It is well known hereabouts that my sweet spot for “classic jazz” starts to disappear not long after the demise of the 78 rpm phonograph record. I have joked that the long play record ruined jazz because once performers were no longer restricted to a three minute time limit, there was nothing to prevent long, pointless drum solos. More seriously, after about 1947, big bands began to go out of fashion. And because the big band is one of my favorite group configurations, its becoming a rarity made the listening landscape less rich than it had been during and before WWII.
But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of the big band was greatly exaggerated. Today, let’s have a look (and a listen) to a few example of bands that refused to stand musically still into the mid 1970’s – a time far past when most had given the big band up for dead.
When someone mentions a “big band”, most people think of the years before and during the Second World War, when names like Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and innumerable others played to big crowds as the main source of popular music of the time. We have featured many from that era in this space, and we are right to remember that time as one where the big band was king. We have also covered the era following that war when the big bands began to die off. One by one the famous names disbanded, first as singers took over in producing the big hits and then as rock & roll finished the job.
For those of us who are jazz fans, we know that the big band didn’t really die so much as it became an alternate universe where well-known musicians continued to ply their trade for an older audience. Many leaders found some success through the 1950s and even into the early 60’s with some bands that could be quite good. But by the late 1960’s most of the old timers were either playing nothing but nostalgia or had allowed a lifetime of hard living to sideline them for good. The players who were younger tended towards small groups that were more financially viable. There were, however, some exceptions.
Most people do not realize that the big band retained a lot of vitality through most of the 1970s. Way, way back we sampled some work of the the ever-creative Stan Kenton’s band from his album Kenton ’76. Today let us take a look at three more random samples of the big band of that era, and how the music they produced came in a wide variety of styles that kept a lot of kids in high school and college jazz bands in fresh material and made them into a new core of fans. The first is from one of the old stalwarts – Count Basie. Although Basie had been leading his own big bands since the mid 1930s, his 1975 album Basie Big Band showed that the old dude had not stood still, but could still do the traditional, but in a very modern way.
Midnight Freight is a perfect example of that blend. No traditional band opened its theme with three flutes playing in unison, but here we are. Count Basie featured several pieces with train themes over the decades, and Midnight Freight is a highly descriptive term for this slow, smoldering blues that builds momentum and power as it rolls on its way through the night.
The piece was written by Sammy Nestico, who wrote quite a lot for Basie in the late 1960s and into the mid 70’s. Nestico was one of those rare jazz writers who dated back to the original big band era and wrote scores for many movies and television shows, in addition to things like this. This chart shows off all the things a Basie band could do so well – full-bodied ensemble work from the various sections interspersed with first rate soloists – Bobby Plater’s tenor saxophone and Al Grey’s muted trombone are featured. Almost all of the players were decades younger than the Count, except for rhythm guitarist Freddie Green who was a band fixture going back to 1937.
A player who came to prominence at the tail end of the (first) big band era was Maynard Ferguson. A Canadian trumpet player, he came to the US to play for Stan Kenton – just as Kenton disbanded. After short stints with a couple of other bands at the end of their lives, Kenton called him to join a new outfit in 1950. Stan Kenton loved loud trumpets played really high, and Maynard was just the guy. Ferguson left Kenton in 1953 and went to work as a Hollywood session player who left his mark on several films until he started his own band in 1956.
Ferguson spent several years in Europe but came back in the early 1970s with a band that was a fusion of jazz and rock, and he had a fair amount of commercial success with it. Ferguson’s band became a haven for younger players and was also a fixture in the jazz education scene, ensuring a fresh, young audience that sustained Maynard for the rest of his career until his death in 2006.
The 1974 album Chameleon was one of several he recorded during that decade, and this is the title song. Herbie Hancock wrote this bit of funk and recorded it the year before, and here is Maynard’s version. Ferguson’s records are notable for his many squealing solos, but there are none of those here. You can certainly hear Ferguson up in the nosebleed section of the trumpet’s range, but he does it as part of the group and not as a soloist. And nobody who has ever listened to this can forget the line that Herbie Hancock conceived for the electric bass played instead by Maynard’s trombone section.
This third band is one you have probably never heard of – the big band of Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin. Akiyoshi was a young girl in Japan immediately after the war and was exposed to American jazz from a young age. She became accomplished at the piano and later met (and married) tenor saxophonist Lew Tabackin. They formed a big band in Los Angeles in 1973 and would perform and record in that format for the next thirty years.
Quadrille, Anyone? is from their second album, Long Yellow Road. This 1975 album was named Best Jazz Album of the year by Stereo Review magazine and won a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance, Big Band. Like almost everything the band ever did, it featured Akiyoshi’s unique arrangements and Asian-flavored piano with the bold, full-bodied and occasionally rough-hewn sound of Tabackin as the featured tenor saxophone soloist. At least during those times when he was not playing a very refined flute.
After the first thirty seconds of a sultry, bluesy introduction, the piece whisks into a brisk, spirited jazz waltz that was clearly not played by your father’s big band. Although the recording never varies from the 1-2-3, 1-2-3 waltz count, the music sometimes tricks us into hearing what we think is a transition into a more normal 4 beat rhythm, but it is actually only a switch between a straight waltz time and one that has a swing to it.
The piece shows why there is simply no substitute for a big band – with somewhere between fifteen and twenty players, there are so many sounds and textures and colors that can be assembled, whether they are out front or are working behind a soloist. And all three of these bands together show the incredible variety of fresh material that was still on offer in record stores in 1974-75 for those who were not under the thrall of, say, Peter Frampton (as he came alive).
I might argue that from the 80’s to the present, jazz has consolidated a bit – especially the big band – into a more-or-less classic formula. That classic formula is responsible for a lot of good music, but even such a classicist as me can appreciate the innovation and exploration that was still a part of the big band universe in the mid 1970’s – long play records and all. See if you don’t agree.
Midnight Freight from the 1975 Pablo Records album Basie Big Band, from the YouTube page of JohnnyStacatta;
Chameleon from the 1974 Maynard Ferguson Columbia Records album of the same name, from the YouTube page of malawolf85;
Quadrille, Anyone? from the 1975 RCA Victor album Long Yellow Road by the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tobackin Big Band, from the YouTube page of Charles Bradley II.
Photo Credits: Combined photos of disc label and album cover from Maynard Ferguson’s 1974 Columbia Records album Chameleon, combined with the album covers for the 1975 album Basie Big Band on the Pablo label and the 1975 RCA Victor album Long Yellow Road, all from discogs.com.