Big Band Music – The XXL Guide To The Sound & History of Big Bands

The roar of swinging big band music in full flight is one of the most impressive sounds in all of jazz history.

In this article, we’re going to check out some of the best big band music in history, via the celebrated bands famous bandleaders responsible for them.

And, whilst the big band era was at the height of its popularity in the early 1940s, you’ll see it’s early beginnings 3 decades before, and the way it still influences modern jazz music. 

Jazz bands have nearly always come in all manner of shapes and sizes. Some of the genre’s most famous albums have been made by intimate trios, duos and even solo musicians.

At the other end of the ensemble spectrum, providing almost unrivalled power and dynamic range, is big band music.

A Brief Guide To Big Band History

The big band, or jazz orchestra, as it is also sometimes known, first appeared in the 1910s, before reaching peak popularity in the 1930s and ‘40s during the era of swing music.

The financial implications of leading larger ensembles and changing public tastes meant that the heyday of big band jazz as mainstream popular music came to an end.

But there remained great big bands and jazz orchestras making a broad range of music, and this rich tradition continues today.

The Big Band Line-Up

The instrumental lineup of a big band will vary from ensemble to ensemble, but is typically composed of around 17 musicians, divided into four sections:

Common additions might include guitar, french horn, tuba or a vocalist.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, a big band (otherwise known as a ‘dance band’) tended to be slightly smaller.

A large number of musicians like this makes collective improvisation trickier, so big bands tend to utilise much more written material than smaller jazz groups like trios and quartets, although improvised solo features still appear plentifully to provide contrast with the ensemble sections.

So without further ado, here’s our look at some of the best big band music via the great jazz orchestras, with a recommended recording for each one.

Big Band Music: 10 Legendary Jazz Orchestras (+1 Modern Bonus!)

Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra

Pianist, arranger and composer Fletcher Henderson didn’t manage to achieve the kind of long-term mainstream success that some of the other bandleaders on this list did, but his contribution to the development of jazz and the lineage of big band music history was incredibly significant.

His New York-based big band orchestra was the most popular African-American band of the 1920s, and his slick arrangements had a considerable influence upon the hugely successful bands of the swing era in the following two decades.

There was an existing tradition of dance bands playing primarily written material, which Henderson fused with the heavily improvised style that had developed in New Orleans to create a defining jazz big band sound.

Another innovation was the separation of the band into the instrumental sections that we see today.

Louis Armstrong took the jazz scene by storm when he moved to New York to join the Orchestra in 1924, while Coleman Hawkins, the father of the tenor saxophone in jazz, was another featured soloist.

Trumpeters Henry “Red” Allen, Roy Eldridge and saxophonists Benny Carter and Chu Berry, all major voices of the swing era, played with the band at various points too.

Sadly, a mixture of financial factors and bad luck meant that Henderson was forced to split up the band in 1934 and sell some of his popular arrangements to Benny Goodman, who had hits with a number of them.

Recommended Fletcher Henderson album: Fletcher Henderson and the Birth of Big Band Swing

This compilation album includes classic numbers like “Sugar Foot Stomp”, which features a great Armstrong solo.

The Duke Ellington Orchestra

The music that Duke Ellington composed and arranged for his Orchestra is so extensive, unique and significant that it virtually demands its own sub-genre.

Indeed, the pianist and bandleader’s output is often described as ‘beyond category’, which Ellington himself thought was the ultimate compliment.

Duke first rose to prominence with a residency at the Cotton Club in Harlem, where he led an 11-piece band, beginning in 1927 and, altogether, he ran his Orchestra for an incredible 51 years, from 1923 until his death in 1974.

As you’d expect over such a long period, the exact personnel of his bands changed over time.

One particularly significant edition was the ‘Blanton-Webster band’.

Featuring tenor saxophone giant Ben Webster and double bass pioneer Jimmy Blanton, it recorded classic numbers like “In a Mellow Tone”, “Cotton Tail”, “Never No Lament” and “C Jam Blues” in the early 1940s, which all remain part of the jazz standard repertoire today.

A key contributor to the Ellington sound world was composer, arranger, pianist and lyricist Billy Strayhorn. Ellington’s right hand man added numerous pieces to the band’s repertoire, including  “Take the ‘A’ Train”, the Orchestra’s theme tune.

Ellington began his career playing music for swing dancers, but the repertoire he produced for the Orchestra also included ambitious extended forms, film music and sacred works, and he is considered by many to be one of the most significant American composers of any genre.

Recommended Duke Ellington album: Ellington at Newport

This classic live album from the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival includes the famous 27-chorus blues solo from tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. Lead altoist Johnny Hodges’ feature on “I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” is another highlight.

Count Basie Orchestra

For many, the Count Basie Orchestra, with its vibrato-drenched, deeply swinging sound, is the quintessential sound of big band music.

Basie had played piano with Walter Page’s Blue Devils and Bennie Moten’s orchestra – two important early swing bands – before forming his own Kansas-based outfit from the remnants of the latter, following Moten’s untimely death in 1935.

His band in the mid-late ‘30s included players like tenor saxophonist Lester Young, guitarist Freddie Green, drummer Jo Jones and vocalists Helen Hume and Jimmy Rushing, and played in a Kansas City “jam session” style, with competitive soloing accompanied by riff-based accompaniments.

In the 1950s Basie led what is known as the ‘Second Testament’ version of the band.

Now utilising more complex charts provided by outside arrangers like Neal Hefti, Sammy Nestico and Quincy Jones, they developed an instinctively-recognisable sound.

Many of these arrangements are still performed by big band around the world today. The Orchestra also collaborated with singers during this period, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine.

The band has continued to tour and record following Basie’s death in 1984, and since 2013 has been directed by trumpeter Scotty Barnhart.

Recommended Count Basie recording: The Atomic Mr. Basie

This classic big band album from 1958 features compositions and arrangements by Neal Hefti, brilliantly played by the Second Testament edition of the Count Basie Orchestra.

In our opinion, it includes on of the most underrated Count Basie songs of all time: Flight Of The Foo Birds.

You can read a full review of the album by British jazz writer Nick Lea here. 

Stan Kenton

Stan Kenton was a pianist, arranger and bandleader who often had a very forward way of thinking in terms f the music he presented. More of an arranger than featured pianist, Kenton would lead a big band for the best part of four decades.

Kenton formed his first orchestra in 1940 and debuted in New York in 1942 at the Roseland Ballroom.

In 1945 his orchestra became popular as on the best West Coast big bands with the addition of arranger Pete Rugolo, and the band featured top jazz musicians such as Stan Getz, Art Pepper. His bands would also feature female jazz vocalists such as Anita O’Day and June Christy.

Kenton was an ambitious band leader, and would often work in concepts for his orchestra. In the 1940’s his Artistry In Rhythm band with its Afro-Cuban style writing and influences from the classical world of Stravinsky and Bartók would be a huge success, to be followed by his Concerts in Progressive Jazz Orchestra.

There would be many such concept bands over the coming decades, the ambitious 39-piece Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra complete with string section in the early fifties, and the highly acclaimed 1953 album New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm.

Kenton’s resolve to keep his Orchestra together was peppered with periods of inactivity. He would disband for a time to recreate his sound, and his bands of the sixties would include at one time a ‘mellophonium’ section. 

Whie Stan Kenton would continue to be active until his death in 1979, his finest artistic achievements were with the Orchestras of the late forties and fifties.

Recommended Albums: Three Stan Kenton Classics

“New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm” (1952)

This album is often cited as one of Kenton’s most significant works, which showcases his innovative approach to big band music.

It features complex arrangements which blend jazz with classical influences. The album was a departure from the dance-oriented style of most contemporary big bands and is considered a landmark in progressive jazz.

“Cuban Fire!” (1956)

Cuban Fire is notable for its integration of Latin American influences, particularly Afro-Cuban styles, into the big band format.

It’s celebrated for its energetic rhythms, rich orchestrations, and successful fusion of jazz and Latin music.

Alongside the work of Dizzy Gillespie, “Cuban Fire!” is often regarded as one of the finest examples of Latin jazz in a big band setting.

“City of Glass” (1951)

An album that features arrangements by Bob Graettinger, “City of Glass” is known for its avant-garde, almost experimental approach to jazz.

This album pushed the boundaries of what was traditionally considered big band music, with its complex, dissonant harmonies and unconventional structures. It’s a testament to Kenton’s willingness to explore and experiment within the genre.

These albums not only highlight Kenton’s innovative spirit but also his impact on the evolution of jazz music, particularly in how a big band can be utilised to explore new musical territories.

Benny Goodman

Swing music was the dominant style of American ‘pop’ between 1935-46, and leaders of big bands such as Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey were huge stars.

Virtuoso clarinettist Benny Goodman was nicknamed “the King of Swing”, and was one of the most popular bandleaders during this period.

During a time of racial segregation in the United States, Goodman, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, led one of the first racially integrated bands, hiring African Americans Teddy Wilson and Charlie Christian, who pioneered the electric guitar in jazz as part of Goodman’s group, in the 1930s, as well as iconic jazz vibraphone player Lionel Hampton.

One of his biggest hits was “Sing, Sing Sing”, a classic big band song, with long, exposed solos for clarinet and drums.

Key Benny Goodman recording: The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert

This record documents the first ever performance by a jazz band at New York’s famous Carnegie Hall.

Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie was an innovator in the bebop style of the 1940s, which had a focus on serious small group jazz, after the arguably more populist material of the swing era.

But the legendary trumpeter also led a big band, which was highly influential, bridging the gap between the raucous, danceable sounds of the swing music and the futuristic bebop movement that was emerging.

Gillespie had played big band music as a young sideman, including one fronted by singer Billy Eckstine, which was a real hothouse for talent, with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan and Dexter Gordon all playing in it before their respective careers as soloists took off.

Although Gillespie’s own large ensemble was relatively short lived and did not record anywhere near as prolifically as other bands on this list, it had considerable influence upon the lineage of modern jazz.

Miles Davis’ ‘First Great Quintet’, one of the foremost hard bop outfits of the 1950s, took some of its repertoire from the Gillespie Big Band pad – Tunes like “Two Bass Hit,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Woody’n You,” and “Tadd’s Delight” – with the arrangements pared down for the smaller ensemble.

The Modern Jazz Quartet, one of the most popular groups of the Cool jazz movement, was formed out of the band’s rhythm section – John Lewis (piano), Milt Jackson (vibraphone), Ray Brown (double bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums), although Brown was replaced by Percy Heath.

Gillespie was also a pioneer in the creation of Afro-Cuban jazz, and he included this latin influence in a number of his big band charts, such “Con Alma”, “Manteca” and “Tin Tin Deo”.

Recommended Dizzy Gillespie Big Band album: Birks Words – The Verve Big Band Sessions

These 1950s recordings feature the leader’s trumpet prominently on excellent arrangements played by a swinging band. There’s a nice dose of humour on tunes like “Hey Pete! Let’s Eat Mo’ Meat” as well.

Woody Herman and The Herd

Clarinettist and saxophonist Woody Herman led an ensemble in the mid 1930s that was known as “The Band That Plays The Blues”, before having a hit with “Woodchopper’s Ball” in 1939, which went on to sell five million copies.

As bebop emerged in the 1940s Herman embraced the new music, hiring Dizzy Gillespie to write some arrangements for his first big band, which he called The First Herd.

Herman also experimented with classical music and commissioned Igor Stravinsky to write the Ebony Concerto as a challenging clarinet feature for the leader to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1946.

Herman’s best-loved edition of the band was the Second Herd, which he formed in 1947.

The ensemble was also known as The Four Brothers band, an epithet it took from the title of a Jimmy Giuffre tune that featured its famous four-man saxophone section, which was composed of Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff, Herbie Steward and Stan Getz.

All four were heavily influenced by the cool, light tenor saxophone style of Basie alumnus Lester Young.

Herman led a Third Herd from 1950-56 and continued to tour and record with various editions of his big band until his death in 1987. He hired a revolving cast of talented young players and took on the influence of rock ‘n’ roll, demonstrating his ever-present desire to adapt to new trends.

Recommended Woody Herman album: Blowin’ Up a Storm! The Columbia Years 1945-47

This compilation includes some of Herman’s most important recordings, like Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, and “Four Brothers”, the famous saxophone section feature played by The Second Herd.

Buddy Rich Big Band

Buddy Rich was a child prodigy as a drummer, singer and tap dancer, before early career work behind the drum kit with swing bands fronted by Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and Bunny Berigan.

He also played small group sessions with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and Lester Young.

From 1966 he led his own big band despite the fact that, in general, the popularity of jazz orchestras had waned since the Second World War.

The band featured top West Coast jazz and session players, and the full-throttled arrangements focused heavily upon Rich’s virtuosic drumming, with numerous extended solos and features.

Despite his great skill as a drummer, Rich never learned how to read music, so when the band played a new arrangement another drummer would play the chart first, allowing the bandleader to learn it by ear.

He was famed for his fiery temper and for being a hard taskmaster with his sidemen, as showcased on a series of famous recordings that were secretly made of him berating his musicians on a tour bus in the 1980s.

Recommended Buddy Rich album: Swingin’ New Big Band

Recorded in 1966, this features the band’s famous “West Side Story Medley”, a suite of arrangements of songs from Leonard Bernstein’s musical.

The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra

Trumpeter, composer and arranger Thad Jones was the brother of Elvin Jones (drummer with John Coltrane’s classic quartet) and piano great Hank Jones.

Thad had played with the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1950s, contributing solos and arrangements to some of the band’s best-loved albums.

Mel Lewis was a drummer who spent his early career in Los Angeles, and was regarded as something of a large ensemble specialist, having worked with Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, Stan Kenton’s Orchestra and Marty Paich’s Dek-Tette.

With Lewis now based in New York, the pair founded a jazz orchestra in 1965, with a focus on adventurous new material that was nevertheless deeply rooted in the classic big band tradition.

The band was renamed the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra after the deaths of Jones and Lewis, and continues to perform every Monday night at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, New York.

Recommended Thad Jones recording: Presenting Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra

Charts like “Three in One” and “Mean What You Say” are extremely challenging, and remain popular with advanced big bands today.

Gil Evans

Gil Evans is best known for his collaborations with Miles Davis, with his sophisticated arrangements shining on larger ensemble albums like Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess.

Evans didn’t lead a touring big band with consistent personnel in the way that flamboyant characters like Duke Ellington and Count Basie did, and he did a wide range of freelance work for other artists, but the Canadian did record a number of albums under his own name.

Evans is regarded as one of the greatest jazz orchestrators of all time, and his distinctive arranging style makes use of non-standard big band instruments like French horn and tuba, as well as taking influence from impressionist classical composers like Debussy and Ravel.

Recommended Gil Evans album: The Individualism of Gil Evans

An impressive cast makes up the big band on this 1964 album, including Phil Woods, Wayne Shorter, Eric Dolphy and Thad Jones.

(BONUS) The Maria Schneider Orchestra

Maria Schneider worked as a copyist and assistant for Gil Evans, before studying with Bob Brookmeyer (former trombonist, arranger and musical director for the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra).

She has led her own large ensemble since the early 1990s, featuring 18 of New York’s finest contemporary jazz musicians, and largely focusing upon evocative, genre-blurring original music.

Schneider has pioneered the crowdfunding model, which allows her to raise funds to record expensive large ensemble albums independently through online pre-sales.

She won a Grammy for the band’s 2016 collaboration with David Bowie, the single “Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)”, and the Orchestra continues to tour extensively. It plays a week-long residency every year for Thanksgiving at the Jazz Standard in New York.

Recommended Maria Schneider Orchestra album: Concert in the Garden

This programme of original music, which displays various latin influences, won a Grammy Award for Best Large Ensemble Album in 2005.

Thanks for stopping by!

Hope this round up of some of the great big band music in jazz history gave you some new music to add to your listening list.

If you’d like to check out some of the great musicians who played in these bands, you can find articles and guides on all types of jazz music here.

We’ve also covered the different types of jazz and the famous musicians who popularised them.

5 thoughts on “Big Band Music – The XXL Guide To The Sound & History of Big Bands”

  1. So hard to pick a favourite but a modern favourite has to be 8-Bit Big Band which is a big band version of brilliant jazz ensembles like The Consouls and J-Music Ensemble who bring an appreciation of jazz to new generations by cleverly using VGM (video game music) as their standards. Kids are loving the jazz because of the childhood nostalgia.

  2. I have two big bands that I believe belong on any list of the best big bands, the Maynard Ferguson Dreamband with either “Message from Newport” or “Message from Birdland” as suggested album, and the Bill Holman Big Band with “Brilliant Corners: The Music of Thelonious Monk” as his best album.

  3. Kudos for naming Fletcher Henderson band. Definitely my number 1! I must add that Tommy Dorsey had a pretty stellar band at its peak. Wrist slap for excluding him.


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