Jazz 101: Big Band Power
Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.
Swing was rock before rock ever existed. In the 1930s, when electric amplification of instruments was not yet commonplace, intensity was achieved through numbers. At the start of the decade, Duke Ellington had already won over the Cotton Club crowd in Harlem with his big band, as well as with such early compositions as "Black and Tan Fantasy" and "East St. Louis Toodle-O." By decade's end, Ellington would advance the compositional sophistication of big band writing with his powerful Blanton-Webster Band (named after bassist Jimmy Blanton, who single-handedly vaulted that instrument into jazz's front line of solo focal points, as well as key tenor sax man Ben Webster). The eight tracks that lead off the playlist here are from Never No Lament, the mighty box set that documents this booming yet also subtle ensemble.
In between those two decade-bookending versions of Ellington's orchestra, big band style also witnessed the development of another key leader, Count Basie. Not as demonstrative a composer/arranger as Ellington (nor as much of an instrumental stylist behind the piano), he nevertheless bridged the gap between many early jazz forms. (Plus, he contributed some classic tunes, including "One O'Clock Jump.") And, as we'll see later, a few notable soloists flourished under his supervision, too. Other popular big bands of the '30s included those run by Fletcher Henderson, Artie Shaw and Andy Kirk (the last of which had a crack pianist and composer in Mary Lou Williams, who penned "Walkin' and Swingin'"). Time to jam with the era's heaviest bands.