Big Band Music
A big band is a type of musical ensemble that usually consists of ten or more musicians with four sections: saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a rhythm section. Big bands originated during the early 1910s and dominated jazz in the early 1940s when swing was most popular. The term "big band" is also used to describe a genre of music. One problem with this usage is that it overlooks the variety of music played by these bands.
Big bands started as accompaniment for dancing. In contrast with the emphasis on improvisation, big bands relied on written compositions and arrangements. They gave a greater role to bandleaders, arrangers, and sections of instruments rather than soloists.
The Swing Era
Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee
Swing music began appearing in the early 1930s and was distinguished by a more supple feel than the more literal 4/4 of early jazz. Walter Page is often credited with developing the walking bass, though earlier examples exist, such as Wellman Braud on Ellington's Washington Wabble from 1927.
This type of music flourished through the early 1930s, although there was little mass audience for it until around 1936. Up until that time, it was viewed with ridicule and looked upon as a curiosity. After 1935, big bands rose to prominence playing swing music and held a major role in defining swing as a distinctive style. Western swing musicians also formed popular big bands during the same period.
There was a considerable range of styles among the hundreds of popular bands. Many of the better known bands reflected the individuality of the bandleader, the lead arranger, and the personnel. Count Basie played a relaxed, propulsive swing, Bob Crosby more of a dixieland style, Benny Goodman a hard driving swing, and Duke Ellington's compositions were varied and sophisticated. Many bands featured strong instrumentalists whose sounds dominated, such as the clarinets of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, the trombone of Jack Teagarden, the trumpet of Harry James, the drums of Gene Krupa, and the vibes of Lionel Hampton. The popularity of many of the major bands was amplified by star vocalists, such as Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey, Helen O'Connell and Bob Eberly with Jimmy Dorsey, Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb, Billie Holiday and Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie, Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest with Harry James, Doris Day with Les Brown, and Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman. Some bands were "society bands" which relied on strong ensembles but little on soloists or vocalists, such as the bands of Guy Lombardo and Paul Whiteman.
By this time the Big Band was such a dominant force in jazz that the older generation found they either had to adapt to it or simply retire. With no market for small-group recordings (made worse by a Depression-era industry reluctant to take risks), musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines led their own bands, while others, like Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver, lapsed into obscurity.
The major "black" bands of the 1930s included, apart from Ellington's, Hines's and Calloway's, those of Jimmie Lunceford, Chick Webb, and Count Basie. The "white" bands of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Shep Fields and, later, Glenn Miller were more popular than their "black" inspirations from the middle of the decade. Bridging the gap to white audiences in the mid-1930s was the Casa Loma Orchestra and Benny Goodman's early band.
Glenn Miller, a major in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, led a 50-piece military band that specialized in Swing music. White teenagers and young adults were the principal fans of the Big Bands in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They danced to recordings and the radio and attended live concerts. They were knowledgeable and often biased toward their favorite bands and songs, and sometimes worshipful of famous soloists and vocalists. Many bands toured the country in grueling one-night stands. Traveling conditions and lodging were difficult, in part due to segregation in most parts of the United States, and the personnel often had to perform having had little sleep and food. Apart from the star soloists, many musicians received low wages and would abandon the tour if bookings disappeared. Personal problems and band discord affected the group. Drinking and addiction were common. Turnover was frequent, and top soloists were lured by more lucrative contracts. Sometimes bandstands were too small, public address systems inadequate, pianos out of tune. Bandleaders dealt with these obstacles through rigid discipline (Glenn Miller) and canny psychology (Duke Ellington).
Big Bands uplifted morale during World War II. Many musicians served in the military and toured with USO troupes at the front, with Glenn Miller losing his life while traveling between shows. Many bands suffered from the loss of personnel and quality declined at home during the war years. The 1942–44 musicians' strike worsened the situation. Vocalists began to strike out on their own. By the end of the war, swing was giving way to less danceable music, such as bebop. Many of the great swing bands broke up, as the times and tastes changed.
Big Band Music Videos