Tuesday, December 3, 2013

How Big Band Came To Be

The Origin, People, and Current State of Big Band Music

The true roots of big band music began in 1898 in New Orleans. Groups of African-Americans bought decommissioned military instruments and played them in brand new way. Their approach was unconventional and offbeat in comparison to the European concept of rhythm. When the African-American groups' new style was molded with traditional European music, the genre of "ragtime" was born.

Fletcher Henderson
Flash forward two decades - ragtime's popularity led to the birth of orchestral "dance bands". Fletcher Henderson, a chemistry major from Columbia University, left the chemistry realm and returned to another passion of his - music. By the mid 1920s, Henderson experienced mild success as an arranger for the band he assembled, which included jazz legend Louis Armstrong. When Armstrong joined the band in 1924, Henderson started to incorporate jazz and blues styles into the band's arrangements. At the time, no one had ever attempted to do so with a "big" band (Henderson's band had roughly 11 musicians). Although they quickly became known as the "best African-American band in New York", the band, Henderson, and the new genre of music struggled to gain national attention.

Fletcher Henderson 
Benny Goodman
In 1935, jazz and swing musician Benny Goodman was the leader of a talented "dance" orchestra that was set to perform as a house band for the radio program "Let's Dance". Renowned producer and friend of Goodman, John Hammond, suggested that Goodman buy a few charts (music arrangements) from Fletcher Henderson. Goodman agreed to do so and his exceptional group of musicians - who were much more talented than Henderson's band - brought new life to Henderson's arrangements. The fusion of Henderson's arrangement ability and Goodman's musicians launched big band music into the national spotlight.

Benny Goodman

The Current State of Big Band
Due to the talent and work of Henderson, Goodman, and others, the genre reached the peak of its mainstream popularity in the 1940s. Since then, performers like Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Sam Rivers, Tony Bennett, and Michael Buble have carried the big band torch. While the big band genre's following has become intimate, many critics believe the state of current big band music performances fall into one of two states.

First, the "state of precision", in which a group's individual musicians play without ego. The goal of this state is to forgo the talents of individuals in hopes of bringing the arranger's and or composer's true intentions to life. While this state has merit, the second state of a big band is looked upon more fondly. This state expresses both the composer and individual musician completely by allowing talented soloists to enhance the composer and arrangers original song structure - without making such solos all about the individual musician.

shaun johnson Big Band Experience (BBE) is a current, yet rare example of the second state of performance that a big band can take on. BBE's "contemporary big band sound with a pop flair" is a result of the group's exceptional instrumentalists and Johnson's award-winning voice and confidence in front of the microphone. 


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