Big Band (Genre)
Big Band” is a genre of music that originated in the 1930’s-1940’s and was widely popular throughout the World War 2 era (Straubhaar, et. al, 131). The genre garnered its title because of its sound. The sound of “big band” is just that – a band consisting of anywhere between 10 pieces to 30 pieces or more. These bands play swing, jazz, blues, and other types of new music, giving it a newer, richer sound. Big Band produced a very full sound that played better through the mono stereos of radios at the time, according to Joseph Straubhaar in the book, “Media Now: Understanding Media, Culture, and Technology” (Straubhaar, et. al, 131). Big band in itself created a new sound, and a new type of genre – somewhat of a compilation of the mentioned categories.
Typical instruments that help form the big band sound include: the brass instruments (trombones, trumpets, and other horns), string instruments (violins, upright bass, harps, and other strings), the reed instruments (saxophones, clarinets, flutes), and percussion (typically drums, sometimes including the timpani and extra cymbals). These bands also included vocalists. In the beginning, the vocalists were usually three men and one woman. As big band became more popular, more women singers were added. On some tracks, such as Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” the entire band can stop on a break and sing a note or shout a lyric. As time went on, big bands became the background for many famous singers. Artists such as Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Doris Day, and Billie Holiday all crooned to the tunes that big bands supplied.
The sounds that big bands emitted usually targeted a specific sound that was the taste of the big band leader. The leaders of each band took the lead through solos, directing the sound depending on who it was and their instrument of choice. For instance, Harry James was a trumpet player, and his big band showcased a lot of trumpet leads. Glenn Miller’s band evolved into a band with trombone leads after his lead trumpet player split his lip before a show – the band became known for the trombone leads from that point on. According to a Glenn Miller fansite, Miller played the trombone himself, so naturally he wrote his music to make leads for himself, and then later emphasized the reed section for a different sound. Benny Goodman was famous for his amazing clarinet leads. However, not all leaders played an instrument. Guy Lombardo was famous for being a great orchestrator. He was master of the baton in his day.
Big band music also opened up doors for minority musicians. At the time, women were just seen as background singers. But, Gloria Parker, the first female to lead a big band, paved the way for female musicians to become famous in front of that sound. According to a biographical website, Parker’s orchestra was all-female (click here for website). Doris Day’s tunes would not be the same without that full sound. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, and other females also utilized the sound to compliment their incredible vocal talent. African American musicians also became more apt in the music scene. Lionel Hampton, famous for his vibe sound, Duke Ellington, master at the piano, and Count Basie all rose to fame through the big band genre.

Straubhaar, Joseph, et al. Media Now: Understanding Media, Culture, and Technology. Boston: Wadsworth, 2010.