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Ch. 07: Big Band – Jazz Swings!


The nightlife in New York City in the ’20s and ’30s was the perfect home for hot jazz. Particularly important was the area known as Harlem, where the largest African-American community in the United States resided. Major black cultural and political figures of the 1950s were born in that hub of activity during a time known as the “Harlem Renaissance.” Black poetry, philosophy, art, literature, and music all thrived in this encouraging environment.

Harlem was also home to numerous speakeasies, cabarets, dance halls, and nightclubs. Perhaps the most well known was the Cotton Club which combined elements of a dance hall with those of cabarets and musical revues. Some of America’s most famous jazz musicians appeared on its stage, consolidating its reputation as one of the new homes of hot jazz.

Paul Whiteman Orchestra in the 1920s

Like Chicago, New York had two separate stylistic threads of jazz flowing simultaneously. The one thread, introduced by white band leader Paul Whiteman, was that of a highly orchestrated, quasi-classical jazz orchestra. There were little opportunities for solo improvisation, although Chicago trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke did have some of them. These were carefully crafted scores which gave the mainstream white community a taste of the hot rhythms, unusual harmonies, and syncopated melodies of this new American style of music.

Even more important  to this flow of classical or pop jazz was the contribution made by George Gershwin, who incorporated the essence of jazz into his pop songs, film scores, and Broadway shows. Gershwin also folded jazz into his symphonic pieces, “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris,” both of which took the musical world by storm. As popular as these pieces were, they lacked the raw rhythms and abandoned performances of Armstrong and others.

Fletcher Henderson and His Band in 1925

The second stylistic thread of jazz in the ’20s and ’30s in New York was much more authentic in nature. The sounds of Chicago jazz were present, but the bandleaders were beginning to incorporate more and more musicians into the bands. In the tradition of New Orleans, Armstrong and Oliver had combos made up of 5 to 8 instruments, but in the dance halls of New York, where dance crowds could grow to several hundred, the size of the sound had to be increased. By adding several instruments to a section, the volume was increased and the larger venues could be filled with sound. But having four trumpets in the band instead of one, three trombones instead of one, five saxophones instead of one created significant musical problems for the bandleaders.

In order to tighten up the sound and still provide hot rhythms for the dancers, song arrangements had to be carefully crafted and religiously observed. Featured soloists still were given windows to show their virtuosity, but it was the sections of trumpets, trombones, clarinets and saxophones, backed by a rhythm section (piano, bass, drums and guitar) which provided the bulk of the hot sound.

At first, black bandleaders like Fletcher Henderson tried to pattern their sound after Whiteman’s, which emphasized classy, highly organized charts. But he soon realized that they lacked a certain rhythmic energy and a sense of drive. When Armstrong came from Chicago to play with Henderson’s orchestra, the swing element was introduced to New York. Capitalizing on the young soloist’s rhythmic ideas and melodic phrasing, Henderson’s arranger wrote parts for the sax and brass sections which created harmonies paralleling the melody line. The sound of swing was born.

Some have characterized the swing era as simply “orchestrated Armstrong.” With brass (trumpets and trombones) and wind (clarinets and saxophones) sections creating musical dialogues with one another, breaking phrases up, supporting an occasional hot soloist, and all being backed by a foundational groove created by the rhythm section; a new standard for hot jazz was established. The sounds of Whiteman and Gershwin had been successfully married to the swing of Armstrong.

The depression era of the early ’30s caused several bands to break up. Some traveled to Europe, where jazz was riding a wave of popularity, to find work. Others just traveled from gig to gig in beat-up buses and played for whatever they could. Fletcher Henderson’s band was one of the casualties of the economy. For all his creative charts, Henderson couldn’t keep the band together and by 1934 was looking to sell some of his chord charts to other bands.

Glen Miller Big Band, 1940-41

Summary: Big Band

For ten years, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, a form of jazz enjoyed its only time as a national music. From the ballrooms of New York to the dance halls of North Dakota, various sizes of the big band sound were being played, performed and being danced to. It was a dominant sound on the radio, the most popular style in the record store and was the pulse of the heartbeat during World War II. In 1941 it was as American as the flag, the Statue of Liberty, mom and apple pie. For some, the fact that Hitler hated jazz and all it stood for, gave it all the more importance and credence in American culture.

It was a carefully organized, highly structured sound which appealed to the masses, but eventually the matching blue suits and stack of orchestrated swing songs proved to be too constricting for a few. A few who wanted to taste once more the freedom of extended individual improvisation in jazz. A few who wanted, once again, the excitement of a small ensemble.

But from the big band era and its composers and performers, we have a wealth of jazz music. It is as diverse as Louis’s unpredictable trumpet solos and Duke’s highly crafted jazz symphonies. It is as energetic as Ella’s scatting and as sorrowful as Billie’s blues. It was as hot as Henderson’s arrangements and as sweet as Basie’s comping piano. And throughout the decade, it always swung.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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