The roaring sound of a swinging big band in full flight is one of the most impressive sounds in all of jazz.
In this article, we’re going to check out some of the best big band music in history and the bands – and bandleaders – responsible for them.
Jazz bands have nearly always come in all manner of shapes and sizes. Some of the genre’s most celebrated 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.
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 instrumental lineup of a big band will vary from ensemble to ensemble, but is typically composed of around 17 musicians, divided into four sections:
- five saxophones
- four trombones
- four trumpets
- a rhythm section of piano, double bass and drums
Common additions might include guitar, french horn, tuba or a vocalist.
Big bands in the 1920s and ‘30s 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 bands and jazz orchestras ever, with a recommended recording for each one.
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 was incredibly significant.
His New York-based jazz 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 subgenre.
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.
For many, the Count Basie Orchestra, with its vibrato-drenched, deeply swinging sound, is the quintessential big band in jazz.
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 bands 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.
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.
One of his biggest hits was “Sing, Sing Sing”, a classic big band feature, 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 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 in big bands 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 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.
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.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!