of Big Band Music
A history of Big Band Jazz
Copyright 1990 Bob e Thomas. No reprinting without permission.
1 617 733-9298 (Boston)
GERMANY: 49 5241 307 1777 (near Bielefeld,
bob -@- bobethomas.com
jazz music of the Big Band Era was the culmination of over thirty
years of musical development. What is it that made jazz so innovative
and different that it could literally sweep the world, changing
the musical styles of nearly every country? And what is it about
big band jazz that makes the feet tap and the heart race with
Music and Ragtime
musical and cultural revolution that brought about jazz was
a direct result of African-Americans pursuing careers in the
arts following the United States civil war. As slaves African-Americans
has learned few European cultural traditions. With increased
freedom to pursue careers in the arts and bringing African artistic
traditions to their work, African-Americans changed music and
dance, not only in the U.S., but all over the world. For after
the war, black dancers and musicians were able to create work
that was not hidebound by hundreds of years of musical and dance
traditions brought from the courts and peasant villages of Europe.
was the European tradition? European music through the nineteenth
century was melodically based, much of it with a square or waltz
was the African tradition? Much African music has an organization
which is based around rhythm and accent, rhythms and accents
that may actually shift and move in relation to each other as
the music progresses.
big change that took place in music rhythmically was the shift
away from the Ooom-pah-Ooom-pah (1-2-3-4) rhythmic structure.
Ooom-pah has a strong accent on "1." African musical
tradition tends to count towards the accented beat so that an
African may count 2 on the same beat a European would count
1. It is also typical of West African music to have rhythms
of different lengths overlaid each other, creating shifting
accents. Which is to say that by the late 1920's African-American
jazz music had developed a tradition where musicians put a strong
rhythmic accent on "2" and "4" (oom-PAH-oom-PAH)
and melodic accents anywhere BUT on "1."
first popular musical trend in the United States produced by
this African-European synthesis was Ragtime which first achieved
popularity in the late 19th century. Ragtime musicians often
used what are called "ragged" rhythms.
rhythms were African-influenced rhythms, syncopated so that
the accent was "off" the beat (the first beat is "on"
or "down"). Ragtime musicians also occasionally used
what were called "blue" harmonies and notes. Blue
harmonies and notes used notes that didn't fit into the European
concept of melody or harmony. Some of the notes don't even exist
in European musical scales -- these notes fit "between
the cracks," as people sometimes said.
Orleans and Jazz Origins
New Orleans bands of the late 19th century from which Big Bands
evolved were varied. Some were social bands that played popular
songs and music for dancing; some played marches and rags for
weekend picnics and parties. Others specialized in their own
variations on work and blues songs.
Band Jazz, according to one historian, had its start in New
Orleans in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American war. Military
bands returned to the port to decommission, flooding the city
with used band instruments. And African-Americans interested
in music quickly bought up hundreds of these instruments and
quickly began to form bands. Starting from square one, aspiring
black musicians taught themselves to play.
had two results: unconventional playing techniques and unconventional
rendering of popular musical tunes. The playing techniques led
to new and interesting sounds entering musicians' vocabulary:
trumpet and trombone growling sounds, wah-wah sounds, the use
of odd household objects as mutes, and others. The unconventional
rendering of popular musical tunes led to jazz. An African-American
playing a popular tune would play it adding some African musical
traditions: different musical scales (which became traditional
in nineteenth century African-American "blues" music)
and different and complex rhythms.
bound by European traditions of form, these early jazz bands
played music that was, to put it mildly, loosely structured.
A soloist or an instrumental section of the band played the
melody (as they interpreted it) and the remaining musicians
improvised the harmony and rhythmic embellishments. Many jazz
bands "arranged" their music by rehearsing it by "ear"
many times until all the musicians were in agreement about what
went where, when. These jazz bands often changed personnel,
sometimes on a weekly basis. This frequent changing also helped
the evolution of jazz, preventing bands from becoming hidebound
and determined to have a particular style or sound. On into
the 1930's change was the watchword of jazz.
Enters the Mainstream
New Orleans progressed into the 20th century, traditional band
music gradually changed, so that marches sometimes contained
improvised sections, and solos and accompaniments sometimes
sported occasional blue notes. Elsewhere in society it was not
even unusual for conventional popular songs to display a few
ragged "jazz" rhythms! But not for the first time,
these musicians dreamed of fame and fortune. [Fame and fortune
was something which eluded many African-American musicians and
bands due to institutionalized racism in the music industry
and society at large. It was not uncommon for a black jazz band
to record a tune to no acclaim, have a record promoter pay little
or no money for rights to the tune, and then for that tune to
be issued by a white band to national promotion and great acclaim.]
Enter radio and the recording industry into the world of jazz.
First "Jazz" Recordings
first "jazz" recording was made in 1917 by a white
band from New Orleans called the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
The Original Dixieland jazz Band was the first band of its type
to make it from New Orleans to New York. A music agent heard
them in Chicago and brought them to New York, where, within
weeks, they were a sensation. Soon after their first record
Victor records signed them for several more. The music recorded
by the band was nearly conventional with no blue notes and only
a smattering of ragged rhythms. Nonetheless, the record sold
over one million copies and had a profound effect on musicians
and the public all over the U.S.
First Black Jazz Recording
jazz proliferated, black New Orleans-based bands began making
their way north, playing Chicago and New York City (often in
that order). The first jazz record by a black band, King Oliver's
Creole Jazz band, was recorded in New York City in 1918. On
the heels of this recording came Jelly Roll Morton, a Creole
musician from New Orleans who, in the early 1920's, recorded
over a hundred of his own and other's jazz tunes. [Many Creole
musicians, unlike many African-American musicians, were trained
in European musical techniques including sight-reading and harmony.]
Some of the records are solo piano, but many are of Jelly Roll
with his band the Red Hot Peppers.
early releases were great hits and record companies began recording
nearly anyone who even claimed to be a jazz musician. With records
coming out by the hundreds, thousands of young people across
the U.S. decided they wanted to be "jazz" musicians.
The jazz music boom had begun.
the enthusiasm for jazz was not shared by everyone. Many in
white middle America were concerned, and magazine and newspaper
articles decrying the influence of "black" music on
society and the scandalous behavior, including dancing, it supposedly
led to were not uncommon. But the social outcry little effect.
Jazz had arrived and it was going nowhere but up!
Roaring 20's and Fletcher Henderson
a decade of rebellion the Roaring 20's was made for jazz. The
young and the hip delighted in anything that was new and exciting.
The more staid and uptight members of society thought jazz decadent
and amoral which gave jazz, for some, extra appeal. But the
exciting new rhythms and harmonies were ultimately the irresistible
force behind society's acceptance of jazz.
first bandleader to achieve national notoriety was Fletcher
Henderson who formed a band in the early 1920's. Originally
his band was a dance band, playing waltzes and foxtrots. Over
the course of a few years jazz rhythms and blue notes became
more and more prominent in the band's music. By the time the
band took over at Roseland Ballroom and featured Louis Armstrong
on trumpet, the band had become a jazz band.
1928 Henderson lost his arranger and he tried his own hand at
creating the band's charts. It turned out that Fletcher was
not only an excellent arranger, but he was essentially the first
to arrange music in the style we now describe as "big band."
Ellington, a formally trained musician, also formed his band
in the 1920's, again as a dance band. The arrival of an innovative
trumpeter named Bubber Miley and a talented saxophonist named
Sidney Bechet exerted a profound influence on the Ellington's
work, gradually helping to change the band into a remarkably
creative jazz big band.
developed a style that included a lot of blue notes, growling
sounds and effects that attracted a lot of attention to the
band. Bechet only stayed with the band for a short time, but
he had a strong feeling for jazz, giving the band not only a
sense for the mechanics but also for jazz phrasing. Ellington
described Bechet as the "epitome of jazz."
other well-known and well-loved band in NYC at this time was
Chick Webb's. The band started in the mid-1920's and became
a regular band at the Savoy, which opened in 1926. It was Chick
Webb's band at the Savoy that won several famous "battles
of the bands", most notably with Count Basie and Benny
Goodman. (And, in 1934, it was Webb that gave Ella Fitzgerald
her start in the music business.)
of New York's jazz clubs were in Harlem, and in 1925-26 there
appeared several popular plays and a book which portrayed Harlem
as the happening place in NYC. As a result, downtowners and
tourists streamed into Harlem to see this colorful neighborhood,
and the nightlife took off.
was at this time that a great number of now-famous clubs opened.
The Savoy (Chick Webb's regular gig) and the Cotton Club (Ellington's
regular gig) were two of these clubs. The good thing about the
many new clubs was it gave employment to many black musicians
and variety artists. Although the Savoy was integrated, it was
nearly alone in that respect: most other clubs were segregated.
They featured black entertainers, but were owned and operated
by whites for a white clientele.
1927 until the late 1930's things were so busy in Harlem that
good musicians could play every night of the year, sometimes
in as many different bands due to constant personnel changes
in most of the bands.
Don't Mean a Thing...
it wasn't until 1935 that jazz with a "swing beat"
achieved national attention and then in large part to Benny
a youth Goodman was an extremely talented clarinetist. He studied
with a respected jazz clarinetist in Chicago, leaving Chicago
in 1928 for NYC where he was successful as a sideman. However,
he didn't form his own band until a few years later when he
got a recording contract thanks to the great jazz impresario
John Hammond. Soon after that he bought some scores from Fletcher
Henderson, some of them arranged by Henderson himself. Despite
Henderson's fine arrangements, his band hadn't been doing well.
Goodman, at the urging of John Hammond (he was the most remarkable
man, influencing the history of early jazz as much, if not more,
as any musician), hired Fletcher.
same arrangements which brought Henderson's band lukewarm interest
proved to be dynamite for the Goodman band. For the next several
years Henderson arranged tunes for Goodman band in a jazz/swing
Goodman, King of Swing
arrangements (with the help of a flourishing radio broadcast
industry) are credited with helping sweep the Goodman band to
national popularity the following year at the finish of an apparently
unsuccessful cross-country tour in California.
it turned out, the radio broadcasts of the tour were scheduled
too late for people in the east and midwest. On the west coast,
however, the broadcasts gained a devoted audience who, surprising
the band, swarmed its final concerts. And it was with Benny
Goodman that the swing big band boom began, and our narrative
on jazz draws to a close.
Goodman's dramatic success ignited the big band craze, excellent
musicians who had been working as sidemen for other bands found
encouragement to start their own bands. Bands led by the Dorseys,
Glenn Miller, Bunny Berrigan, Lionel Hampton, Harry James, and
Gene Krupa sprang into being. Also at this time Count Basie's
band came to New York from its original home in Kansas City.
big band swing music in full flower, it was only logical that
jitterbug dancing should also rocket to national popularity,
which it did.
Copyright 1990 Bob e Thomas. No reprinting
1 617 733-9298 (Boston)
GERMANY: 49 5241 307 1777 (near Bielefeld,
bob -@- bobethomas.com