(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Jazz Music")
(You can also listen to a playlist of this chapter)
New York: Big Bands
TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
Another phenomenon, radically opposite in spirit from the soloists
of Chicago and to the stride pianists of New York, came to epitomized the
"Harlem Renaissance" of the 1920s more than any other.
The flow of musicians from Chicago to New York merged with the local phenomenon of
the syncopated orchestra. New Yorkers such as James Europe (who dominated
the scene until his untimely death in 1919)
had never truly understood the spirit of jazz music, but the Chicago
musicians brought it with them. Thus the 1917 novelty of the
Original Dixieland Jass Band survived and evolved into a "style",
not necessarily representative of the New Orleans sound but
certainly a different style from the syncopated orchestra.
As the jazz dance bands became more popular than the traditional syncopated
dance bands, jazz bands also became "bigger". They were still smaller than
the symphonic orchestra but much larger than the old New Orleans orchestras.
It was mainly economic pressure that caused this apparent regression to the
pop orchestra: the masses loved to dance, and expected an orchestra to provide
the music. They liked the sound of jazz music, but not quite the format of
the small group or (worse) soloist.
Basically, the big bands of jazz offered a compromise: jazz music (with
improvising soloists) played according to the conventions of pop music.
The repertory too was often taken or derived from the repertory of Broadway,
Tin Pan Alley and the vaudeville.
Thus these bands played music that was arranged in sophisticated manners,
although it still left room for individual improvisation.
TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
In 1926 the "Savoy Ballroom" had opened in Harlem. It was destined to become
the epicenter of the big band phenomenon, and the stage for its first star:
The first black big band of jazz was organized in New York in 1922 by a former
blues and stride pianist,
(who had arrived in 1920 from Georgia to study chemistry).
He and his arranger Don Redman (the alto saxophonist) introduced written scores
into jazz music: written music that sounded like improvised music.
Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins (who had moved to New York in 1922 and had
joined Henderson in 1923) raised the standard of musicianship, incidentally
making the saxophone (until then a marginal instrument) one of the distinctive
features of jazz music.
The partnership among these three giants (all three coincidentally born far
away from New York, and college educated) was largely responsible for evolving
the early standard of the big band out of the original model of
King Oliver's sound.
Hawkins learned the art of embellishing a melody from Louis Armstrong (who
played with them in 1924 and 1925) and from Art Tatum.
Redman's genius developed quickly from
Dicty Blues (august 1923), the first experiment with separate reed and brass sections,
to King Oliver's Dippermouth Blues with Armstrong, renamed Sugar Foot Strut (may 1925),
from Walter Melrose's Copenhagen (october 1924) to
The Stampede (may 1926), credited to the Dixie Stompers, a powerful example of how Redman's arrangements smoothly incorporated even the most individual solos and Hawkins' solo that signaled his break with the tradition,
from Tozo (january 1927), Redman's first experiment with ternary rhythms,
to Rocky Mountain Blues (january 1927),
culminating with the dadaist The Whiteman Stomp (may 1927).
Clarinetist Buster Bailey,
trumpeter Tommy Ladnier,
trombonist Jimmy Harrison (the main stylist between Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey,
who adapted Armstrong's innovations to the trombone)
also contributed to the sound of the era.
Redman and his cohorts invented jazz for orchestra based on the coexistence of written scores and on improvised solos, an epochal change of format for jazz music.
He managed to harmonize the language of the sections of the orchestra and the
language of the soloing instruments.
Redman's passion for saxophones (ignored in New Orleans but already popular in white orchestras) and for clarinets (his specialty) added fire to the texture.
After Redman left in 1927, Henderson took up composing and arranging chores
with the collaboration of alto saxophonist Benny Carter (who had joined in 1928),
notably on Keep A Song In Your Soul (december 1930),
Down South Camp Meeting (september 1934) and Wrappin' It Up (september 1934).
Henderson subscribed to the same general philosophy of sound, but greatly
simplified Redman's intricate arrangements.
The most significant innovation of this period was the replacement of the tuba with John Kirby's double bass, for example in Jean Schwartz's Chinatown My Chinatown (october 1930), an act
(inspired by Jean Goldkette's bassist Steve Brown)
that would change the rhythm section of jazz forever.
In 1932 Carter left, in 1934 Hawkins left and in 1936 Kirby left too, although new talents came in
(notably trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen).
Henderson's last influential recordings were
tenor saxophonist Leon "Chu" Berry's Christopher Columbus (march 1936), with
Roy Eldridge on trumpet, and
Louis Prima's Sing Sing Sing (august 1936).
TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
Under the influence of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra,
jazz big bands soon came to be dominated by the three-section dogma:
a reed section (saxophones, clarinets),
a brass section (trumpets, trombones),
and a rhythm section (piano, tuba, banjo, drums) that were clearly separated
although they operated jointly.
Big-band jazz also adopted a more vibrant rhythm, the "swing"
(four beats to the bar).
Artistically the era of "swing" and of the big bands was dominated by
Edward "Duke" Ellington's orchestra,
the first great composer (and self-arranger) of jazz music (and one of the
most prolific in the entire history of music).
A Washington pianist, raised in a middle-class family, who had moved to New York in 1923, he first proved his
skills as a composer with the Washingtonians, that included drummer
William "Sonny" Greer:
Choo Choo (november 1924), a novelty that imitated the sound of a train,
East St Louis Toodle-Oo (november 1926), originally credited to the Kentucky Club Orchestra, his first major artistic statement and the manifesto of trombonist Joe Nanton's brash ebullience,
New Orleans Low-Down (february 1927), also by the Kentucky Club Orchestra, with a typical light-hard contrast between the two trumpets,
Black and Tan Fantasy (april 1927), a metaphysical fantasia that ended with a funeral march and was highlighted (the october version) by a dramatic trumpet solo,
Washington Wobble (october 1927), the first recording credited to the Duke Ellington's Orchestra,
Creole Love Call (october 1927), in which Adelaide Hall's wordless singing basically instructs the instruments how to play (thus reenacting the primordial relationship between blues vocals and jazz instruments),
Harlem River Quiver (december 1927),
and, again both credited to the Washingtonians,
Jubilee Stomp (march 1928), with another epochal trumpet solo,
The Mooche (october 1928), another stomp a` la Black and Tan Fantasy but featuring blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson.
Bubber Miley's wah-wah trumpet (originally an imitation of the blues shouting of Mamie Smith, whom he accompanied in 1921) was as essential as Ellington's piano. The growling sound of both his trumpet and Joe Nanton's trombone lent the
band's sound its "savage" appeal. Couple with Sonny Greer's primordial drumming,
they evoked the African jungle, and therefore was advertised as "jungle music".
But Ellington soon dispelled the notion of being a novelty act by
debuting his archetypal "mood" (impressionistic) pieces,
Misty Mornin' (november 1928), Awful Sad (october 1928)
and Hot And Bothered (october 1928).
In fact, even the most facile and danceable of Ellington's pieces
exhibited the ability to maximize drama and color within a three-minute song
that only Jelly Roll Morton had mastered before him.
Between 1927 and 1931 Ellington performed at Harlem's "Cotton Club", in front of an audience that was mostly white. These shows were occasionally broadcasted live, a fact that made Ellington a nation-wide celebrity.
He owed it to white manager and publisher Irving Mills, the man who promoted his music as "jungle" music, who found him the contract at the "Cotton Club", and who made sure the shows were broadcasted on the radio.
He seemed capable of delivering tunes like an assembly line:
Doin' The Voom Voom (january 1929),
Flamin' Youth (january 1929),
Harlem Flat Blues (march 1929), credited to the Jungle Band and highlighted by Nanton's "talking" solo,
The Dicty Glide (march 1929),
Sweet Dreams Of Love (june 1930),
Sweet Jazz Of Mine (june 1930),
the raunchy stomp Old Man Blues (august 1930),
What Good Am I Without You (november 1930),
I'm So In Love With You (november 1930).
The collective interplay first achieved on Old Man Blues (august 1930)
crystallized with Rockin' In Rhythm (january 1931),
Echoes of the Jungle (june 1931) and Mystery Song (june 1931).
When that engagement came to an end (1931), Ellington began to show the
real breadth of his ambitions:
Creole Rhapsody, that was released in two versions (six minutes in january 1931 and eight minutes in june 1931), both requiring more than a side (the first one took up both sides of a 10" record, the second one took up both sides of a 12" record),
the nine-minute suite Symphony in Black (october 1934),
and the splendid 13-minute Reminiscing in Tempo (september 1935),
possibly the first thoroughly composed jazz piece
(originally recorded over four sides),
were the longest jazz pieces ever committed to a record, challenging the
limitations of the medium (the 78 RPM
record could hardly fit three minutes of music),
and felt like jazz music's equivalent of a classical concerto;
while his melodic themes, that included
Mood Indigo (december 1930), in which he turned upside down the conventions of jazz by assigning the highest part to the trumpet, the middle to the trombone and the lowest to the clarinet,
It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing (february 1932), the birth certificate of swing music, the first major hit with a vocalist (Ivie Anderson on wordless scatting),
Sophisticated Lady (february 1933),
Daybreak Express (december 1933),
Solitude (january 1934) and
In A Sentimental Mood (april 1935),
were worthy of the most gifted of Tin Pan Alley's songwriters,
but with atmospheric and almost philosophical overtones that harked back
to classical music.
The group's ambience owed quite a bit to the majestic tones of alto
saxophonist Johnny Hodges (the first great master of the instrument) and
to the very long notes of baritone saxophonist Harry Carney
(both had joined in 1928).
Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol (who had joined in 1929) introduced an exotic element with his compositions: Caravan (december 1936), that debuted Afro-Cuban rhythms in a swing context, A Gypsy Without A Song (june 1938), and Perdido (december 1941).
Ellington composed relatively few songs in the first half of the 1930s, and
a lot more at the end of the decade. Not surprisingly, the former are mostly
masterpieces and the latter are mostly disposable.
However, even the classics of Ellington's later years show how broad his
stylistic territory was, ranging from dance numbers to catchy tunes, from
mood pieces to abstract meditations:
Clarinet Lament (february 1936), also known as Barney's Concerto,
the ambitious Crescendo in Blue (september 1937),
the pensive Lost In Meditation (january 1938), originally titled Have a Heart,
Prelude To A Kiss (august 1938), another of his paradisiac melodies,
Braggin' In Brass (march 1938), a frantic piece which instead dispensed with melody altogether,
the dejected Ko-Ko (march 1940),
Jack the Bear (march 1940), propelled by bassist Jimmy Blanton (who had joined in 1939 but died in 1942), the greatest virtuoso yet of the instrument who turned the bass into a melodic vehicle,
Cotton Tail (may 1940), another tortuous melody with a brainy solo by tenor saxophonist Ben Webster (who had just joined),
Never No Lament (may 1940), an instrumental later adapted to lyrics as Don't Get Around Much Anymore,
the ebullient Harlem Air-shaft (july 1940),
Bojangles (may 1940), dedicated to tap dancer Bill Robinson,
Sepia Panorama (july 1940), a micro-concerto drenched in blues music that displayed Ellington, Blanton and Webster at their best,
Pitter Patter Panther (october 1940), the ultimate duet between Blanton and Ellington,
the tone poems Dusk (may 1940) and Moon Mist (february 1941),
Take The "A" Train (january 1941), composed by pianist Billy Strayhorn (who had joined in 1939),
I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good (june 1941), another showcase for Ivie Anderson's scat singing,
Main Stem (june 1942), a showcase for Hodges,
The 'C' Jam Blues (september 1941),
I'm Beginning To See The Light (december 1944),
Happy Go Lucky Local (november 1946),
and two more experiments with the human voice,
Transbluency (january 1946),
and On a Turquoise Cloud (december 1947),
Kay Davis' wordless masterpieces.
Ellington lost Williams in 1940, Blanton in 1941, Anderson in 1942, Webster in 1943, Tizol in 1944, cornetist Rex Stewart (who had been with him since 1934) in 1945, Hodges and Greer in 1951.
The last hit of his band was Satin Doll (april 1953).
Fleurette Africaine (september 1962), perhaps his last great melody, was a collaboration with Charles Mingus and Max Roach.
His mind and his heart were clearly no longer into songs.
To start with, the new format of the long-playing allowed him to think
Masterpieces by Ellington (december 1950) contained a 15-minute version of
Mood Indigo that sounded like the belated manifesto of his vision of
the entire orchestra as one large instrument, the instrument that he played.
Second, he was fascinated by the challenge of creating an extended format
for jazz music.
He already had under his belt
Echoes Of Harlem (december 1936), better known as
Concerto For Cootie, ostensibly a showcase for the trumpet of Cootie Williams (who had replaced Miley in 1929),
the three-movement orchestral suite Black Brown and Beige (premiered in january 1943), a musical recapitulation to the odyssey of black Americans,
the three impressionist suites Perfume Suite (december 1944), Deep South Suite (november 1946) and Liberian Suite (december 1947),
Jam-A-Ditty (january 1946), ostensibly a "concerto for four jazz horns",
and the two musicals Jump for Joy (july 1941)
and Beggar's Holiday (december 1946), an adaptation of John Gay's "Beggar's Opera".
Now he proceeded to compose ever more ambitious music:
the 14-minute tone poem Harlem (composed in 1950),
the profound Piano Reflections (april 1953),
the 12-movement suite Such Sweet Thunder (august 1956), inspired by Shakespeare and a collaboration with Billy Strayhorn,
the musical A Drum Is A Woman (september 1956), co-written with Billy Strayhorn and another artistic peak,
the pageant My People (august 1963),
the Far East Suite (december 1966), another Strayhorn collaboration (a suite of songs composed between 1963 and 1966),
the three-movement suite The Golden Broom And The Green Apple (premiered in july 1965 by the New York Philharmonic with Ellington conducting),
the suite La Plus Belle Africaine (july 1966),
the first Concert of Sacred Music (september 1965),
the Second Sacred Concert (january 1968) and
the third Concert of Sacred Music (october 1973),
that were three colossal compositions for gospel choirs, jazz band and dancers,
the Latin American Suite (premiered in september 1968),
the ballet The River (may 1970),
the six-movement The Queen's Suite (february 1959), perhaps his best suite,
the New Orleans Suite (april 1970) and
the opera comique Queenie Pie (unfinished in 1974).
He was trying to give a more organic structure to his genius.
In the process, he invented the future of jazz.
TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
Ellington was one of the first black beneficiaries of the radio, a medium that
dramatically changed the dynamics of jazz music at a time when another major
revolution was taking place: the end of the Prohibition (1933). As alcohol
became legal again, people didn't need to congregate in the speakeasy anymore.
An obvious audience for black musicians was fast disappearing, replaced by
the more organized music industry of the night clubs and the publishing houses.
At that time the radio was a powerful tool to spread one's music throughout
the country but, needless to say, the radio could not deliver the atmosphere
of the live performance and the charisma of the players. Thus a musician's
fame rested uniquely on the music. At the same time, the black musicians who
were successful in making the transition to the radio were finally given a
chance to become celebrities, something that had been unthinkable before
the age of the radio. The radio propelled sales of records, which became an
even more substantial source of revenues than publishing. Thus the landscape
changed: recording and broadcasting came to dominate the music industry,
and they were both big industries, run by big business.
Music lost its regional dimension and acquired a new national dimension.
Bandleaders of New York who mainly employed vocalists included:
Chick Webb, Lucky Millinder and
The swing orchestra formed by drummer William "Chick" Webb was highlighted
by the arrangements of Edgar Sampson
(Let's Get Together of january 1934, Stompin' At The Savoy of may 1934),
by the flute
of Wayman Carver (from 1934), the first major flute soloist of jazz music,
and by the voice of Ella Fitzgerald (from 1934), notably in
Sampson's I'll Chase the Blues Away (june 1935),
Harry White's Harlem Congo (november 1937) and Van Alexander's A-Tisket A-Tasket (may 1938).
When Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald took over as bandleader.
Cab Calloway's orchestra, that replaced Ellington's band at the "Cotton Club" in 1931, was famous for the leader's scat-jive vocals that debuted with Minnie the Moocher (march 1931), as well as for Jitterbug (january 1934), composed by one of his trumpeters, Edwin Swayzee,
the song that gave a name to the style of swing dancing.
But Calloway also architected the frenzied Some of These Days (december 1930), the nonsensical Scat Song (february 1932), Harry White's oneiric Evenin' (september 1933).
He was a virtuoso of singing, combining
Louis Armstrong's scat singing with a broader and more powerful vocal range.
His ironic scat phrase "hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho"
not only led the band but also inspired the audience to sing along.
His lyrics for the saga of Minnie used the lingo of drug addicts and gangsters
(Harold Arlen's Kicking The Gong Around of october 1931),
while songs like You Dog (october 1931) were full of sexual innuendoes.
Even in these songs, where the words are clearly sung, Calloway managed to
introduce a vocabulary of original vocal effects.
The Calloway orchestra of the 1940s was a different beast, relying on
bassist Milt Hilton (1936-51), one of the great virtuosi of the instrument,
trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (1939-41), who had replaced Adolphus "Doc" Cheatham (1932-39), and tenor saxophonist Chu Berry (1937-41) to pen sophisticated instrumentals such as
Hilton's Pluckin' the Bass (august 1939),
Don Redman's Cupid's Nightmare (july 1940),
Benny Carter's Lonesome Nights (august 1940) and
Victor Young's Ghost of a Chance (june 1940).
Lucius "Lucky Millinder" Venable's orchestra featured
trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen,
vocalist Rosetta Tharpe and pianist Bill Doggett.
Jimmie Lunceford's band
was emblematic of the tight and stylish sound of the last phase of swing.
That relaxed sound was mostly due to the arrangements of Sy Oliver (1934-39), the brain behind
Shake Your Head (october 1934),
My Blue Heaven (december 1935),
Organ Grinder's Swing (august 1936), one of his most eccentric creations,
For Dancers Only (june 1937),
Honey Keep Your Mind on Me (july 1937), with a celebrated solo by guitarist Eddie Durham,
Margie (january 1938), with a celebrated solo by trombonist James "Trummy" Young,
Tain't What You Do (january 1939).
While in his orchestra, Eddie Durham introduced the amplified guitar into jazz music, for example in their cover of Harold Arlen's Hittin' The Bottle (1935).
After Sy Oliver left, he was replaced by trumpeter Gerald Wilson, whose
Yard Dog Mazurka (august 1941) and Hi Spook (august 1941) displayed
a proto-bebop approach to arrangement.
Chicago's jazz was an evolution of New Orleans' jazz, still tied to the
original tenets of New Orleans.
New York's jazz was a much more sophisticated form of music, related not only
with pop music but also with classical music.
The big bands coexisted with the string bands.
The first jazz musicians to combine strings were probably
guitarist Salvatore "Eddie Lang" Massaro and violinist Joe Venuti, two of
Beiderbecke's favorite musicians, who first recorded together in 1926.
Eddie Lang (under the pseudonym of Blind Willie Dunn) also recorded duets with
blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson in 1929.
The most accomplished string band was perhaps the Spirits of Rhythm, notable for both the scat singing of Leo Watson and the guitar work of Teddy Bun.
Bunn's solos in their 1933 versions of George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm,
which had debuted two years earlier in a musical film,
and especially Harold Arlen's I've Got The World On A String, which had just been recorded by Cab Calloway, legitimized the guitar solo in jazz.
Next chapter | Back to the Index