Big Band Illustration

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Big Band Music

Big Band Style of the 1930s

Big Band Music and the Swing Era

Let's get one thing straight right away. Swing music is a style, just like dixieland and bebop are styles of music played by certain groups of musicians at a certain time in history. Styles can be revived, it's true, but there is always a time at which a certain style of music evolved, became popular, and eventually developed into or was replaced by something else. Big band, on the other hand, is a format, and as such is has existed in jazz music fromt he swing era right into the present. There are big bands who play swing (Count Basie, Artie Shaw), bop big bands (Dizzy Gillespie's big bands), progressive big bands such as Stan Kenton, and Duke Ellington.

The terms "swing" and "big band" are not really interchangeable, though you will hear people use them that way. One reason for this is that many of the big bands that became most popular began and reached their peak with the swing era. Many people feel that the arrangements of these bands as well as the music they played truly constituted the "golden age" of jazz music. Another reason for the music of big bands being associated with swing music is that at about the same time swing died out (post World War II), it became almost impossible to keep a large band on the road profitably. Count Basie managed it until about 1950. Stan Kenton radically changed the style of music he was playing. Duke Ellington simply continued to write his innovative music for a large ensemble, and his prolific writing kept his group recording and touring for his entire life. Still, even the few big bands who managed to record and tour after the end of the swing era were losing money by doing so. Even Dizzy Gillespie, one of the most successful musicians of the bebop post-swing era, lost money for most of the time he kept his bebop and Latin big bands together. One of the reasons behind this is simple: jazz music has decreased in popularity and record sales since the swing era. In other words, the swing era was the last time that jazz music and American popular music were one and the same.

The early 1930s saw the formation of large bands by Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. These leaders increased the size of a typical band from a high of ten members to around fourteen or so members. They also jettisoned dixieland's use of the tuba and the banjo as rhythm instruments, replacing them with the standup bass and guitar. The beat of the music also changed. The ryhthm section now emphasized the four-to-the-bar beat, rather than the two-beat emphasis that had been seen in dixieland and New Orleans style jazz. The syncopated figures that were played by the horn sections over this beat were punchier and the syncopation more surprising than it had formerly been. The bandleaders themselves had considerable prestige, often being seen as excellent instrumentalists in their own right, rather than merely conductors. Because there was a great deal of music being played, often for dancing and for long periods of time, the musicians could no longer just remember their parts, and so the importance of arrangements grew, as did the prestige of the arranger. In the height of the swing era, the bands could be quickly recognized based on factors such as the instrumental style of the leader, the sound and style of the arrangments, and the individual voices of the primary soloists within each organization. Improvisation itself, which had been fairly free-flowing at the height of the polyphonic New Orleans style, was much more restricted within the framework of big band arrangements and swing music.


















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