Actually, big bands never went anywhere; they have, to some extent, succumb to economics; more importantly, to the many modes and styles of music which constitute simplicity and lie under the umbrella of what is considered today as, pop music-this covers a lot of ground.
Before we get into our discussion on big bands, we must first quantify big bands in this sense; how many musician are required to actually qualify a band as being big? Two, we now look at the instrumentation necessary to constitute a big band. Thirdly, we must categorize big bands as to the style of music they play.
From the first item above, beginning with ten musician and upward, we have what can be called a big band; anything less then ten musicians will be considered a musical ensemble. From two above, what about instrumentation? To be a big band, we must have saxophones (reeds), brass, and a rhythm section-typically piano, bass, and drums; the quantity of musicians in any one section will, of course, determine the size of the band.
As a special note, in 1966, I began my big band career with ten musicians; two trumpets, trombone, four saxophones (reeds), guitar, acoustic bass, and drums. Our first gig was physically on a street corner in Bellflower, Ca....with horns honkin, kids yelling, and ten musicians doing their best to get through their first gig...as a big band! A ten piece band such as ours, was not common in those days-again, economics!
The instrumentation required to qualify as a big band would consist of: Trumpets and trombones, reeds, and a rhythm section consisting of piano, and/or guitar, acoustic bass, and drums. Some jazz big bands go for broke with ten brass, five reeds, and rhythm section consisting of three or four musicians. Bands like this can blow the roof off; I had a band of this size, and the power from the ten brass is enough to yield sonorities that only ten brass can provide.
A good example of the above is, a 20 piece jazz orchestra playing Dee Barton's classic chart, "Here's That Rainy Day," recorded by Stan Kenton, and a few years later, by yours truly. The chart opens with the trombones playing the first chorus-in and out of five part voicing; the purity coming from the trombones is representative of the truth!
We have gone from the subjugation of ten piece bands to the sublime-20 piece bands! Let us now take a look at the categorization of styles used by various big bands. I look at these categories as being three-fold; dance bands, swing bands, and jazz bands. It I were to count the number of big bands in existence, I would never finish this article; so, what I plan to do is, pick a few bands from all three categories and review their style and instrumentation. And at times, I will interject my own experience to provide you with an added perspective- from the inside-out as I see it from my rendezvous with a stage and a "big band."
With the exception of Glenn Miller, who very definitely was a dance band leader, here are a few dance bands I had the privilege of dancing too at the Hollywood Palladium in the early 1950's: Les Brown, Jerry Gray, Ray Anthony, Tex Beneke (Miller's band), and many more. Now lets take a look at the commonalities that exist with these bands. I'll give you the first one...dance bands! They all have five reeds, four trumpets, four trombones, piano, bass, guitar, and drums; at times, the brass can drop from eight to seven pieces
Except for Les Brown, the other three, at times, would play the Glenn Miller sound. Now you ask, what is this sound; hang on a minute and I'll tell you. The famous Miller sound has to do with the reed section; the clarinet plays the lead, while two altos and one tenor are in block-harmony close to the clarinet, all within the same octave. The second tenor plays lead with the clarinet, one octave below; the most unique and rich-in-quality reed sound existent. In the movie, The Glenn Miller Story, you can see Willie Schwartz, lead alto/clarinet, holding his clarinet straight out; an additive to establishing balance with the saxophones. If it sounds I like the Miller sound...your right!
Les Brown, as most of you know, was the big band that went overseas with the famed Bob Hope and other entertainers at Christmas time to entertain our troops. Brown's popularity goes hand in hand with dance music, Television shows (Bob Hope and others), and many a recording dates; he is one of the best. His tag line is, "Les Brown and the Band of Renown." Brown played clarinet and alto saxophone.
In 1948, it was Brown's band that recorded their classic hit, "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm." Then there was this 13 year old kid-alleged musician-who would play his recording of Brown's classic, over and over again, in an attempt to find out 'how' the beautiful voicing of the sections was achieved; about 15 years later, including a four year hitch in the Navy, with the help of a few arranging books and an electronic piano-the kid was on his way; he found what he was looking for...forming one big band after another till he found what pleased his ears...he has paid his dues!
Jerry Gray, one of the most talented arrangers of the time-he scored for Artie Shaw, "Begin the Beguine," which became Shaw's hallmark to fame. And for Miller, "In The Mood," Miller's first hit. Gray kept the Miller service band going till the end of the war; for these efforts, Gray was awarded a Bronze Star. Jerry has many composition to his credits: "String of Pearls," "Pennsylvania 6-5000," just to mention a few. For several years, Gray experienced success with a big band styled in the Miller tradition.
Now lets look at Ray Anthony, who fronted a service big band during WW II, it was a Navy band; Anthony played his trumpet in the style of Harry James; the charts were patterned after the Miller style. Anthony made many recording dates. Several of his records like, "Dream Dancing," came forth once again with the whole Miller style.
In January, 1946, Tex Beneke was selected by Miller's widow to become the leader of the Glenn Miller big band. The Miller sound was in demand and the band played to capacity audiences everywhere; in 1947, the Hollywood Palladium opened to a record breaking dancers-crowed of 6,750. In time, Tex continued on, but as a band leader in his own right under his name, Tex Beneke, still playing the music made famous by Glenn Miller. In Miller's band, Tex played tenor and when playing the Miller sound, Tex played an octave below Willie Schwartz on clarinet.
I remember one cold and rainy night around early 1982. I went to the Hollywood Palladium to hear Tex's musical conglomerate; when inside, there was no place to sit! We looked everywhere...nothing. It wasn't till later, after some left, that we found a couple of chairs at a very crowded table. So we tried to dance and, as I did when I was younger, we danced up close to the stage...close enough to touch the saxophones; the message was very clear, not just about Tex and his band, but big bands in general...they'll never disappear!
Before we leave dance bands, let it be known that, all those mentioned, and those to come, had vocalists; male or female, or sometimes both; not only do they compliment the band, they add a delectable touch (the women I mean) to the overall picture, and sound of the band. Speaking of vocalists, look at the photo here.
The photo represents a big band concert at El Camino College in Torannce, Ca., September, 1981. Behind the R D stands is a full 18 piece big band. Now talk about dressing up a stage, the three lovely singers, in long black dresses, did just that! Other than singing in three part harmony, the ladies were scat-singing unison to some of the great classics; "In The Mood," "Take The A Train," and more. But the interesting thing about the opening number which was "In The Mood is," no sooner than the reeds played the intro, the audience went into a cataclysmic eruption; when the reeds began to play the theme, the Walls of Jericho came tumbling down. This set the stage for a successful concert; which includes the female vocals, and, if I may, a few liberties by the leader on tenor-Harlem Nocturne, Night Train, and Take Five. The significant point here is, Glenn Miller's In The Mood was a smash back then, and it will always be a smash hit!
Have you had enough of dance bands; or do you want more? Should I continue, we'll end up with a thesis. So lets continue on and view a few swing bands. One of them who carried the tag line, "The King of Swing," was Benny Goodman. Still another was that lyrical sound from the clarinet of Mr. Artie Shaw. When it comes to swing, it's difficult to go beyond the excellent and articulate clarinetists of these great musicians as they front their big bands and swing!...both with a different sound!
It was Goodman who, following his Palomar date in 1935, and most others in the music business, believed that the Palomar date was the single event that started what has been described as the "big band era." One of the different characteristics of the Goodman band was his instrumentation; three trumpets, two trombones, four reeds, piano, bass, guitar, and drums. Goodman was the first white leader to break down the color line and use black musicians; the first being Teddy Wilson. In his 1939 Carnegie Hall Concert, the concert hall reportedly sold out the first day the tickets went on sale. Needless to say, our "King of Swing" was on his way. Goodman's articulated expertise on the clarinet was unsurpassed. How many of you remember, "Sing Sing Sing," from the Carnegie Hall Concert?
In 1936, Shaw put his first band together; this attempt was unsuccessful. Then, in 1937, Shaw assembled a full size swing band consisting of four reeds, six brass, rhythm section and a string section. The following year, he hit the big time as a band leader on the strength of his recording of "Begin The Beguine," arranged by Jerry Gray; one of the years biggest hits. Shaw's unorthodox philosophy about box office receipts was, he liked having people pay, but could not forgive them for staying around? He considered playing his hit record tunes to an audience night after night...totally boring!
In the early 1940's, Shaw become a pioneer when he introduced the use of large string sections; others were to follow. He also was a volunteer for service in WW II. When he put on the navy uniform, he found himself fronting a huge 32 piece organization; from here came the famed Gramercy Five.
Now, allow me to share with you, the effervescence of joy and excitement which lies abode within the wide boundaries of big band jazz. For this text, I have picked, among many, three big bands; Woody Herman...and his HERD, Ted Heath, and the inimitable Stan Kenton. Even though Herman and Heath were known to play, at times, for dancers, the thrust of their popularity was in concerts within the idiom of jazz; like Herman's HERD.
In 1937, Herman recorded "Doctor Jazz" rated as one of the best records of the year. However, two years later, things really began to rock 'n' roll when they recorded "Woodchoppers Ball." This tremendous success led them toward the ranks of being one of the nations top bands. In April, 1940, following an appearance in the Sherman Hotel in Chicago...the May 18, 1940, issue of "Billboard" headlined "Herman, The Coming Band," followed with a story which rated Herman the top contender for the tittle of "King of Swing," which had been the sole possession of Benny Goodman.
As 1941 gained momentum, it was more than apparent that Woody Herman had arrived. In the summer of that year, they moved on to the West Coast for an opening at the Hollywood Palladium. Billboard credits Herman as having an opening night draw of 4800, second only to Glenn Miller's 5200. For several years after 1947, Herman was to be in competition with Stan Kenton; the loudest, most brassy band in the business. Subsequently, there followed a series of "Herman's Herds." Hold it! I heard a yell from the balcony..."YELL! Lets hear about the HERD'S!" I yelled back..."Keep your panty hose on, I'm getting there!"
And again from the balcony we hear, "What's a Herd?" I'll take the lead on this one. Herman's original Herd consisted of four reeds-three tenors and one baritone; the musicians blowin these horns were, tenors-Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, and baritone-Serge Chaloff; subsequent Herds used replacements as necessary. The blockbuster hit that put Herman's first Herd on the face of the map of jazz was, Jimmy Giuffre's, "Four Brothers." This chart is infected with harmonic manifestations; the tempo is very fast; my metronome stops at 210, and the reeds kept on truckin...it is my educated guess that the real tempo is movin along at about 240 on the metronome! I heard the "ManhattanTransfer" sing the "Four Brothers" at the Greek Theater...I couldn't believe my ears; they were incredible!
If you looked on stage at the London Palladium you would see...five reeds, four trumpets, four trombones, piano, drums, and acoustic bass. The man standing in front of this big band was..."Ted Heath." His main stay was in the concert environment. Because of his concert success, Heath became one of the biggest band attractions in both England and the European continent. The mid-1960's brought Heath and his band to the United States for a tour. It was so successful that several more tours were in order.
Heath had a precise, solid, and exciting band, with many of his charts written by Johnny Keating. Before his death in 1969, he recorded quite a number of records; these discs carried the name, "Phase-Four Stereo." When it comes to fidelity, these records were at home with it. The recording procedure began with 20 microphones; then mixed down to four channels; then again down to two for stereophonic reproduction. I still have a few of these "Phrase-Four Stereo" records; I still play them...the quality is still there!
His list of sidemen, it's quite impressive; he was 20 years ahead of his time; his theme song was, "Artistry In Rhythm." The instrumentation he used was that of, five trumpets, five trombones, five reeds, five rhythm-including bongos! Have you guessed his name yet? The man, the band leader, the piano player, the incomparable..."Stan Kenton!" Kenton's music was controversial and left no place for middle-of-the-roaders; by his own definition, his music was not intended for dancers (that's my boy),
Kenton launched his 20 piece power house in 1941 with a summer engagement at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, Ca. The excitement he created there was the 'open cookie jar' that got Kenton a booking at the Hollywood Palladium in early 1942. By mid-1942, the Kenton orchestra had made it's mark-a solid niche-for itself in the American scene. After WW II, Kenton was doing well with records and performances. During this time, his style changed completely and headed in what he identified as, "progressive jazz." In 1947, Kenton experienced health problems; he was attempting to create a musical style that the world was not really ready for!
As of yet, I have not mentioned conducting. In this picture, you see the back of the conductor with his hands up in the air. The scene is, "Jazz Safari", right in front of the Queen Mary, Long Beach, Ca.. Date, March, 1983; the band consisted of four trumpets, four trombones, five reeds, acoustic bass, grand piano, and drums. There were two college students in the audience; their assignment, to observe the conductor and write a report . The week after the gig, I heard from their professor (a friend of mine)..."The band leader has a very unorthodox way of conducting." The students were right; I don't just move my hands, I move my whole body; I move with the emotion of the chart and band!
In closing...I have been in love with "big bands" since 1948; I was 13. They gave to me, hope, pleasure, education, inspiration, and most of all...a big challenge...I still love 'em!