Making the Scene: Contemporary New York City Big Band Jazz

Making the Scene: Contemporary New York City Big Band Jazz

Making the Scene: Contemporary New York City Big Band Jazz

Making the Scene: Contemporary New York City Big Band Jazz

Synopsis

The received wisdom of popular jazz history is that the era of the big band was the 1930s and '40s, when swing was at its height. But as practicing jazz musicians know, even though big bands lost the spotlight once the bebop era began, they never really disappeared. Making the Scene challenges conventional jazz historiography by demonstrating the vital role of big bands in the ongoing development of jazz. Alex Stewart describes how jazz musicians have found big bands valuable. He explores the rich "rehearsal band" scene in New York and the rise of repertory orchestras. Making the Scene combines historical research, ethnography, and participant observation with musical analysis, ethnic studies, and gender theory, dismantling stereotypical views of the big band.

Excerpt

As a young saxophone player coming up during the 1970s in Boston, I took little interest in big bands. My record collection contained no Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, or Woody Herman. Although I owned a few compilations of Basie (mostly for the Lester Young on them) and Ellington (mostly for the great tunes on them), my passion was John Coltrane, and through him I discovered Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, Lester Young, and many others. It was a difficult time to be a jazz musician. Almost none of the friends I had known in high school listened to jazz. a gig at a club in Cambridge might pay $7, if anything. the best-paying steady “jazz” gigs were in the burlesque clubs in Boston’s notorious Combat Zone. Nevertheless, nothing could divert me from my goal. All I cared about was mastering the art of improvisation. I dedicated myself to transcribing and learning the solos of my idols and hanging out and sitting in with the older, more experienced players at Wally’s, a black club on the edge of Roxbury.

Still, I remember trying to play in every big band I could. I’m not sure what attracted me to them. Certainly it was not familiarity with the repertoire or ambitions to land a job in one of the few remaining touring bands. Instinctively I must have known that certain musical skills were more easily acquired in a big band: reading music at sight, improving intonation, learning to phrase and breathe with other players, and developing a stronger sense of swing. Perhaps I wanted to be a part of something larger, to become absorbed into something more powerful, to play more of an accompanying role—something that, unlike members of the rhythm section, horn players rarely do in small groups.

Only later, after moving to New York City, when big bands had become an important part of my musical life, did I begin to explore classic big band recordings in their own right: for their ensemble styles, for their distinctive . . .

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