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     A big band is a type of musical ensemble associated with playing jazz music and which became popular during the Swing Era from 1935 until the late 1940s. A big band typically consists of approximately 12 to 19 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.

     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. Improvised solos may be played only when called for by the arranger.      Here's a list of American Big Band leaders and those form other countries:


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History and style

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 the early 1950s, although there was little mass audience for it until around 1936. After that time, 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. [1] [2] [3]

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.


While composers and arrangers have written for many combinations of instruments, conventional big bands since the 1930s have had a 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." 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

The saxophone section (known as the reeds, the sax section, or just the saxes in jazz parlance) usually comprises five players: two altos, 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, the players double on other wind instruments, such as flute, clarinet, and soprano saxophone.

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

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


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.

Unusually, a French horn can be grouped into the trombone section in place of a tenor or bass trombone.

Rhythm section

The rhythm section and comprises drums, 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 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 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 known in 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 other.


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.[4] 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 double bass, 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 roots and 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 part.


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).

Big band arrangements


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" 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 improvising.)


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 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 simple harmony.

THe 'widened line' is a veresion of the thickened line and consists of the melody and three harmony voices

On other occasions, setions can play in 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 soli.

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.

The "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 "sweet" bands.

See also


Wm Russo., Composing for the Jazz Orchestra, University of Chicago Press, Lib Congress n0 61-8642

External links


American bandleaders

Canadian bandleaders

Australian bandleaders

Belgian bandleaders

British bandleaders

(taken from Julien Vedey's book Band Leaders (London, 1950):

Michael Senior and Roger Palmer

Dutch bandleaders

German bandleaders

 Indonesian bandleaders



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