The Relevance of Big Bands


 There seems to exist in the human psyche a primitive urge to belong to groups. From prehistoric men gathering together in hunting expeditions to modern team sports, the species apparently finds solace and comfort in banding together. In the history of music, this is no less true, whether it be the group of chanting Tibetan monks or the symphony orchestra. For jazz, this tendency is revealed in the big band.

The development of big bands from their beginnings are well documented (especially by Gunther Schuller in his book on the subject). Jazz enthusiasts are certainly knowledgeable about how in some respects the evolution of the big bands parallels the early musical developments which characterized jazz from Count Basie to Duke Ellington to Benny Goodman. In fact, a plausible case could be made stating that the big band story IS the history of jazz through bebop.

But outside of nostalgia and historic interest, exactly what is the relevance of the big band today? Does it serve a function besides the obvious need to be with each other? This is especially interesting for America where big bands flourish in high school and colleges. On any given weekend during the school year, one can attend a “jazz festival” at any number of schools and listen to dozens of bands perform, sometimes for only a few minutes and often in a competitive, award-oriented atmosphere, replete with uniforms and the like!!

If you compare how people function in a big band to the way they do on a sports team, there are several points in common. It is where the interested amateur or youngster (who plays a big band appropriate instrument such as reeds, brass or rhythm section) develop and test their skills as a musician. They can also enjoy the act of playing/performing without being too self conscious. After all, one is part of “section” where the whole is larger than the individual parts. The skills learned by blending with each other are elemental to playing any jazz at all. Matters of phrasing, timing, interpretation, intonation, swinging, expressiveness, listening and other tangential skills are exposed and demonstrated in a big band setting. Surely these aspects of music can be learned in a small group, but not without a greater emotional and personal toll, depending upon the talent and temperament of the individual involved. The big band is a wonderful laboratory for learning what it is that makes jazz sound the way it does. And it is inclusive, meaning that people come together for a singular occasion. When a musical event can include approximately 10-20 individuals it has obvious social and cultural advantages which benefit all who love and work in the jazz field.

Mention should be made about the compositional process for big band. From Jimmy Lunceford to Duke to Gil Evans, Kenny Wheeler and Maria Schneider among others, the palette and possibilities of the big band encouraged their personal development particularly in the areas of texture and color. These possibilities are not available for the small group composer to nearly the same degree.

Finally, I can personally tell you that the feeling of playing a phrase reinforced by the poser of many voices behind or with you is exhilarating, both as a player and listener. There is nothing like the swing generated by so many people in synch with each other. The relevance of the big band is nearly equal in the social sense as well as musically. As a vehicle for expression, it will remain with us as long as people are playing instruments.