Jazz Big Bands

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Both Oliver and Morton, masters of the old style, sank into obscurity after 1929 because their musical language had little in common with the big-band idiom that supplanted it. The music of the Swing Era sprang from a different source: the dance band.

The dance bands continued a lively popular-music tradition that went back to successful ragtime orchestras such as that led by James Reese Europe (1881—1919). The sonorities produced by these instruments had a closer association with classical music than with New Orleans ensemble jazz, and violins in particular were retained as a fundamental section of many later dance bands.

The dance orchestras began to absorb some of the innovations of early jazz, including blue notes, twelve-bar blues structures, swung rhythm and short improvised passages for solo instruments. However, in more fundamental stylistic terms the dance bands remained very different from the New Orleans ensembles .Whereas the New Orleans style had been based on the combination of several independent melodic lines derived from the same theme, the dance bands tended to present a single melodic line in block-chord harmonization. The most distinctive sound of big-band jazz — a sinuous melody harmonized in block chords by a group of saxophones or brass — was a direct development from the procedure popularized by the dance bands and essentially had little to do with the New Orleans style. The New Orleans groups had elaborated simple harmonic schemes borrowed from ragtime and the blues, mostly comprising a few basic chords, but dance bands made extensive use of sophisticated harmonies imported from classical music. As the harmonic idiom of jazz became more complex, the viability of the New Orleans approach diminished: the Dixieland and swing-band styles were essentially incompatible.

White dance bands achieved greater commercial success, although several black groups were undoubtedly their superior in artistic terms. Initially inspired by the work of Nick La Rocca with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Beiderbecke had formed a group modelled on the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in Chicago in 1924. Some early sides imitate the New Orleans polyphonic style, but his music never exhibited the improvisational freedom characteristic of authentic jazz. In 1924 Whiteman gained notoriety when he promoted a bold 'Experiment in Modern Music': a concert work for piano and band composed by George Gershwin (1898-193?), which set out to combine elements of jazz and classical music. Symphonic jazz also became a vehicle for the growing nationalist trend in American classical music. By far the most important precursor of big-band jazz was the ensemble led by black pianist Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952). Although less successful commercially than either Goldkette or Whiteman, Henderson - who also had an intimate knowledge of classical music - managed to integrate 'hot' jazz elements into his dance arrangements. Armstrong's virtuosic improvisations and infectious swung rhythm transformed the band's playing and he was a clear influence on Henderson's tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins (1904—69), who adopted the trumpeter's manner of melodic construction. Redman laid the foundations for the big-band style, which integrates genuinely improvised solo sections with pre-composed passages for the full band; the latter are skillfully constructed in a pseudo-improvised style to sound spontaneous, but the music is predetermined and notated in the performing parts (known as 'charts'). The energetic trading of riffs between reeds and brass in rapid call-and-response patterns became one of the most appealing features of big-band jazz.

In 1934 a young Jewish clarinettist, Benny Goodman (1909-86), bought some of Henderson's orchestrations for his new band with funding made available by a National Broadcasting Company (NBC) radio show, for which the band had successfully auditioned. In the summer of 1935, Goodman's twelve-strong band (identical in instrumentation to Henderson's orchestra of 1927) embarked on its first national tour. Goodman and his band were the hottest property in the ensuing craze for the 'new' (actually several years old) swing music. Recognizing Henderson's contribution to his phenomenal success, however, Goodman secured his services as the band's full-time arranger in 1939.

Links between the newly respectable jazz and classical music were furthered by Goodman's blossoming career as both jazz and classical clarinettist. Goodman's lead trumpeter Harry James, whose virtuosity was inspired by Armstrong, also quit in 1938 after two years with the band and became a popular idol; in the late 19505 he brought big-band jazz back into the limelight with a success comparable only to that of Count Basic. Hampton's band, which undertook numerous worldwide tours from the 19508 onwards, is the longest surviving big band in the history of jazz.

During the 19308 the popularity of commercial white bands from New York masked the fact that the best music in the swing-band idiom was already being produced by black ensembles - by now a depressingly familiar state of affairs. Pianist Bennie Moten (1894-1935) had the foresight to hire fellow stride exponent William 'Count' Basic (1904-84) in 1929 as his future successor to lead a fine band, which produced music similar to Henderson's in New York but reflecting a greater blues influence. The Basic band estab­lished itself at Henderson's former haunt, the Roseland Ballroom, in 1937. Big bands managed to survive changing fashions — if at times precariously. So-called 'progressive jazz' was developed by Stan Kenton (1911—79), whose Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra explored an intriguing but sometimes pretentious and stilted mixture of big-band jazz and pseudo-classical music. Affection for genuine big-band jazz doggedly persisted and when Benny Goodman (fronting a much younger band) played at Carnegie Hall on 17 January 1978 to mark the fortieth anniversary of his historic first appearance there, the band's energetic rendering of Henderson's time-honoured arrange­ment of Morton's King Porter Stomp still brought the house down.