I used to play summers with the Wheaton Municipal Band in Wheaton, Illinois. The last concert of the season is always “big band” music, which means that most of the 90 members are finished and only 17 people play that concert. It has always struck me as funny that after a season of full band concerts, the one called the big band concert involves only about a fifth as many players.
The difference in names turns out to be a matter of history and tradition. During the French Revolution, Bernard Sarrette took charge of training military musicians and assembled a the largest band in history. The standard military band in the eighteenth century had been pairs of oboes, clarinets, oboes, and bassoons–eight players. Sarrette assembled a band of 45 musicians who played all those instruments and more. By the end of the year, it had grown to 78.
When Napoleon came to power, he had no interest in infantry bands and allowed Sarrette’s band to shrivel away. He wanted a good cavalry band, though. His band master David Buhl worked with a group of 16 trumpets, 6 horns, and 3 trombones, a group that influenced military bands all over Europe.
By the middle of the nineteenth century the French, Prussian, and Austrian governments had all established standards for both cavalry bands (all brass) and infantry bands (mixed brass and woodwinds). European civilian bands modeled on infantry bands could have as many as 100 members.
American military bands, run by the states and not the federal government, had no standard instrumentation at all. In 1859 Patrick Gilmore agreed to become conductor of the Boston Brigade Band, but only on condition that it be renamed Gilmore’s Band and that he have complete control not only of the music, but also bookings and finances. His financial success in touring the whole nation enabled him to indulge his taste for large and impressive ensembles.
Gilmore’s band soon became the model for both professional and amateur bands. Today’s Wheaton Municipal Band, as well as countless school bands, university bands, and professional and amateur community bands, stands very much in the Gilmore tradition, which in turn traces its ancestry back to Sarrette.
Jazz, on the other hand, traces its ancestry to the rural South, especially but not exclusively New Orleans. Many black people in southern cities played in bands in every way comparable to white bands. Rural blacks, who lacked the educational opportunities of the cities, acquired instruments, taught themselves to play them, and improvised in small groups. Several musical streams joined together to make jazz, including how bandsmen from the written and aural traditions influenced each other.
The first New Orleans jazz band to take its music on a nationwide tour, the Creole Band, had seven members. Plenty of other bands were smaller. Louis Armstrong’s first band was called the Hot Five. When Fletcher Henderson started out with a ten-piece band in 1925, it seemed very large, but it still played in the standard New Orleans style of group improvisation, along with Henderson’s own written arrangements.
Several things set New Orleans style bands apart from the later Swing bands. The latter relies much more heavily on written arrangements. Written arrangements, in turn, allow the arranger to plan different instrumental effects. In some cases, the arrangers needed additional instruments to create those effects. Henderson and others began to feature a trio of clarinets, or in other words, a clarinet section.
In other cases, when a band leader hired additional players, it could force arrangers to think differently. From 1923 to 1929, Duke Ellington’s band had one trombone (Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton after1926). When Ellington hired Juan Tizol in 1929 not to replace Nanton but join him in the band, he had to change his whole approach to scoring for brass. He no longer had a trumpet and a trombone. He had a brass section.
The replacement of single instruments with sections drove the growth of jazz bands. The minimum size band with sections would seem to be ten: three reeds, two trumpets, two trombones, and three rhythm (bass, drums, and one chordal instrument). Four reeds, three of each brass, and using both piano and guitar in the rhythm section (14 players in all–twice the size of the Creole Band) offered more resources for the arranger.
In the heyday of the Swing bands, most of them had more than 14 players. Stan Kenton’s Progressive Jazz Orchestra had 20. With the addition of strings and horns, his Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra numbered 39.
These larger groups never completely supplanted bands representing the older tradition of improvisation by a group of half a dozen or so players. Even before the Swing bands started to decline in numbers and importance, bebop combos usually consisting of one solo player and rhythm became common. That explains why a 17-piece jazz band is a big band, while a 90-piece concert band is just a band.