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.


Students will become familiar with the big band genre, its components and main historical figures.


1. Students will recognize big band as the popular genre of music in the 1930s-40s.

2. Students will learn the instrument families and sections of a typical jazz band and their roles within the ensemble.

3. Students will be able to aurally identify different instruments and instrument families.

4. Students will identify and describe characteristics of the Kansas City style of big band.

5. Students will identify and recognize the contributions of such historical figures as Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman.


Big Band: The popular genre of jazz during the swing era. Also refers to a large ensemble of contrasting sections of instrument families. Typical instrumentation includes trombones, saxophones, trumpets, and a rhythm section.

Rhythm Section: The group of instruments in a jazz band that provide the rhythmic and harmonic structure. Typically consists of piano, bass, and drums.

Riff: A short repeated musical idea or phrase.

Melody: The part of a song that you sing.

Shout Chorus: The climax of a big band piece. Generally the point of highest energy where everyone is playing.

Brass Section: The combined brass instruments in a big band, typically trumpets and trombones.

Woodwind Section: The section of instruments in a big band containing the saxophones. Occasionally, clarinets and/or flutes are added, too.

Jazz Combo: A smaller version of a big band. Typically containing a rhythm section with a few horn players (e.g. trumpet, trombone, or saxophone).

Background: A melodic figure typically played by an instrument, or section instruments, behind the melody or an improvised solo.

Kansas City Style: A riff-based style of big band popular in Kansas City during the 1930s. Most closely associated with Count Basie.


Dig a Little Deeper
To dig a little deeper into the Kansas City style of big band, take the concepts learned and apply them to some of Count Basie’s actual recordings. Some great examples to use would be Basie’s recording of “One O’clock Jump” (1937) and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” (1938), both on the Decca label. While both will not be as straight-forward as the examples provided on the CD of examples, they are both riff-based tunes. If you decide to use “Jumpin’ at the Woodside”, you should be familiar with an AABA or 32-bar song form (aka: Rhythm Changes), as “One O’clock Jump” and both of the examples on the CD are based on a 12-bar blues.

Online Connections
For ideas on enhancing this lesson with free online resources, check out these helpful links:

1. – Home for Ken Burns’ documentary, “Jazz”. Students can read more in-depth about people such as Count Basie and other important historical figures. This site also contains audio samples and radio interviews with jazz musicians from the Swing era.

Real-World Applications
Critical thinking
Active and objective listening
Reading comprehension

Show-Me Standards
Content/Knowledge: SS2, CA1, CA5, CA6, FA2, FA3, FA5
Performance/Process: 1.2, 1.5, 1.9, 2.3, 2.4, 4.1, 4.4, 4.6,

National Music ED Standards


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