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Great American Big Bands


"The instruments come across so clearly one could transcribe the score!" Jazzpodium Magazine

Count Basie: Sent For You Yesterday << sound clip
Jack Teagarden: Chicks Is Wonderful
Benny Carter: These Foolish Things
Chick Webb: When I Get Low I Get High
Benny Goodman: Christopher Columbus
Louis Armstrong: I Never Knew
Joe Venuti: Flop
Duke Ellington: Take The 'A' Train << sound clip
Harry James: Strictly Instrumental
Jimmy Dorsey: All Of Me << sound clip
Bunny Berigan: The Prisoner's Song
Bob Crosby: Barrelhouse Bessie From Basin Street
Jimmie Lunceford: My Blue Heaven
Glenn Miller: A String Of Pearls
Cab Calloway: Run Little Rabbit << sound clip
Woody Herman: Twin City Blues
Ted Weems: I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now?
Tommy Dorsey: Stop, Look And Listen
Frankie Trumbauer: I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music
Casa Loma Orchestra: A Study In Brown
Artie Shaw: Deep Purple
Gene Krupa: Drummin' Man
Lionel Hampton: Nola

What is it about big bands which explains their enduring appeal? American writer Gene Lees described their characteristic sound as 'one that will not go away'. Once heard, never forgotten in other words, and especially true for those who grew up with the idea that the best kind of fun came from dancing to the beat of a big band. The extraordinary popularity of social dancing prompted the formation of a great many travelling orchestras, some linked to a lushly romantic style, others committed to altogether hotter rhythms. There were dance halls on every corner and minor musical masterpieces were turned out by the score, all designed to tap into the upbeat mood of post-Depression America.

While it was entirely possible for these bands to survive and achieve success without ever entering the studios, it is unarguable that major reputations were built (and sustained) through recordings. Twenty-three of these top-rated groups are represented here. Some of them stayed around for decades, others were short-lived; some were led by fine instrumentalists, black and white, and a few by artists who are active still. Although the basic format doesn't differ much - big bands usually include trumpets, trombones, saxes and a rhythm section - these selections clearly show the stylistic diversity of the idiom. Each offers unique variations of ensemble balance and texture; soloists are recognisably individual. Who said big bands all sound the same?

Our window on a long gone world opens with a piece by the legendary Count Basie Orchestra of the late 1930s. From the simplest of riff patterns, developed in the heady atmosphere of Kansas City jam sessions, an arrangement like Sent For You Yesterday would emerge, complete with fine solos and propulsive section work, the momentum supplied by one of the most perfect rhythm teams in all of jazz. Basie's minimalist piano is noteworthy but so too are the solos by trumpeter Harry Edison (still playing) and the bustling Texan tenor-saxophonist Herschel Evans. The playful vocal is by Jimmy Rushing, whose plump rotundity earned him the nickname 'Mr Five-by-Five'. Basie, who died in 1984, led fine bands right to the end.

Jack Teagarden (1905-64), another Texan, was the most celebrated jazz trombonist of his day but a reluctant band leader, with little appetite for business. His playing was always relaxed, at its best in the company of his peers. The clarinettist is Danny Polo, who spent several years in Britain with Ambrose's Orchestra. Another who enriched the local musical scene was multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter, whose career continues apace with no concessions to age (he was born in 1907). His version of the British hit song These Foolish Things was made in London while Carter was resident arranger for the BBC Dance Orchestra. He is heard on alto saxophone, poised and graceful, and on muted trumpet and clarinet. Hidden in the trombone section is Ted Heath who went on to lead the greatest of British big bands. Baltimore-born Chick Webb (1909-39) earned appreciation from all manner of jazzmen for his inspirational drumming- 'every beat like a bell', said Buddy Rich. Webb was the first band leader to recognise Ella Fitzgerald's exceptional vocal quality. Their jaunty collaboration was cut a few days before Ella's 18th birthday, just two years after her amateur night debut at the Harlem Opera House.

Benny Goodman's triumph at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on August 21, 1935, marked the official start to the 'swing era'. Sidemen became the focus of unprecedented attention, much like soccer players today, and crowds gathered wherever Goodman appeared. Christopher Columbus, a Goodman favourite, was composed by Chu Berry, Cab Calloway's fine saxophonist, and arranged by Fletcher Henderson, himself the leader of another great orchestra. Goodman (1909-86) is heard on clarinet.

Louis Armstrong (1901-71), the fabulous 'Satchmo', was the single most important innovator in early jazz. By 1942, he had become a popular entertainer and a familiar presence in musical films. His vocals were imitated by a host of admirers but it's his majestic trumpet which scores, supported by Sid Catlett's slick drumming, as he reshapes Gus Kahn's nice old melody. Joe Venuti (1903-78) was an insistent prankster, better known as a soloist than as a band leader. He was among the very few jazz violinists of genuine worth.

When Billy Strayhorn joined Duke Ellington's Famous Orchestra as staff arranger- Duke called him 'my right arm'- he created Take the 'A' Train which soon became Duke's signature tune and one of the most widely known of jazz themes. The definitive 1941 version features the marvellous Ray Nance on muted and open trumpet. Known as 'Floor Show', Nance could dance, sing and play jazz violin or hot trumpet on demand. It's a self-evident truism that Ellington was the greatest band leader-composer in jazz history. The 'A' Train, by the way, ran up to Harlem, New York's black district.

The next three tracks spot top soloists who formed their own groups to cash in on their popularity. Fiery trumpeter Harry James (1916-83), the son of a circus bandmaster and a one-time Goodman star, was married to actress Betty Grable and always led bands of quality. Jimmy Dorsey (1904-57), the elder of the battling Dorsey Brothers, was a flawless alto-saxophonist who earned his spurs with Paul Whiteman. He built his orchestra into one of America's leading dance bands. Trumpeter Bunny Berigan (1908-42) was among the very best of white jazz trumpeters and fronted his rowdy unit quite successfully until he was laid low by alcoholism.

The co-operative Bob Crosby band rose from the ashes of the Ben Pollack orchestra and became a best-seller on Decca. Crosby, Bing's younger brother, was no musician but looked good on stage. The band's stance was influenced by its inner core of New Orleans musicians including the agreeable tenor-saxophonist and vocalist Eddie Miller. Jimmie Lunceford (1902-47) combined music direction and athletics coaching in Memphis until he formed one of the finest of black bands, renowned for its musicianship and the arrangements of Sy Oliver, heard here playing solo trumpet. Joe Thomas is the saxophonist.

Glenn Miller's music has retained its popularity, with a series of 'ghost' orchestras re-creating Miller band classics, including Jerry Gray's String of Pearls, with its strong attack and immaculate trombone motifs. Miller's plane disappeared over the English Channel in December 1944 as he was on his way to join his Army big band in France. Cab Calloway (born 1907), the 'king of hi-de-ho' was a manic vocalist but led a superb band, packed with brilliant soloists. He remains ebulliently if intermittently active. Clarinettist/saxophonist Woody Herman (1913-87) started out in Chicago and formed 'The Band That Plays The Blues' in 1936. His later Herds created some of the most memorable of big band recordings. Herman celebrated his 50th year as a band leader in 1986.

Ted Weemswas always popular with dancers; his vocalist Perry Como moved on to greater things as an engaging performer on records and TV. George Simon asserted that Tommy Dorsey (1905-56) -'The Sentimental Gentleman Of Swing'- ran 'the greatest all-round dance band of them all.' Top jazzmen all admired Dorsey's trombone mastery. Pee Wee Erwin is the trumpet soloist. Frankie Trumbauer (1901-56), a cool-sounding alto-saxophonist, played with Bix Beiderbecke and Paul Whiteman. His recording orchestra included Jack Teagarden on trombone and vocal; Johnny Mince is the clarinettist. Trumbauer was a test pilot during World War Two. The Casa Loma Orchestra - named after a castle in Toronto where it played - was formed in 1927 and earned a devoted following in the succeeding decade.

Three prominent band leaders who were also outstanding soloists complete our review of the great American big bands. Artie Shaw was Benny Goodman's only serious rival as an instrumentalist; his immaculate clarinet is sandwiched between Helen Forrest's attractive vocal choruses. Gene Krupa (1909-73), always the showman, achieved prominence as Goodman's original drummer. The trumpet is by Corky Cornelius. Lionel Hampton (born 1909) was the man who put the vibraphone on the jazz map. He plays on, still touring with all-star groups. His 1940s orchestra was the best he ever led; its pianist was the diminutive Milt Buckner, celebrated for his influential 'locked-hands' style.

Bill Ashton, founder of the superb National Youth Jazz Orchestra, aptly summed up the virtue of these and all their counterparts when he said that 'there's nothing more exciting in music than a big band in full flight.'


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