Rick Lawn: The Evolution of Big Band Sounds in America

Rick Lawn: The Evolution of Big Band Sounds in America
Victor L. Schermer By

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From the latter part of the Jazz Age through the Swing Era, big bands dominated the jazz scene and a large part of the entertainment industry. After World War II, their fortunes declined, but their music soared to new heights, spurred on by innovative leaders, instrumentalists, and very importantly, the composers/arrangers who worked behind the scenes writing the large ensemble scores which required increasing ingenuity and resourcefulness. The back story of what made the big bands transform over time is largely theirs.

For nearly a century, big band sounds have thrilled audiences and played a key role in the evolution of the music. But many of us are not familiar with how these sounds evolved, incorporating new approaches as they came along. In this interview, we explore the changes in the sounds, from Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington through Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Gil Evans, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Monday Night Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra to current innovative big bands such as those led by Maria Schneider, John Fedchock, and Vince Mendoza.

Through it all, the writers/arrangers have conceived the new forms, instrumentation, and signature sounds of these iconic big bands. Some of the writers have been leaders and band members, while others have worked behind the scenes. Here, realizing that jazz history is so dense that no one perspective can cover all bases, we take a bird's eye look at these innovators and the sounds that emerged not just from their horns but from their pens.

There are few who are as informed and experienced regarding this subject as Rick Lawn. He is a rare combination of a jazz instrumentalist and composer/arranger in addition to being a noted scholar/educator and historian. Lawn recently retired as Dean of the College of Performing Arts at The University of the Arts and is now Professor Emeritus there. Prior to moving to Philadelphia he was the Founding Director of Jazz Studies, Chair of the Department of Music, and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at The University of Texas in Austin. As a member of the Nova Saxophone Quartet he has recorded on the Musical Heritage Society, Crystal, and Equilibrium labels. He is also a composer and arranger and leads his own ensemble, Power of Ten.

Lawn is the author of the comprehensive historical survey of jazz, Experiencing Jazz , published by Routledge and used internationally in jazz education programs. Other books include The Jazz Ensemble Directors Manual (C.L. Barnhouse, 1976), Jazz Theory and Practice (J. Hellmer and R. Lawn, Revised Edition, Alfred Music, 1996), and the remarkable new masterwork Jazz Scores and Analysis, Vol. 1 (Sher Music, 2018), elucidating the mysteries of those marks and lines on big band scores known to musicians as "charts."

All About Jazz: For a warmup, what are the big band recordings that you would take to the infamous desert island?

Rick Lawn: That's a really challenging question. For me, it would depend on the day it's asked. I hope readers don't take it as an "all-time best" list; it's just what's coming up in my mind today. So here goes. I think I'd have to take Miles Davis/Gil Evans Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960). At least one Vince Mendoza album, either Epiphany (Zebra, 1999) or Jazzpana (ACT, 1992). I'd have to have one Maria Schneider album, and probably that would be Allegresse (AristShare, 2000). I would want a Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band record, maybe even the first one that was reissued, called Opening Night (Alan Grant Presents, 2000; recorded 1966), And a Duke Ellington Suite, maybe the Far East Suite (Bluebird/RCA, 1966).

Coming Up and Smitten by Big Band Arrangements

AAJ: Those are intriguing selections. So, before we start exploring the big bands, let's get some information about you. How did you come up, and how did you become interested in big band composing and arranging?

RL: Musically, I started out as an alto saxophonist, and only later took up the clarinet, tenor, flute, and baritone sax. I grew up in Springfield, PA, in suburban Philadelphia. I had two great teachers. I studied in junior high school with a guy named Scott Reeves [not the trombonist by the same name -eds.], and a little later, in high school, with Luca Del Negro. Both of them were active, gigging musicians. Scott studied arranging in New York. This was in the 1960s, and there was a music tent nearby which brought in bands like Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson for concerts. Scott would load up a van and drive us students out to hear those great shows.

So by the time I got to high school, I was already serious about music, studying saxophone and clarinet privately with Joe Salatino and later Bob Finelli. I soon got interested in writing for the Springfield High School jazz band. I bought a kind of jazz arranging kit, published by Leeds I think. It had all kinds of information about arrangements, including examples. Crazily enough, I also tried my hand at arranging "The Old Castle" movement of Pictures at an Exhibition for our high school jazz band! Del Negro coached me a little on that. Once, I brought a jazz album for him to hear, because I felt that the most interesting parts of one of the tracks were missing from the chart our band had. It was piece called "Waltz of the Prophets," composed and arranged by Dee Barton (Stan Kenton: Adventures in Jazz, Capitol, 1968). Luca wore out the LP transcribing the missing parts. He had to buy me a new album! And we ended up playing it as it was recorded.

AAJ: So you got interested in big band arranging early on in high school. Where did you go from there?

RL: I went to the Eastman School of Music where I first got some formal training in arranging and composing. One of my mentors there was Rayburn Wright, and another was the terrific arranger Manny Albam, who had arranged for Kenton and did a lauded arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story among many other great accomplishments. I got a lot of inspiration from him, and occasionally we'd go fishing together, which was great fun. My favorite record by Manny is called The Soul of the City (Solid State, 1966), with J.J. Johnson, Phil Woods, Hank Jones, and other top players. It could easily be added to my desert island list!

Big Bands of the Jazz Age and Swing Era

AAJ: Now let's get down to the big bands, how they sound, how they arrange their music, how they evolved over time. Historically, we have to go back to the swing bands and even before, the 1920s. As jazz came into prominence, big bands were a very important part of its popularity. They set the stage for all the bands that came afterwards. So, for you, which of those bands were the most important and influential in shaping the music?

RL: There were so many bands then, because it was the pop music of the day. I think in the end, history will bear out that there were a smaller number that were highly influential. The first one to come to my mind is the Fletcher Henderson band and the influence of Don Redman, who was one of his key writers [Throughout the interview, the term "writer" refers to a composer and/or arranger -eds.]. Don Redman was for Fletcher Henderson as Billy Strayhorn was for Duke Ellington. And of course when you talk about big band influence, you have to include Ellington, who, with Strayhorn, brought in so many new ideas.

Prior to Duke, most of the big band era writers, and even some of the great arrangers like Glenn Miller himself -who was a terrific arranger, or Mary Lou Williams who was a wonderful writer. All these arrangers of that time were working with what I would call "choirs," of like instruments: the trombones and trumpets playing separately or together as a brass section, and the saxophones in another discrete section. The arrangers would not mix, say, saxophones and brass together unless the full band was playing together at once , written in the score as " tutti."

But until Duke came along, keeping like instruments together was the norm. Even early on with pieces like "Mood Indigo" he suddenly develops what we now call cross-choir or mixed choir writing. In "Mood Indigo" for example, he combines a clarinet in the low register below the trombone and a muted trombone at the top of its range along with a trumpet, using instruments from different families in this mixed choir. That technique, along with his use of brass mutes, was a true revelation and really changed the way people thought about writing for big band. And in later years, Ellington's mixed choir writing probably had a strong influence on Gil Evans. Evans became the modern master of combining instruments in unusual ways and putting them in particular registers to produce a very different sound.

If you look at the Basie band, another extremely influential ensemble, they especially re-defined the roles of the rhythm section instruments. Much of their music, at least in the early days, was built on riffs. They used head arrangements of blues tunes that were turned into full charts as well as charts based on the "I Got Rhythm" chord changes and other standards of that time period.

AAJ: Mixed choir writing gives the music a wholly different presence which distinguished Ellington from all the other bands. Did the classical music of the time influence him in that respect?

RL: Quite likely. We know that he had such an interest. But I think that his experimentation and the fact that he had such great musicians at his disposal were crucial. When he was at the Cotton Club, he frequently wrote music on short deadlines to adjust to changes in the floor shows. And in some cases, he was looking for exotic sounds which also led him to explore the use of mutes. He was particularly interested in using different kinds of mutes for brass instruments, as were Gil Evans and Maria Schneider years later.

AAJ: The word "exotic" really hits the mark for many of his arrangements. I'd like to get back for a moment to the swing bands in general. World War II saw the immense popularity of bands like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and the Dorsey Brothers. What characterized those bands that made them so popular?

RL: Because they were so closely associated with entertainment, specifically dancing, they reached a lot of ears, and I think that alone made the big bands popular. Widespread live and recorded radio airplay also helped. They also added singers, which made them hugely popular. Many people who never played an instrument could relate to the singers. Some jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald eventually led their own big bands. Billie Holiday was introduced to wide audiences by Benny Goodman.

AAJ: What you're saying is that the popularity of these bands had a transformative impact on jazz, including many vocalists who got their start in them.

RL: Yes, and it also elevated the importance of the writers/arrangers. It was the writers who gave each band its own identity. They gave each band a signature sound, its own personality. And the writers also had to think of ways to do that in a brief 78 rpm recording that lasted about three minutes.


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