A big band is a type of musical ensemble associated with playing jazz music and which became popular during the Swing Era from the early 1930s until the late 1940s. A big band typically consists of approximately 12 to 25 musicians and contains saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a rhythm section. The terms jazz band, jazz ensemble, stage band, jazz orchestra, and dance band are also used to refer to this type of ensemble. This does not, however, mean that each one of these names is technically correct for naming a 'big band" specifically.

In contrast to smaller jazz combos, in which most of the music is improvised, or created spontaneously, music played by big bands is highly "arranged", or prepared in advance and notated on sheet music. The music is traditionally called 'charts'. Improvised solos may be played only when called for by the arranger.

History and styleEdit

There are two distinct periods in the history of popular bands. Beginning in the mid-1920s, big bands, then typically consisting of 10–25 pieces, came to dominate popular music. At that time they usually played a sweet form of jazz that involved very little improvisation, which included a string section with violins, which was dropped after the introduction of swing in 1935. The dance form of jazz was characterized by a sweet and romantic melody. Orchestras tended to stick to the melody as it was written and vocals would be sung sweetly (often in a tenor voice) and in tune with the melody.

Typical of the genre were such popular artists as Paul Whiteman, Ted Lewis, Harry Reser, Leo Reisman, Abe Lyman, Nat Shilkret, George Olsen, Ben Bernie, Bob Haring, Ben Selvin, Earl Burtnett, Gus Arnheim, Henry Halstead, Rudy Vallee, Jean Goldkette, Isham Jones, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Sam Lanin, Vincent Lopez, Ben Pollack, Shep Fields and Fred Waring. Many of these artists changed styles or retired after the introduction of swing music. Although unashamedly commercial, these bands often featured front-rank jazz musicians - for example Paul Whiteman employed Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer. There were also "all-girl" bands such as "Helen Lewis and Her All-Girl Jazz Syncopators". Lewis and her band, Ben Bernie's band "Ben Bernie and All the Lads", and Roger Wolfe Kahn's band were filmed by Lee De Forest in his Phonofilm sound-on-film process in 1925, in three short films which are now in the Library of Congress film collection.

Towards the end of the 1920s, a new form of Big Band emerged which was more authentically "jazz," in that more space was given to improvised soloing. This form of music never gained the popularity of the sweet dance form of jazz. The few recordings made in this form of jazz were labelled race records and were intended for a limited urban audience. The three major centres in this development were New York City, Chicago and Kansas City. In the former, a sophisticated approach to arranging predominated, first in the work of Don Redman for the Fletcher Henderson band, later in the work of Duke Ellington for his Cotton Club orchestra, and Walter 'Foots' Thomas for Cab Calloway's.


Earl Hines became the star of Chicago with his Grand Terrace Cafe band and began to broadcast live from The Grand Terrace nightly coast-to-coast across America. Meanwhile in Kansas City and across the Southwest, an earthier, bluesier style was developed by such bandleaders as Benny Moten and, later, by Jay McShann and Jesse Stone. Big band remotes on the major radio networks spread the music from ballrooms and clubs across the country during the 1930s and 1940s, with remote broadcasts from jazz clubs continuing into the 1950s on NBC's Monitor.

Gloria Parker, Princess of the Marimba, conducted the 21-piece Swingphony whose performances were broadcast nationally from the Kelly Lyceum Ballroom in Buffalo, New York. This was the largest big band ever led by a female bandleader.[citation needed]

Swing music began appearing in the early 1930s, distinguished by a more supple feel than the more literal 4/4 of earlier jazz and a walking bass - Walter Page is often credited with developing this, though isolated earlier examples exist (eg by Wellman Braud on Ellington's Washington Wabble from 1927).

This type of music flourished through the early 1930s, although there was little mass audience for it until around 1936. Up until that time, it was viewed with ridicule and looked upon as a curiosity. After 1935, big bands rose to prominence playing 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.

By this time the Big Band was such a dominant force in jazz that the older generation found they either had to adapt to it or simply retire - with no market for small-group recordings (made worse by a depression-era industry reluctant to take risks), some musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines fronted their own bands, whilst others, like Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver, lapsed into obscurity.

The major "black" bands of the 1930s included, apart from Ellington's, Hines' and Calloway's, those of Jimmie Lunceford, Chick Webb, and Count Basie. Ironically, the "white" bands of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Shep Fields and, later, Glenn Miller far eclipsed their "black" inspirations in terms of popularity from the middle of the decade.

Since 1945Edit

Major band performances of note occurred from the 1950s to the 1970s. Noteworthy performers included: Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Gil Evans, Johnny Richards, Sun Ra, Gary MacFarland, Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Carla Bley, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, Sam Rivers, Don Ellis, Toshiko Akiyoshi - Lew Tabackin Big Band. Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Anthony Braxton.

Later bandleaders pioneered the performance of various Brazilian and 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 cool jazz, free jazz and jazz fusion, respectively, to the big band domain. Modern big bands can be found playing all styles of jazz music. 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. In the late 1990s, swing made a comeback in the US. The Lindy Hop has taken hold on both coasts, and many younger people took an interest in big band styles again.

African "Afrobeat" big bands have existed from 1970 to the present when Fela Kuti of Nigeria, fused big band jazz with Yoruba tribal rhythms, highlife, and American James Brown soul music. As of 2008 there are over 40 working afrobeat big bands including Antibalas, Chicago Afrobeat Project, Chopteeth, Femi Kuti, and Seun Kuti.


While composers and arrangers have written for many combinations of instruments, conventional big bands since the 1930s have had a string section, rhythm section (composed of drums, bass, piano, and possibly guitar), a trumpet section, a trombone section, and a saxophone section, the latter three collectively referred to as "horns." When swing music became popular, in 1935, the string section was removed (it would reappear, after being given a more minor role, in the 1940's.) 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 sectionEdit

The saxophone section (known as the reeds, the sax section, or just the saxes in jazz parlance) usually comprises five instrumentalists: two altos, two tenors and one baritone. There can be more than five players in this section though; often comprising two first altos, one second alto, two first tenors, one second tenor and one baritone - making a seven-piece sax section. The 'leader' of the section, who sets overall style, volume, tuning and phrasing, is always the first alto player. If the arrangement requires it, the players double on other wind instruments, such as flute, clarinet, and soprano saxophone. This occurs more commonly in Latin Music

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, and occasionally plays a soli (usually a chorus of pre-arranged music where the saxophones are in close harmony, often in Drop 2 voicing). 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 and soprano saxophones.

Brass sectionEdit

The 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 sound-changing mutes, which are widely used in jazz.


The 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. The trumpets often play the highest parts of the music because of their higher register and are often harmonied in the So What voicing style.


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.

Rhythm sectionEdit

The rhythm section comprises drums, double bass (or bass guitar), piano, keyboards, marimba, synth, guitar and sometimes additional percussion including bongos, congas, and in the case of a more Latin based band: Maracas, Guiros and Cowbells. Vibes are a common addition to the rhythm section. It is sometimes described as "a band within a band", although this is not their main function within a big band.

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 pulse in the music that is so important for dancing and listening to. It can be described as the driving force of the band because its sole purpose is to move the band forward in order to finish its musical journey. It provides the style (e.g. Swing or Latin), Chord Sequence, and interaction that the "horn" players can use to influence their solos and parts in the music. The rhythm section is sometimes said to provide a large part of the 'swing' to a band because of the swing rhythm from the drums contrasting with the walking bass from the bass.

Swing is an esoteric phenomenon and cannot easily be described. When playing together properly, the rhythm section achieves what is known in electronics terms as 'phase-lock' and are totally together in tempo and with only a 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 other.

Piano/keyboards Edit

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. - simply put: Comping. 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. It is the role of the pianist to play keyboards in some songs that need electronic sounds; an example is the Frank Sinatra song "Summer Wind."

It is not uncommon for the Piano/Keyboard players to often be the leader of a big band. This spans from Duke Ellington with his orchestra in the early 20th century right up to the present day with pianists such as Dave Grusin with the GRP All-Star Big Band, and Gordon Goodwin with Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band. This is the case because in order to correctly use chords, rhythms, and voicings in a big band correctly, knowledge of all these is needed. Since piano players possess this knowledge when comping (ie. it is like having a 4-6 part horn section in their hand), they can use this in writing big band scores.

Some big bands utilized an organ, a drawbar or Hammond organ, for example; in addition to or instead of a piano. The organist functioned just as a big-band pianist did, or as more of an improvisatory role if a pianist was also present. An example of a fine organ solo can be found in Count Basie's recording of Rudy Toombs' "One Mint Julep," with Ray Charles, the famous jazz pianist, improvising on the organ.

Guitar Edit

The guitar in a big band is mostly used as a pure rhythm instrument, in that it plays straight 4/4 time. That is, in a swing tune, the guitarist will often play four beats in every bar. This particular style of playing is not as simple as it seems. The ideal instrument was an acoustic archtop F hole guitar which had a tone color that cut through the brass and saxes. Often the guitar blends with the drummer's hi-hat as the bass does with the bass drum, but other styles (ballad, Latin) might be handled differently.

The guitarist sometimes takes solos, but usually not as many as the piano, and neither takes as many as the horns. This began to change with the development of the electric guitar in the late 30's, as shown by the solo work of Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman's big band and small groups, and the blues giant T-Bone Walker, who liked to work in big band settings as well as small groups. (Goodman's regular rhythm guitarist, Allan Reuss, was known to take a solo now and then.) After that, electric guitars were used as an additional solo voice and to enhance tone color, often adding a bit of clarity to a sax line.

Traditional big band guitarist Freddie Green of the Count Basie orchestra played an unamplified acoustic guitar. His style made use of chord voicing primarily on the 6th, 4th and 3rd strings. The guitar was often dropped from later big bands, but for the real swing bands of the 30's, the guitar was indispensable. Green, for example, remained with the Basie band for the rest of his life. After Reuss left Goodman's band, a jazz writer commented that he had not realized how important Reuss's guitar work was to the band's sound until after Reuss had departed. Goodman said, "Neither did we!" Sometimes distortion pedals are used to create various effects.


The bass provides both a rhythmic and a harmonic foundation. In swing and similar styles, its role is to play the 'low-end' of the music, be that a walking bass line, (smoothly connecting chord roots with a note on each beat using notes from the chord sequence and scale- and arpeggio-based patterns and chromatic embellishments) or a Two Feel (a feel used in Latin Music which feels more syncopated and pushes the beat). The bassist in a big band traditionally plays double bass (nearly always pizzicato, though this is not 'pizzicato' in the classical term of plucking in a staccato-like way). Electric bass guitars and electric upright basses (an electric double bass) are now used more and more frequently, as they provide built-in amplification, and are less expensive, easier to transport, and easier to learn to play.

Drums Edit

The drummer is the most important member of the rhythm section, which 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).

The drummer can also be the leader of the band because, as the traditional time-keeping unit, it influences the tempo, feel, and dynamics of the piece more than any other instrument because it can always be heard. Leaders of such bands include Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and guest drummers such as Greg Bissonette to such bands as The Buddy Rich Big Band.

Big band arrangementsEdit


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, written soli sections, and shout choruses.

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 phrasing that can be traced back to African influences. Another stylistic development was the jam or "head" arrangement of the later 1920s, which added improvisational solo sections to basic stock arrangements.


Musical 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 position 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 simple harmony. The 'widened line' is a version of the thickened line and consists of the melody and three harmony voices. On other occasions, sections can play in unison, giving a powerful, penetrating sound that cannot be achieved by a single instrument.

Saxophones Edit

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 soli. This is called Drop 2 voicings and is commonly used for the saxophone because the second highest part is dropped from the second alto to the baritone - allowing a greater range to be played and the mid-range becoming less "muddy".

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 riffs.

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