Large Ensembles: Is There a Place in This Large Music World?

R.J. DeLuke By

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The big band in jazz has a long and glorious history. It was a prevalent form in jazz music in the '20s and '30s, comprising a substantial part of America's popular music heard on radio, spun on gramophones and record players, and enjoyed in dance halls. It gave rise to iconic band leaders like Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, and the maestro, Duke Ellington; as well as a slew of talented and renowned individuals who made their names in history as big band leaders: Claude Thornhill, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Jimmie Lunceford, Stan Kenton, the Dorseys and many, many more.

Duke Ellington Duke Ellington

In the post-World War II era music began to change, as the harmonic and rhythmic breakthroughs of bebop began to impact the music. The standard bearers for the new movement were small combos, where the major soloists got more room to express themselves, and became bigger stars. The music contained European influences of Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel and Debussy.

But big bands fell out of favor. Financially, it was always tough to keep large group on the road. Ellington was fortunate enough to subsidize his efforts with his considerable royalties, and keep men on the payroll even when they weren't on tour. But even his group fell on hard times. Basie disbanded in 1946 and didn't reconstitute it until the '50s. Dance bands became hard to find.

Performers like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and others were in vogue.

But big bands have always survived. Ellington kept going until he died; Basie as well (bands under both names have carried on, posthumously). Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Maynard Ferguson and others continued to have good runs. There are still organizations with regular gigs in New York City, like the Vanguard Orchestra, and Sue Mingus has kept the legacy of her husband, Charles Mingus, alive with various large ensemble formations. Wynton Marsalis has Jazz at Lincoln Center; John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton get to stretch their big-band legs when possible, among others whose names can't all be listed.

But it's still a precarious undertaking. The cost is large and the demand, not so much.

Yet it's still attractive enough for veterans like Charles Tolliver, and younger men like Guillermo Klein, Arturo O'Farrill, Jason Lindner and John Hollenbeck—again, among others—to proceed.

Maria SchneiderMaria Schneider has paved the way in recent years with her fabulous orchestra, a Grammy and armfuls of industry awards. Darcy James Argue composes and arranges for a fine group in New York City that is rising to critical acclaim and gaining a following.

Many of the young composers—a large number listing Bob Brookmeyer among their main influences—are people who have tasted different kinds of music along their journeys and are incorporating those elements in their work; jazz being inclusive, not exclusive.

There are other bands that continue to pop up, led by those who continue the legacy, getting gigs whenever they can and writing original music. They work hard. It's frustrating, but music lovers should be glad of that, as the music is vital and an important part of the tradition as well as the future.

But with the changing music industry, the beleaguered economy, the still-subservient status of jazz in the United States and all the logistical problems of maintaining a large group, a question one might ask about why young musicians are still carrying the torch is: Why? Why go through the headaches?

Chapter Index

  1. Ouch! Headaches
  2. Ahhh! The Music
  3. Influences
  4. Dave Rivello
  5. Jacam Manricks
  6. J.C. Sanford and David Schumacher
  7. Chris Jentsch
  8. Nicholas Urie
  9. The Future for Large Ensembles

Ouch! Headaches

"It certainly is a love/hate thing," says Big Apple-based Nicholas Urie, a composer/arranger who released Excerpts From An Online Dating Service was released this year with his Large Ensemble (Red Piano Records, 2009). "I'm in the process of trying to get some gigs and it really is... You love the band because it affords you the opportunity to orchestra and to create sonorities that are compelling and beautiful and unique in way that a smaller group doesn't allow. At the same time you have to deal with economic constraints. Limitations of space. All of those things.

"Plus the logistical aspects of having a big band are sort of overwhelming. Keeping in touch with 18 people. Getting their schedules together. Finding a time. Keeping them happy. Making sure everyone's improvising enough. It can be very much a love/hate kind of thing."

J.C. Sanford and David Schumacher are composers and arrangers in a unique setting. They both write for and conduct Sound Assembly out of New York City. The band released Edge of the Mind this year on Beauport Jazz.

Says Schumacher, "Of course it's daunting. You've got to get 17 players together. The logistics that go into that is daunting enough, but also the financial responsibility that goes into that is pretty daunting. The reason we decided it was time to try this out is because at least one of us was going to be in New York. I kept hearing about there being such a pool of players to draw from that were going to be interested in this. In a sense, getting great people to play is not the hardest part."

Bandleaders say they are surprised that musicians of outstanding caliber are ready, willing and able to play new music with large ensembles if they get the chance. That helps the plight of a bandleader, but there is still plenty to turn a person's hair gray—or have it fall out in clumps.

"Finding a venue that's not a total drag" is another problem, says Sanford. "Not every club treats you great. It's hard to find a space that's big enough and can handle the sound of a large group like ours." he adds, "We can't pay a lot. We can't get people to turn down their tours to do our one little gig here or there. It's all rolled into the financial part of it."

"We started as a reading band and we were trying out new people and new combinations of people. Trying to get the voices we wanted in each section of the band," says Schumacher. "It took us several years to solidify the personnel. Then you get to that moment and you get very excited and you're happy to have that finally in place. Then you go to call the first gig and four of those guys can't make the gig because they've got another commitment. It is frustrating."

For Dave Rivello, who leads the Dave Rivello Ensemble in Rochester, N.Y., getting players has been easy because the Eastman School of Music is located in his city and so musicians are plentiful. "I couldn't have my band here if it wasn't for the school," he says. The band released Facing the Mirror this year, its first major recording (Allora Records). The music is not easy to play."

Dave Rivello Ensemble The Dave Rivello Ensemble

Concerning the business of big bands, Rivello notes with a chuckle, "I love the line I heard from somebody not long ago: 'Whenever you see a big band, somebody's losing money.'"

But he adds with satisfaction, "The guys love to play. I pinch myself every day when I wake up. These guys want to play. They're not concerned with the money. I've got a sub list longer than both arms of people wanting to get into the band. They stay in the band as long as they can, until they eventually go off into real life, teaching jobs or wherever they go. Some of them come back and want to get back into the band."

Brooklyn-based Guitarist Chris Jentsch leads his Jentsch Group Large, which released Cycles Suite (Fleur de Son Records, 2009), his third in a series of recorded suites. He says there are various reasons why it is hard for big bands, without big names, to get gigs.

"One reason is unless it's a really large prestigious venue, it's hard to find a venue that has a stage big enough for a big band; that you'd want to feel comfortable asking your friends to cram into. The Jazz Standard (NYC) is a great room for large ensembles. It's hard to get a gig in there. Places where I can get gigs, a lot of times it's very difficult to fit the band on the stage. I hate to ask the guys to struggle, since they're not getting a whole helluva a lot of money. I like to try to make it as pleasant for them as I can. I don't want to wear out my welcome by forcing them to sit on these tiny stages. Everyone is very understanding. I'm probably a little more conservative about asking the band to do that than I need to be. But I hate to see all those top professionals with those expensive instruments all crushed together."

The inability to tour is something that bandleaders understand. In an ideal world, they would gladly take off city-to-city with their bands. Groups with larger established names can do it to some extent—but even then there are woes, as the multi-award winning Schneider told All About Jazz in 2007. "It's difficult because it's expensive," she said. "It's 20 people. What's more difficult than getting the tour is actually doing the tour. I'm coordinating all these musicians. They're all freelance musicians. Trying to get everyone's schedules together when they're hopping all over the globe, each of them with several other groups. Getting the music together. Logistically, it's just an absolute nightmare. Sometimes I'm like, 'Oh, god, why did I start this thing?'"

Notes Australian-born, now NYC resident Jacam Manricks, whose ensemble released Labyrinth this year on Manricks Music Records: "It is really difficult with a large ensemble without a lot of financial support. I'm touring to promote the album, but just with a quartet. I've reduced those scores to work with a quartet. They kind of stand on their own anyway. But there are certain part that I've added into the piano part...It's so expensive. Hotels and flights. Making sure the cats are getting paid. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it. It's an amazing way to make a living and to live. I'm grateful for the opportunity to do that. But at this stage to do a tour it has to be a small group."

Darcy James ArgueArgue, whose band is starting to gain steam with the release of Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam Records, 2009) told All About Jazz at the end of 2008: "I'm not sure exactly what I'm doing with my life. This big band I'm running and recording is a totally unreasonable way to make music. It's like I've gone out of my way to create the absolute most difficult scenario in terms of hours involved in preparation, to actual minutes of music produced. But for whatever reason, the payoff has been worth it for me so far."

That's because of the music itself. The art.


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