Rick Lawn: The Evolution of Big Band Sounds in America

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

AAJ: So in the midst of all these creative innovations around the 1960s, there appears the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra which later became the Village Vanguard Monday Night Orchestra, which continues to this day.

RL: Exactly. Their initial recording called Opening Night (Alan Grant Presents, 1966) came right in the middle of that decade.
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