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Allied Organizations

Setting the Foundation for Your Big Band: The Bass and Drums
A big band leader's thoughts on what a big band is, and how to create a cohesive and groovy sound from the start.

Eric Dregne
President – JECO

What is a big band and why is it important to know?

A big band is a type of jazz ensemble that typically consists of anywhere from 14-20+ musicians playing various brass, woodwind, and rhythm instruments. Big bands originated in the 1920s and became very popular in the 1930’s. More and more instruments/voices were added that gave the bands more flexibility to the composers/arrangers writing for them. Big band music became very popular throughout the 30’s and mid 40’s which is commonly known as the “Big Band Era”. In the late 40’s and 50’s, the music evolved into a more sophisticated and expressive genre that showcased the talents of composers, arrangers, and soloists. That trend continues to this day. Some of the most famous big bands in history include those led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Stan Kenton.
As an educator, I believe it is important to know and understand the history, concepts and traditions of what can be considered the equivalent of the purely “American Orchestra”. Big bands are known for roaring sounds and intense energy and fire. However, they can also function as chamber ensembles that paly beautiful, lush music similar to a small classical wind ensemble like in this version of a tune called “Songbird (Thank You For Your Lovely Song) arranged by Toronto Valve Trombonist, Rob McConnell and played live by his band.
As an example, listen to bandleader Stan Kenton talk about his group from the early 1950’s. The most impressive parts of this example are the musicians in his group that have become incredible influences in composition, arranging and improvisation, but how Stan explains each player and their contribution to the whole. I still listen to this every couple of months for inspiration and focus.

Why is a Big Band challenging?

If you just listened to all 9 minutes of the example above, the answer to this question is hopefully much more obvious. Leading a big band is not an easy task. It requires a lot of skill, knowledge, and experience to coordinate such a large group of musicians and make them sound like a unified and harmonious whole. A big band leader must deal with many challenges, such as balancing the different sections, managing the dynamics, choosing the right repertoire, arranging the music, rehearsing the band, and conducting the performance. Moreover, a big band leader must inspire the musicians to play with passion, creativity, and expression, while also maintaining a high level of discipline and professionalism.

What are the key elements of a strong big band foundation?

One of the most important aspects of leading a big band is to build a strong foundation that supports the entire ensemble. A strong foundation consists of several elements, such as:
  • Determining clear and consistent tempo for the composition/arrangement being played
  • Having a steady and solid groove people can feel, listen to, dance to, and enjoy
  • Having a balanced and blended sound with precise and accurate intonation
These are just some of the elements that are essential for creating a clear and coherent musical structure that allows the band to play with confidence, clarity, and cohesion. Without a strong foundation, the band will sound messy, chaotic, and disorganized, and the listeners will lose interest and attention. The shorter answer is, without a strong base, the band ain’t groovin’.

What are the roles of the bass player and the drummer in creating a strong big band foundation?

Among the musicians in a big band, two of them play crucial roles in creating a strong foundation: the bassist and the drummer. These two musicians form the core of the rhythm section, which is responsible for providing the rhythmic and harmonic framework for the rest of the band. The bassist and the drummer must work together as a team and communicate effectively with each other and with the leader. Their roles can be summarized as follows:
The bassist is the “engine” of the band. They provide the tempo, feel and harmonic foundation by playing root notes of chords, adding melodic and rhythmic variations as well as giving a feeling of motion to all of the members of the band. The bassist supports the soloists by outlining the chord changes and creating a harmonic context for their improvisations. They also must play with a strong, consistent tone and feel. They need to avoid playing too loud or too soft, too busy, or too sparse, or too high or too low. It’s hugely important.
The drummer can best be described as “The Bus Driver/Navigator” of the band. Not only does provide the rhythmic foundation by playing the basic beat, but their biggest job is playing fills and accents that are in the band parts to help make sure all the band members are playing the figures they have together in a tight and accurate style. The drummer also supports the ensemble by reinforcing the phrasing, articulation, and dynamics of the music. They must play with a steady and solid tempo, and avoid playing too fast or too slow, too loud, or too soft, too simple, or too complex, or too rigid or too loose. AND ON TOP OF ALL OF THAT, the drummer must find the exact “place” where they fit within the groove the bass player is playing. If those two things come together, you have the beginning of what is called “The Pocket”. Here is an example of a great feel that starts with the bass player and the drummer kicking the band in all the right places:
All music is an aural discipline. The bass player and the drummer absolutely MUST listen and communicate with each other as they play. They also need to listen to what the rest of the band is playing and react accordingly. They must play with a good feel, which means playing with a sense of groove, swing, and syncopation, and creating a rhythmic tension and release that makes the music come alive. A good feel is not something that can be easily taught or learned, but rather something that develops from practice, experience, and intuition.

How can a big band leader help the bass player and the drummer create a strong foundation?

A big band leader can help the bass player and the drummer create a strong foundation by doing the following:
Work with the bass and drummer for the band and explain what the expectations and goals are for creating that feel/relationship that the full band will eventually “sit on top of”. The Band Leader should be able to evaluate their skills, styles, strengths, and personalities. A good bass player and drummer need solid technique, a good ear, and to take opportunities to listen (A LOT!) to not only what they like but what they are going to play in the band. This will give them a much wider musical vocabulary, and a compatible musical taste. They should also be reliable, respectful, and cooperative, and willing to follow the leader's directions and suggestions. Here is a quick example of a bass player and drummer working together to create that feeling of a swingin’ pocket:
It is imperative that the band leader gives clear, specific instructions and feedback to the bass player and drummer, both during rehearsals and performances. A big band leader should communicate the tempo, the groove, the form, the dynamics, and the cues to the bass player and drummer, and make sure they understand what they are and how to execute them correctly. A big band leader should also praise the bass player and drummer when they do a good job, and correct them when they make mistakes, in a constructive and respectful way.
When a Band Leader encourages the bass player and drummer to be creative and expressive, while also being supportive and consistent, that should allow the bass player and drummer to add their own personal touch and flair to the music, if it does not interfere with the overall structure and sound of the band. A big band leader should also encourage the bass player and drum set player to interact and improvise with each other and with the soloists and create a dynamic and exciting musical dialogue. The following is a classic example of the drummer as “Navigator”, bass player as “Engine” and the iconic Freddie Green on guitar “layin’ down the time” for the other bass and drums to have the freedom to swing:
By following these tips, a big band leader can help the bassist and drum set player create a strong foundation that will enhance the quality and impact of the music and make it not just fun to listen to for the audience, but fun to play for the band.