How We Got the Big Sound of Big Band Jazz
Big bands evolved from the American dance bands of the late 19th century. While a string orchestra might be adequate to accompany waltzes in the relatively small ballrooms of European society, the larger halls in the United States required a bigger sound, and the dance music of the New World required a more clearly-defined beat.
On December 11, the Redlands Symphony presents A Big Band Christmas Jam, featuring big band jazz arrangements of all your favorite Christmas songs. It’s going to be an exciting night that you’ll remember for years to come.
But before we bring our big band to the stage, you might be curious where the big band came from.
After all, we know the history of the orchestra — small ensembles of string players grew into larger ones through the 17th and 18th centuries, adding winds and brass along the way until they grew into the early modern orchestras of Mozart and Beethoven.
But big bands have a history all their own, related to but separate from the orchestral tradition.
Just as an orchestra is divided into four sections (strings, winds, brass, percussion), a typical big band is made up of four sections: saxes, trumpets, trombones, and the rhythm section (which normally consists of guitar, piano, bass, and drums).
Big bands evolved from the American dance bands of the late 19th century. While a string orchestra might be adequate to accompany waltzes in the relatively small ballrooms of European society, the larger halls in the United States required a bigger sound, and the dance music of the New World required a more clearly-defined beat!
The new genre of “jazz” had also become popular, and people wanted to be able to dance to this exciting new sound. So the small, improvisatory ensembles common to early jazz styles (Dixieland, for instance) grew to fill the dance hall with more volume. These newer “big bands” required more detailed arrangements than early jazz ensembles — after all, not only do dances like the jitterbug and Lindy hop require a certain structure, but it’s a lot harder for 16 musicians to improvise together than it is for a quartet!
One of the earliest big band arrangers was Ferdinand Grofé, who was hired by Paul Whiteman to write for his “symphonic jazz orchestra”. Grofé is probably best known today for his classical Grand Canyon Suite, but he also orchestrated the first version of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
By the 1930s, the big band as an ensemble was firmly established. A new style called “swing” appeared and was soon adopted by musicians like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman, each of whom brought their own style and personality to the big band sound. These bands hired popular vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, who became household names.
By the end of the 1930s, the small groups and solo artists of early jazz had fallen into obscurity as the exciting and “sophisticated” arrangements of big band jazz monopolized the American and European music scenes. It was in this environment over the next two decades that musicians composed many of the songs we’ve come to think of as “classic” Christmas songs.
Learn more about the connection between Christmas music and big band swing by reading the program notes to A Big Band Christmas Jam.
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