Apropos the last posting, and the conclusion that none of us should be without a horn section, this is something I have only recently come around to fully appreciating, sax and brass being somehow affectations from evil jazz, that alien life force that only eventually, sometimes, sidles into a psyche. I am lucky, I think, enough to have finally “got” jazz, albeit something that required some deliberation, dedication (and derision!) But how big is a big band? When does a small band become a big band? And what is a medium band? And does it have to have the full parp of brass and reeds? (Sometimes it helps when they call it a big band, so as to rule out doubt, which takes me to my tale.)
Just over 5 years ago my then wife won us 2 tickets for an event at the Barbican, London, entitled ‘Big Band Britannia’, which could have possibly answered each and every of my questions. This was designed to be a history and showcase of jazz in the U.K., as played out with and by, um, big bands, which generally seemed to be upward of 15 souls, in rows, cantilevered into those hierarchical rows reminiscent of the Glenn Miller Orchestra in a wartime newsreel, each with their brand bedecked music stand ahead of them. So all the trumpets sit together, with a row also of trombones, and the saxes in another, ranging from petite soprano to massive baritone. Double bass and drums squeezed into another gap on the stage, with optional guitar/banjo/piano etc. etc. And it was wonderful stuff, kicking off with a tradjazz Dixieland selection, before moving through the decades up to date. Because Wynton Marsalis was in town with his Lincoln Center Orchestra, he popped in for a blow, before some belated British credibility in this most American of art forms, arrived in the form of a tribute to the largely South African influx of musicians who made up ‘Brotherhood of Breath’, a late 60s powerhouse of modern jazz, cascading between hard-bop, township influences and the wackier world of Sun-Ra. This was a wonderful moment, with the elderly participation of Harry Beckett, himself from Barbados, on trumpet. Here's a tune from their prime. It’s true other parts of the show weren’t so much to my choice, but it was a wonderful experience. Sadly I can find no archive material of the night. (Anyone looking for evenings of that calibre could do a lot worse than follow Sebastian Scotney’s excellent webzine London Jazz, allowing that living there would be a distinct advantage.)
In the more familiar world of rock and pop, generally safer territory for SMM, perhaps the best known big band is that of ex-Squeeze piano tinkler, Jools Holland. His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra has become a national institution over here, the centrepiece of yearly New Years Eve extravaganzas (or Hootenanny’s, if you will) on the BBC main TV station, culminating in Big Ben counting down the chimes to midnight. Basically a big band blues and boogie woogie organisation, with tinges of jazz and swing, this single unit perhaps keeps much of the British jazz institution in paid work, thus affording them the time and opportunity to do their own thing for the rest of the year. OK, there is a big annual tour, often with special guests to add to the mix, much as on the TV show. Recent tours have included such as Dave Edmunds, Marc Almond, Alison Moyet and, each and every year, the very wonderful Ruby Turner, as in the extended clip above. LPs have included Eric Clapton, Dr John and Van Morrison. On the box guests tend towards the bigger, with Paul McCartney, Adele, and Annie Lennox appearing in recent years. Jools Holland also hosts the last remaining bastion of live music on british TV, the long running ‘Later,’ which brings always an eclectic assortment of bands and singers, performing a song or two in turn. Somehow, or despite these credentials, Holland has become a much derided figure, when, whether we like or not his boogie-woogie, he is flying a lone flag in mainstream television and deserves more credit. In the U.K. we call it tall poppy syndrome. I call him a national treasure. OK, a slightly irritating national treasure, but imperial garb has always been itchy.
Buy some Brotherhood of Breath
Buy some Jools