The Contemporary Big Band

  • Module Tutor: Dr Jonathan Eato
  • Level: I/5 (2nd year students), H/6 (3rd year students)

Aims and content

Q. When is a big band not a big band?

A. When it’s a jazz orchestra, a large ensemble, a brotherhood of breath, or a brass fantasy.

Although big bands are often stereotyped as purveyors of 1930s–1940s dance band music, many composers have continued to be fascinated by the play of composition and improvisation inherent in large jazz based ensembles.

The range of contemporary music that stands on the shoulders of pioneering big band artists such as Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington is dazzling. In the pop world you can think of Björk’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, Frank Sinatra’s many collaborations with Nelson Riddle, Frank Zappa’s The Grand Wazoo and Joni Mitchell’s ode to a modern day Midas (in a polyester suit) ‘The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines’. Classical composers have also been similarly influenced; Bernstein’s Prelude Fugue and Riffs and Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto were both written for Woody Herman’s band, and more recently Mark Anthony Turnage wrote Silem (his tribute to Miles Davis) for solo trumpet and big band.

But this project will primarily explore the different ways in which the big band has been (re)imagined by contemporary jazz artists. Various techniques and structures employed by composers in the United States, Africa, Europe, Scandinavia, Latin America and Africa will be examined with a view to gaining a practical understanding of the creative possibilities of the contemporary big band.

Project sessions will be a mixture of lectures and practical workshops. Please note that some project sessions will take place on a Monday evening (5pm-7pm) to coincide with Jazz Orchestra rehearsals. Selected compositions from Assessment Option 2 will be performed by the University of York Jazz Orchestra in a public concert in the spring term.

Assessment

  • OPTION 1
    Course Work: three exercises based on the compositional techniques introduced in the project. This part of the submission will be completed during the teaching weeks of the project. (50%)
    plus
    An essay: 2500 words on any aspect of big band music (50%)
  • OPTION 2
    Course Work: three exercises based on the compositional techniques introduced in the project. This part of the submission will be completed during the teaching weeks of the project. (50%)
    plus
    A composition for large jazz ensemble (c.5-7 minutes)

Reading and listening

Suggested listening

  • Julian Argüelles Momenta (Basho SRCD 29-2) 2009
  • Anthony Braxton Creative Orchestra Music 1976 (Arista ‎AL 4080) 1976
  • Clarke-Boland Big Band Fellini 712 (MPS 15220 ST) 1969
  • Duke Ellington A Tone Parallel to Harlem (Columbia ‎CL 848) 1956
  • Andrew Hill A Beautiful Day (Palmetto Records PM 2085) 2002
  • Loose Tubes Open Letter to Dudu Pukwana (Editions EG EEGCD 55) 1988
  • Chris McGregor Country Cooking (MUSEA GW3106.AR) 1988
  • Mingus Big Band ¡Que Viva Mingus! (Dreyfus FDM 36593-2) 1997
  • Maria Schneider Concert In The Garden (Artist Share) 2004
  • Trygve Seim Different Rivers (ECM 1744) 1999
  • Ann-Sofi Söderqvist Grains (Phono Suecia 185) 2009
  • Kenny Wheeler Music for Large and Small Ensembles (ECM 1415/16) 1990

Suggested reading

  • Braxton, Anthony. Composition Notes. Lebanon NH: Synthesis Music, 1988.
  • Dean, Roger. New Structures in Jazz and Improvised Music since 1960. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1992.
  • Herbert, Michael. New directions in jazz composition as evidenced in the works of three composers : Kenny Wheeler, Don Grolnick, and Russell Ferrante. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University, 2000.
  • Magee, Jeffrey. The uncrowned king of swing : Fletcher Henderson and big band jazz. Oxford: OUP, 2008.
  • Schneider, Maria. Evanescence. Vienna: Universal Edition, 1998.
  • Stewart, Alex. Making the scene: contemporary New York City big band jazz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
  • Sturm, Fred. Changes Over Time: the evolution of jazz arranging. Advance Music, 1995.
  • Tucker, Mark. The Duke Ellington Reader. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
  • Wheeler, Kenny. Collected Works on ECM. Vienna: Universal Edition, 1997.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the taught part of the project all students should:

  • have widened their knowledge of big band music, and be able to place it within a musical and historical context;
  • have developed analytical approaches which enable them to engage with the music in appropriate ways;
  • be familiar with some of the common techniques of big band music, and be able to identify and discuss their effect;
  • have developed a critical appreciation of big band music in its widest sense.

Second years: On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes B1-B6, and B10

Third years: On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes C1-C6, and C10