Exploring Music's Complexities

Big Band Sounds

What is a Big Band Sound?


Merriam Webster defines a Big Band as a band that is larger than a combo and that usually features a mixture of ensemble playing and solo improvisation typical of jazz or swing (1).

Jazz bands come in all sizes and usually don’t need a conductor.  Small jazz bands or combos are common in nightclubs and jazz clubs.  Larger bands are found in larger venues and dance-halls.  Combo groups are usually made up of three to four musicians.  An acoustic bass player is almost always part of the group.  Other members can be almost any combination.  The size of this group enables each musician to improvise on the spot.  A traditional big band is made up of brass and woodwinds and a rhythm section including a drum set player, pianist, acoustic or electric bass player and guitar player.  They follow a strophic form.  A strophic song is a type of song that has the same melody (tune) but different lyrics (words) for each stanza (strophe). This varies from the through-composed song (or additive form), which has a different melody for every stanza.) (2).

It is generally agreed that big bands were being formed in the United States in the late 19th Century.  Big Band history began with a small assemblage of musicians playing woodwind and percussion instruments over basic chordal harmony.  That is, the notes of a chord may appear in a single voice or across several voices. When chords occur, one after another, we say there is “chordal harmony.”  This form of music came to be called “Dixieland” music.  It became so popular that the number of these small assemblages grew and spread all over the country.  Dixieland is also called “Traditional” jazz or New Orleans jazz. (2).  Favorites during this era were Paul Whiteman, Ted Lewis, George Olsen, Vincent Lopez and Rudy Vallee.  (3).

Over time the small groups grew to include between ten and seventeen musicians.  The instrumentation consisted of three to five trumpets, two to four trombones, four or more saxophones and a rhythm section (drums, acoustic bass or electric bass, piano and guitar).  Benny Goodman is said to have sparked the beginning of the big band era while performing at the Palomar Ballroom in Hollywood, CA on august 21, 1935.  This new sound, dubbed “Swing”, provided a somewhat slower, sexier form of jazz; one that could be danced to.  The parallel developments in blues resulted in the development of a jazz/blues sound lead by Ella Fitzgerald and Nat “King” Cole (4).

It has been suggested that much of Swing music follows a “call and response” pattern.  Most bands followed an “A-A-B-A pattern with different sections of the band playing the melody and then pass it along to another section.  Finally, the whole group would play as a group again (see previous Newsletter on Jazz Improvisation). (4).

By 1937, Swing was everywhere.  Records and radio made it possible for more and more people to become familiar with the new sound.  However, songs tended to be short to accommodate record singles.  Tommy Dorsey’s “Marie” is offered as a good example (2).

The bigger bands also were commercial groups led by the bandleader and improvisation was minimal.   As bands began adding more members to their sections, arrangers took notice and began to write for these groups.  Unlike jazz, swing parts were written down and played as written.  These arrangements provided an opportunity for bands to add vocals and strings to achieve a distinctive sound.  Big Bands also played an important role in movies.  Glenn Miller, Harry James, Woody Herman, Kay Kyser, Xavier Cugat, the Dorseys, Freddy Martin, Ray Noble, Ozzie Nelson played strategic roles in films (6).

With the beginning of World War 11, many bands lost many of its members.  Even so, those who remained boosted moral over the world.  Celebrities joined in to assist in selling war bonds and providing “Command Performances.”  USO and Bob Hope provided entertainment.

As with all things, swing music lost some of its popularity.  In actual fact, the era actually has survived to the present.  There continues to be an appreciation for big band and swing music.  An electronic rocked-up swing recording of JXL Versus Elvis doing the song “A Little Less Conversation” grew to become a hot swing number on dance floors.  Classic sounds can be heard and felt in the performances of Michael Buble and Harry Connick Jr. (6).

  1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/big band
  2.  http://wiki.answers.com
  3.  http://en.wikipedia.org
  4.  History of Big Band/Swing Music.  http://www.playlistresearch.com/theme-bigband.html.
  5.  Fontenot, Robert.  What is Swing Music?  Retrieved Oct. 12, 2013.  http://oldies.about.com/od/bigbands
  6. The Big Band Era.  The Glory Days.  http://bonniewmon.tripod.com/band.h

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