Friday, September 7, 2012

How BIG is BIG

We talk a lot about the BIG BAND ERA and BIG BANDS and if you are "pretty old" you are talking about a band that has between 9 and 17 pieces.  If you're REALLY old, you might remember there were bands with as many as 25 pieces. Paul Whiteman, for instance, had 23 pieces, plus himself and two vocalists. Although, earlier he had only nine pieces including himself.   They usually played straight JAZZ which included strings - sweet romantic dance music with very little improvisation.   Think, Ted Lewis, Nat Shilkret, Vince Lopez, Sam Lanin, Fred Waring, Shep Fields, etc. 

 What is considered "authentic jazz" emerged in the late '20's to early '30's.  It wasn't good for dancing but recordings (race records) were popular with the urban fans.  A limited number of white musicians moved into it.  Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael being a few.   It must have been a nightmare for arrangers whose talent was making sure every arrangement was well arranged! Now there were good instrumentalists who wanted no restrictions for their eight bars. And those eight bars had to be fit in artistically and smoothly so the rest of the band understood it's place.  Drummers like Gene Krupa would never have gotten the opportunity to showcase their fiercely energetic  "breaks" before this time.  These bands were the cradles of such greats as Artie Shaw, the Dorsey brothers and many others whose names we all recognize.  Louis Armstrong was a star in Luis Russell's band.

SWING began in the '20's but didn't become really popular until the mid to late '30's.  It was 4/4 time, played quite literally, but every band leader created his own style according to his own taste.  Bob Crosby played Dixie; Duke Ellington had a sophisticated style.
And band leaders often did their own arranging using their own instrumental talents as soloist-in-chief.
Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw on clarinet; Jack Teagarden with his smooth trombone; Harry James on trumpet; Gene Krupa on drums; or Lionel Hampton (a favorite of mine) with his vibes.  This also brought forth some fine vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday and Jimmy Rushing.  

The "society bands" of the day (Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, the Lanins) used fewer soloists in their more carefully constructed arrangements that were primarily for dancing and listening at weddings and parties.    

Once radio stations began broadcasting live shows,  in studios and in clubs and shows,  big band music really became popular with both older and younger generations.   And then came WWII and BEBOP, but that's another story.    Earl "Fatha" Hines and Billy Eckstein both led BEBOP bands, followed after the war, with Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton.

Into the '40's and the war in Europe, Big Bands toured the war zones to entertain the troops.  It was hugely uplifting to the battle front men and women to have a Big Band and all it's entourage come into their dismal surroundings.  Some bands joined the services en masse; many men were drafted, many volunteered  to have a better chance at the service of their choice. 

For every up there is a down; and the downside of being a musician in those days (before these behemoths with every creature comfort and room for the wife and kids) which carry the bands around today) life was hard and hectic.   Side men, except for soloists, made little money.   One night performances, all night travel led to alcohol and drug addiction.  Long periods away from family led to discontented spouses.  Having gotten used to being adored on the road, and believing all the hype about their good looks and beauty did not always play well  at home.   Hence, separation and divorce and sometimes bigamy, became more and more common.

Not to leave this blog with a "downbeat", the music of the Big Bands is still popular, even with today's younger music lovers.  Some of my grandkids actually like it enough to down-load it on their gadgets.  Some young bands, there is a local one here in the Portland area, even bill themselves as "big bands" although they only have a few pieces and play a variety of genres not in any way resembling "Big Band Music."  But they have big ideas of what they can become as a group, and kudos to them for doing what they love and making a go of it.  

 This chart below shows what the standard 17-piece band of looked like. (Except I cannot draw in the instruments, you'll have to use your imagination.)

      ( D  )          
                                 (  II )    ( I  )   ( III )   ( IV  )
(piano)                     (II  )     (I   )   (III )    (IV )

        (guit )               ( I )      ( I )   (II )   ( II)   (   )

The above show the seating in a typical big band  jazz ensemble of 17 pieces.  D=drums;percussion inst.
                      Back Row: 1st trumpet (sometimes doubling on piccolo trumpet)  2nd trumpet (also fllugelhorn) 4 trombones (sometimes IV is bass)
   There are two guitars; before electronics they were strummers in the percussion section.  They play a more melodic part now, one is electric, the other bass. Both now use amps.  

The front row Saxophones: 1st Tenor; 1st Alto; 2nd Alto; 2nd Tnor and Baritone.   Both tenors and altos sometimes double on soprano sax, clarinet, flute, oboe. 

Irving Aaronson And His Commandos had 23 pieces in the mid-twenties.  His theme song, by the way, was "Commanderism" and he recorded on Edison, Victor, Vocalion and Columbia.   He turned out  some of the best known soloists ever such as Tony Pastor, Artie Shaw and Gene Krupa, Nat Shilkret and Jack Armstrong.  

Just touching this "r-r-r-e-e-al-l-ly big subject" is all I have done.   But I think you'll be glad to hear me say .......

In closing, have a nice day and keep the music playing.

jan major

Re: Big Band Almanc 
       Big Band Historic Magazne                                     

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