Big Band Music: The Early Years
Following the rise of Dixieland jazz in the 1920s was a new style performed by a large ensemble usually consisting of 10 players or more. These bands, called big bands, relied increasingly on saxophones instead of clarinets and emphasized sectional playing. The overall instrumentation was broken into three groups of instruments: brass (trumpets and trombones), reed (saxes, with players sometimes doubling on clarinet), and rhythm section (piano, bass, drums, guitar, and in later years, vibes). Generally big band arrangements followed a standard form: (a) the melody was played by the entire band in unison or harmony; (b) soloists improvised based on the tune's melody, style, and chord progression, and (a) the melody was restated sometimes in a varied or more elaborate setting.
The music performed by big bands was called swing, a type of music that people could dance to easily. It was performed in a triplet swing rhythm style. This energetic dance music was wildly popular for almost two decades, with the swing era extending through the mid-1940s. During this time, thousands of big bands played across the United States. They performed written arrangements of popular and jazz tunes, sometimes with a vocalist. Some groups, like the big bands of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman, toured a great deal and had national recognition, but many only had local or territorial appeal. These "territory" bands," as they were called, performed regionally in the dance halls of both big cities and small towns.
Two prominent early big band leaders were Fletcher Henderson and Paul Whiteman.