Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 28, 2009

Big Bands on Youtube (modern)

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

Billy Eckstein was best known as a crooner, comparable in many ways to Nat King Cole. Ironically, both were superb jazz musicians who were tuned in to the bebop revolution following WWII. The Wiki article on Eckstein notes:

In 1944, Eckstine formed his own big band and made it a fountainhead for young musicians who would reshape jazz by the end of the decade, including Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, and Fats Navarro. Tadd Dameron and Gil Fuller were among the band’s arrangers, and Sarah Vaughan gave the vocals a contemporary air. The Billy Eckstine Orchestra was the first bop big-band, and its leader reflected bop innovations by stretching his vocal harmonics into his normal ballads.

In this performance of “Rhythm in a Riff”, Eckstein does some great bebop type scatting and a very young Gene “Jug” Ammons turns in a cooking a solo.

Herman became a bandleader in the late 1930s but it was his hiring of Dizzy Gillespie as an arranger in 1942 that marked him as a modernist. Dizzy wrote “Woody’n You” for the band, a tune that became a modern jazz standard.

Like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw before him, Woody Herman was a proficient clarinetist—so much so that Igor Stravinsky wrote “Ebony Concerto” for him.

In 1947, the Herman’s Herd—as his band was known—became famous for the “four brothers” saxophone section that included Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff, Herbie Steward, and Stan Getz.

The Youtube clip includes a solo by a very young Stan Getz. The song, an obvious novelty tune, was first recorded by rhythm-and-blues/jazz small group leader Louis Jordan in 1945. Herman does a pretty good imitation of Jordan, including the African-American phrasing, but he was a much better bandleader than a singer.

Dizzy leads his band in a performance of his tune “He beeped when he should have bopped”. Like many of his songs, “Beeped” is a novelty tune that is elevated by his performance.

Like his great predecessor Louis Armstrong was a showman. He enjoyed cracking jokes, mugging and other ploys designed to win over an audience. By the 1960s, his clowning around was distinctly out of fashion as the Black revolution in jazz dictated a more sober if not hostile posture.

Dizzy was committed to progressive social change, a large part due to his Baha’i religious beliefs that stressed the common humanity of everybody on the planet. His efforts on behalf of Cuban musicians did a lot to counteract the demonization promoted by Democratic and Republican presidents alike.

To an extent, the Cuban connection was a natural outgrowth of his affinity for Afro-Cuban music. When he led a big band, he relied on Cuban-American Mario Bauza for arrangements and Cuban-American Chano Pozo’s drumming.

In the early 1950s, Gil Evans began a collaboration with Miles Davis that would last for about 10 years. Their first collaboration on the Capitol label was “Birth of the Cool”, a turning point in the evolution of jazz. In distinction to the up-tempo bebop style of Eckstein’s “Rhythm in a Riff” or Gillespie’s “He Beeped when he should have Bopped”, the Gil Evans/Miles Davis performance of “The Duke” followed by “Blues for Pablo” relies less on pyrotechnics and more on phrasing and mood.

After his partnership with Miles Davis ended, Gil Evans led a number of top-flight bands over the years that reflected his interest in contemporary developments in music, including a wonderful album made up entirely of Jimi Hendrix tunes. Unfortunately, this is only available as an MP3 download from amazon.com.

Maria Schneider was a student of Gil Evans who began leading her own band in 1993. She is arguably the finest band leader on the scene today. Her performance of “Hang Gliding” will remind you of Gil Evans, I am sure.

The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra was formed by trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis around 1965. It was made up of studio musicians who wanted to work together in a big band setting. The band was a throwback to the bebop style of Billy Eckstein and Dizzy Gillespie but contemporary enough so that it was an influence on the young Maria Schneider.

The tune they are performing in this Youtube video is “Oo-Bop-Sh’Bam-a-Klook-a-Mop”, a Dizzy Gillespie tune very close in spirit to “He Beeped when he should have Bopped”.

Thad Jones, an African-American, was the brother of jazz greats Hank Jones (piano) and Elvin Jones (drummer). Mel Lewis was a Jew, his birth name Melvin Sokoloff. Like all of the other musicians in the band, this was not their main gig. They played together out of enthusiasm for the big band sound not for money.

This leads me to make a couple of observations on what was lost when the big bands went extinct. Unlike small groups, big bands are not heavily reliant on solos. For example, in the classic Count Basie recordings from the 1930s, a typical Lester Young solo might last a minute or two. This is not just a function of the recording limits for 78’s. In performance, the emphasis was on ensembles not on solos.

Bebop created the small group environment in which extended solos were featured, a tendency no doubt encouraged by the new 33 1/3rpm format. In nightclubs, however, the solos could become tedious as every song consisted of a brief statement of the theme followed by solos. Interplay between the musicians became secondary to the point where a band leader might walk off the stage after his solo was done (Miles Davis was infamous for this.)

As is the case in all music, from symphonic to rock, there is an inevitable life cycle and I am afraid that jazz is at the end of its own. The big bands were mostly about dancing and when jazz lost its roots in the jitterbug, it lost its soul. The same thing is true of classical music as well. Born as an accompaniment for aristocrats or peasants amusing themselves with a gavotte or a mazurka, it eventually became more and more cerebral. Perhaps Igor Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” was the perfect symbol of the ineluctable onward procession of both jazz and classical music.

Nowadays the only music that is still rooted in dance is worldbeat music. From the Congolese soukous to the Colombian cumbia, the artists are all about putting people on the dance floor. Just as the case with politics, it seems that the third world is in the lead as always—including music.


  1. Just wanted to add the fabulous Carla Bley to the list. Here’s a youtube of her big band.


    Comment by Ives — August 29, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

  2. Another….Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin big band. It’s a smoker called ‘Strive for Jive’. Bebop big-band. Tune based on I Got Rhythm changes. Great arrangement and great solos.

    Comment by Ives — August 29, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

  3. Unintentional embed above. Cut and pasted url into comment and ‘poof’ the video itself appeared. Didn’t expect that!

    Comment by Ives — August 29, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

  4. I don’t quite understand how dance should be the criteria for saying jazz lost its soul when it ceased to be dance music. It is a matter of taste I suppose as to whether dance music is better than more cerebral music. Part of the bebop movement pioneered by Gillespie and Bird was in a way a reaction to big band. It was intended as listening music; signs were even put up during performances asking people not to dance.

    In a sense I suppose you could say jazz is dead for the times that created it are certainly gone. Still, there is a loyal following no matter which type of jazz you prefer. Swing and bebop were the popular music of their day though jazz is considered to be folk music. But certainly jazz is no longer the popular music of the day any more than classical, baroque, or symphonic music is.

    For myself I prefer the small groups to big band though I like big band especially the more modern versions where like in small groups it is listening rather than dance music. But that is just my own taste and doesn’t reflect on the validity of any particular music over another.

    Comment by Rob Payne — August 30, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

  5. Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composer’s Orchestra

    Comment by slothrop — August 30, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  6. Brotzmann Chicago Tentet

    Comment by slothrop — August 30, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  7. […] you’ll recall from my posts on big bands on Youtube, (Swing and Modern) ,  I am a big fan of this kind of music even though it is fairly difficult to hear nowadays, […]

    Pingback by The Pittsburgh Collective « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 29, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

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