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JAZZ PERSPECTIVES

The Swing Era I - Precursors

From the beginning, ensemble playing has been an integral part of jazz. Originally musicians improvised their parts, organizing their ideas around roles for their particular instrument. The trumpet played lead, the clarinet played an obbligato, and the trombone played a melodic line built around harmonic themes, often a counter-line to the lead melody, called a "tailgate trombone" part. The rhythm players (tuba and drums) established the two-pulse of ragtime while the banjo played off-beat chords. Piano players combined the rhythm parts into a bass-chord pattern matching the tuba-banjo relationship.

Gradually arrangers like Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington began grouping instruments together in sections, clarinet trios being among the first. Fletcher Henderson and arranger Don Redman learned to make an arrangement swing by writing melodic lines which sounded improvised, and then harmonizing the line for entire sections. Many of these arrangements featured a call-and-response pattern, with brass and reeds repeating phrases back and forth. These phrases became known as riffs, and the style called riffing. 

Another band using this concept was Bennie Moten's Kansas City band with pianist Count Basie. Marshall Stearns has this to say in The Story Of Jazz [p.204]. "The Moten band raised the riff to a fine - and even improvised - art, while retaining the blazing solo work of top jazzmen, and frequently combined the best of both. The leaders of the brass and reed sections would invent a series of ascending riffs on the spur of the moment... which the entire section would forthwith play. And the riffs would build, bolero-like, back and forth between the sections, chorus after chorus, from simple to complex, into a swinging climax.... the guitar was substituted for the banjo, and the string-bass began to 'walk', or play melodic figures instead of pounding away at one or two notes. All of these innovations of the 1932 Moten band became standard five or six years later."

Other bands used this call-and-response pattern to create their arrangements, including the Dorsey Brothers and Detroit's Casa Loma band. The latter, which became Benny Goodman's model, used five brass, three saxes and a four piece rhythm section, one sax short of standard swing band instrumentation. The Casa Loma band became very popular among Eastern colleges, being heard regularly on the Camel Caravan radio show, and helped set the stage for Benny Goodman's overwhelming popularity.     [top]
- article by Frank Singer 2002

 

 

BACK TO 
JAZZ PERSPECTIVES

CONTENTS
Jazz Origins
I - Beginnings 
II - Jazz and Technology
   
III - Radio and the Industrial Beat    
The Swing Era
I - Precursors
II - The Decade of Swing
III - The BeBop Strain
A First Look Back
New Orleans Revival

Jazz Forms

The Blues
The 32 bar Song Form
The Latin Influence
Cool
Hard Bop
Evolution 1 - A New Dialogue
Evolution 2 - Into The Seventies
Evolution Of The Jam Session
Post Modernism

 


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