Big Band Sound Through the Ages

It feels like the recording technology for music improved on a daily basis during the times of the Big Band era, i.e. some years before and during the Second World war. Orchestras would frequently record in studios or their live performances, also because selling records was a main source of income then. In fact, selling lots of records was the new way for African-American musicians to get out of poverty or even to become rich (for a few).

While sound quality can still be somewhat poor, even on remastered records, most records are actually fun to listen to. Just give your ears and your brain a bit of time to get used to the quality standard.

This means, we have a pretty good documentation of the works of our heroes of the Swing / Big Band era. However, compared to the Bob and post-Bop times, the universe is still quite comprehensible.

While all of us have their preferences and different taste, here are a few Big Band recordings from the original era, which should not leave you embarrassed in front of your friends. As long as you don’t put them next to a Miley Cyrus record obviously.
Benny Goodman was the superstar of the Swing era, must haves are his legendary Carnegie Hall concert of 1938 or “B.G. in HiFi”. Glenn Miller died in WWII and has left less recordings, but there are good compilations (“The Unforgettable Glenn Miller”). Count Basie must not be missing, e.g. with “Swinging the Blues” or “Sing along with Basie”. Highly recommendable is also Basie’s encounter with Duke Ellington “The Count meets the Duke”. From Ellington himself I would recommend “Black, Brown and Beige” as well as recordings from his early Carnegie Hall Concerts.
To round off this small sample of Big Band sound Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine” or something from Ella Fitzgerald would fit nicely.

Hold on, you might now think, what about Louis Armstrong, arguably the greatest Jazz musician? He was very present during the Swing era, mainly on the radio, appearing regularly in the most important Jazz radio shows. But when it comes to records, I have no particular one to recommend from that era. Armstrong has always managed to stay between the various Jazz style boundaries, never being too attached to a particular one.

Post World War II, the popularity of Big Band / Swing music declined rapidly. However, the decline was rapid and profound also because Swing music had been so hugely successful before. It never really stopped existing.
But even Duke Ellington had to go through (financially) difficult times, but he kept touring with his large ensemble almost all the way through. From his later records, “Ellington at Newport”, “Masterpieces by Ellington” and “Ellington Uptown” show how strong his performances still were.

Count Basie had to fold his (Big Band) tent for a while, but came back eventually with records like “Count Basie Swings – Joe Williams Sings” and “The Complete Atomic Basie”.

During the 70ies and 80ies of the last century, it seemed to have become quieter in the Big Band space. Maybe Fusion Jazz killed all other Jazz activities.
Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich kept the flame burning and were joined by Thad Jones (e.g. “Village Vanguard Live Sessions Vol. 3”) as well as the Toshiko Akiyoshi – Lew Tabackin Big Band, to name a few examples still.

But things are definitely looking up. Recently, the interest for Big Band music has come back strongly and there are a number of very good orchestras out there. This allows us to enjoy the advantages of the latest recording technologies while listening to a traditional Jazz style. Although not all of the new breed Big Bands sound like Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller sounded then. Not only the recording technology has moved, also the Big Band style is not necessarily exactly the same anymore. But they all swing like hell!
A few examples worth sampling in my view are Maria Schneider with “Concert in the Garden” (Grammy winner), Andrej Hermlin & His Swing Dance Orchestra, the Vienna Art Orchestra when still playing in Big Band formation, Charles Mingus Big Band, David White Jazz Orchestra, Dave Holland Big Band and Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band.
And there is Bill Holman, a legend who started in the 1950ies and is still very active!

Last but not least, the BBC, the SWR (Germany) and HR (Germany) have pretty good in-house Big Bands.

Isn’t this a wonderful time for Big Band music lovers!

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2 thoughts on “Big Band Sound Through the Ages

  1. I’m a clarinetist and have the record album of Benny Goodman’s performance at Carnegie Hall you mentioned. It’s so much fun to listen to, especially after getting used to the recording quality of that time! I appreciated your informative jazz facts, and learned a few new things! Wonderful article.

    1. Thanks Leslie, good to hear you like the post. The 1938 Carnegy Hall album has become one of my favourites as well. Andrej Hermlin recorded the same concert years later again with his big band, but has not that same energy the Goodman performance.

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