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The Big Bands are Back

David Berger


In my trumpet playing days, I used to practice 2 or 3 hours per day. The problem with playing trumpet is that it is very tiring on the lip muscles, so you need to rest often--especially when playing in the upper register. So I would have to pace myself. I'd play a bit, rest a bit, play a bit, and so forth. While I was resting, I would either read a book or watch TV. It's amazing how bad daytime TV was in those days. 

This one particular afternoon in the late '70s, I happened on a talk show in which John Belushi was the guest. They did a segment where audience members could ask Belushi a question. This one young man had long hair. Before he could say a word, Belushi said, "Hey man, haven't you heard, the '60s are over?"

Now, back to 2019. I just finished two weeks of teaching college students in Austria. Prior to this trip, I thought there were just a few government sponsored radio big bands left in Europe--the last vestige of American occupation after WWII. But dig this: there a ton of them all over. Don't ask me why. Austria is a small country with a population of 8 million people. They have 150 working big bands. Crazy, right? I live in New York City which has 8 or 9 million people and swells to 35 million from 9-5 every Monday through Friday. I doubt that we have more than 15 working big bands in New York, and most of them only work a few gigs a year. How can this be?

The big band is the American equivalent of the European Symphony Orchestra. It was invented to play swing music for social dancing, but it didn't come into existence all at once. Jazz started out in New Orleans with small bands of mostly four to seven players. Saxophonist Don Redman played with Jelly Roll Morton and later became arranger for Fletcher Henderson's band in New York. Whereas Jelly Roll experimented on occasion with three clarinets, Fletcher sported 3 reeds on a regular basis--the three guys would double on saxophone and clarinet. In addition, Fletcher had five brass (3 trumpets and 2 trombones). In 1923 this was a revelation—most bands had 3 or 4 brass and 3 saxes.

Duke Ellington's Washingtonians were working at the Kentucky Club at this time and only had 3 horns. As the decade wore on, bands started adding more horns. Duke didn't expand to 5 brass until 1930. Redman is called the father of the big band because he established many of the arranging conventions, first with Henderson, then with McKinney's Cotton Pickers, and finally with his own band. Techniques like brass versus reeds, clarinet and sax solis, shout choruses and tritone substitution we owe to Redman. If you don't know his two early gems for Henderson (Copenhagen and The Stampede), I urge you to check them out. In 1931 he first recorded his masterpiece, Chant Of The Weed (Redman, like Armstrong was a serious viper). He would rearrange Chant Of The Weed several times. His 1940 version for Victor is my favorite. 

As jazz achieved popularity, large dance halls were built all over America. Most notable was the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, which was racially integrated. There were other such dance halls, but they had a rope down the middle, which could not be crossed. 

The biggest event at the Savoy was when Benny Goodman brought his band uptown to do battle with Chick Webb on Webb's home turf. Each band had its fans in attendance. Frankie Manning, one of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, who practically lived at the Savoy, told me that the home crowd was rooting for the home team, but at the end of the night, he confessed that everyone agreed, it was a draw—a thoroughly winning night for jazz. 

By this time in the mid-1930's both Webb and Goodman had 5 brass and 4 saxes. Goodman had given up the saxophone and fronted the band on clarinet. His arrangements were mostly penned by Fletcher Henderson and Jimmy Mundy (both Black arrangers writing for the white band that took the world by storm in August of 1935). They were the Beatles of their day. 

In 1932 Ellington added Lawrence Brown to his trombone section, creating a trombone trio. Not only was Lawrence a dynamite soloist (his groundbreaking big feature was Rose Of The Rio Grande), but he was a crack reader, could fake every popular song that might be requested and played excellent lead trombone. He was the highest paid member of the band, commanding $100 per week in 1938, while Johnny Hodges made $85 and Cootie Williams $75. At the same time, the white boys in Benny's band were making $250. Not bad for the Depression. My father was working at a movie theater in Brooklyn for $8 a week. An early feature for the trombone trio was Slippery Horn where Brown got to show off his high register.

In 1937 Duke had 4 trumpets for a minute. Listen to the spectacular recording of Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue. I can't imagine what listeners thought when they first heard this masterpiece. Shortly after, Freddie Jenkins became ill and had to leave the band, causing Duke to revert to 3 trumpets. He wouldn't add a fourth again until Shorty Baker joined in 1942. Ellington basically stayed with four trumpets for the rest of his career, with occasional periods of adding a fifth and even a sixth trumpet if he heard someone he liked. 

Glenn Miller formed a very popular band in 1938 with 4 trumpets, 3 trombones and 5 saxes. Miller not only fronted the band, but played trombone in the section, bringing the trombone section to an unprecedented quartet. Tommy Dorsey quickly followed suit with the same instrumentation, except that Dorsey had the added advantage of being an outstanding trombonist, and recorded a number of famous solos like Song Of India and his theme song I'm Getting Sentimental Over You.

Count Basie brought his band to New York from Kansas City with 4 saxes and 5 brass. A year later he added a third trombone. Another year later he added a fourth trumpet and finally the next year a fifth saxophone. With the exception of his small band foray in the late '40s and early '50s, he kept that instrumentation until the 1960s when he added a fourth trombone. Thad Jones graduated from Basie's band in the early 1960s and kept the same instrumentation when he formed his own band in 1966.

Ellington took on Ben Webster as a fifth saxophone in 1939. He stuck with 7 brass and 5 reeds, never adding a fourth trombone. In the 1950s, his trombone section went to him and asked to add a fourth bone, but Duke told them that it would become too easy for him to write for their section. 

Jimmie Lunceford added a third trombone to his trumpet trio and five saxes in the mid-30's. This band was very influential on Glenn Miller and Stan Kenton. Miller copied Lunceford's 5 saxes, and then in the '40s Lunceford expanded to 8 brass. Kenton kept expanding his instrumentation, going to 5 saxes, 5 trombones, 5 trumpets, and for a period 4 mellophones. 

Although other bands were expanding, Woody Herman went from 5 saxes to 4 (3 tenors and a bari) in 1947. Shortly afterwards he dismissed the guitar and vibes. However, he kept his 8-man brass section (5 trumpets and 3 trombones) for the rest of his life.

When stage bands became popular in high schools and junior highs across America, they consisted of the standard 8 brass, 5 saxes and 4 rhythm. I guess “jazz” was a dirty word. Charts published for today's school jazz bands use the same instrumentation even though many schools have difficulty fielding 4 trombones. 

I recently performed a clinic with a high school band that only had one trombone. They had a flute player playing the 2nd Trombone part up two octaves. Personally, I think high school and middle school bands would be better off with 5 or 6 brass. There would be fewer notes squeezed into each chord (making it easier for the players to hear their notes, and allowing the trumpets to be written in a lower range and still leave enough room for the trombones.

I've noticed that bands in Europe tend to use 5 trumpets and 4 trombones. I have a hard time finding an eighth pitch for the brass section, let alone a ninth. While I like having 5 saxes, I have never liked playing fifth trumpet parts. They tend to be written too low to easily produce a characteristic sound. In that register it's hard to match the brightness and power of the lead trumpet, who is voiced an octave or so above. This fifth part would be more effective written for the 1st Trombone, since trombones are naturally pitched an octave below trumpets. The advantage of having 5 trumpets is that if one trumpet is not available due to a solo or non-sectional soli, you can still write 4-part harmony for the trumpets. 

Big bands came into existence to play music for swing dancers. In 1924 George Gershwin composed Rhapsody in Blue for Paul Whiteman's orchestra. Its popularity inspired Ellington and others to follow suit and write concert big band music for listening divorced from dancing. Although there are still a few swing dance goers out there, the vast majority of jazz performances are for listeners only. 

In 1970 I attended a Buddy Rich Band performance at a nightclub with a big dance floor. Early on in the evening, an older couple got up on the dance floor and started dancing. Buddy stopped the band and proceeded to yell at the couple. 

Personally, I'm glad that the connection with swing dancing still exists. I think it's healthy for the music when we embrace its entire history, even if each of us chooses to play only a small portion of our rich heritage. I was always drawn to Ellington and Mingus, in part because their music reflects the history of the music and defies category. 

Some jazz musicians and jazz fans fail to understand why anyone would want to play in a big band. After all, no one gets to solo very much--there are too many mouths to feed. The same goes for getting paid less than for playing in small groups. As a composer and arranger, big bands offer more opportunity for harmony, counterpoint and orchestration. But even more than that, in smaller groups the development occurs during the solos; in big bands, the arranger has the opportunity to develop his or her ideas. Each horn player gets to interact with 11 others and feel the impact, vibration and power of playing notes together. They also get to perform the work of great composers and arrangers. The genius of Duke Ellington one experiences playing Harlem is light years beyond playing Satin Doll at a wedding.

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  • Ken Taylor on

    Great post, good read, thanks. Don Redman is often overlooked.

  • Andy DeNicola John P. Stevens HS N. Edison NJ on

    Being a HS band director with a nice program, I find all of your blogs very interesting and extremely informative. I’d like to keep sharing them with my students, so keep sending them. I think they are great.

    Andy DeNicola

  • David Berger on

    Jean-Francois, email me at and I can answer your question at length. This goes for anyone else looking to purchase classic jazz arrangements especially Lunceford, Henderson, Ellington, Basie.

  • Jean-François Dewez on

    Good Morning
    Thank you for this.
    Could you tell me the place I could find and buy Fletcher Henderson’s and Jimmie Lundsford’s arrangements?
    Thank you for your reply
    JF Dewez
    Musical director
    Couleur Swing Band Band

  • Hans Jacobs on

    I’m in (exactly) the middle of reading Jeffrey Magee’s “The Uncrowned King of Swing – Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz” (ISBN: 978-0-19-534065-5), which discusses some of the topics in this blog. It’s not light reading for a Business major and reeds player with minimal Music education, but very interesting.
    Disclaimer: recommending this book does not result in rewards to me of any kind.

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