MEET THE BIG BAND
As a genre, big band came to popularity during the Swing era of the 1930s and 40s. Much like earlier jazz ensembles, big bands played dance music and could be found playing dance halls throughout the country.
The big band was an expanded version of early jazz combos that were popular in New Orleans around the time of Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver. Where earlier combos typically contained a rhythm section, a trumpet, trombone, and a reed instrument (saxophone or clarinet), big bands had entire sections of instruments. Typical big band instrumentation was a woodwind section of 4 – 5 saxophones, a brass section of 3 – 4 trumpets and 3 – 4 trombones, and a rhythm section containing piano, bass, drums and guitar (some of the early big bands used banjo). Often, especially in the music of Ellington, woodwind players were asked to double on clarinet and flute.
Another contrast between the jazz combo and the big band came in the literature that they played. The music played by the early bands in New Orleans was almost entirely improvised. You can imagine that, with so many people in a big band, the collective improvisation element of the previous generation became somewhat of an impossibility. To give structure, big bands often employed arrangers that would rewrite popular songs for their specific band and instrumentation. Because of this, and the emphasis on dance, big bands often played highly arranged music that contained specific sections where a musician could improvise.
The big band genre can be divided up into three distinct styles: The New York style, which was pioneered by Fletcher Henderson (his band included Louis Armstrong), Duke Ellington, and the Kansas City style, of which, Count Basie is its best known figure. Other important and well-known big band figures include Benny Goodman (dubbed “the King of Swing”), Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey.
The Kansas City style (sometimes called jump swing), which is the focus of the activities in the student workbook, is a very simple form of music that differentiated itself from the sometimes complicated arrangements of Henderson and Ellington. A tune in the Kansas City style is generally characterized by the layering of different riffs followed by contrasting solo sections with backgrounds and a shout chorus.
These simple arrangements could be completely improvised on the bandstand, which allowed for an untold number of possibilities and gave the musicians a chance improvise on a more extended level. For example, one section of instruments would come up with a riff (most often one musician would start and the others would imitate). Each subsequent chorus added another section of instruments playing a riff that complimented the previous riff(s), changing the texture and intensity of the tune. There would then be any number of solos with background figures (also riffs) provided by a section of instruments. The tune would conclude with all three sections (including the rhythm section, which plays the whole time) playing their riffs at the highest level of intensity and volume. This high point where everyone is playing, the overall texture is thickest, and the band is swingin’, is called the shout chorus and usually signals the end of the tune.
The musical examples included demonstrate on a basic level how a riff-based big band tune is constructed. Use the charts in the accompanying activity page to familiarize yourself with the examples.