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William C. Altreuter
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Monday, April 26, 2004

Yesterday's big band event has had me thinking about jazz big bands, and the transition jazz underwent from the so-called "Big Band Era" to the post war bebop and post-bop stages. There is a fair amount I question about the conventional wisdom concerning this time, starting with the idea that what occurred during this time was an "evolution". To the extent that this implies that there was some sort of advance in sophistication, or overall quality from the sort of music that the Basie Band, or Ellington, or any number of others were producing, I think that this is probably a mistaken notion, fostered at the time by partisans of the newer sound.

Similarly, it is pretty widely accepted that the invention of bebop came about because the African American musicians felt that the white bands had stolen their sound. Under this version the cats who were jamming after hours at Mintons and whatnot resolved to invent a new sound that would be too complicated for the white guys to understand or play. (Arthur Taylor's interviews are full of this account, for example). There may be more than merely a kernel of truth to it, but I suspect the reality is more complex.

One of the things that I think was going on was that the economics of keeping a big band together was probably getting tougher. Smaller combos, playing in venues that were not dance oriented undoubtedly lead to greater freedom to improvise, and the development of new forms of improvisation. There is a school of thought that maintains that around this time jazz stopped being dance music, and became "art music". Again, I am not so sure that tells the whole story: the difficulty a lot of African American musicians had in getting or holding onto cabaret cards meant that they couldn't work in places where dancing was permitted-- the transition may have been born of necessity, but, like the idea that bebop was invented to be more complicated so that white musicians couldn't steal it, the idea that it was self-consciously conceived as a higher art form unnecessarily denigrates the music that was being played by many of the same musicians at other gigs and on other recordings.

No doubt Monk wanted to hear some of his music in a big band setting. Fact is, it sounds great when played by a large ensemble. During all of the time that Miles was working with his first and second quintets he was also working with Gil Evans on big band stuff. You'd have to say that larger groups were where Mingus was most interesting. In addition to Evans, Tad Dameron and plenty of others were working on music that was played "inside the changes" by big bands.

I'd like to hear more contemporary big bands, like the two we saw yesterday, doing more with this tradition, and I wonder why they do not. I suppose it could have something to do with the perceived "difficulty" of some of this music, but it shouldn't: anything from "Miles Ahead", or "Sketches of Spain" would have complemented the ninety-ninth billionth playing of "String of Pearls". Please don't get me wrong, I like "String of Pearls" fine, but it is very nearly the jazz version of "Stairway to Heaven".

A few years back I saw T.S. Monk lead a big band featuring his father's music. It was, frankly, one of the best evenings of big band jazz I have ever witnessed. You can't talk to a jazz musician who doesn't love that music. There really ought to be more of an effort to expand the repertoire so that when there is an occasion to have three trombones, and some trumpets, and a saxophone section, and a rhythm section and whatever all else you want we can hear more than just the usual stuff. It's not that the other stuff is deficent-- it's just tired. Some new set lists could fix that.

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