The thing that jazz people call a big band is a curious animal. For one thing, it doesn’t have to be very big, certainly not by comparison with a symphony orchestra. If you put a hundred violinists on stage with a jazz quintet, it wouldn’t be a big band. If you had twenty-five Dixieland players blowing alongside each other on stage – and such terrible things do occasionally happen – you would still not have a big band. But if you saw fifteen or sixteen people on stage, mostly playing brass or saxophones, mostly sitting behind music stands bearing the bandleaders initials and all wearing the same uniform, then you would almost certainly be looking at a big band. One of them is probably not doing very much except waving his arms, smiling a lot and holding an instrument. He is the leader.
You would also almost certainly be back in the 1930s or 1940s, which was the only time in jazz history when big bands were normal. It is very rare to find a jazz group bigger than half a dozen people, but for one decade in jazz history, from the mid-thirties to late forties, the big band became the norm. It played for all the dances. It appeared in films. The bandleaders became stars. It was actually difficult for small groups to get work, except in a few clubs here and there. There wouldn’t even have been many small groups, if it hadn’t been for the curious fact that most of these big bands sprouted small groups within them. The most famous of these were the groups led by Benny Goodman.
That version of Slipped Disc by Benny Goodman wasn’t by the famous group with Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, but a later one featuring Red Norvo on vibes in 1945. The odd thing about Goodman’s small groups was that although they appeared on the same programme, they rarely involved the same musicians. They were also racially mixed, a brave move on Goodman’s part, as it was very unfashionable for a white leader to feature black players. Whether for that reason or not, Benny Goodman’s small group records have mostly lasted better than his big band stuff.
Now, the long-standing myth about big bands and small groups is that the players in the big bands were so fed up with reading parts all evening and seldom getting a chance to improvise that they demanded fair shares with a small group. But this theory falls down on several counts. For one thing, many of the big band musicians were quite happy to sit and read, because they were reading musicians. If they did want to blow, they went off to late night sessions and left the group and formed their own big band, which was one way of ensuring that they would get enough solo space.
Above all, many of these small groups were a deliberate bit of showbiz on the part of the leader, akin to hiring a female singer or a close harmony group – it was simply to vary the attractions offered by the big band. And in the case of Artie Shaw I feel it was even simpler; it was because Benny Goodman had already done it. If you ever get the feeling that the leader of a big band should be playing a clarinet, it is due to the memory of the arch-rivals Shaw and Goodman; the difference between them was that Shaw, less involved than Goodman, seemed to be not so much a musician as a film star playing the part of Artie Shaw in the film of his life. It now turns out that Shaw was far from happy leading a big band so he must have looked forward to joining Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord and Billy Butterfield on trumpet, together with the other three members of the Gramercy Five, to play things like Special Delivery Stomp.
One of the terms they applied to groups like Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five was chamber jazz. This wasn’t just one of those classical sounding phrases that Americans sometimes use to sell things; it reflected the fact that the small groups drawn from the big bands really did sound different from other small groups. Accustomed as they were to playing in a big team, the musicians had split second precision, and the group always sounded very tight. Above all, they played all the loud music they needed, elsewhere, so in a small group they could afford to sound very small. You’d imagine that small groups drawn from Count Basie’s band, a stomping, storming outfit, would provide a scaled down version of the same thing; not at all. They step out very gracefully, and never more so than on this 1940 session made by a group calling itself The Kansas City Five. Count Basie’s rhythm section was always light, and when Basie himself was absent, having only Jo Jones on drums, Freddie Greene on guitar and Walter Page on bass, it has all the weight of dandelion seeds, especially on a blues called ‘Pagin’ The Devil’.
I don’t think it’s any accident that the two main soloists on that session were so retrained; Buck Clayton kept the mute in his trumpet on the other numbers and Lester Young stuck mostly to clarinet, and even there where they reverted to open trumpet and tenor saxophone, the term chamber jazz sounded apt, not twee. By jazz standards, and certainly by the standards of the swing era in 1940, that is an exceedingly gentle performance.
All the big bands were capable of playing soft, of course, though usually they were as soft as marshmallow. The one band that played with a steely softness, the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, never seems to have spawned a small group, but if it had I think it would have sounded like the John Kirby Band, a sextet, which called itself the Biggest Little Band in All The Land. This is the kind of group which gets on the nerves of the blood-and-guts jazz listener, but I think its best numbers do combine the intimacy of the small group jazz with the verve of the big bands. The first number I ever heard from this group is called A Flat To C, named said the sleeve note, after the use of the cycle of fifths which was many years ahead of its time. I was tremendously impressed. I was less impressed later when I realized that this cycle of fifths already existed in songs like Nice Work If You Can Get It and the middle eight of You Took Advantage Of Me, and that soloists weren’t quite brave enough to use it in their solos. It still sounds very good, though.
The John Kirby Band, which is also notable for being the only famous group ever led by a bass player, with the mighty exception of Charlie Mingus.
All the members of the Kirby band were refugees from big bands, and it sometimes seems that when you desert from the big battalions you opt for the quiet life. Gerry Mulligan had been a big band person before he formed his sotto voce quartet with Chet Baker. It’s often forgotten that Lu Watters, the man who championed revivalist jazz in the 1950s, had led a big band in the 1930s. But the most amazing transformation of all was from the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band to MJQ – the cerebral Modern Jazz Quintet, the group that made bow-ties respectable in jazz, and had been the inner core of Gillespie’s mad-house before they made their bid for freedom.
Going back to the 1930s, the oddest figure of all was the vibes player Lionel Hampton – odd because he led a series of recordings of refugees from the big bands at a time when he was about the only person in America who wasn’t leading a big band of his own, though he had led one through all the years since when it was desperately unfashionable to do so. These small group recordings of his have acquired a tremendous reputation. With half of them it’s hard to see why; they are soupy, sentimental and suffering from his rather anaemic singing. The other half are tremendous. Take for example this tune called Down Home Jump from 1938 which features people like Omer Simeon, Walter Fuller and Robert Crowder, who were all enjoying a day off from Earl Hines’s Big Band. And lend an ear to Alvin Burroughs’s driving drumming.
Lionel Hampton, in a dress rehearsal for one of his later big bands. There were other bands I could call on for examples of how small can be beautiful. Woody Herman, for instance, whose small groups before the war were nearly trad but after the war were some of the most modern things around. Or Bob Crosby, Bing’s brother, who led a big band which sheltered a lot of musicians dedicated to the memory of Dixieland, who surfaced now and again in the form of Bob Crosby and his Bob Cats. The only trouble with Bob Crosby’s music is that, whereas most bands make you want to get up and dance, his make you want to get up and march. There’s something military about his music; no more military than Sergeant Bilko, perhaps, but it’s no accident that his two most famous performances were South Rampart Street Parade and March of the Bob Cats.
Actually, there is only one man we could possibly end with, the man with whom most jazz programmes should end: Duke Ellington. Many of Duke’s sidemen have escaped from his big band to make recordings; they have all ended up sounding like Duke, often with Duke on piano, and our last offering is no exception. The band may be called Cootie Williams and His Rug Cutters; the tune may be called Swing Pan Alley, and Johnny Hodges may turn in some lovely sounds on soprano saxophone, but the hovering genius is that of Duke Ellington, and as you listen to him, the clear-cut differences between the big bands and small groups seem to melt away.
The series 'Off The Beaten Track', was produced by Derek Drescher for Radio 3 in1986.