Big Band History and Development
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April 22, 2004

Content of the article
A big band is a type of musical ensemble associated with playing jazz music. They were especially popular during the Swing Era, which lasted from the early 1930s until the late 1940s. Big Bands evolved with the times and were able to perform popular contemporary charts made famous by pop stars of the day. Musically, a typical big band will have from 12 to 25 musicians. The instruments include saxophones, trumpets, trombones, drums, guitars, bass guitars, and pianos or electronic keyboards. The terms jazz band, jazz ensemble, stage band, jazz orchestra, and dance band are also used to refer to this type of ensemble.

In contrast to smaller jazz combos, in which most of the music is improvised or created spontaneously, music played by big bands is highly "arranged", or prepared in advance and notated on sheet music. The music is traditionally called 'charts'. Improvised solos may be played when called for by the arrangers. When performing an "improvised solo", the musician is adhering to specific notes in chords shown on the page of the music he or she is reading at the time.

Big Bands played a major role in lifting morale during World War II. Many band members served in the military and toured with USO troupes at the front. Glenn Miller, as you may know, lost his life while traveling between troop shows in the European Theater. Many bands suffered from the loss of personnel during the war as they joined various touring groups. As a result of this exodus of musicians, musical quality declined at home during the war years. In addition, an ill-timed recording strike in 1942 worsened the situation. Vocalists began to strike out on their own and by the end of the war, swing was giving way to less danceable music including bebop. Many of the great swing bands broke up, as the times and tastes changed.

Since 1945, as jazz evolved and expanded in new directions, major band performances of note did occur from the 1950s to the 1970s. Noteworthy big bands included those formed by Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Gil Evans, Johnny Richards, Sun Ra, Gary MacFarland, Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Carla Bley, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Sam Rivers, and Don Ellis, to name but a few.