Big Band Swing

Jazz took on a distinctly arranged form in the big bands of the early 1920s through the late 1940s. Instrumentalists, numbering somewhere in the teens for most big bands, played specific parts either memorized in rehearsal or read from printed charts. Careful orchestration, coupled with large brass and reed sections, brought out the rich harmonies of jazz and created a huge sonic sensation known as “the big band sound.”

Big band became the popular music of its day, hitting its peak in the mid 1930s. It fueled the nation’s Lindy Hop and swing dance crazes. Well-known bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, Jimmy Lunceford and Glenn Miller wrote and recorded a virtual parade of hit tunes that were played not only on radio but in dancehalls everywhere. Many big bands featured improvising soloists who excited audiences to near hysteria in well-publicized battles-of-the-bands.

Although big band declined after World War II, orchestras led by Basie, Ellington, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and numerous others toured and recorded for several decades afterwards. The music became highly modernized as groups led by Boyd Raeburn, Sun Ra, Oliver Nelson, Charles Mingus, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis and Muhal Richard Abrams explored new concepts in harmony, instrumentation and improvisational freedom.

Today, big band remains as a standard in jazz education. Repertory orchestras such as the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble regularly play original arrangements of big band compositions.

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