The Big Jazz Band - the Jazz Orchestra

The elements of jazz are characteristic of all jazz and of a lot of other Afro-American music. These jealous elements are found in a watered-down form in the commercial jazz bands and jazz orchestras, but are found in their purest form in any band made up of Southern African American with a a washboard, a harmonica, a kazoo and a couple of frying pans. The quality and interest in any jazz performance depends heavily on the instinctive musicianship of its players, not on the elaborateness or efficiency of the instruments it is played on. (This is painfully obvious when you hear a classical orchestra, a classical string quartet or some other group of musicians who are fundamentally classically trained, trying to play jazz. In most cases, though of course not all, it sounds strained and wooden.)

When it comes to playing in a jazz orchestra rather large jazz band, improvisation alone doesn't work well, so that jazz, in its professional forms, has been affected by what is known as jazz orchestration, where jazz orchestration is a specialized technique of composition, characteristically American and remarkably well-adapted, to the requirements of the jazz idiom. As jazz orchestration has developed over time, new instruments have been introduced into popular music, old instruments have found new and unsuspected fields of virtuosity, and a new principle of instrumental combination has been evolved. I play in a jazz orchestra, the West Midlands Light Orchestra, which has through its history had (and still has) some excellent orchestrator's, each with their own very characteristic style, which very much to rise from the instrument that they play in the orchestra. Classical musicians have great problems played in the right style.

The jazz band as we know it today is the product of evolution. Evolution is a trial-and-error process that throws up a whole host of variations, where only the fittest survive. In terms of jazz, fitness equates to popularity. Not necessarily mass popularity, but unless a sufficiently large group of people like the variation of jazz that is developed, it will die with musicians that performed it. Those forms of jazz that are "fit for purpose" will, in the Darwinian sense, survive and multiply. In the animal kingdom the multiplication is by sexual reproduction, those creatures with characteristics that are most fit for purpose will proliferate in the environment. In the jazz scene, those development of jazz that are fit for the purpose of entertaining people and giving musical meaning, will multiply in the musical environment i.e. jazz bands playing that style of jazz will proliferate, people attend concerts, people will buy CDs or downloads and the music will be generally aired on TV, radio as well as being used in film and TV soundtracks.

So jazz is developed to a stage where it survival owes more to the popular entertainment industry, the film industry and the ballroom than it does to the original primitive jazz of the Southern African American. From the point of view of instrumentation, it is mainly a Northern and Western differentiation. A modern jazz band may contain several instruments (e.g. the saxophone and the piano), that were not characteristic of the bands of old New Orleans. Many forms of jazz are more clearly traceable to the ragtime vaudeville and dance bands of thf early 1900s and the black American orchestras of Harlem, or the hotel ballroom orchestras of the American Pacific coast, and the college and high-school dance orchestras of the first World War period.

The development of jazz orchestration tends to have a fairly consistent leaning towards certain instruments, which have been used in various combinations since the beginning of the 1900s. These are the piano, guitar, string bass, tuba, drums, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, cornet and trombone. All of them are likely to be encountered in a modern big band or large jazz band. Rarely in its long and complex history has jazz been played without some of them. The most consistently used of all are probably the trumpet, trombone, guitar (or banjo) and drums, which have been associated with practically all orchestral jazz from the early New Orleans period to the present.

If you consider all the kinds of jazz, including lounge jazz and modern jazz, then probably the piano ranks as the most important instrument. It is the only jazz instrument capable of giving a complete solo jazz performance (I'm leaving aside the solo jazz saxophonist you might get busking in a shopping centre, all the solo jazz fiddle player or saxophonist playing with backing tracks, because then it isn't really a solo performance). The pianos ubiquity as an important solo constituent of the jazz band seems to date from the late 1920s or 1930s, when pianist band leaders like Duke Ellington and Fats Waller became prominent. But the piano was also used in ragtime bands of the 1890s. The famous African American bandmaster Jim Reese Europe, who was active in Harlem and Carnegie Hall around 1912, used whole piano orchestras, consisting of ten pianos at a time. (I don't have any recordings of this, I've only read about it, but it sounds absolutely amazing. I can't imagine what sounds like!)

There is probably a logical reason why pianos were not used in the old New Orleans as they often performed in parades and on wagons where pianos were awkward to handle. (Can you imagine a pianist playing upright piano as it bounces long on the back of a horse-drawn wagon. I suppose if the street was smooth it could be okay, but what when the roads were bumpy – which they probably were most the time – when the horse bolted!)

In the brothels of the old Storyville section of New Orleans, jazz and ragtime piano playing was, common during the late 1800s (for those who are brought up on a diet of wild West movies, which are no longer politically correct because of the mass slaughter of the Indians, and the Indians amazing ability to miss every single white man with their, would now that in every wild West bar there would be a piano in the corner, with beer on top, bashing out ragtime. Of course, the jazz was always short lived, as at best a pianist stopped abruptly when the baddie swaggered into the bar, or at worst was the first one to be shot so that the bad guy could address the sheriff in peace.) It was this sort of piano playing that the White pianist Ben Harney took northwards in the 1890s to become famous for his performances at establishments such as Tony Pastor's. The entire ragtime era, as I've pontificated about above, was dominated by the piano.

The saxophone's career in jazz has been remarkably chequered one, considering its reputation as the jazz instrument par excellence. For example, it was really used in early Southern jazz; and it became an unfashionable instrument in the 1950s to 1980s, there is his gain popularity again but is not reached the heights of popularity it had in  the "swing" craze of the 1930s. It became a mainstay instrument of the bands of the 1920s, where its almost human vocal tonality was perfect for the sweet song-style jazz popular with Paul Whiteman and his followers. The saxophone was originally associated with large bands rather than small combinations, but now it is used in many jazz bands, from duos to sex debts, and we have on our website a number of ensembles made up entirely of saxophones. Also, the saxophone has been a mainstay of commercial "sweet" jazz. There have been a number of famous hot saxophone players, and large hot bands like Fletcher Henderson's and Duke Ellington's have always had large saxophones sections. But because of its tone, its showy appearance and its usefulness for lush, sentimental effects, it was thought to be more appropriate for the polite dance floor than for hot jazz. The first bandleader to make regular use of sections comprising of three or four saxophones was possibly Art Hick-man of San Francisco's St. Frances Hotel orchestra. At Hickman's style of jazz, which has developed round about 1914, was later copied by number of "sweet" dance band leaders.

The saxophone was not a new instrument by the time the dance bands of the first World War period started using it. The saxophone was an important instrument the American military band throughout the 1900s. The saxophone was invented by the Parisian instrument maker, Antoine Joseph Adolphe Sax, roundabout 1840 and was immediately incorporated into French army bands, and its popularity subsequently spread to other worldwide. In the post-American Civil War years the most famous concert band in America was run by the Irish bandmaster Patrick Sarsfield Gil-more. Pictures dating from 1875 show "Pat" Gilmore's band performing in Madison Square Garden with a quartet of saxophones. Since military bands often played at large balls and dances at during period, even playing military marches in the form of two-steps, there was plenty of precedent for using the saxophone as a dance-hall instrument long before the jazz players adopted it.

The tenor banjo is another instrument that is considered as a typical jazz instrument, though its use doesn't match its reputation. Musicologists seem to agree that it is a genuine African contribution to instrumentation, and it was always the traditionally characteristic instrument of the old minstrel shows. (How many of you remember the Black and White Minstrel Show from the London Palladium, on TV on I think it was a Sunday night?) Early Southern jazz bands sometimes used it, but were just as likely to have a guitar in its place. The big commercial bands of the 1920s often use the banjo, partly for its strong, twanging contribution to the rhythm section, but partly too, because it looked right and was thought of as a sort of trade mark of jazz during that period. Since then it has tended to disappear from the jazz band, though on the Midsummer Music Website, there are a number of bands who still use this amazing instrument. However, in most bands the role of the banjo is taken by the guitar, especially in laid-back lounge jazz bands.