The Big Band Theory

“This is an orchestra,” proclaims Stan Kenton, “a group of musicians gathered together because of a belief in a particular music. Like all orchestras,” he continues, barely pausing for punctuation, “this organization is unique in that the artistic ideal is far more important than personal differences.” What follows is more than a self-consciously declarative “Prologue” to Kenton’s 1953 Capitol album New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm—it’s a real-time taxonomy of his big band at the time, with personal introductions delivered in a voice at once confiding and stagy.

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Darcy James Argue

Hearing it now, you can’t help but picture the Old Man, as he identifies himself, leaning in toward a studio microphone: tie loosened, script in hand, drawing on a cigarette. There’s an antiquated charm to the exchange, as in an Edward R. Murrow broadcast, and it’s tempting to view the message itself in equally distant terms. But the basic definition of a big band, as Kenton outlines it, hasn’t really changed in all the years since.

Or has it? Perhaps you’ve noticed some bold new (or new-ish) twists on big-band convention lately. You’ve heard Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam), the powerfully realized debut by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, which placed No. 6 in the 2009 JazzTimes Critics’ Poll. Or you’ve seen that for every barnstorming concert tour by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, there’s a statement like Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside) from John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble, a deserving front-runner in this year’s pertinent Grammy category. Or maybe your ears have long been trained on the outpourings of the Maria Schneider Orchestra, which took a slightly different tack over the last decade: more daring and diaphanous, with pulse taking precedence over swing. Whatever the case, it’s become increasingly obvious that the big band, a time-honored delivery system for jazz tradition, is now just as much a standard unit of flash-forward innovation.

Kenton, a lifelong shill for progress, would surely hail such developments, even if their outcome yields a music he could never have fathomed. In many ways he was the chief engine behind the institutionalization of the big band, through his efforts as a pioneering jazz educator. (He established one of the first summer jazz clinics, and made his charts available to student ensembles long before that largesse was common.) If you were born sometime after 1960 and harbored any jazz aspirations, there’s a decent chance you first honed your craft in a school-administered big band, playing charts by Sammy Nestico and Neal Hefti—or Duke Ellington, courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Program, now in its 15th year. I was in high school myself when I first heard New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm, finding the “Prologue” hokey but also oddly arresting, largely due to solo interludes by Lee Konitz and Maynard Ferguson.

Stan or no Stan, the prevalence of big bands in jazz academia was probably inevitable. The format is functional by nature, encouraging proper intonation, good listening and strong reading skills. And it’s one of the few areas of jazz life that has a written literature, a repository of arrangements ripe for the picking (or transcribing). Well before the rise of the jazz-educational complex, it was understood that most serious musicians had come up through big bands, whether it was Coleman Hawkins with Fletcher Henderson or Joe Lovano with Woody Herman. Today it’s less common for a gifted young improviser to have experience with a big band outside the classroom, and yet it’s still likely that he or she has had some formative jazz experiences with the big-band canon.

What’s crucial to note about the current breed of big band is that their output places tradition and innovation in dialogue, rather than in any sort of opposition. Schneider was famously a protégé of Gil Evans; one of my incandescent New York jazz memories involves a concert at Carnegie Hall where she conducted his “Sketches of Spain.” Argue, for his part, has been vocal in his appreciation for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band and specifically Bob Brookmeyer, the groundbreaking composer and educator who figured importantly in both. (From his perch at the New England Conservatory, Brookmeyer has mentored not only Argue but also Hollenbeck and even Schneider.) A handful of other big bands of recent vintage, led by the likes of multireedist Andrew D’Angelo and bassist Pedro Giraudo, have also toyed with precedent. And along similar lines, consider trumpeter Dave Douglas: For his first big-band album, A Single Sky (Greenleaf), he turned to arranger Jim McNeely, whose credits include the Jones-Lewis band, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. (McNeely is yet another of Brookmeyer’s former pupils.)

Encountering an album like Infernal Machines—which begins not with a fanfare but with the hollow echo of an amplified cajón, or box drum—the average jazz fan is likely to recognize some familiar section voicings and other time-honored strategies. At the same time, as many observers have noted, there’s a strong whiff of influences from beyond the big-band playbook, stuff imported from the minimalist classical tradition or the indie-rock scene. “The thing is,” Argue once wrote on his blog (secretsociety.typepad.com), “there’s an awful lot of big band music that is important to the history of jazz that doesn’t really do a whole lot for me.” I can’t help but hear liberation as well as candor in that statement: For Argue and a number of his peers, the tradition exists as an open plane rather than a confining grid. Take what you want, leave what you don’t need—a useful philosophy for the sort of composer-bandleader disciplined enough to make informed decisions. (Argue is demonstrably one of these.) And in the end, it hardly matters whether or not Guillermo Klein, the Argentine pianist and composer behind a potent not-quite-big band called Los Guachos, really knows his Basie. He knows himself.

The same can surely be said of two veteran big-band leaders recently named NEA Jazz Masters: saxophonist (and Kenton alumnus) Bill Holman and pianist (and AACM founder) Muhal Richard Abrams. Their profiles in jazz could hardly be more dissimilar, and yet they share a number of practical concerns: forward motion, dynamic impact, shrewd dissonance, collective energy. Abrams—whose Hearinga Suite (1989) and Blu Blu Blu (1990) rank among the most compelling big-band documents of their era—has refuted nostalgia (but not tradition) at every turn. As for Holman, perhaps the Old Man said it best, in that musty “Prologue”: “He represents a talent that is discontented with music of the present. He’s anxious over the future; he writes, he orchestrates too.”

Originally published in March 2010

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