Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Intertwined with Society

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

The bandstand is a sacred place.
--Wynton Marsalis

Big Band- a musical group of 16 - 20 musicians
  • Built in many ways on the unique soulful sound of saxophones.
  • Set solidly on the bass foundation of the trombone
  • Trumpets soaring over the top taking the group to new heights
  • Held together by the rhythm section of piano, bass, guitar and drums.
    (Len Weinstock in an article on the website Red Hot Jazz said: No big band that hoped to swing could succeed without a great drummer. Essential for a solid solo to build on top of.)
Behind it all were those genius composers and arrangers. Bassist Marcus Miller commented on his Miller Time show on Sirius XM that the arranger is the mastermind. They took simple leads or complex melodies and put them into a form that the Big Bands could use. Big band history is the story of great arrangers- Billy Strayhorn, Sammy Nestico, Neal Hefti, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Joe Garland, Jerry Gray, Gil Evans. Without these gifted arrangers, big band music would probably never have made it.

By the late 1930s and into World War II, Big Band jazz was THE popular music. Live radio broadcasts, local, regional and national, brought the music into people’s homes like none before had quite experienced. At the beginning of the war, Weinstock says there were at least fifty nationally famous big dance bands in the US and hundred of others with local reputation. Weinstock says that big band music “was such a positive morale booster that it is arguable whether we could have won the war without it!” Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” has often be called the “song that won World War II.”

Big Band music went into hiding after the war. It lost it’s widespread popularity as radio and then television began to showcase rock and roll and country to wider and wider audiences. Jazz became more of a combo music. It was more and more expensive to maintain a working national big band. Even the great ones struggled and found themselves having to scrape. A revival did occur in the 1990s but it has never reached the level of popularity of the original movement. As that was happening, Weinstock wrote
Millions await its return. Believe me, we need it badly!
It is amazing that the popular music of an era has lost its popularity. As a musician in a couple big bands I have had the joy of seeing people energized by the music. We play many gigs at senior housing and nursing home facilities. This was the music of their generation- and they are fading away. To see the late 80 and 90 year olds swaying to the music, or even getting up and dancing is one of my thrills. We start playing “In the Mood” and a happy response comes back at us. The drummer kicks off “Sing, Sing, Sing” and eyes light up. Even more recent pop songs from the 60s and 70s get positive responses, partly from the power of the big band style.

Fortunately many schools do have jazz bands that are helping to keep the music alive. There are dance venues that will have the “swing” bands do live music dances. Many of the people on the floor when we play these are not the older generation. Music moves people, and for those who like to dance, swing is as much a dancing art as any other.

One of my memories from the 60s, when the big band era was not doing well, was Lionel Hampton. I guess many groups were struggling and it was not unusual to have someone of Hampton’s stature to play in small venues- like high school gyms in rural north-central Pennsylvania. I don’t remember the specifics of the dance, but I didn’t go to dance, I went to hear Hampton and his band. It is now a subliminal memory, perhaps having influenced me in my own love for big band jazz.

For jazz musicians, big band can be quite a challenge. Some might say that is even more of a challenge than combo work- or at least as important. Again, bassist Marcus Miller had a whole 2-hour episode of his Miller Time program on Sirius XM’s Real Jazz devoted to big band music. He referred to the classic and the new. He didn’t like the word “old” applied to the music. He commented that every jazz musician should spend time playing in a big band. There, he said, you learn a great deal.
  • You learn to blend your sound with the sound of the group.
  • You have to be more aware of the dynamics because it isn’t helpful to have one part stand out from the others.
  • You have to be conscious of being in-tune. In a small combo you can get away with it. In a big band, Miller said, you have “twenty other cats looking at you” wondering when you’re going to get it and tune up.
Even more than that, he added, you begin to absorb the music itself. You become a different musician. It changes you and how you approach music. I have told the story before of how when I joined my first big band I realized how underwhelming I could be. I knew and loved jazz, but not as a jazz musician. I was a listener- an educated listener, but a listener nonetheless. Big band jazz speaks the language of jazz and I was a more “classical” trumpet player. I was comfortable in a concert band- wind ensemble- because that language had become ingrained. Jazz was new, even down on that fourth part. The sound and rhythm, the two essentials of great music, were different from what I was used to playing. I knew them when I heard them but I didn’t know how to play them.

That was over eight years ago now. I still play fourth, for reasons to be talked about in other posts. But now I know the language. The music isn’t as strange to play as it was. I hear the changes, feel the rhythm, listen to the others in the group and can actually even adjust my sound once in a while.

One other thing about big band music- it is essential to the ability to speak the jazz language. Classic music of the 30s to the 50s is part of who we are as musicians and as people. If I want to be able to be a jazz musician- or even a jazz fan- in the 21st Century, I cannot, must not, forget the roots of this amazing music. Yes, it is more than big band and I will talk about that next week. But to understand why be bop and hard bop became what they did, you have to know where they came from. To understand Miles’ and Coltrane’s place in music history and how they changed history, you have to know what they built on, and that was the big band sound.

It was swing at its most basic and most exciting.

Jazz is such a powerful cultural statement that
it's almost as if it's intertwined with society.
-Tom Harrell

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