Big Band Land

220px-Duke_Ellington_restoredHello, good morning, and welcome to the Saturday Morning News Post!

Readers, I am still deep in big band land with my Jazz Orchestra III final concert coming up this Wednesday (7:30pm, Tanna Hall, McGill) and my big band arrangement of the 5 part “Jelly Roll Suite” scheduled to be rehearsed this week and recorded a week from today.

Ah big band. If there’s some stigma attached to this ensemble within University music programs it may be because it is so strongly associated with a style. If you say “large jazz ensemble” it could be anything, but you say “big band” and inevitably Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and all the traditional swing bands come to mind. Which, of course, is some of the best music out there, however if you’re a jazz student and that’s not your cup of tea? Well then, you’re likely to dismiss the whole thing as old-fashioned and creatively limiting, “This can’t be “art”! I only get one solo all night! WTF!?”

… I know, I used to be an undergrad too.

My favourite big band? The only big band I listen to on a very regular basis?… Duke Ellington’s band. I think it’s my favourite because it doesn’t make me think of any “big band” style in particular,… it’s just, one of the best bands that ever was in the history of music. As much as I appreciate other big band’s styles, they seem somewhat codified to me, a little boxed in to a style. There’s something magical and mysterious about Duke’s band, something which transcends style. As a composer his imagination could seemingly go anywhere as he played with beauty and ugliness, utilizing the most expressive qualities of all of his long-time band members. As Miles Davis once said, “At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington.”

Anyways, I digress. Students will be what they will be, and you can try explaining to them how much large ensemble work teaches them about playing in time, listening, articulation, intonation, balance, air support and air control,… but chances are they have long since taken the experience for granted (usually since week 2 of high school).

However, as a composer/performer who has had nothing to do with big bands for the previous 12 years, I don’t take large ensembles for granted any more. Having 5 saxes, 4 trombones, 4-5 trumpets and full rhythm section playing music together,… just speaking sonically, that’s a powerful ensemble to reckon with! And writing for so many people, trying to balance each section, giving clear phrasing direction, balancing melodies with counter-melodies, etc., etc. It really is fascinating, like a large abstract, 3D jig-saw puzzle that you piece together to eventually present a clear image.

It’s also exhausting work, which is why it’s so convenient that my work desk is located right next to my bed.

And with that? Back to bed work!

Thanks for reading and have a great week everybody! jd

  • Steve

    Drop 2 that shiat!

  • John Doheny

    “This can’t be “art”! I only get one solo all night! WTF!?” ”

    It’d certainly make university orchestral progams rather thinly populated if all undergrads thought this way.:-P

    I don’t get it myself. At VCC I played clarinet in the wind band, and at various times both alto and tenor saxophones in both the Big Band and various small combos. At UBC I played alto clarinet, bass clarinet, straight clarinet and tenor sax in both the symphony and the wind bands, tenor sax in Fred Stride’s big band, and various saxophones in Dave Branter and Julia Nolan’s chamber groups.

    I just like to play the horn, man. It sounds like these undergrads you’re talking about are a lot pickier than I am. I’m guessing they don’t work much after graduation.:-P

  • John Doheny


    Ever play Ellington’s reiteration of the “Nutcracker Suite”? That sh*t will swing you into bad health.:)

  • John Doheny


    I suspect that many undergrad’s antipathy towards “big band” music is rooted in the crap they had to play in high school. During my 3 years as a band sub in Vancouver I was consistantly appalled at how boring, unimaginative and just plain square most high school big band libraries are.