Beer. Size matters. Three and a half minutes. These things are surprisingly interrelated, as I found out recently, but not in the way you might be thinking. This is a music blog! So if you can keep your mind out of the gutter, I’d like to share a little research I did for some recent big band gigs.
I was going to write about how the tremendously popular big bands of the 1930’s and ’40’s were nearly gone by the early ’50’s. That’s an interesting story. But in researching that, I came across an even more interesting and less frequently told story- the one about how the big bands even came to exist in the first place. Enter beer, size matters and three and a half minutes.
So how and why did it happen? Washington DC trombonist, bandleader and journalist Eric Felten shed some light on that in an article written for The Weekly Standard back in 1996. Felton notes that, prior to 1930, jazz was performed by small groups of usually not more than 6 musicians. Even today, the standard instrumentation for 1920’s and traditional jazz/dixieland bands adds up to about 6 players.
The job of club musicians in those days was to provide a strong beat for dancers. Most clubs and dance halls were pretty small back then so the small groups made sense on a number of levels. From a practical standpoint, the small bands were able to produce enough sound to fill the small rooms they were playing. Musically, the small groups gave the players a chance to improvise both solos and arrangements, as there weren’t a lot of other players on hand to get in each other’s way. From a business perspective, small bands meant fewer musicians for bandleaders to pay, better rates for club owners booking bands, and presumably good wages for the musicians who played.
So what changed? According again to Felten’s article, the first key to the big band’s development was the ratification of the 21rst amendment, the one that ended Prohibition. Beer.
With alcohol legal again throughout the country, people took their hidden, private parties back out into the public. This led to the need for larger dance halls, clubs and public partying spaces. Club size began to matter. As these larger clubs became reality, the dance bands of the time were faced with a problem. How could they project their sound throughout the whole club and keep dancers on the floor? Today’s electronic sound systems didn’t exist back then, so the only options were adding players and organizing the music differently. Size started to matter for the band too.
But neither step was taken recklessly. It was the 1930’s, The Great Depression, and the last thing any business-minded musician wanted to do was to increase payroll. Musically, the additional players would cause a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario that would inhibit or kill outright the group improvisation that defined small group jazz of the time.
Musically, the rhythm section, (piano, bass, drums & guitar) had to abandon their previous style of playing off each other, and instead play with each other to project a steady, pounding rhythm throughout the large hall. The same was true for the horns. Rather than improvising around each other within the group, the new big band horns had to be more organized, playing rhythmic riffs together and projecting them over the rhythm section and across the dance floor.
This new, groove oriented, big band style of jazz featured long, vamping songs designed to keep dancers on the floor. Decades later, pop musicians would call these “12 inch dance” versions or “album” versions, meant to be played in clubs for dancers. But that doesn’t mean recorded music had no effect on the big bands of the 1930’s, it actually had a pretty profound impact.
Three and a half minutes. That was the length of one side of a record in the 1930’s. So, if a band leader wanted his music recorded, the long, vamping dance grooves of the club were just not going to work. This forced the arrangements to be carefully thought out and edited, presenting all the best parts of the music without “wasting” record space on sounds better left in the dance hall. The limitation of record length may have shaped the sound of big band jazz more than any other.
Beer. Size matters. Three and a half minutes. Big Band jazz. All related.
Since it’s beginning, jazz has grown up like an infant, never staying in any one phase very long. The big band era was no exception, and the entire concept of big band writing began to change almost as soon as it developed. Even so, we are left with a catalog of outstanding music, co-created by three unlikely partners. Grab a beer, put on a classic big band recording (by Ellington, Basie, etc.) and take a listen. A lot can happen in three and a half minutes.