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SUNDAY Series® | the BIG Band

Big band first burst onto the musical landscape in the Roaring Twenties; the 1930s and 1940s, however, marked its golden age, with the likes of Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie leading large jazz and swing orchestras that would blaze a trail for bebop and free jazz. Many of these big bands continued to thrive into the 1970s and beyond, aided and abetted by a new generation of contemporary artists dedicated to keeping the big band spirit alive.

Big Band’s Early History

The history of big band, many scholars agree, begins in the 1920s with a man named Fletcher Henderson. An Afro-American musician, orchestra leader and arranger, Henderson formed what is widely held to be the first jazz orchestra in 1924. Working closely with arranger Don Redman, he developed new arrangements for large orchestras. The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra was a fixture at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, setting the tone for the swing style of the next decade.

The jazz and swing orchestras of the big band era typically included three sections – reed instruments, trombones and trumpets – and a three- or four-part rhythm section made up of drums, bass, piano, and occasionally an acoustic guitar. As well as 16 to 19 instrumentalists, big bands often featured one or more singers and soloists as well. Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and clarinettist Lester Young were among the many soloists who first starred with jazz orchestras. Finally, most big bands were eponymously named after their band leader.

The Golden Age

Dizzy Gillespie

Big band’s popularity reached its apogee in New York in the mid-1930s, when venues like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were all the rage. In its heyday, the Cotton Club welcomed the likes of singer Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, who broke new ground with his creativity and cutting-edge arrangements. Providing the musical entertainment at the Savoy Ballroom were the Chick Webb and Jimmie Lunceford orchestras.

At the helm of one of the greatest jazz orchestras of all time was the venerable Count Basie.

From 1936 to 1940, Basie and his orchestra toured extensively, with stints at the Roseland Ballroom in 1937 and Carnegie Hall in 1938. Other big bands of the period opted for a more commercial sound, among them the Harry James and Glenn Miller orchestras.

The 1940s were marked by the advent of bebop, made popular by big band leaders Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie. The decade was also one of experimentation, with some orchestras – notably that of Stan Kenton – integrating woodwinds and strings. The late forties belonged, in large part, to Miles Davis, who literally redefined the genre with the Birth of the Cool sessions of 1948 and 1949. With its restrained harmonic structures and relaxed feel, the cool jazz style of the 1950s signalled a definitive break from the up-tempo virtuosity of bop.


The newfound freedom afforded by free jazz was a boon to some large orchestras like Anthony Braxton and the Creative Music Orchestra and Lester Bowie and the Sho’ Nuff Orchestra. By and large, though, the 1960s saw big band fall out of public favour – a vestige, to many, of a bygone era. Still, a handful of original big band artists distinguished themselves, among them American jazz composer and pianist Sun Ra and his Arkestra, the Globe Unity Orchestra and the AACM Big Band.

The move toward smaller ensembles with star soloists – a trend begun in the 1960s – continued into 1970s and 1980s and beyond, driven in part by financial concerns: smaller bands commanded lower appearance fees. The illustrious Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington orchestras continued to appeal to audiences nostalgic for the big band sound, while musicians like Thad Jones, Mel Lewis and Gil Evans sought to refine the classic big band formula.

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