There are two distinct periods in
the history of popular bands. Big bands, then typically
consisting of 10–13 pieces, came to dominate popular
music in the middle
1920s. At that time they usually played a sweet form
of jazz, including one or more violins, which were
mostly dropped after the mid-1930s. Typical of the genre
were such popular artists as
Paul Whiteman and
Ted Lewis. Many of these artists changed styles or
retired after the introduction of swing music.
Swing music began appearing in the
early 1930s, and this type of music flourished through
1950s, although there was little mass audience for
it until around 1936. After that time, big bands rose to
swing music and held a major role in defining swing
as a distinctive style.
Western Swing musicians also formed very popular big
bands during the same period.
Later bandleaders pioneered the
performance of various
Afro-Cuban styles with the traditional big band
instrumentation, and big bands led by arranger
Gil Evans, saxophonist
John Coltrane (on the album
Ascension from 1965) and electric bassist
Jaco Pastorius introduced
free jazz and
jazz fusion, respectively, to the big band domain.
Modern big bands can be found playing all styles of jazz
Some large contemporary European
jazz ensembles play mostly
avant-garde jazz using the instrumentation of the
big bands. Examples include the
Vienna Art Orchestra, founded in 1977, and the
Italian Instabile Orchestra, active in the 1990s.
While composers and arrangers have
written for many combinations of instruments,
conventional big bands since the 1930s have had a
rhythm section (composed of
piano, and possibly
guitar), a trumpet section, a trombone section, and
a saxophone section, the latter three collectively
referred to as "horns." In the second half of the
twentieth century, a standard 17-piece instrumentation
evolved, for which many commercial arrangements are
available. This instrumentation consists of five
saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones and a
four-piece rhythm section.
saxophone section (known as the reeds, the
sax section, or just the saxes in jazz
parlance) usually comprises five players: two
tenors and one
baritone. The 'leader' of the section, who sets
overall style, volume, tuning and phrasing, is always
the first alto player.
If the arrangement requires it,
double on other
wind instruments, such as
The saxophone section represents
the 'backbone' of the wind instruments in that it
frequently carries the tune or provides backing
harmonies underneath a soloist or section solos. Saxes,
when playing along with brass in an
ensemble are said to 'soften' the sound of the brass
but give it support.
Because of the shape of a
saxophone and the fact that the sound emanates from the
open keys as well as the bell, it cannot be muted for
effects or volume reduction. It can only be played
louder or more softly. Effects in the sax section are
provided by using the alternative instruments such as
flutes, clarinets, sopranos etc.
brass section is a collective term for the trombone
and trumpet sections. Quite often these sections play
the same phrases and rhythms, for a powerful, brassy
sound. These instruments can also make use of
mutes, which are widely used in jazz.
trumpet section usually comprises four (sometimes
five) players, each playing a separate part. The section
leader is usually the first (or lead) trumpet,
who plays the highest and most strenuous part. When the
whole band is playing
tutti (in unison, or all the same), the lead
trumpet player is still considered the lead player of
the band and is followed in phrasing, articulation,
etc., by the rest of the band. The second trumpet player
is usually the
jazz soloist. The other players are generally
assigned progressively lower pitch parts
This is similar in formation to
the trumpet section, except that there are three
tenor trombones and one
bass trombone. The trombone section provides a
deeper sound than that of the trumpets. The Stan Kenton
orchestra from the late 1950s on used two bass
trombones, with one player doubling on tuba.
French horn can be grouped into the trombone section
in place of a tenor or bass trombone.
The rhythm section and comprises
double bass (or
bass guitar) and
guitar and is sometimes desribed as "a band within a
band", although this is not their main function within a
Although not intended to be heard
above the wind instruments, the rhythm section is
essential both to the band and to the audience in
providing the important pulse in the music that is so
important for dancing and listening to. The rhythm
section is sometimes referred to as the 'powerhouse' or
engine room of the band as one of its main purposes is
to drive the band forward at a steady rate. The rhythm
section is sometimes said to provide a large part of the
'swing' to a band.
Swing is an esoteric phenomenon
and cannot easily be described. A rhythm section not
playing together will not
swing and will sound stiff and awkward. When playing
together properly, the rhythm section achieves what is
electronics terms as 'phase-lock'
and are totally together in
tempo and with a only small (constant)
phase differences between the players.
Under these conditions, the rhythm
section is said to be 'swinging'. However, a rhythm
section playing in absolute lock-step, in terms of
pulse, might not swing either. To many jazz musicians,
'swing' is actually created by differences in pulse -
for instance, when the bass player's pulse and the
drummer's pulse are occurring at the same
tempo but are not exactly in phase. The drummer
might be a little earlier or later than the bassist,
though neither of them is playing slower or faster than
The role of the
pianist in a big band depends on his/her style and
the needs of the band. The pianist can punctuate various
accents, provide responses in a call-and-response, play
countermelodies, provide fills in the music, etc.
Historically, each big band pianist/bandleader had a
trademark style. In some groups, the part played by the
piano was minimal, in that the comping only contributed
a light specification of the voicings of the chords. In
contrast, other bandleaders gave the piano a more
prominent role. Modern groups generally play a wide
variety of styles and arrangements, with varying usage
of the piano.
The guitar in a big band is mostly
used as a pure rhythm instrument in that it plays
straight time. That is, in a swing tune, the guitarist
will often play four beats in every bar.
Other styles (ballad, Latin) may be approached
differently. The guitarist sometimes takes solos, but
usually not as many as the piano. The guitarist most
responsible for creating the role of the traditional big
band guitarist was
Freddie Green of the
Count Basie orchestra, who played an unamplified
acoustic guitar. Sometimes distortion pedals are used to
create various effects.
The bassist, who plays either a
bass guitar, or rarely
electric upright bass is often considered the most
important member of the rhythm section because the
instrument not only provides a beat, but gives a good
outline the harmony by playing a large proportion of
fifths of the
chord. The bass is almost always played
pizzicato. It can be heard and sometimes felt by all
the band below all the other instrumentalists. The bass
player usually plays four beats in every bar of a 4/4
tune and is usually playing continuously without rests
throughout the tune. To achieve a good swing feeling the
bass player will try to play extreme
legato making all the notes run into one another
giving a continuous but pulsating sound.
Staccato bass playing is usually avoided except in
non swing tunes or unless specifically written on the
The drummer is also an important
member of the rhythm section, who together with the
bass, piano and optional guitar form the core of a solid
timekeeping unit. The drummer plays fills that accent
the horn figures, and provides the basis of the swing
feel with a steady broken-triplet figure on the ride
cymbal. The drum kit usually comprises bass drum, tom-tom(s),
snare drum, a heavy ride cymbal, hi-hat or 'sock'
cymbals, crash cymbal(s) and sometimes other specialty
cymbals (splash, China boy, pang).
Typical big band
arrangements of the swing period are written in
strophic form with the same phrase and chord
structure repeated several times. Each iteration, or
chorus, most commonly follows
Twelve bar blues form or
Thirty-two-bar (AABA) song form. The first chorus of
an arrangement typically introduces the melody, and is
followed by subsequent choruses of development. This
development may take the form of improvised solos,
soli sections, and
An arrangement's first chorus is
sometimes preceded by an introduction, which may be as
short as a few measures or may extend to chorus of its
own. Many arrangements contain an interlude, often
similar in content to the introduction, inserted between
some or all choruses. Other methods of embellishing the
form include modulations and cadential extensions.
In terms of "where Swing really
came from", in the 1920s, most bands used "stock"
arrangements provided by the song publishers. The
earliest arrangers put reed sections and horn sections
together to create the kind of "call-and-response"
formatting that can be traced back to rural Black Church
singing. (Another influence is the jam or "head"
arrangement of the later 1920s, which was taking a basic
stock arrangement and adding some on-the-spot
arrangements for big bands often make use of several
common compositional techniques.
Section parts can be arranged in a
form of close position voicing called a 'thickened
line', to give a broader impression of the melody or in
open positon to form a sustained background and (more
rarely) a method of harmonising a melody. Open position
voicings tend to be use more on long sustained notes.
Groups of two or three instruments are sometimes used in
THe 'widened line' is a veresion
of the thickened line and consists of the melody and
three harmony voices
On other occasions, setions can
unison, giving a powerful, penetrating sound that
cannot be achieved by a single instrument.
The baritone saxophone may be
written to play the lead alto part an octave lower to
reinforce the melody and provide an effective '5 part'
harmony in close harmony saxophone
The baritone saxophone is
sometimes written with the trombones, (especially in
bands without a bass trombone) to give extra richness at
the bottom of the trombone section. On occasions, the
baritone sax can double with the bass player and bass
trombone to create very heavy bass lines or
"sweet" style bands
Based on the above historical
notes, a "sweet" band would have performed after about
'23, but before the beginning of the "swing" era around
'33. Therefore, some of the bands listed below could
probably be listed under "swing" bands rather than
Wm Russo., Composing for the Jazz
Orchestra, University of Chicago Press, Lib Congress n0
(taken from Julien Vedey's book Band Leaders
Michael Senior and Roger Palmer