Rick Lawn: The Evolution of Big Band Sounds in America

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

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.
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