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Orchestral jazz is a jazz genre that developed in New York City in the 1920s. Early innovators of the genre, such as Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, include some of the most highly regarded musicians, composers, and arrangers in all of jazz history. The fusion of jazz's rhythmic and instrumental characteristics with the scale and structure of an orchestra, made orchestral jazz distinct from the musical genres that preceded its emergence. Its development contributed both to the popularization of jazz, as well as the critical legitimization of jazz as an art form.
Orchestral jazz developed from early New Orleans jazz. The African-American musicians who pioneered the genre prior to 1920, and who migrated from New Orleans to Chicago and New York in the early 1920s, brought jazz north; in time, the African-American neighborhood of Harlem became the genre's cultural center.
In New York, the entertainment and arts industries thrived and jazz found a fitting home, becoming an important part of the cultural landscape. But before the widespread popularity of big bands, which developed in tandem with the growing dance craze, jazz was generally regarded as a rather crude variety of music. It was not widely listened to for its artistic value, as music critic Richard Hadlock writes:
- "In the twenties, most of those who listened at all regarded jazz as merely an energetic background for dancers; the few who sought more profound values in the music tended to accept Paul Whiteman's concert productions... as the only jazz worth taking seriously.
A movement emerged during the 1920s, however, indebted in part to Paul Whiteman's musical influence. This movement led to the more stylized, and more formal variety of jazz that would become orchestral jazz, imagined first by Whiteman as symphonic jazz.
This stylization of jazz had elements of classical European composing, coupled with the rhythmic and instrumental sound of New Orleans jazz. Orchestral jazz was musically distinct from its southern predecessor for a variety of reasons: not only were the bands bigger, creating a certain richness of sound, but also the music was structurally more sophisticated. While New Orleans jazz was characterized by collective improvisation and the spontaneous reinterpretation of standard tunes, jazz orchestras played head arrangements that were composed and arranged prior to the performance in which they were executed. The busy, raucous style of early jazz did not hold the same kind of popular appeal that the comparative restraint of orchestral jazz did. In particular, the implementation of measured rhythm accounted for much of its popular appeal. The two-beat groove reminiscent of New Orleans jazz was replaced during the transition into the swing era by the bass innovations of Wellman Braud. His use of the "walking style" of bass made the four beats to the bar a jazz standard; furthermore, this rhythm was conducive to the kind of dancing audiences desired.
The rise of big band instrumentation had as much to do with artistic trends as it did with commercial viability. Significant technological developments transformed the music industry during the 1920s, allowing for an increase in the mass consumption of music. Phonographs and records became standard household items; indicative of the widespread popularization of recorded music is the fact that nearly 100 million records were sold in 1927 alone. Prearranged music had a particular commercial appeal, since audiences were familiar with the songs they saw performed live from the recordings they purchased. Furthermore, exposure to musical innovation—and jazz, in all its varieties, was certainly innovative—had never before reached the same breadth of American audience. Given the commercial availability of music—which, in addition to records, was aided by the proliferation of broadcast radio—a platform was thus created that accounted for the popularization of jazz. But the mass consumption of jazz simultaneously allowed the audience an inverted influence on its development, and consumer demands dictated that orchestral jazz adopted a structure similar to traditionally accessible popular music.
Paul Whiteman, Fletcher Henderson, and Don Redman
The "King of Jazz" in the early twenties was Paul Whiteman, a classically trained musician from Denver. Prior to his time as a ballroom bandleader at the Palais Royal in New York, Whiteman played violin in both the Denver Symphony Orchestra, as well as the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. His classical training substantially influenced the way in which he approached "Modern Music"; most famously, Whiteman's performance at Aeolian Hall in 1924 showcased the transformation he helped pioneer. Concluding this noteworthy show with George Gershwin's famous composition (and perhaps the best example of symphonic jazz) Rhapsody in Blue, Whiteman's performance is often cited as the event that signifies the arrival of jazz from a folk music to an art form. The showmanship and innovation Whiteman exhibited earned him the moniker "King of Jazz," though with this title there is a good deal of controversy associated. As a white man, Whiteman's capitalization on a musical genre that is incontrovertibly African-American in origins has led many critics to question the authenticity of his artistic pursuits, and even deem them exploitative. yet many of Whiteman's contemporaries, black and white, praised him and, indicative of his influence, wanted to emulate his successes.
Two of Whiteman's contemporaries that made, arguably, the most significant contributions to the development of orchestral jazz, were the collaborative due of Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman. Though Henderson, a piano player, never gained the celebrity of many other bandleaders of the time, his collaborations with Redman nonetheless had enormous influence on the development of orchestral jazz, and particularly its transition from Whiteman's symphonic arrangements to the eventual supremacy of big band.
Redman's arrangements of new Orleans and Chicago jazz pieces re-imagined the musical potential of jazz, marking the shift from relatively disorganized polyphonic jazz tunes, to the much more widely consumable homophonic compositions characteristic of orchestral jazz. Other structural techniques, such as call-and-response, were apparent in Whiteman's arrangements that pre-date Redman's; however, Redman's use of call-and-response as his jazz compositions' underlying structure is thought of as one of his most important accomplishments. His use of Arpeggiated chords, sectional point and counterpoint, changes in key signature and rhythm, and his layering of complex harmonies demonstrate Redman's nuanced grasp of musical composition. Redman also had a unique sense of band structure, the legacy of which still persists:
- "Redman's great achievement as arranger was to treat the band as a large unit made up of four interactive sections: reeds (saxophones and clarinets), trumpets, trombones, and rhythm sections. Over the decade 1924-34, the orchestra grew to an average of fifteen musicians: typically three trumpets, two to three trombones, up to five reeds, and four rhythm (piano, bass or tuba, banjo or guitar, drums). This basic big band instrumentation, notwithstanding numerous variations, remains unchanged even now." Page text.
Variations in instrumentation also allowed for variations in performance. One important trend that coincided with the increase in availability of music was the dance craze of the twenties and thirties; the most successful bands of the era were those that accommodated their audience's desire to dance. Henderson's band, for example, began playing at the Roseland Ballroom in the early twenties; his repertoire included not only "hot jazz" pieces, but also waltzes in deference to the desires of the Roseland's patrons. Henderson's consideration of his audience points to the importance of entertainment in the performance of the variety of jazz that was overtaking New York City (incidentally, however, Henderson was not considered to possess the same caliber of showmanship as other performers, such as Duke Ellington, and some attribute his lack of showmanship as the primary reason for the commercial struggles he suffered). Variety in a band's repertoire meant the incorporation of both pop and jazz standards into most performances, which also allowed for the organic fusion of the two genres by those who performed both.
But whereas Whiteman continued to write and perform an extensive amount of popular music—and did so almost exclusively after he suffered from the economic pressures of the Stock Market Crash of 1929—other big bands, like Henderson's, transitioned into the swing era.
Through this transition, Henderson and Redman had an approach to musical innovation quite distinct from Whiteman's--an approach firmly rooted in the jazz tradition. Specifically, the duo utilized the spontaneity and virtuosity of improvisation so integral to jazz as a unique musical genre. While Whiteman's own publicist declared the day of the jazz soloist to be over, Redman's arrangements maintained a balance between arranged passages and improvisation, and showcased the best musical talents of the era. Henderson's band featured an array of virtuosic talent, including, at various times, some of the best jazz soloists of all time. These included Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter, Lester Young, and Chu Berry, to name just a few of the impressive band mates Henderson recruited. After Henderson and Redman ended their formidable collaboration in 1927, Henderson eventually began, in 1931, to compose. He familiarized himself with the elements of composition by transcribing old jazz records and scoring them to a full orchestra.
As jazz and popular music evolved in tandem, the genres moved from separate spheres and became more closely linked with popularization of swing music. Big bands ushered in the swing era that began in the early thirties, signifying the culmination of commercial jazz that was heavily orchestrated. This variety of jazz was much more commercially digestible than ever before, since it was intended to make its listeners dance.
However, this popularization of jazz was not a phenomenon to its dilution or disadvantage. Indeed, the big band of the twenties and thirties provided the necessary outlets for the realization of the legacies of both Whiteman and Henderson. This was probably best epitomized in the career of the most prolific composer of jazz, and likely all of American musical history, namely Duke Ellington. Ellington also incorporated a kind of piano playing perfected by James P. Johnson in the mid-twenties, a style called stride.
Widely known for his prodigious musical sense, Ellington's composing career began at the age of 14. He would go on to compose a tremendous variety of music, be captured on thousands of recordings, and perform for nearly five decades. As indicated by the implicated esteem of his nickname "Duke," Ellington possessed a renowned stage presence, highly regarded for his smoothness and wit. However, Ellington was more than a showman, and his reputation as a prodigious musician was not undeserved. One example of his particularly ingenious composition is the following description of his hit tune Black and Tan Fantasy:
- "Ellington's piece has been interpreted as a response to the idea that these small, overlooked speakeasies absolved a racially divided society. 'Black and Tan Fantasy' contrasts a characteristic twelve-bar blues by Miley with a flouncy sixteen-bar melody by Ellington. Miley's theme, the black part of the equation, was based on a spiritual he had learned from his mother. Ellington's the tan part, draws on the ragtime traditions that lingered in the 1920s. As the two strains merge in a climactic evocation of Chopin's famous 'Funeral March' theme, the piece buries the illusions of an era." Page text.
The subtleties of Ellington's composition make for a musical art that was at once thoughtful and complicated, as well as listenable and enjoyable. Ellington's contributions to jazz are innumerable, and yet, as indicated by the fame he gained in the mid-twenties, the genre is most indebted to him for elevating orchestral jazz to its pinnacle. No other artist was quite as able as Ellington to utilize jazz elements, though Henderson and Redman had attempted, quite so seamlessly with a large orchestra. Many of Ellington's compositions were written for specific members of his band, highlighting their individual talents and relying on their input to cultivate his sound. Ellington's career, ultimately, is commonly cited as the culmination of jazz's golden era, so called the jazz age and the swing era. Uniting these eras is the persistence and development of orchestral jazz, accomplished in large part by the immense career of Duke Ellington.
Musical Style and Instrumentation
The most marked shifts from New Orleans and Chicago styles of jazz to orchestral jazz included the shift from polyphony to homophony, the general expansion of instrumentation, and a greater emphasis on pre-arranged compositions rather than collective improvisation. Prior to 1930, big bands were composed of trumpets, trombones, saxophones or clarinets, and a rhythm section made up of tuba, banjo, piano, and drums. Early big bands typically played 32-bar popular songs or 12-bar blues, which were organized around the traditional jazz two-beat groove; as the big band genre evolved, however, the four-beat swung rhythm became its most substantial change. This was in part a function of the change in the instrumentation of the rhythm section, and the incorporation of the string bass, as well as the substitution of guitar for the banjo. Finally, the musical arrangements that organized an ensemble's playing were based on a "riff approach" which made use of head arrangements. Head arrangements employ the call-and-response typical of African-American music; each orchestral section harmonizes a certain riff, responding to the phrases of the other sections. Orchestral jazz pieces, therefore, progressed logically through this tension, built and released by the harmonic communication of layered playing.
Many of the most famous jazz musicians of the twenties and thirties played significant roles in the development, innovation, and popularization of orchestral jazz. These included Paul Whiteman (composer, violin), Louis Armstrong (trumpet, cornet, vocals), Bix Beiderbecke (cornet, piano), Red Nichols (composer, cornet), Duke Ellington (composer, piano), James P. Johnson (composer, piano), Fletcher Henderson (composer, piano), Don Redman (composer, arranger), Eubie Blake (composer, lyricist, piano), Cootie Williams (trumpet), Wellman Braud (bass), Benny Goodman (bandleader, clarinet), Andy Kirk (bandleader, saxophone, tuba), and Mary Lou Williams (composer, piano), to name some of the most important.
- Hadlock, Richard (1980). The World of Count Basie. New York: C. Scribner and Sons.
- Deffaa, Chip. Voices of the Jazz Age: Profiles of Eight Vintage Jazzmen. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
- Howland, John Louis. Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, & the Birth of Concert Jazz Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.
- Giddins, Gary, and Scott Knowles DeVeaux. Jazz. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.
- Hadlock, Richard. Jazz Masters of the Twenties. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
- Dance, Stanley. The World of Count Basie. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1980.