The Influential Era of Big Band Jazz

Who could have ever predicted that replacing clarinets with saxophones would create a musical phenomenon as massive as big band jazz? This type of jazz is said to have emerged in the 1920s and gave birth to the popular Swing Era. Big bands were diverse, ranging anywhere from 10 to 25 musicians; yet, as different as they were, all were comprised of three groups of instrumentation.

Big bands had three sections: rhythm, reed and brass. Brass was comprised of trombones and trumpets, reed was made up of saxophones, and rhythm consisted of drums, piano, guitars and bass. The band played the melody in unison; however, it was typical for a musician to spontaneously improvise a solo, based on chord progression, style and the melody.

It all began when…

Although some historians believe that big band jazz actually developed in 1935, many continue to argue that the 1920s saw a sneak preview of it. It is suggested that, sometime during the 1920s, the format of big band was offset by combining elements of African-American spirituals, ragtime, European classical and blues music.

Fletcher Henderson, Ben Pollack, Duke Ellington and Don Redman were the original artists who gave the big band era its popularity. They laid the foundation for Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Red Allen, Glenn Miller, Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge and John Kirby, all of whom are recognized as big band leaders of their time.

Changes over time…

With the ever-growing size of big band jazz orchestras, it soon became necessary to use an arranger. While musicians previously improvised as they pleased, the arranger’s duty was to organize the piece by dictating who would offer a solo, when and for how long. Cab Calloway, The Dorsey Brothers and Duke Ellington’s orchestra, along with many others, adopted this new concept of predetermined musical arrangement.

The easy-flowing sounds of big band jazz soon became known as swing music. The development of swing style jazz inspired a multitude of exciting new dances. In 1926, The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem opened up its doors and became known as the hotspot for swing bands of the era.

Between 1935 and 1945, jazz was at the height of popularity as it became the most prominent type of music heard in the country. Radios had found their way into virtually every home, giving the public easy access to the latest in music. In 1934, Benny Goodman became the first entertainer to land a weekly live radio broadcast. His broadcast was late at night, and although the East Coast was already in bed, the West Coast tuned in nightly. Consequently, when the band went on tour and arrived in California, they were far from expecting the cheering crowds that welcomed and applauded them.

Headlines of Benny Goodman’s success in California soared through the country and soon after, live remotes were being held in top hotels in nearly every major city. People were dancing, jukeboxes were blaring and record jockeys were busy playing the sounds of everyone’s favorite music, big band jazz.