Big Band - History and Style

History and Style

There were two distinct periods in the history of popular bands. Beginning in the mid-1920s, big bands, then typically consisting of 10–25 pieces, came to dominate popular music. At that time they usually played a form of jazz that involved very little improvisation, which included a string section with violins, which was dropped after the introduction of swing in 1935. The dance form of jazz was characterized by a sweet and romantic melody. Typical of the genre were such popular artists as Paul Whiteman, Ted Lewis, Harry Reser, Leo Reisman, Abe Lyman, Nat Shilkret, George Olsen, Ben Bernie, Bob Haring, Ben Selvin, Earl Burnett, Gus Arnheim, Henry Halstead, Rudy Vallee, Jean Goldkette, Glen Gray, Isham Jones, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Sam Lanin, James Last, Vincent Lopez, Ben Pollack, Shep Fields and Fred Waring.

Many of these artists changed styles or retired after the introduction of swing music. Although unashamedly commercial, these bands often featured front-rank jazz musicians—for example Paul Whiteman employed Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer. There were also "all-girl" bands such as "Helen Lewis and Her All-Girl Jazz Syncopators". Lewis and her band, Ben Bernie's band "Ben Bernie and All the Lads", and Roger Wolfe Kahn's band were filmed by Lee De Forest in his Phonofilm sound-on-film process in 1925, in three short films that are now in the Library of Congress film collection.

Towards the end of the 1920s, a new form of Big Band emerged which was more authentically "jazz," in that more space was given to improvised soloing. This form of music never gained the popularity of the dance form of jazz. The few recordings made in this form of jazz were labelled race records and were intended for a limited urban audience. Few white musicians were familiar with this music, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael being notable exceptions. The three major centers in this development were New York City, Chicago and Kansas City. In the first, a sophisticated approach to arranging predominated, originally in the work of Don Redman for the Fletcher Henderson band, later in the work of Duke Ellington for his Cotton Club orchestra, and Walter 'Foots' Thomas for Cab Calloway's, Charlie Spivak and His Orchestra, and Mel Tormé's Mel-Tones. Some big ensembles, like the Joe "King" Oliver outfit played a kind of half arranged, half improvised jazz, often relying on “head” arrangements. Other great bands, like the one of Luis Russell became a vehicle for star instrumentalists, in his case Louis Armstrong. There the whole arrangement had to promote all the possibilities of the star, although they often contained very good musicians, like Henry "Red" Allen, J. C. Higginbotham and Charlie Holmes. Others such as Alvino Rey grew popular with shows in New York City and then toured the country sharing their hit songs and new musical styles.

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