MUSIC HISTORY:The Birth of Big Band


Big Band evolved almost like a child growing up, with all the stages, all the trials, the ups, the downs. If you look at its history, with this in mind then perhaps you could say, the Original Dixieland Jass Band was its Daddy and the Symphony Orchestra was its beautiful, sophisticated Mamma.

Music historians can’t agree on many of the commonly acknowledged historical facts. For Instance, some say Benny Goodman’s band, c. 1934, was the actual start of the Big Band phenomenon. However, others say Goodman was simply in the right place at the right time and that many other band leaders and individual musicians had a greater hand in its becoming a genre of its own. And there were important individual influences; Louis Armstrong, Ted Lewis, Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, Count Basie, Paul Whiteman, Cab Calloway, Eddie Condon and Helen Lewis and Her All-Girl Jazz Syncopators, were only a few. It would seem, historically, there are always many people and circumstances that feed life into major cultural changes.

The recording industry had just been born in the late 1800's. This time line begins in 1878: Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, Emile Berliner invented the gramophone and a wax covered zinc disk c.1895, Eldridge Johnson invented the spring mechanism to play the disks. There were also many contributions to the establishment of The Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey in 1901. By 1917, they were recording symphonies as well as jazz. Some Big Band historians would prefer that the first recording of this exciting new music had been played by truly influential musicians, instead of the little, mediocre jazz band from New Orleans. However, in spite of the objections, they have to admit that Livery Stable Blues recorded by the Original Dixieland Jass Band created a jazz explosion in the music world.

The advent of radio was also a factor in sending music everywhere at any time of the day or night. Radio technology began in 1900 and by 1920, KDKA in Pittsburgh was the first commercially licensed radio station with regular scheduling of political elections, religious programs, and jazz. Hotel dance music was all the rage and anyone with a wireless could tune in and dance in their parlor. Jazz began to morph into swing, which was the new word for dance music. There was ‘Sweet Swing,’ mostly a prominent melody, medium tempo and little improvisation, and ‘Hot Swing,’ experimental, fast tempo, solo improvisations and a solid rhythmic drive. All the new radio stations played music and swing was no exception. By 1935, there were remote broadcasts from hotels and ballrooms around the country. Radio even changed the name of one of Count Basie's songs, which was to become the band's theme song and a classic in the history of Big Band. One rumor is, while talking about the songs to be played, a radio announcer noticed a song called Blue Balls. He told Basie he couldn't use that title on the air, for obvious reasons. It was one o'clock in the morning, at the time, and evidently Basie checked the clock and then said, call it One O'Clock Jump. Another rumor is that the band had a few minutes left to fill on that radio broadcast and it was a last-minute improvisation. Either way, the song has a colorful beginning. Radio is also responsible for the fact that some historians attribute the birth of Big Band to Benny Goodman. The broadcast from the Palomar Ballroom, in Los Angeles, served to ignite the Big Band craze into a world-wide phenomenon.

The enormous size alone, at the Palomar Ballroom, contributed to the notion that the Big Band era had officially begun. Benny Goodman’s Band opened there in August of 1935, and was broadcast everywhere radio could go at that time. The Palomar's dance floor was enormous; four thousand couples could swing their hearts out without bumping into other dancers. The night Benny Goodman opened, there were twenty thousand people at the Palomar, including many silent film stars. The entire evening was recorded the next day.

However, as much as some historians would like to discount Goodman's influence he was a force in the growth of jazz. His band was 'sweet' but also 'hot,' which pleased almost everybody. The band members were both 'black' and 'white' and he employed black arrangers, notably Benny Carter and Fletcher Henderson. Goodman is quoted as saying,"If a guy's got it, let him give it. I'm selling music, not prejudice." And, The Benny Goodman Big Band was the first jazz band to play at Carnegie Hall; January 1938. That event was another outrageous success.

Long before the accepted time span of the Big Band era (1935-1945) swing-jazz was no longer a sub-set of American music. The Savoy Ballroom was destined to be at the center of the Big Band phenomenon. It opened in Harlem in 1926. Fletcher Henderson's Roseland Orchestra was a guest band on opening night. The Savoy featured a Battle of the Bands and pitt many popular Big Bands against each other. Some years later, a teenage Ella Fitzgerald, one of the most loved and admired jazz singers of all time, came into her own at the Savoy.

Ella made 'scat' (wordless vocal improvisations) popular using her voice much like a horn. In 1922, Coleman Hawkins elevated the , until now, ignored saxophone to one of the must-have features of jazz. As early as 1888, The New Orleans marching band, Pappa Jack Laine's Reliance Band, groomed many successful jazz musicians; Nick La Rocca, (Original Dixieland Jass Band) Gussie Mueler, (Paul Whiteman's band) Abbie, George (Louis Prima Band), Eddie Edwards ( composer of Sensation Rag, played by the Goodman Band at Carnegie Hall), are only a few.

In September 1927, Duke Ellington had an opportunity to play at the Cotton Club in Harlem but he had to increase his band by five to meet the Cotton Club's requirements. He finally got his start there in December, 1927. The weekly radio broadcasts, along with the wealthy white clientele, soon promoted Ellington's band to national acclaim. Bubber Miley, a fan of growl trumpet, changed the sound of the band to a hotter, more seductive sound. (Growl trumpet is a technique that involves the player's voice and/or the plunger mute.) This sound became one of Ellington's signature sounds, although Miley was to die before he could enjoy the success his of his growl. The Duke wrote over a thousand compositions, some were collaborations, and he always supported the compositions of his band members, including them in the band's repitoire. He was considered to be a vital figure in jazz but, he never referred to his music as jazz, he preferred the term 'beyond category'. He simply called his music, American Music. He was an enigma in the jazz world. In 1999 he was posthumously awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for music. However, because the Pulitzer Prize requirements were fluctuating with regard to music, it was not for his enormous contribution to world-class music but to commemorate 100 years since his birth. He would surely have been disappointed. His music was never about himself.

Paul Whiteman, who was a violist with the Denver Symphony and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras, started his own band (c. 1918) that was recorded by The Victor Talking Machine Company in 1920. Incidentally, to correct a common error about Whiteman; he played the viola not the violin. The viola is larger than the violin, and has a deeper tone, most often in the alto clef. This is an important detail to understand because it was usually used in classical music, Mozart and Brahms, and Whiteman was partial to a classical approach, even when he fell in love with jazz. Whiteman, known as the King of Jazz, believed that arrangements were necessary for ‘good’ music. Talented arrangers were as revered as the band leaders. Some believed that an arrangement could make or break a piece of music. However, some musicians, and most vocally Eddie Condon, criticized Whiteman for trying to ‘make a lady’ out of jazz. Condon, who created a style known as Chicago Dixieland, believed in improvisation, a driving beat and worked to keep the black roots of jazz alive. And, in the wide open creativity of the day, there were arrangers who wrote charts that just sounded like improvisations; Fletcher Henderson was one. He spent many hours listening to Louis Armstrong's improvisations in order to create authentic improv charts. However, Whiteman maintained his early symphony training and the arrangements he preferred were almost classical. The size of his early bands were larger than most Big Bands as well; 35 members in one of them. Members of his band absolutely had to read music and be in complete control of their instrument. As far as the ancestors of Big Band are concerned, this is where Big Band’s beautiful, sophisticated Mamma enters the picture. Now both points of view were influencing the music scene and various combinations and styles were emerging.

In 1931, the New York Bank collapsed and the Great Depression was officially on. Now, the trios and quartets only played small venues, like small local bars that had managed to stay open. Big Band was the sound of the day. The size of bands got bigger and bigger too, until the average size of a Big Band was 17 members; not quite a symphony but not a trio or quartet either. With radios in 23 million homes, and record players in just as many, Big Band swing provided some happy moments for the struggling American population. Shortly after the Great Depression, WWII came along with another kind of impact on popular music. Some of the Big Band leaders formed Big Bands with Army musicians to help keep up morale. Some Big Band leaders went to war and never came back; those who did were not interested on going on the road. They’d had enough of roughing it. The Big Band era began to decline after the war, roughly 1942 to 1945. Moreover, television was in the wings.

There were some generally consistent characteristics in Big Bands by this time, that remain to this day. The most common instruments are saxophones, tenor, alto and baritone, trumpets, trombones, with at least one bass trombone and the rhythm section, drums, bass, piano and guitar. Often other instruments were originally included, such as Latin percussion, vibes, tuba, French horn, and a variety of string instruments. The Big Band leaders all vied to create a signature sound, and most of them did. There were even differences in style between the east coast and the west coast. Well known Big Bands are still easily identified by their sound and the songs that made them famous, and Big Band enthusiasts still have their favorites.

Big Band got under the skin of musicians and fans to the point that some original Big Band orchestras are still out and about even though their leader is dead. Count Basie's band is one of these. These bands are known as Ghost Bands. The Count Basie Orchestra still tours, under the current directorship of Scotty Barnhart. Other ghost bands include, the Woody Herman Band, Harry James' band, Sammy Kaye, Charlie Spivak, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Buddy Rich. The Buddy Rich Band opened at the Blue Note Club in Japan in June 2013, have been touring and had a 25th Anniversary Memorial Concert at the Palladium in the UK in 2012.

Big Band is definitely not dead. It has many fans all over the world and the music is as intoxicating as ever.