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The Great Big Bands

Summing up

In the heady days of the 50’s and 60’s the big band musician was king. When the big touring combinations ceased to operate the studio session players were all culled from the ranks of the big bands. Members of smaller groups, or out-and-out jazz soloists, were rarely seen in the London studios.

I only saw players of the calibre of Tubby Hayes, Phil Seamen, Ken Wray, and Jimmy Deuchar all together on a session when I booked them myself. I did this when Manny Albam made a rare visit, bringing his own Ampex recording studio equipment with him, which was owned by the singer Bing Crosby. I subsequently received very many angry telephone calls from other studio musicians after the sessions, people who felt that they should have been booked instead, but I remain convinced that my choice was the right one, and, of course, my men all played superbly. They tended to be referred to, rather superciliously, as 'The Jazzers', but every one of them was a superb musician, an excellent reader - and they all had soul. But, of all the truly great jazz performers, even Ronnie Scott was seldom, if ever, seen on a session, and Kenny Baker, once he began touring his Working Men’s Clubs in the 1950’s, never played a studio session for many years.

As far as I was concerned, all musicians were first-class citizens. I felt that I could trust them implicitly, and never felt anything less than privileged to be in such inspired company.  The standard of playing in the big touring bands was, however, often poor—there just weren’t enough really talented players to go round. Most of the playing bandleaders were of the highest quality, having usually come from leading positions in the name bands.

The style of the bands was established by the arrangers, and fixed by the players. The bandleaders played one role only in this, and that was to reject any arrangements that they felt were not in keeping with the band image. Very many players have said that a musician usually goes along with the style of a band once he joins it. He plays Basie style in the Basie band, Herman style in Woody's band, and so on. I don't agree with that. I personally took little notice of the personality of the man out front, and played the same way in every band in which I was employed. That each one of those bands sounded entirely different from the others was solely due to the arrangements. 

My method was probably the correct way, because when I played in a Latin American band, and later on in a big rock band, people would come up and say how amazed they were that I could play in all these different styles. I didn't have the heart to tell them that I was using standard jazz phrasing on everything. I did hear, however, that several imported American players had problems playing some of the music in the German studio bands. I had no trouble, even with the folk music. Hard to credit, but my style seemed to work in the oom-pah oom-pah bands as well.

The first time this happened was in Max Greger's band, in Munich. I turned up one day to find three strange trumpet players in the studio, all using rotary valve instruments. They had even turned up in Lederhosen, to make things all the more authentic. It was explained to me that we were to record some traditional German folk music, and would therefore have to play böhmisch - Bohemian style. The three newcomers were experts, and would show us how it was done. Off we went. After we had played a dozen or so bars into the first title Max stopped the band. By then the three newcomers, all perfectly together, had gained nearly a bar on the rest of the band.

'Is this böhmisch?' I asked.

I was told that I was not together with the rest of the trumpet section, and, yes, this was, indeed, how German folk music was played. I countered by remarking that I was certainly playing well behind the others, because they were away at a gallop from the word go, but so, too, was the rest of the band.

That caused no little consternation, because the producer of the record was in the studio. Apparently he had not been satisfied with a recording he had recently made with a traditional folk band - now even we were not getting it right. A heated discussion broke out.

'Why not let us try playing it with our normal line-up?' said I, after a while. They looked doubtful. We were a jazz orchestra, nicht war?

To prove my point, we did it, without the three experts, and it sounded great. The producer was both pleased and dumbfounded.

'How is this possible?' he asked. I replied that, fundamentally, German folk music was not a lot different to anyone else's folk music, including American. We were merely playing his music the way we would play anything else. For the wind instruments the written music itself set the style. Only the rhythm section had to adapt to the traditional rhythmic patterns expected in such music. It was the same when I played Gershwin or Stockhausen with a symphony orchestra, or some of the things John Dankworth wrote with Matty Seiber: used as a basis, the big band phrasing fit in everywhere. So there must be something pretty damn right about it.

Returning to my theme: there is a certain mystery connected with bandleaders which has never been satisfactorily explained. It is as if their very presence, standing before the band, somehow inspires the musicians to perform in the style with which they know that particular bandleader is associated. A good example of this is the Stan Kenton phenomenon. It is possible to listen to any Kenton record made from the 1940’s right up to the middle 1970’s and know that it is the Kenton band.

Over that thirty year period Stan had more than a hundred different musicians working for him, and countless different arrangers. He had Pete Rugolo, Johnny Richards, Bill Potts, Shorty Rogers, Chico O’Farrill, Bob Graettinger, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Russo, Dee Barton and Bill Holman writing for him at precisely defined periods of that era. Although each one of these arrangers had a completely unique style of writing, and although the line-up of the band changed constantly the listener was at no time in doubt as to which band he was listening. Even the Neophonic Orchestra sounded like the Kenton band when he was leading it (although it must be said that the orchestra contained very many of his own sidemen at the time).

The same can be said of the Woody Herman Herds. Bill Holman also wrote for Woody and Buddy Rich. They were still clearly identifiable as his scores when you heard them, but the distinct sound of Woody Herman or Buddy Rich was stamped indelibly on their performance. Obviously those leaders would only choose music that they knew would fit their style of playing. The arrangers would need to write for the style of the band, otherwise their scores would not be accepted. Most of them did so instinctively.

I mentioned earlier playing one of Bill Holman’s charts called The Kingfish. The Jack Parnell band actually played this in front of Stan Kenton's band, at the Bar–B Ranch in Dublin. Later on in the same evening Stan also played the number, and the way they interpreted it made it sound completely different. 

Many years later I played The Kingfish again, this time with the Kenton band. It was like playing a different number altogether. After listening to them in Dublin I at once tried to get the rest of our band to phrase like the Kenton band, without much success. While we were all playing the syncopated eighth notes generally accepted as the modern jazz form, Stan’s musicians had developed a more even eighth note style, which was later incorporated into the standard jazz phrasing used today. Before Kenton started doing it the style was considered by all to be pretty corny—now it suddenly became the last word. Soon everybody was doing it.

In 1960 Bill Russo let us privileged ones in his London Jazz Orchestra into the deep secret of American phrasing. I tried to introduce this style of playing into the studio sessions, and was subsequently begged by all and sundry to stop doing it, as no one, with the exception of the other members of the London Jazz Orchestra, could follow me anymore.

Playing with all the different bands, from Latin American, through pop and commercial, avante-garde, rock and out-and-out big band jazz I discovered that there is really little difference in the performance of the various types of music—it is all phrased in the same way. This became apparent once I joined the Peter Herbolzheimer band in Germany in 1967. Peter was playing an extremely advanced type of rock music, with a large rhythm section, which usually rehearsed for a week on its own before the rest of the band turned up. The eight brass and one saxophone played a type of big band rock as well, but when Peter told me that he was astounded that I had managed to hit on the correct style for his band at once he was further amazed when I said that I was merely playing big band jazz phrasing, as always. That was probably what everyone else was doing, without thinking about it, but he had probably failed to realise it up to then.

Although very many new and brilliant performers have appeared on the scene over the years the jazz big band style remains the way it has always been. The bands of Rob McConnell, Bob Florence, and Tom Kubis, with all of their sensational performances, are still using the phrasing and style of the wartime Tommy Dorsey band. It is interesting to imagine just how the Dorsey band would have sounded today in a modern recording studio. The big band style was adopted by the highly successful Singers Unlimited group with great success, and the earlier Four Fresh­man group, which actually recorded with Kenton, also succeeded in achieving this style quite well.

As regards how this kind of jazz phrasing is performed—one could say that it’s a result of doing what comes naturally. Classical players generally cannot get the hang of it. Leonard Bernstein tried to make it easier for them, in West Side Story, by using 12/8 notation instead of the usual 4/4. He probably got closer to it than anyone else, but such methods usually met with little success. It seems to be a case of either you’ve got it already—or it will remain a mystery forever.

At the beginning of this story I said, several times, that to play a musical instrument successfully one must have soul. It has always been my policy to try and make every note I play mean something. Listen to an accomplished violin soloist and my meaning becomes clear. The performer will put his whole heart and soul into the notes he is playing. He will transform the black dots on the sheet of music before him into something meaningful.

Jazz players, or, at least, most of them, do this all the time. But so should lead players. Once range and technique have been mastered the lead player should think, now how am I going to interpret this note, this passage, this piece of music? 

True, some music lends itself to this treatment more than others. To try and put some feeling into a number like Charlie Barnet's Skyliner, for instance, would be impossible. But just listen to Count Basie's April in Paris. After the eight bar intro, more or less a vamp until ready, the saxes roar in with so much passion as to thrill one through and through.

It is impossible to play anything written by Duke Ellington without getting emotionally involved with the music. I once arranged an Ellington tune called Elegy for Sister Kate for a 10-trombone ensemble led by the talented Danish trombonist Torolf Mølgard. This was a piece Ellington wrote by way of thanks for a nurse who looked after him in hospital, and it has probably only been recorded very few times. It was difficult to arrange, but I did my best. When I hear the way those trombones play it a shiver goes up and down my spine. It is uncanny the way a mere bunch of notes can do that.

I doubt whether many of the great British bandleaders amassed a fortune comparable with the high earnings of today's rock stars, although the big bands certainly had a large following.. Ambrose may well have done so, in the London hotels before the war, but he lost most of it on the gaming tables, and with his later band ventures. Geraldo may have been the only one who kept his money intact; he seemed to be the only bandleader who was properly organised. Now, most likely, Sid Lawrence has become a rich man with his Glenn Miller band. James Last has most definitely done extremely well, although he doesn’t come under the true label of big band in the context of which I speak.

The post-war American bandleaders Charlie Barnet and Artie Shaw were rich before they began, and only played for as long as it amused them. Benny Goodman, like so many of his contemporaries, did not become a wealthy man. Louis Armstrong went up into the higher income bracket only through his vocal recordings, as did Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine. Late in life Woody Herman was held responsible for taxes which his manager had neglected for many years to withhold from his musicians’ salaries. His Beverley Hills mansion, bought originally from Humphrey Bogart, had to be sold to meet some of the Internal Revenue Service demands. The man who bought the house was a fan of Woody’s and allowed him to continue living in it, rent free, until he died.

The best regular British band at the time of writing is, without a doubt, the BBC Big Band, directed by Barry Forgie. The band plays many arrangements written exclusively for the line-up by Bob Florence, Allan Ganley, Steve Gray, and various American composers.  The band has, alas, long been crossed from the BBC wage list and now bears the name only.  It’s the old, old story—hundreds of producers, typists, engineers, odd-job men and cleaning women working for the BBC probably have pensionable jobs for life—only the ones who do the actual broadcasting cannot get permanent employment.

Since I began this documentary another superb big band has emerged, that of the brilliant drummer Pete Cater. Using scores written by the American Frank Griffith and other contemporary arrangers, he has produced two CDs to date that, in my opinion, far surpass anything ever before recorded in Britain. This augers well for the future, and could help bring big band jazz to the young generation, just as the Buddy Rich band did back in the 1960s.

The primitive methods of producing musical sounds have remained the same throughout the centuries. The blown pipe, the plucked or stroked tensioned string, the beaten skin still form the basis of all acoustical musical instruments. The valve system for horns and brass has been improved, the mechanism for woodwind instruments made more sophisticated, but the fundamentals are still produced by blowing through fixed tubes. The slide trombone has hardly changed since the day it was first conceived, and still remains the only brass instrument in use capable of absolute pitch.

Since the invention of the saxophone by the Belgian Adolphe Sax in 1846 no new musical instruments of worth have found their place in the modern orchestra. The amplified plucked string and electronic keyboard instruments have introduced new sounds and greatly increased volume in certain forms of modern music, but many jazz pianists such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Keith Jarrett have abandoned the electric piano to return to the acoustic version, having reached what they consider to be the limits of progress on the electronic instrument.

In the 1950’s Bell Telephone Laboratories analyzed real trumpet notes and converted them to digital form. The tones were then fed back to a loudspeaker and were indistinguishable from the real thing. From this beginning alone one would think that the next logical step would be to construct whole musical works in this way, but the composing of such works on the computer would be a staggering achievement, and it is doubtful whether anything of real musical value would emerge. Giles Brindley, Professor of Physiology at the University of London, has constructed a bassoon using logic circuits to control the mechanism; others have used a similar scientific approach in an attempt to simplify playing techniques on other instruments. Not one of these developments has managed to replace the instruments of the traditional orchestra or take over the role of its members. When it comes to making music, the performer remains, just as he has always been, down through the ages, indispensable.

  Ron Simmonds © 2001

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved