What is a Big Band?
Big Band Music is a essentially a jazz derived large ensemble form that has 10 or more members and is divided into four sections: Trumpets, trombones, saxophones and a rhythm section. Rhythm sections are comprised of Bass (usually upright), piano, drums and sometimes guitar.
Early Big Band music appeared soon after 1910 and rose to prominence in the 30’s and 40’s when dance swing bands were akin to popular music. For this reason, the name “Big Band” is often associated with this era. A problem that arises from this definition of course is that Big Bands since that time right up until today play a huge variety of music. Some of it is Avant-Gard and experimental. Other forms are very be-bop and hard bop based with complex harmonies and melody lines.
A main difference between Big Band music and a small jazz ensemble is that they are more focussed and unified around the arrangement. In other words, the individual soloist takes less priority. The leader is usually a conductor and in this way it is similar to classical music. Unification of the band makes it like a large football team and they must all work together to get the job done.
Trumpets – 1st lead – specialises in brilliant high notes and is the most audible voice of the entire band). 2nd Trumpet – usually the primary soloist, 3rd trumpet – plays harmonies. 4th trumpet – often doubles lead trombone or trumpet one octave lower.
Some super bands have been known to have 5 or even 6 trumpets like the Duke Ellington band of various eras.
Saxophones: lead tenor, 2nd tenor, lead alto, 2nd alto and a baritone saxophone. Most of the saxophonists double on clarinet. Earlier Big Band Styles used clarinet quite often.
Trombones: 1st, 2nd, 3rd trombone and bass trombone.
Seating is usually arranged with 4 trumpets at the back, the trombones in the 2nd row and the saxophones in the front row. Often this will be on a tiered stage with the trumpets highest. The Rhythm section usually sits to the left of the band (stage right). With the conductor of course at the front often moving to the side when a soloist is featured.
Big Band music rhythm sections actually evolved into its current most common line up. In the 20’s and before, it was more common to have a banjo player than a guitarist. It was also more common to have a tuba player instead of a double bass player. The electrification of bass and guitar allowed for the more even balance. In fact, earlier big bands often had less wind instruments just because of the balance issues. Obviously in a Sydney Recording studio the format may vary to accomodate space issues and microphone technique.
An unusual lineup
The Fletcher Henderson orchestra of the 1920’s is an example of the variety of line ups that were in circulation prior to the popular standard line up.
- Alto Saxophone
- 2nd Alto Saxophone, Clarinet
- 3rd Alto Saxophone, Violin
- 1st Tenor Saxophone
- 2nd Tenor Saxophone, Clarinet
Until 1914, recreational dance in the USA was usually exemplified by European forms like, waltz, polka and square dancing. As jazz moved from the south up to Chicago and eventually New York City, different styles of dance moved with it. The evolution of dance can be followed in tandem with the evolution of the big band styles. Paul Whitman was a typical example of a band leader from a classical background that combined European elements of music an dance with evolving American styles.
Great soloists of jazz often found a home in a Big Band. This was a welcome relief from the lonely hours of practice and touring with small bands. Players like Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong were epically famous as soloists and yet played in 14 piece orchestras quite often. The Count Basie band produced and nurtured such soloists as: Buck Clayton and Lester Young. Fletcher Henderson used Coleman Hawkins. Later on in the 50’s and 60’s, Stan Kenton had an orchestra with much more modern arrangements and soloists. Some of the great names that were associated with Kentons band were: Carl Fontanna, Frank Rosilino and Bill Watrous, Stan Getz, Maynard Fergeson.
Competition and contraversey
The major bands considered mostly black of the 1930s included,Ellington’, Hines and Calloway, Chick Webb and Count Basie. “White” bands were Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey. Due to obvious racial and population bias, the latter became more famous for a long period of time and were very lucrative financially. “Black” bands however stood the test of time and to this day are known as the innovators and trail blazers of new styles. Benny Goodman’s early band was mixed and created quite a stir. He made a strong stance agains racial segregation and was a unifying force in big band music
Privileged white teenagers and young adults were the main listeners of the Big Bands in the 30s and 40s. They grooved to recordings on the radio and patronised live concert tours in the many “dance halls” that littered the countryside in almost every town. Often these bands would pause on tour and enter a Recording Studio. Many Big Band in Australia find themselves in a Sydney Recording Studio laying down the magic.
Modern big bands
Although big bands are associated with the 1930s and 40s swing era, they existed long after that period of time. Woody Herman in the 1940’s was already pushing the style envelope and moving the music away from dance to art. In the 50s, Kenton referred to his band as “progressive jazz”. He used his band as a mode for his modern compositions. He moved the boundaries of big bands by implying arrangers whose ideas about music clashed. Modern bands in Sydney include: The Sonic Mayhem Orchestra, the ABC swing era big band and the John Morrison band. All of these from time to time enter a Sydney Recording studio. The most popular forms of Big Band Still have a great voice artist to accompany them. Frank Sinatra is the father of this style. For a classic 1930’s Sydney Voice over studio experience contact Crash Symphony Productions.
Other leaders utilised Latin, Afro Cuban music with big band instrumentation, varying to include a lot of percussion. Gil Evans was famous for his use of Big Bands in movie music and used experimental line ups. Europe adopted the big band line up and created many new sounds in later decades. Examples like the Vienna Art Orchestra started in 1977, and the Italian Instabile which operated in the 90s.