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Rick Lawn: The Evolution of Big Band Sounds in America

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: And I think the transition to LPs in the late 1940s made it possible for people like Gil Evans to expand into new directions.

RL: Exactly. This is why it's amazing that Ellington was exploring multi-movement suites like "Black, Brown, and Beige" long before LPs. His longer suites required that record companies issue them on several discs or sides just like they had already done with recorded classical music, Duke refused to have his writing limited by the shortcomings of recordings.

AAJ: Ellington must have had great courage in taking a chance on all these breakthrough ideas.

RL: He had incredible courage. He was going against the grain. He paved the way for the big bands to move ahead with new ideas. He and Strayhorn, along with their collaborations with the individual musicians, created innovative music. And that idea of collaboration between writers and players had a big impact later.

AAJ: The word "swing" brings up the importance of rhythm in the evolution of these bands. With time, the rhythm seems to get more fluid, more suitable for dancing and also for improvising.

RL: Absolutely. It was a gradual process, and the Basie band in particular made the rhythm more modern. The rhythm section of Papa Jo Jones, Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Basie himself made significant changes.

AAJ: Speaking of the Basie band, I'm thinking of the territory bands with Hot Lips Page, Benny Carter, and the others who traveled around the midwest and southwest primarily catering to African American audiences. They weren't as famous as say, Benny Goodman, but they were very impactful, including on Basie.

RL: That's right. The territory bands earned that name because they limited their travel to a specific region of the country. I'm thinking of the Blue Devils and so on. They were very important from the standpoint of giving players who might not otherwise have had an opportunity to be exposed and to give them work, and get on recordings, which helped advanced their careers. Mary Lou Williams, Walter Page, Lester Young, and a host of musicians started out in the territories. Charlie Parker first came to New York with a territory band, the Jay McShann band. They still played danceable music.

AAJ: And the Kansas City sound came from there. Like Papa Jo Jones' use of the ride cymbal instead of the bass drum to lay down the beat.

Modernizing the Big Band: Bebop, Hard Bop, and Cool

RL: The use of the ride cymbal changed the whole way we think about swing. And then of course, bebop came along, which changed everything! Bebop influenced some of the bands, but not all of them. For example, Benny Goodman hired some bebop players and writers and made some effort to embrace that new style. But I think the newer big bands like Woody Herman were probably more open to bebop. Ellington for the most part ignored it. "Cottontail" may be the only thing in Ellington's repertoire that incorporated bebop-like lines and as I recall a sax soli somewhat in that style [the word "soli" refers to a "solo" played by a whole section in unison or harmony-eds].

But the younger bands that emerged during the latter part of the swing era reflected bebop. Some of the bands were taken over by new leaders. The Earl Hines band, for example, was eventually taken over by Billy Eckstine, who totally embraced the new music. He hired Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Gene Ammons, and a lot of boppers who ended up in that band. But because they played bebop, which was less dance-oriented than swing, bands like Eckstine's were less popular. Of course Dizzy Gillespie, one of the pioneers of this new style formed his own bebop big band that also showed Afro-Cuban influences.

Then there were more obscure bands that emerged towards the end of the swing era, like Claude Thornhill. Bop had emerged by that time, and Thornhill hired writers like Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan to do his arrangements. Evans wrote arrangements based on Charlie Parker tunes. But these more progressive bands lacked popularity. After World War II, many of the big bands folded, with the exception of a few that were able to succeed, like Stan Kenton, later Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, and Buddy Rich. They were able to sustain themselves in a way that didn't require them to play dance music all the time.

AAJ: They were big hits at concert halls, emerging jazz festivals, and on the college circuit.

RL: Yes. And, surprisingly, they would occasionally do a dance gig. After Maynard left Kenton's band, he put out a record with his own new big band called Maynard Ferguson Plays Jazz for Dancing (Roulette, 1959). It featured great arrangements of standards by Slide Hampton and others.

AAJ: Economics have had a profound influence on jazz throughout its existence, which is a largely untold story. Charlie Parker played at dance halls in Detroit. Bebop and swing weren't so differentiated at that time.

RL: In the 1970s, I remember driving from Oneonta, NY to Binghamton to hear the Ellington band. It turned out to be a dance gig. They just played dance music. They had to do it to keep the payroll, to keep the band employed. My friend and I were disappointed to say the least!

AAJ: As we're talking about the transition from swing to bebop, one of the forces in that direction was Tadd Dameron, who, in addition to his memorable tunes. did a lot of arranging, rehearsing, and conducting at that time. He shaped the sound of mid-to large-ensemble recordings. Many musicians and critics consider him an unsung hero. What are your thoughts about him?

RL: He was of course a great composer of tunes that became jazz standards. He was an adequate pianist on many gigs, but not a standout. But you're right. Harmonically, he was very sophisticated for the time, When I was teaching at the University of Northern Iowa, in their chart library I stumbled on the original pencil score of Dameron's big band arrangement for a Sonny Stitt recording of "On a Misty Night" (Sonny Stitt and the Top Brass (Atlantic, 1963). I think they had it because Stitt was a guest artist at a jazz festival there, and Stitt must have donated it or left it there absent mindedly.

AAJ: Paul Combs' definitive biography (Dameronia, University of Michigan Press, 2012) has many such stories of Dameron writing arrangements that blew people's minds. So now we're getting into a period of bebop and hard bop that changed the whole face of jazz, not to mention the big bands. Give us a rundown on a few selected big bands that played a significant role in all these changes.

Stan Kenton, Gil Evans, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and the New Sounds

RL: There are so many that we could look at. Certainly Stan Kenton provided a home for some of the great players of that era of the 1960s. Actually Kenton was not the primary writer/arranger. To get that Kenton sound, he used guys like Pete Rugolo and Johnny Richards. Bob Graettinger did a lot of writing for Kenton, for example on City of Glass (Capitol, 1961). There were writers like Shorty Rogers, Neal Hefti, Bill Russo all doing arrangements for Kenton.

Kenton of course, was famous for his big brass sound. He added mellophoniums, a hybrid piston valve brass instrument [not to be confused with the mellophone -eds.] that sounds something like a French horn. Kenton added four of these mellophoniums to the typical four or five trumpets and trombones. And sometimes he'd use tuba or two bass trombones. He created a very powerful sounding band. It covered the whole spectrum of registers, from screaming high trumpet players like Maynard Ferguson to double bass trombones and/or tuba.

Kenton also had an ensemble he supported that many people don't know about. To me as a writer, it's a very important group. It was called the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra. It capitalized on woodwind players from the Hollywood film studios who played everything: saxophone, clarinet, flute, bassoon, and oboe. They made only one recording that I'm aware of, but it's very exploratory (Stan Kenton Conducts the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra, Capitol, 1965). They don't worry if it swings or not, but there's always an element of jazz anyhow. The great film composer John Williams has a piece called "Prelude and Fugue" on that album. I guess I was drawn to that album because of my training in classical music and jazz.

These influences become increasingly important during that period. Dizzy Gillespie used Lalo Schifrin, who later enjoyed a significant career in film and television as pianist and writer during that time. He was from Argentina, so we begin to see the elements of Latin American, Caribbean and African music, along with classical music and music from films all being drawn into the mix. Johnny Richards did a suite for Stan Kenton and went to South America and the Caribbean to study their music. He came up with a powerful piece called Cuban Fire (Capitol, 1956). And around that time, Schiffrin is writing a great piece called Gillespiana (Dizzy Gillespie: Gillespiana and Carnegie Hall Concert (Verve, 1993, recorded 1960). Again, that reflected Latin American music from Schiffin's pen.

Around the same time, Gil Evans starts collaborating with Miles Davis, producing Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) based on compositions of the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo. Gil challenged our ears by introducing a new level of dissonance in ways people hadn't heard before. He would take a simple harmony and throw a dissonant note into it. And then he would orchestrate that sound by building on the Ellington tradition of cross-choir writing. For example, he would combine a flutes with muted brass instruments. It was the perfect soundscape for Miles Davis to work with. Evans' orchestrations, the ways he combined instruments to achieve new a different sounds, matched that of Davis' sound perfectly,

AAJ: And Miles often bent the notes to create dissonant tones as well.

RL: Exactly. And, in addition to all these new influences and sounds, jazz composers began to deal with form, something that up until this time they had not much dealt with in terms of experimentation. Most of the arrangements had been patterned after Broadway show tunes, using the song form AABA or a variation of that. So we have the theme repeated once, then the bridge, then another recap of the theme. And the blues form was an even simpler 12-bar theme. Or sometimes they would use the European rondo form, or what became known as our march, with maybe a third melody and even a change of key. But guys like Bob Graettinger and George Russell, another very important writer from the same time period of the 1960s, were beginning to go beyond the traditional forms, even to the extent of creating pieces that were "through composed," where you come up with a theme, and that melody begins organically to develop into a new melody and maybe yet another, and we might never hear a return to the original theme in its entirety. The music just keeps evolving, moving forward without the more typical repetition or recapitulation of what came before. The creative process continues throughout the piece.
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