Ensembles: The Big Band

In the 1920s, as recorded music became more common, there arose the beginnings of an ensemble constructed to appeal to a popular music audience. These groups contained trumpets, trombones and saxophones; supported by a rhythm section, and joined with a group of string instruments for a more orchestral quality. Such groups performed popular tunes and acted as accompaniment for vocalists. The jazz influence was minimal, with little improvisation; however, many period jazz musicians supplemented their incomes as members of such groups. Probably the best known example of groups of this type for contemporary listeners was Lawrence Welk’s orchestra which remained active for many decades.

It wasn’t until the late 20s that we begin to see the big band really come into its own. Growing primarily out of New York, Chicago, and Kansas City, these bands dropped the string players, and adopted a musical style that allowed for much more improvisation. With a few exceptions (like Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer), these groups were primarily formed of black musicians and aimed at black audiences. The recordings were euphemistically referred to as “race records”, and were routinely dismissed as low quality. Still, talent will inevitably rise to the surface, and these groups began gaining larger audiences while crossing the race barriers. Black band leaders became household names and gained the respect of the musical community as a whole. The greatest of these would doubtlessly be Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club orchestra. Also, notable for this period is the fact that improvising soloists became nearly as famous as the band leaders themselves, many of whom would go on to form their own bands. Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman were just a few who came from this background.

As the 1930s approached, the big band instrumentation became more or less standardized. It included four trumpets, four trombones (one of which is likely to be a bass trombone), five saxophones (two altos, two tenors, and one bari), and a rhythm section made up of at least one drummer on a drum set, a piano player, and an upright bass player. This grouping is not set in stone; the numbers may fluctuate, other instruments may be added as needed, and some players (mostly the sax players) will be asked to “double” on other instruments like flute or clarinet. Most bands will include a guitarist in the rhythm section. As electric instruments became popular, they began to be incorporated as well. The guitarist and bassist may switch out to electric guitar and electric bass, and the pianist may use an electric keyboard and even synthesizers. As some bands began experimenting with Latin rhythms, they might add an additional percussionist that would specialize in the Latin percussion.

These bands, influenced by earlier Dixieland music and syncopated ragtime rhythms, tended to highlight syncopated rhythms in their performances. Where the earlier groups used off-beat accents to stress the syncopations, a natural evolution occurred to the way the rhythms themselves were played. The off-beats were pushed even later than they normally occurred to heighten the fact that they were not on the beat, and as the music progressed into the 1930s it became known as “swing” music for its highly dance-able nature.

The number of swing band leaders and musicians is immense; a veritable cross-section of early 20th century popular American music. In addition to Basie, Ellington, and Goodman, an incomplete listing would include Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. Many vocalists of the time originated as vocalists with these bands, including Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Billie Holiday.

Of course, any history of big bands would be incomplete without mentioning Glenn Miller. Starting as a featured trombone soloist in several bands, he eventually realized that his main strength was in writing band arrangements and compositions. Several of the most famous band tunes came from his pen, including Little Brown Jug, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Moonlight Serenade, and of course In the Mood. He formed his first band in 1937, although it failed to distinguish itself. With some encouragement from Benny Goodman, he stuck with it and found a style that was unique. Relying heavily on saxophones doubled in octaves to strengthen the melody, a Miller arrangement sounds unlike any other. In just two years, Glenn Miller’s new band was enjoying great success, playing to large audiences and selling record numbers of recordings. They appeared on radio and famously featured in the motion pictures Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives. In 1942, he decided to join the war effort. At the age of 38, he was too old to be drafted, but he convinced the Army to take him in as the leader of a “modernized” Army band. He was inducted as a captain, and later promoted to major and transferred to the Army Air Force. He and his military band performed as an outreach to civilians as well as entertainment for the troops. Tragically in 1944, Miller’s plane was taking him from England to Paris when it disappeared over the English Channel. To this day, Glenn Miller is listed as “missing in action”.

1945 was the high-water mark for big band music. Dozens of well known groups formed, featuring both the early leaders and new ones bringing a whole new set of influences. Some took their cues from the Latin music of Cuba. Others began the transition to “cool jazz” and “be-bop”, featuring smaller and smaller groups of talented improvisers. Over the next few decades as rock music became popular; some would incorporate those influences as well, forming the basis of what would be known as “fusion”.

However, the classic big band has never vanished altogether. The Glenn Miller Orchestra is still performing and recording. During Johnny Carson’s tenure on “The Tonight ShowDoc Severinsen led the famous NBC Orchestra. Furthermore, the big band is the ensemble where student musicians cut their teeth on the playing of jazz music. Many high schools and most colleges have a big band as part of their music programs.

And of course there are several professional groups out there. The most well known today is arguably The Brian Setzer Orchestra, but many jazz clubs have a house band. They’re not hard to find if you want to hear one today.