Taylor Ho Bynum's Big Band Listening Lists
By the 1950s American teens had embraced rock n’roll and jazz moved away from the dance band organizations, focusing instead on soloist-driven small group music. The emergence of the be-bop, cool jazz, and hard bop schools demanded the flexibility of a small ensemble to display the virtuosity of big name improvisors such as Charlie Parke and compositional voices became limited to short and musically concentrated “heads” that became jumping off points for the construction of long solo statements over cycling chord changes. This move from composer-driven to player-driven music, for all intents and purposes, stood the composition/improvisation hierarchy of the big bands on its head.
This is not to say that there wasn’t innovation in large ensemble music during this time. It may not have been economically viable to continue the long-standing club dates that were the launching grounds for the Ellington and Basie bands, but the desire to compose, arrange, perform, and record music employing the classic big band format was still very vital to some musicians of the era, many of which would go on to become historical jazz legends or, as cornetist/composerTaylor Ho Bynum calls them “Classic” Jazz Masters.
In this second part of our presentation of Ho Bynum’s big band listening list*, written for the students of his Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble at Dartmouth College, he focuses on the big band recordings of such seminal bebop figures as Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk, while expanding out into the later modernism of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and the iconoclastic cool of Gil Evans’s orchestral settings for Miles Davis.
*If you missed part one of Ho Bynum’s list, you can read it here. You will need to sign up for a free Spotify account to access the recordings linked here, or you can just take the names of the albums down with pencil and paper, and go to your local record store (preferred).
Taylor Ho Bynum’s original notes from the listening list are printed here in italics.
Taylor’s list is split into three parts:
Foundational Pioneers: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, and Fletcher Henderson
“Classic” Jazz Masters: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis/Gil Evans, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis
Space Age and Revolutionaries: Sun Ra, Charlie Haden/Carla Bley, Archie Shepp, Brotherhood of Breath, Don Ellis, Anthony Braxton, Jaco Pastorius, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Sam Rivers
What Taylor’s auditory history of big band music represents is a completed story. It has a beginning (pioneers), a middle (masters), and an end (revolutionaries), but this concentration on the past does not preclude looking to the future, and at the end of our deep dive into the Dartmouth College listening list, Sound American and Taylor Ho Bynum will provide a series of links to the new composers and bandleaders that will tell us the tale of the 21st century. Until then, enjoy this first installment, featuring the pioneers of American big band music.
"Classic" Jazz Masters
As we’ve discussed, technological and economic changes drastically cut back the number of big bands around WWII, and much of the “classic” jazz sound of the 1950s and 1960s were small ensemble recordings. But many artists remained dedicated to possibilities of creative orchestra throughout this period.
Along with Charlie Parker, the trumpet virtuoso Gillespie is considered one of the founders of what’s called bebop, but of all the artists of that era, he was also the most committed to the big band tradition
John Birks Gillespie was born in Cheraw, South Carolina in 1917. He moved with his family to Philadelphia in 1925 and was still a teen when he joined the Frankie Fairfax Orchestra as a trumpet player. In 1939, Gillespie joined the Cab Calloway band and continued to work in swing bands until 1944, playing in the organizations of Charlie Barnet and Benny Carter. He met alto saxophonist Charlie Parker during this time and together they formed one of the most important partnerships in jazz history. The two worked together to develop the complex and frenetic virtuosity of the music later termed “be-bop”.
Gillespie was also a major figure in the fusion of African, Cuban, Caribbean, and Brazilian rhythms into jazz music, helping to create a jazz style often referred to as “Afro-Cuban” music.
He was known more broadly for his on-stage presence, centered on his tilted-bell trumpet and his puffed out cheeks, but Gillespie’s contribution to contemporary jazz history and its development cannot be overstated. His creativity and technical ability on the trumpet expanded the role of the soloist in contemporary jazz and makes him one of the pillars of American music history.
All of his big band recordings are great, but a particular favorite is “At Newport (1957)” – featuring a teenage Lee Morgan, and the reissue includes a rare performance with Mary Lou Williams of selections from her Zodiac Suite.
Miles Davis was best known for his small group innovations; the exception are his collaborations with the brilliant arranger Gil Evans, who is justly credited as co-leader on a series of sessions on Columbia Records in the late 1950s.
Miles Dewey Davis III was born in 1926 to an Illinois middle class family. He began playing trumpet at 13 and had already performed with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie when he moved to New York five years later to attend Juilliard on a trumpet scholarship.
Davis performed for almost 40 years (with a short hiatus in the late 1970s) during which he changed the course of Jazz and American music multiple times—from pioneering “Cool Jazz” through his turn to modal and freer expressions of harmony and ending with his later electric and jazz/rock periods. The short time he worked with Gil Evans was a high point of Davis’s coolly singing style of playing—a quality he lent to Evans’s highly evocative settings.
Ian Ernest Gilmore Evans was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1912. He spent most of his early life in Stockton, California before moving east and settling into New York City’s famous Westbeth Artists Community in 1946. He worked early on as the arranger for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra while becoming one of the central figures of a small group of composers interested in alternatives to the, then dominant, bebop style. His early work with Miles Davis, beginning with the seminal Birth of the Cool recording, ushered in an era of relaxed and melodic jazz that provided an alternative to the more intricate and flashy music of Parker, Gillespie, et al. Many believe that these large group recordings with Davis were the pinnacle of Gil Evans’s creative output.
Monk was also best known for his smaller groups, his compositions are some of the most idiosyncratic and brilliant works of the century in any genre. But he made one great record with a larger ensemble.
Thelonious Sphere Monk (b.1917) was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, but moved to New York with his family around the age of five. He was largely a self-taught pianist, beginning his exploration of the instrument at the age of six. His early playing was centered around the after-hours sessions at the Harlem club Minton’s Playhouse, which spawned the revolutionary new jazz ultimately called bebop.
Monk’s idiosyncratic style, which favored more of a stride-based kind of playing over the fleet right hand and comping left hand of a lot of his contemporaries, lent itself to solo playing—a format that Monk honed over decades and numerous recordings. His primary musical outlet, however, was a long-running quartet, usually featuring saxophonist Charlie Rouse.
Thelonious Monk is maybe even better known as the composer of some of the most recognizable and easily recognizable jazz tunes from the 1950s and 60s. Works like “Blue Monk”, “Straight, No Chaser”, and “Round Midnight” are considered the bed rock of contemporary jazz history. He sometimes expanded his quartet palette adding brass or more saxophones to the core, but his one large-group outing, a live concert from New York’s Town Hall, is worthy of inclusion here.
Mingus played his bass like a one-man big band, and made any-sized band seem bigger than it was, but the unruly joy of his music was best realized in larger ensembles.
Hailing from the west coast, Charles Mingus casts a massive shadow on the history of contemporary music. After growing up in the Watts section of LA, he traveled with some of the major figures of jazz: Barney Bigard, Chico Hamilton, and Louis Armstrong.
His bass playing was in high demand on recordings in the 1950s. His bass was always a primary presence, regardless of whether he was in an ensemble of his own, or alongside Charlie Parker or Duke Ellington.
As a composer, Mingus concentrated on larger ensembles for most of his career. Even his quintets and quartets sound like big bands. His way of writing around the soloists incorporated musical styles as disparate as Eric Dolphy and Charlie Mariano into a seamless whole that always sounded absolutely CHARLES MINGUS.
Cornetist and composer Thad Jones was an alumnus of the Basie band, and in the late 1960s he started co-leading a rehearsal band with the impeccable drummer Mel Lewis, bringing together musicians on their night off from Broadway shows and commercial jingles to make some real music on Monday nights at the Village Vanguard. All of their late ‘60s recordings on the Solid State label are classic
Thad Jones was born in 1923 into what can easily be called a royal jazz family (his brothers were Hank Jones and Elvin Jones, both of whom could be considered major, if not revolutionary figures in the development of modern jazz). He began his career by playing trumpet with the Count Basie band of the 1950s, becoming one of the organization’s most famous soloists.
Mel Lewis (born Melvin Sokoloff in Buffalo, NY in 1929) got his musical start as the drummer for the mighty Stan Kenton orchestra of the 1950s. During an era in which the big band bombast of Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson prevailed, Lewis had a style that was all his own—concentrating on supporting the musicians around him with a dark drum sound and a fierce sense of swing.
Lewis and Jones began the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band in 1966 as the product of a series of jam sessions held at New York’s Village Vanguard. The group became the standard bearer of contemporary big band music in the 1970s and 80s through the combination of Jones’s increasingly funky and melodic charts alongside Lewis’s way of propelling the band without beating the audience over the head. The group continued after the death of Jones in 1986 and Lewis in 1990 and still performs at the Village Vanguard every Monday night.