader. Jazz music is a performance, and Calloway absolutely knocked it out of the park, solidifying his S tier position.

I had a lot of fun listening to these bandleaders as I was researching and ranking them for this article. There were some names that I forgot on this list, but for the sake of time and length, I decided to cut them out. Let it be known, though: I love each one of these bandleaders. Powerscaling is nothing but a fun thought experiment that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. My real hope for this article is that you got put on to some famous bandleaders and look at jazz history from a fun little angle. Thanks for reading!