To be (big) or not to be (big) – that is the question!

There is no beginning...and there is no end. But still we try to make sense out of things: we ask questions like where, when, how and why things started and where, when, how and why they end. We try to simplify, categorise, label, draw lines through history; when in fact time is a continuum and everything is in a continuous state of flux, always changing and always in a perpetual state of 'evolution'. I use that word advisedly for not all change is necessarily progress; in the sense that not all change represents an improvement...and herein lies a discussion (one part objective to two parts subjective) about what consitutes an improvement. But we will never agree! In the meantime, the world keeps changing!

Bringing this around to musical matters, I wanted to write a few lines on that entity called the 'big band' - a couple of words with connotations for some perhaps. But the way I see it, there are two interpretations: on the one hand, 'big band' just means a band that's big.

So what? Big deal!

And a band that's big has more than the standard number of players in its line up - in what might be called the 'combo' or beat group format (ha, I love that term - it sounds like something a middle class, middle aged gent would call those bands the kids were putting together in the early 60's - kind of 'groovy'). Anyway, in numerical terms, perhaps 9 or more players would constitute a 'big band'. Because the typical combo has 4 or 5 players. In this sense, 'big' doesn't allude to a musical genre or style, it doesn't provide any historical perspective; it just states an objective fact - it's BIG!!!!

The other sense...well, it does speak of a genre, a style...a history. Most of us are bound to think of the big bands of the 30's and 40's - the swing era. And you'd be forgiven for having that conception; because it is deeply engrained: the sights and sounds of the swing era that existed before rock n roll, the mop tops and everything else: squealing trumpets, shiny brass instruments, sophisticated piano, thumping drums, a walking bass line, tuxedos, suave sophistication, top class hotels and dance halls etc... Of course, whilst the big band era ended around the end of the second world war (I mean, its heady days when it was thee popular music and cultural focus), they (meaning the format) never went away: they continued right through the 50's, 60's, 70's...all the way to the present; not just as a piece of antiquity but as something that has been progressive too. The big band 'movement' has had its practitioners that have tried to push the format forwards; going beyond mere dance band status to something more. Leaders like Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton...they did their bit in pushing things forwards for the big band format.

Back in the late 60's, there were rock bands that wanted to be taken seriously (gulp) and tried (successfully in my view) to treat rock as an art form. So, life is never short of those who wish to push things forward - challenge preconceptions etc.

How relevant is the big band format in today's world? A world in which technology has almost completely replaced the musician and so called real instruments, in the field of popular music: A world in which one guy (called a DJ) can travel around the planet in a scorched-earth sort of way, spinning his discs, punching the air with his fist, hiding behind a ton of gear...and then walking away with a cheque. Ok, I am may have noticed: I favour real musicians and 'real instruments. Technology is fine, so long as it isn't replacing people - because I believe music to be an interactional thing - an opportunity for people to come together to create something together. How sweet!

Well, perhaps it is a challenge. No, it IS a challenge, to make the big band format relevant today. In purely economic terms, the practitioner is up against it - it is usually much cheaper to hire one guy with a lot of buttons to push (or perhaps just an IPAD) than a group with 17 players! Jeez!
But is also about challenging pre conceptions - it can be made relevant in social, cultural and artistic terms too; it just depends on how you go about it. If all you do is play the stuff of the past then that's how it will be viewed. If you take it to the people, challenge their pre conceptions then you might be on to something.

Perhaps King Canute should have the last word on this...

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