Niche it!
BobbyGs Info

Barnes & Noble

Big band

Music Sound

Big band

Back | Home | Up | Next

This USPS stamp recognizes big band's popularity in the 1940s

A big band is a large musical ensemble that plays jazz music. The term is synonymous with the bands of the Swing Era, which were popular through the 1930s and 1940s, but is generally applied to any large jazz ensemble. The term jazz orchestra is also used.

Music for big band is highly 'arranged', leaving only specified gaps for jazz soloists, in contrast to the improvisational nature of most jazz combos.



The band is divided up into a number of sections, by instrument. While composers and arrangers have written for many combinations of instrument, conventional bands since the 1930s have had a rhythm section (composed of drums, bass, piano, and possibly guitar), a trumpet section, a trombone section, and a saxophone section. In the second half of the twentieth century, a standard 17-piece instrumentation evolved, for which many commercial arrangements are available. This instrumentation consists of five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones and a four-piece rhythm section.

Saxophone section

The saxophone section (known as the reeds, the sax section, or just the saxes in jazz parlance) usually comprises five players: two altos, two tenors and one baritone. The 'leader' of the section, who sets overall style, volume, and phrasing, is always the first alto player. If the arrangement requires it, the players double on other wind instruments, such as flute, clarinet, and soprano saxophone.

The sax section represents the 'backbone' of the wind instruments in that they frequently carry the tune or provide backing harmonies underneath a soloist or section solis. As the saxophone is physically less demanding than brass instruments, they are usually written to play a great deal of the time in typical bigband arrangements. Saxes when playing along with brass in an ensemble are said to 'soften' the sound of the brass but give it support.

Because of the shape and the fact that the sound emanates from the open keys as well as the bell, a saxophone cannot be muted for effects or volume reduction. It can only be played louder or more softly. Effects in the sax section are provided by using the alternative instruments such as flutes, clarinets, sopranos etc.

Brass section

The brass section is a collective term for the trombone and trumpet sections. Quite often these sections play the same phrases and rhythms, for a powerful, brassy sound. These instruments can also make use of sound-changing mutes, which are widely used in jazz.

Trumpet section

The trumpet section usually comprises four (sometimes five) players, each playing a separate part. The section leader is usually the first (or lead) trumpet, who plays the highest and most strenuous part. When the whole band is playing tutti (in unison, or all the same), the lead trumpet player is still considered the lead player of the band and is followed in phrasing, articulation, etc., by the rest of the band. The second trumpet player is usually the jazz soloist. The other players are generally assigned progressively lower pitch parts.

Trombone section

This is similar in formation to the trumpet section, except that there are three tenor trombones and one bass trombone. The trombone section provides a deeper sound than that of the trumpets.

Unusually, a French horn can be grouped into the trombone section in place of a tenor or bass trombone.

Rhythm section

The rhythm section strictly speaking comprises drums, double bass (or bass guitar) and guitar. Although the piano is grouped as a rhythm section member, his/her part in providing rhythm is minimal. The function of the piano player, apart from solos, is to punctuate various accents, provide replies, counter melodies etc. and provide fills in the music. The piano player can also contribute to the harmonic richness of the rhythm section by playing upper extensions of the chords played by the guitar. In some arrangements, there is no written piano part, or only chords.

The guitar in a big band is mostly used as a pure rhythm instrument in that it plays straight time. That is, in a 4/4 tune, the guitarist will play four beats in every bar. The guitarist sometimes takes solos, but usually not as many as the piano. Many people agree that one of the greatest exponents of the art of big band guitar playing was Freddie Green of the Count Basie orchestra.

The double bass player, or bass guitarist, is sometimes said to be the most important member of the rhythm section because this instrument not only provides the beat, but gives a foundation (the roots) to the harmony. It can be heard and sometimes felt by all the band below all the other instrumentalists. The bass player usually plays four beats in every bar of a 4/4 tune and is usually playing continuously without rests throughout the tune. To achieve a good swing feeling the bass player will try to play extreme legato making all the notes run into one another giving a continuous but pulsating sound. Staccato bass playing is usually avoided except in non swing tunes.

The drummer is also a most important member of the rhythm section who together with the bass and guitar (if present) form the core of a solid 'timekeeping' machine. The drum kit usually comprises, bass drum, tom-tom(s), snare drum, ride cymbal, hi-hat or 'sock' cymbal, crash cymbal and sometimes other cymbals. In big band music the drummer usually only plays the bass drum lightly (to keep himself in time) to avoid interfering with the bass player. The main pieces of kit used are the snare drum, hi-hat and ride cymbal. In drum solos the drummer will almost always use most or all of his kit to achieve variety.

Although not intended to be heard above the wind instruments, the rhythm section is essential both to the band and to the audience in providing the important pulse in the music that is so important for dancing and listening to. The rhythm section is sometimes referred to as the 'powerhouse' or engine room of the band as one of its main purposes is to drive the band forward at a steady rate. The rhythm section is sometimes said to provide a large part of the 'swing' to a band. A rhythm section not playing together will not swing and will sound stiff and awkward. When playing together properly, the rhythm section achieves what is known in electronics terms as 'phase-lock' and are totally together in tempo and phase. Under these conditions, the rhythm section is said to be 'swinging'.

Big band arrangements

Musical arrangements for big bands often make use of several common compositional techniques.

Trumpet parts can be arranged in close harmony (called a thickened line) to give a broader impression of the melody. On other occasions, trumpets play in unison, giving a powerful, penetrating sound that cannot be achieved by a single trumpet. Groups of two or three trumpets are sometimes used in simple harmony.

The baritone saxophone may be written to play the lead alto part an octave lower to reinforce the melody and provide an effective '5 part' harmony in close harmony saxophone soli. The baritone saxophone is sometimes written with the trombones, (especially in bands without a bass trombone) to give extra richness at the bottom of the trombone section. On occasions, the baritone sax can double with the bass player and bass trombone to create very heavy bass lines or riffs.


Swing bands were very popular from the late 1920s to the early 1950s.

Later bandleaders played different styles of jazz with their bands. For example, the Gil Evans Orchestra pioneered the 'cool' style, and the Jaco Pastorius Big Band played fusion.

Modern big bands can be found playing all styles of jazz.

External links

Home | Up | Band | All-women band | Virtual band | String quartet | Drum and bugle corps | Marching band | Musical collective | Orchestra | Percussion ensemble | Supergroup | Big band | Brass band | Clarinet-violin-piano trio | Community band | Concert band | Cover band | Cult band | Duet | Horn section | Jazz band | Jug band | Nonet | Octet | Power trio | Quartet | Quintet | Rock band | Septet | Sextet | Tribute band | String orchestra | Piano sextet

Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

Microsoft Store