By Dave Babbitt – Special to the Sydenham Current
Are there any Big Band fans left out there?
I trust everyone noticed that I capitalized the words Big Band because it is a title, but it is also descriptive.
My guess is that many don’t really know what I mean when I say Big Band.
The era of the Big Bands was a relatively short one, lasting roughly from the early 1930’s to the mid-1940’s, also known as the Swing Era.
Big Bands were born out of the American music form known as jazz. Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African American areas in the southern United States such as New Orleans.
The jazz musicians of the late 19 th Century and early 20 th Centuries were often poor, uneducated, and often slaves who couldn’t read a note of music, and usually played on disgustingly poor quality, used instruments. But could they play! Because they couldn’t read music, they had to play “by ear” and often would solo, making up the music as they played. This is the defining feature of jazz, known as improvisation.
Prior to the early 30’s, jazz groups were usually smaller collections of musicians such as Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five.
As the late 20’s turned to the early 30’s the bands began to grow in size and the Big Band era was born.
I conduct the Wallaceburg Concert Band which while big in size, is not a Big Band. The term Big Band insinuates a particular instrumentation that can vary a little bit, but is relatively standardized.
A Big Band typically consists of a 5-member saxophone section, 4-member trombone section, 4-member trumpet section, and a 4-member rhythm section. Please take note that there are no flutes, clarinets, bass clarinets, oboes, bassoons, French horns, euphoniums or tubas mentioned.
I’m not certain how this instrumentation was established, but it provides a unique, potentially very powerful sound. I believe that I pointed out in a previous column that the rhythm section consists of a keyboard player, guitarist, bass player, and a drummer. Does that sound like anything? Of course, it’s a typical modern-day pop band.
Think of a modern-day horn band like Chicago. They employ the same rhythm section, but a much smaller, 3-man horn section.
The Big Band Era produced many bands. Think Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Fletch Henderson, Woody Herman, Harry James, Stan Kenton, Les Brown, and of course the biggest name of them all, Glenn Miller.
Unfortunately, the musician’s union (AFM) strike of 1942-1944 combined with a sudden change in the publics musical tastes brought the Big Band Era to a crushing halt. Instead of featuring the Big Band itself, it’s array of famous instrumentalists, and the occasional tag-along vocalist, the vocalist themselves suddenly became the stars and the accompanying bands faded into the sunset. Think: Frank Sinatra
Another big factor in the demise of the Big Bands was in the description. They were big. Touring with a band of 17-18 musicians was very expensive. The band leaders had a significant payroll to meet and as they became less popular, it became much more difficult to meet payroll.
Suddenly, the Big Band era was over.
I was born far too late to take in any of these bands in their heyday, but I did manage to catch a few of them still touring in the twilight of their careers, and that is what turned me on to my favourite form of instrumental music to this day.
The President of Lambton College back in the 1970’s was a huge Big Band fan and promoted a series of the remaining Big Band touring holdouts at the College for several years.
I count myself among the fortunate who got to see and hear Count Basie, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich, and the great Canadian band, Nimmons ‘n Nine Plus Six, before they faded into the sunset.
I left every one of those concerts longing to one day have the opportunity to play in such a band.
Since there weren’t any around, I had to start one.
The Brass Factory Big Band began its life here in Wallaceburg in 1982. I had recently graduated from university and was looking for a musical outlet as I missed playing my trumpet, a single-note instrument best utilized in the context of a band.
I called together a number of friends, found a few used Big Band charts (i.e. music scores) and started to rehearse. It was a big hill to climb as none of us, including me had played much, if any swing music. We were products of the WDSS music program, which centred around concert bands.
After several months of rehearsals, we played a private concert for the Wallaceburg Rotary Club before our public debut at the Jeanne Gordon Theatre on June 25, 1984.
The program lists saxophones as: Joanne Mills, Liz Johnston, Sally Boley, Alyson Burr, and Katharine Senyck. Trombones were: Chris Mann, Ed VanGelder, Dan Stratton, and Jay Burr. Trumpets: Harold Truan, John Babbitt, Donna Bicknel, and myself. The rhythm section consisted of Brenda Mann on piano, Wayne Ross on bass guitar, and Mike Southern on the skins.
Among the charts we played were the Theme from the Tonight Show, Moonlight Serenade, Tuxedo Junction, Theme from New York, New York, Sentimental Journey, and In the Mood.
The Brass Factory has had a few other iterations off and on through the years, but I won’t go on about the history of the Brass Factory, as that is not really what this column is about.
Today, Big Bands now referred to as “Stage Bands” are thriving at the high school level, colleges and universities, and in larger centres. There are still a number of extremely great bands that tour on occasion such as the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra, Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, and believe it or not, the busiest Big Band is the ghost band of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which still presents roughly 300 dates per year!
Unfortunately, you won’t hear these bands on mainstream radio.
There are a few Big Bands in our area still. The Forest Excelsior Band, the Bluewater Big Band has some stellar musicians, Primitive Roots is an offshoot of the Chatham Concert Band, and I’m about to re-fire the Brass Factory here locally.
We’re hoping that the Big Band sound still has an audience in our area. It’s a powerful sound that we think you’ll love. Look for us once the weather turns nice again.