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The Big Band theory

April 22, 2008

Last Sunday I was hired to DJ the breaks for the Steve Lord 18 piece Big Band that played at Vibz Uptown in Hartford, CT. It got me to thinking about the Big Band scene – or rather, the lack thereof.

Why do we not (or not get to) dance to Big Bands that often? Perhaps it is that organizing a dance with a Big Band and really pulling it off takes immense planning, more money, better sound systems, grander halls – that usually our local Lindy scenes cannot afford.

Who are the Big Bands in CT, or in the country in general that we present day Lindy Hoppers would really relish dancing to? How and where do we find them? Are there many Big Bands whose music we can access beyond the recording studios and big concert halls? Are they simply the survivors and alumni of the Big Bands over the decades that used to be led by all time legends such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington and their ilk? Are there newer big bands that are unfettered by the past, yet can beat out juicy dancey tunes? What could a ‘new Big Band’ sound be like? Personally, I like bands that manage the vintage sound while at the same time sound new and fresh. Of the newer bands that satisfy this criteria, I feel the Boilermaker Jazz Band, Loose Marbles and their break away Baby Soda Jazz Band, Cangelosi Cards much deserve their acclaim within the Lindy community. Of course  these are smaller, tighter units. I am hoping there could be Big Bands that can mirror their success and musical accomplishment. Or do you think the newer big bands ought not deviate much from the timeless music and arrangements of the Swing era?

There’s definitely something very vibrant, chaotic yet harmonious about a big band that appeals to me. For example, as a dancer I like the opportunity to keep switching what instrument I am listening to (That is, using that instrument for inspiration to create moves or dictate the ‘feel’ of the dance that moment). On the music side, it must be a challenge making sure that all parts of the group come together well and then manage to sound greater than the sum of its parts. If you play for dancers, then there’s yet another dimension to worry about.

Are there fantastic big bands in your area you’d like to recommend? Would you want to dance to a big band?  Have you been to such an event – what was your experience like?

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2 Comments
  1. Erica permalink

    The big band era was possible because it exploited musicians– they were mostly black, and played for white people, so they didn’t get paid much. They worked long hours for little compensation because it was better than the other jobs available to them. Now, musicians expect to make at least a couple hundred dollars in a night, and they’d still have to work several nights a week to earn a living. A big band would cost way more than dancers are willing to spend, especially several times a week.

    My dad used to be a sort of freelance musician– he’d get a call from someone looking for a trumpet player or a bandleader, and get hired as part of a whatever-piece band. He didn’t make a living at it; he was also a college prof. I can ask him about it, if you’d like more history.

    Personally, and though this is heresy to my dad, I usually prefer a DJ to live music. Live bands tend to have their own unique sound, and don’t play the variety of styles I like to hear in one night.

  2. I actually hate dancing to most modern big bands. I’m pretty sure it’s cause they all are so used to playing for wedding gigs, that their repertoire always ends up more on the side of Glenn Miller’s In the Mood than Count Basie type stuff. More sweet jazz than hot. And they always end up playing Sing Sing Sing. Songs tend to be too long and they don’t know how to play for dancers, cause it’s too expensive for dancers to hire them regularly.

    That’s not true for all modern big bands, but that’s my generalization. Usually a big band makes me want to stay away rather than go to an event.

    And yes, I’ve had the experience of hiring one for an event I organized and sitting down with them and talking about what should be played and what shouldn’t… it was still bad.

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