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"If you have to ask, you'll never know."—Louis Armstrong, 1928
Big Band was a popular style of Jazz that grew to dominate American music between 1925 and 1945.
A creation of the early Radio Age, big band music was the first genre of music produced with the radio listener in mind, as its full sound, achieved through powerful horn, woodwind, and rhythm sections, made the best of early broadcast limitations. The earliest orchestras to be labelled Big Band arose in the northern United States and especially in New York (where the recording studios and networks operated). The typical big band was composed of four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones (or four saxes and a clarinet), acoustic bass, piano, drums, guitar, and a singer; this arrangement could vary, however, depending on the sound the bandleader wanted.
Like rock music decades later, Big Band went through a number of changes during its heyday. Composers like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway introduced swing to the genre in the 1930s, while bandleaders like Glenn Miller and (again) Duke Ellington beefed their bands up with larger rhythm sections and more diverse horn and wind sections - adding French horns to the trumpets and trombones, for example, or oboes to the saxophones and clarinets. These changes added energy to the music and prompted the swing dance craze, which in turn outraged Moral Guardians who saw women being swung around with their skirts flying up and their panties coming into view - if they were even wearing them! Shock! Horror! This pearl-clutching worked about as well as it always does, serving mainly to increase the genre's popularity among its target market.
The most important figure in the typical big band was the bandleader, who was also often the band's composer, booking agent, accountant, general manager, and HR department. Most were instrumentalists who usually played the most prominent solo. If the band had a singer he or she would often come in after the solo, which could be two minutes or more into the song. That arrangement may sound strange to a modern ear but vocalists weren't considered as important at the time as they would become in later decades. The singer was partly an ornament to the band - and not just a musical ornament; an attractive singer could bring in the crowds at a live venue - and partly copyright protection, since in those days copyright only extended automatically to musical compositions accompanied by lyrics. (Cab Calloway was a rare instance of a singer who led a band.)
Although the genre has never completely disappeared - there are still bands touring today - Big Band lost much of its popularity after World War II. One reason was the rise of the superstar singer, a development prompted as much by Frank Sinatra's publicist's hiring of dozens of women to scream and squeal at his appearances with the Benny Goodman band as it was by the 1942 musician's recording ban, which allowed vocalists to record but not instrumentalists. The biggest influence in the demise of the big band, though, was probably the association many at the time made between the music and the war they'd just endured and now wanted to forget. Most of the bands dissolved after the war; others reformed as smaller jazz bands, while some turned themselves into backup bands, anonymously supporting the singers who once supported them. Such are the vagaries of fame.
Big bands were usually known by the name of their bandleaders, who were the superstar musicians of their time. Some of the most famous include:
- Cab Calloway
- Duke Ellington
- Count Basie
- Glenn Miller
- Louis Armstrong
- The Dorseys, Tommy and Jimmy
- Harry James
- Artie Shaw
- Les Brown
- Benny Goodman
"If you still have to ask, shame on you."—Louis Armstrong, 1970