Psst... Ready to join TalkBass and start posting, make new friends, sell your gear, and more?  Register your free account in 30 seconds.

On Playing In Swing/Stage/Big Bands

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [DB]' started by Rob Hunter, Mar 14, 2005.


  1. Re: Big bands (rhythm section, 5 saxes, 4 trumpets, 4 'bones).

    One of my recent threads skirted into the territory of "big bands vs. smaller ensembles" (at least in terms of reading music). Clearly, a few of us play in the bigger groups. After a quick search on the subject of swing bands, I found a thread on playing acoustically, but I didn't notice a lot of text specific to big bands (maybe I didn't go back far enough).

    I'd be interested in reading some thoughts from players who indulge in this. My scattered observations:

    - My horn players always seem quite loud, even when the dynamics are marked otherwise. But when playing forte, does anyone else have to crank their volume up to absurd EB-type levels?

    - And does anyone use an EB occasionally for these gigs? (I do.)

    - Some of our charts are out of the realm of '30s & '40s. For example, we play a swing band version of "Born To Be Wild." This isn't to my taste and I'd rather we stick to more "traditional" fare. Some audiences like it, some don't. Thoughts on playing it?

    - And finally, I've noticed a tendency to work of music that's a little beyond the abilities of the overall group. While this has merit for practice, it's proved disastrous at times during gigs. I'm a big fan of performing simpler songs well, as opposed to tackling tougher pieces at a gig (and we've had spirited debates on this). Just curious to know if others have gone through this.

    One caveat here, although my group gets paid once in a while (and we gig about once a month), we're not the Glenn Miller band! I'm talking about a group of (mostly) 50-70 year-old musicians playing community dances for an even older audience.

    Oh, I posted this in "Miscellaneous" because such a variety of points are made. Now to see if anyone responds....
     
  2. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    What you've jsut described is a 'kicks' band. You can't really do much with it -- you have to be happy that people even show up. All you can do is hang in and do your part to your best. If there's general discontent then you have an opportunity to fix things, but other than that...
     
  3. I'll be curious to see who else jumps in here...

    The band I play with has 5 saxes, 3 'bones, 3 or 4 trumpets, 4 piece rhythm section and a female vocalist. The bandleader is a mid '70's trumpet player who played in the bands of Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Harry James and Ray Anthony, amongst others. He is the music director, has thousands of charts, knows the music thoroughly, and is very particular about all aspects of the band's sound. Many of the other players are retired guys, some of whom played in bands led by people like Eddy Graf, Bert Niosi and Ellis McClintock, so they're not hacks.

    Re playing bass acoustically:
    The only time I played unamped on a job with this band was when my pickup crapped out. Played about 1 1/2 sets acoustically and basically disappeared in the mix. My playing technique and bass setup aren't aimed at playing that way. I can play quietly through an amp, but I need an amp. The band needs amplified bass. No shame, no apology.

    Re dynamics:
    That's one of the things I love about Basie's band, its huge dynamic range.
    Horns have a much wider dynamic range than the bass. No bass can match the acoustic fff of a trumpet, much less a section of 'em. Many horn players play too loud much of the time, I think it's harder to play softly and maintain good tone, intonation and blend. Occasionally at rehearsal we turn off the amps and practice playing as quietly as possible- difficult to do but a beautiful sound. A worthwhile exercise. Our leader harps on dynamics all the time, it pays off. I've resigned myself to the fact that the bass will be relatively quieter when everybody's blowin' fff.

    Re electric bass in big band:
    Personally, I don't like it. Wouldn't do it, see no reason to do it. I s'pose if a lot of your book was contemporary stuff, it might work, but if you're playing '30's/ '40's music, the slab sounds all wrong to my ear. Example: The Spitfire Band.

    Re contemporary tunes:
    To my ear, not many of 'em work well. I can't imagine a big band playing 'Born to Be Wild'. It usually sounds like a bunch of old farts trying to play rock and roll, and failing at it. We have a few of those in the book, like 'Rock Around the Clock', that we only play when a young (drunk) audience makes it necessary. There is the odd exception- we have a nice chart of Lennon and McCartney's 'Here, There and Everywhere', but they are indeed the exception.

    Re matching music to ability:
    This is the bandleader's call. He should have good enough ears and judgement to know when the band is capable of playing a chart decently and when it's beyond the players' capabilities. With us, sometimes the front line guys get bogged down trying to get every note of a fast, complicated line in, and end up falling off the pulse. It begins to sound like five guys warming up. We spend a lot of time picking through bars a note at a time and making sure everyone is phrasing things the same, then it's a matter of making sure you always hit the top of the bar in time. Even if you have to simplify, throw away the last couple notes, hit the top of the next bar. To crash and burn at rehearsal is ok, but the band should be able to play a tune decently before playing it for an audience.

    Rob, do you have a band leader, one person who has the final say? Does he or she direct the band from out front during rehearsal?
     
  4. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    NYC
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    Nope. The majority of big band playing I've done up here has been with guys who at least listen to each other.

    And does anyone use an EB occasionally for these gigs? (I do.). Nope, I don't even own an electric.

    Some of our charts are out of the realm of '30s & '40s. For example, we play a swing band version of "Born To Be Wild." This isn't to my taste and I'd rather we stick to more "traditional" fare. Some audiences like it, some don't. Thoughts on playing it? I don't particularly care about "traditional", I like to play arrangements that sound good. At this moment, I'm hard pressed to imagine an arrangement of BORN TO BE WILD that would sound good. But just cause I'm not hearing it doesn't mean somebody else couldn't be.

    And finally, I've noticed a tendency to work of music that's a little beyond the abilities of the overall group. While this has merit for practice, it's proved disastrous at times during gigs. I'm a big fan of performing simpler songs well, as opposed to tackling tougher pieces at a gig (and we've had spirited debates on this). Just curious to know if others have gone through this. That's what they make the shed for, if you stomp Johnson on something on a gig, that's the first thing you hit at next rehearsal. Or, like many people do, you don't play something on the gig until you can get through it with no treadmarks at rehearsal EVERY TIME.

    One caveat here, although my group gets paid once in a while (and we gig about once a month), we're not the Glenn Miller band! I'm talking about a group of (mostly) 50-70 year-old musicians playing community dances for an even older audience.
    Hey, in another year I'll be a 50 year old musician. I regularly play with cats my age and older (including a tenor player who's 84), it ain't age it's attitude. You're serious about it or you aren't. If you are, you work on the things we've talked about - time, hearing, concept, physical approach. If you aren't you don't and you just let stuff like your concerns here slide.
     
  5. Ike Harris

    Ike Harris

    May 16, 2001
    Nashville TN
    What you've described is probably what's happening in just about every city in the country. Here in Nashville, 30 years ago, there were a few opportunities for playing in such an organization. There was the jobbing dance band one guy had, that did mostly stock arrangements and a few pop tunes, dixieland, etc.; there was the progressive "rehearsal" band, that did everything from Basie to Weather Report tunes and originals that several of the players contributed to; and then a couple of Dr./lawyer bands, one of which was "hosted" by Vanderbilt U. that did many of the local events around town. I was fortunate enough to play quite a bit in the first two groups right out of college and gain a lot of experience reading jazz and do things I wouldn't have done in school. Now all that's left is the Vandy group and they're more or less doing all the above. It's pretty fun for some of the players to branch out into the modern stuff, but I've heard grumblings from some of the older citizens about them not doing enough "danceable" music.

    Once in a while, a friend with charts will throw together a rehearsal or two and get in top players all around the area, people will get wind of it and show up just to hear the"sound" again, then and it will sound great. That was probably a couple of years ago, and once in a while we will mention in a conversation about doing it again. That's about where it stands now.

    The only healthy environment big-band-wise these days is at the colleges, where it's only a preparatory situation to teach other students the techniques to teach other students . . . .
     
  6. I'm enjoying the comments.

    Is "kicks band" a common expression? I've never heard of this, though it may be an apt description. Some in my group are playing for kicks, while others would like to make it a lot more serious. This gets into what Ed was saying about "attitude" - unfortunately, it's all quite diverse.

    Eric, leadership is up in the air right now, but no, we don't have anyone directing us from the front (it's a long story). Believe me, there are times when I wish we did!

    Anyway, I was just using my band as an example. I'd love to hear about similar groups from others. (And from hearing it first hand, "Born To Be Wild" just shouldn't be played by some groups!) What specific arrangements are your favorites? Does having a vocalist add a lot to the sound? (I imagine it would)

    And since implication is necessary for some, does anyone use more than one cabinet? (I use two: one in front of me and one pointing at me). This would probably be overkill for many here!
     
  7. That should read "amplification"! I'm just typin' too fast here.
     
  8. I use only my GK150, no extension cab. My amp is usually behind me, beside the drummer.
    On the job, we use two monitors, one at the singer's feet and one aimed cross stage between the line of saxes and 'bones. I run a line from the XLR direct out on my amp into the PA, and we put a little bass in the monitors, in addition to the vocal. Nothing else.
     
  9. Did three or four big bands over the years and subbed occasionally, mostly around Cincinnati in a previous life. I always carried a double bass and an electric bass as most bands did a combination of swing and funk arrangements. I always used a small amp and didn't get complaints about loudness or softness. Some bands had great players, some not. None of the bands made much money so it was definitely a labor of love. The electric bass was used in funk arrangements or Weather Report stuff.
     
  10. godoze

    godoze

    Oct 21, 2002
    I've done sub work in local big bands and always need an amp. When there are 4 tubas playing in front of you there ain't no way you gonna be heard just pushin' air !
     
  11. AMJBASS

    AMJBASS Supporting Member

    Jan 8, 2002
    Ontario, Canada
    I play in a couple big bands around here, and I have played a couple gigs totally acoustic(although I prefer to be at least mic'ed). It really depends on the situation/room. You also need to learn how to project. This is a great interview with Ray Brown talking about the subject:

    http://www.jazzprofessional.com/interviews/Ray Brown_4.htm

    I am really into the high action acoustic thing although lately I have rarely left home without my AMT mic. It just adds that extra bit of presence. I always receive complements on my sound so I must be doing something right!
     
  12. ???
    What kinda big band has a 4 piece tuba section?
     
  13. godoze

    godoze

    Oct 21, 2002


    no Joke bloke. And they were none too happy that my amp was right behind them...
     
  14. Was this some sort of "concert band," with flutes, French horns and such?
     
  15. Ben Rose

    Ben Rose

    Jan 12, 2004
    Oakland
    Joining this thread a little late but here goes....

    My big band has 5 saxes, 5 trumpets, 5 bones, and 4 rhythm. One of the trumpets (female) and the guitarist (male) also sing. We gig about 2-3 times for month, although the bread varies from free dinner to the $50-75 range. Rehearsals are every other Wednesday. Ages range from early 20's through 60's and the mix is pretty even. We rehearse near UNT, so we get some students from there as well as people driving in from other parts of DFW. I joined the band when I first moved to Dallas because I thought it would be a great way to meet 20 musicians and begin to network. I can still trace every gig I've done in Dallas to this band in one way or another.

    Electric/Amplification:
    I played only electric on the gig until the past six months. I never more than a single 1x12 cab, except for outdoor festivals. Some tunes work better on electric (YMCA and a few of the more rockish numbers come to mind), other tunes sound better on upright. I'm currently looking for a better way to switch between upright and electric between songs. Space and playing environment also play into consideration. I'm not going to bring my upright to a outdoor gig in August in TX.

    Dynamics:
    This is always an area of concern when you have 20 people plaing in the same room. I think some of out louder songs get too loud for the room we're playing, but the band as a whole gets loud, so the blend should stay relatively consistent. OTOH, I stand in the back, so what do I know? That is another reason I play electric on certain songs. It can be difficult to hear myself on upright when the volume gets loud. The only person I consistently can't hear is the guitarist. The back of his amp is usually about 5 feet in front of me. We're experimenting with different setups that might alleviate some of these problems.

    Contemporary tunes:
    Sometimes I like 'em, sometimes I don't. Same for older tunes. It depends on the arrangement. Most of our catalog leans towards the 50s-60s big band sound. Woodie Herman, Stan Kenton etc.

    Ability:
    Most of us, I think, are in the band for the challenge. In that aspect, I agree with the "kicks band" label. We always have at least one tune in the works that requires individual shedding from a section. Right now, the saxes are shedding a killer arrangement of "Take me out to the ballgame".
     
  16. godoze

    godoze

    Oct 21, 2002
    not a concert band. just a really big, Big Band...