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Sunday, May 07, 2017

Sunday Music: The Big Band Era, by Wiggia

Duke Ellington

The big band era had one overwhelming effect on jazz: the sheer popularity of those bands, equivalent today to pop groups, brought the music to a whole new swathe of the population of the USA and later abroad. It also launched the careers of numerous vocalists to international stardom that without the big bands as a vehicle it would be difficult to imagine happening.

Their popularity continued right up to the age of rock when jazz in general not just the big bands suffered from a drop of interest and struggled for recognition and survival all through the seventies and the eighties. Only then did jazz start to come back as a music form that people recognised. The big bands, sadly (mainly because of the sheer cost of keeping them on the road) have largely disappeared; the “Golden Age” for them was indeed over.

Big bands emerged as the popular music in the mid twenties. The difference then as later was that the smaller jazz groups improvised whereas the big bands were highly arranged - even the solos had a tight script with a few noteworthy exceptions - so it was a different kind of jazz and swing was the first name attached to these outfits.

We are talking here of the first bands such as Paul Whiteman and Ted Lewis who “were” popular music up to the swing era, playing to ballroom dance crowds; some embraced it, some disappeared.

Swing itself started in 1930 and took of after ‘35, but a change in the style of big band jazz had already started in the late twenties with more improvisation and better arrangements when Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway started to change the musical make-up.

The popularity of the big bands was further enhanced in the thirties by their appearance and exposure in movies and on radio. This period saw hundreds of bands emerge giving versions of swing from Dixieland to hard and relaxed swing, and the lead instrumentalists and vocalists in many cases became famous household names in their own right as did many of the bandleaders.

These bands dominated popular music to such an extent that small groups faded away and that included the likes of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton. It was the young that supported the big bands, dancing to their music, attending their concerts and buying their recordings and swooning over their idols such as Frank Sinatra - no change there, then.

The second world war had several effects on the bands. At first many raised troops' morale by touring and became even more famous like Goodman, and secondly it saw the start of a change in musical tastes. Many of the vocalists struck out as solo performers and many of the bands lost key personnel in the war and found it difficult to start over, and the coup de grace was the recording strike in ‘42 that finished many big bands off.

In the forties be bop emerged and the bands lost further ground to the new music. Be bop was not the end of the big bands, they were less in number, but took on different forms with the likes of Gillespie, Krupa, Rich, Gil Evans and on to Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and others, performing but few touring as of old - only the likes of Ellington , Basie, Herman, Kenton and a few others could continue profitably in that vein.

Most of the bands today with the demise of the founders are either tribute bands or in rare cases those that somehow still survive swimming against the tide. In that respect Jools Holland in this country does a sterling job keeping people employed and music played, it is not an easy way these days to make a living.

In no particular chronological order...

Tommy Dorsey with Sinatra, Connie Haines and the “Pied Pipers” as typical of the era as anything:

Oh Look at me Now

Louis Armstrong in ‘42 “Swinging on Nothing” with Velma Middleton proving size is no barrier to having a good time, go girl !

And here Cab Calloway and Jumpin' Jive with the greatest dance pair of all time, the Nicolas Brothers:

The three above show the swing era at its zenith, huge rhythm and lots of extras. All was soon to change as the former prewar band styles started to disappear or change their styles. Ellington of course simply adapted as time progressed, he never stood still.

This ‘42 version of C Jam Blues:

and how the same number evolved under him here in a live concert in ‘69:

Another who started a bit later than many of his contemporaries but also went with the trends successfully was Woody Herman. His early “Herds” were firmly in the swing era but that never stopped him experimenting, as here with him on soprano sax in “Fanfare for the Common Man” in ‘69:

I am going to stick with the big bands post swing as the obvious candidates including even Basie are well covered in other sections that I have done or are due further exposure in later pieces, so some of the more “progressive” pieces are the last choices.

Stan Kenton was known for the Artistry in Rhythm album as much as anything else, yet he pushed the limits of big band improvisation and arranging endlessly. His album “City of Glass” was not a total success either for the critics or those who followed Kenton, and I who actually purchased the album have never really come to terms with it, but it deserves a hearing as nothing else comes near, and his fans went in the opposite direction when this was played - Schoenberg ?

All the pieces were by Kenton's arranger Bob Graettinger who wrote the piece in ‘47 but it was ‘51 when it was recorded on a 10” LP. His arranger was worth a paragraph on is own but there is not space here. Kenton himself later said this about it, "Well, I tell ya, it was either the greatest music the band ever presented, or the biggest pile of crap we ever played, and I still do not know which."

“Everything Happens to Me”, a more subdued number with June Christy adding some measure of composure:

Charles Mingus was always an innovator, probably as much as anyone from be bop onwards. His music is still performed by the Mingus Big Band and others. This is from that wonderful Ah Um album of ‘59, Fables of Faubus that had a hidden undertone of protest at the Little Rock 9 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Supreme Court unanimously decided that the nine black school children should be integrated into Little Rock's school system, but Governor Faubus brought in the National Guard to stop them anyways.

Cool jazz extended beyond the West Coast groups and Gil Evans incorporated it in big bands. One of the great arranger-composer band leaders, his work with Miles Davis is legendary. A Canadian by birth, Evans started arranging for Claude Thornhill and then from his NY apartment he started with arrangements with Parker, Mulligan and Davis on scores that went out beyond the current be bop sound and style.

The Davis group was a nonet - the bigger bands had become unviable by then for anything other than the established ones. Capitol Records recorded 12 titles between ‘49 -53 and in ‘57 put them all together for the “Birth of the Cool.” Three other albums under the same record banner with Davis using Evans as arranger followed, all became classics: Milestones, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain.

The score for Gershwin's Porgy and Bess was phenomenally complicated but considered to be as fine as any interpretation of Gershwin's music, if not the best.

Working with Evans also saw Davis extend his music outside of jazz, something that was not wholly successful. After this period he recorded under his name and as time passed moved into what was a kind of fusion of Latin and other forms, using electronic instruments and recording Jimi Hendrix numbers. He was to have actually recorded with Hendrix but the guitarist died a few days before the date.

Here from Birth of the Cool, “Jeru”:

and from Porgy and Bess with Miles Davis on flugelhorn and trumpet, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”:

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