Taylor Ho Bynum's Big Band Listening Lists
Humanity’s progression from discovery through refinement to rediscovery is a well-worn narrative for a reason. After all, thousands of years of working within the discovery/refinement/discovery model has propelled humankind from harnessing fire to splitting the atom.
Neither these historical innovations—nor any that occurred in the meantime—could ever measure up to history’s greatest single achievement:
THE BIG BAND
And, Taylor Ho Bynum knows big band music. He has led enough mammoth groups to recommend him for that special kind of insanity reserved for big band composers. And that would be enough for us at Sound American to recommend his voice to our readers, but he has also been an integral member of the large ensembles of Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, James Jabbo Ware and Fred Ho. Taylor’s experience as a leader and a sideman in big bands, makes his contribution to SA18: The Big Band Issue inestimable.
Beside being a cornetist, composer, bandleader, and administrative force for good, Taylor has added a new hat to his rack this year by taking over as director of the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble at Dartmouth College. When SA18 was released in late 2017, he shared a listening list with us that he had just finished for the first term running the ensemble. For fun, we compared and contrasted our favorite composers with his, articulating the overlapping musical figures that had been important to us growing up and reminding ourselves of those that needed to be revisited.
As time went on, we kept coming back to Taylor’s solid and surprisingly satisfying listening list. It seemed that his picks and accompanying casual insights might provide the perfect “one more once” (as Count Basie would say) to wrap up this concentration on the big band tradition of American music, and so we will present his list here over the next couple of weeks, with streaming examples [you will need a free spotify account to play them all-Ed.] and added biographical information alongside Taylor’s original comments 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.
When big bands started recording in the early 1920s, there weren’t full-length albums. Songs were pressed onto 78s, single vinyl records that could only fit three minutes a side – so most of the important early recordings have been re-released in various collections. The era when jazz and big bands were at their peak, with hundreds of active touring bands all around the country – it was dance and popular music, while the best of it was simultaneously creativity of the highest caliber and innovation.
The greatest composer/bandleader in American history. I have over 100 Ellington recordings, and they are ALL good.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born into a strongly religious household in Washington, DC. He showed early talent for music, writing his first compositions, “Soda Fountain Rag”, and “What You Gonna Do When the Bed Breaks Down” at age 14. By 1918, he was leading his own band and by 1927 he had begun his historic engagement at Harlem’s Cotton Club.
Ellington, along with his co-arranger Billy Strayhorn, wrote some of the most elegant American music of the 20th century. He populated his bands with a cast of colorful and revolutionary improvisers such as Johnny Hodges, ‘Tricky’ Sam Nanton, ‘Cootie’ Williams, Lawrence Brown, Jimmy Blanton, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, ‘Cat’ Anderson, Paul Gonsalves, and Rex Stewart. Ellington didn’t just employ their considerable skills in short bursts of pyrotechnics like other bandleaders of the era, however, choosing instead to craft compositions that took the strengths of each player into account. He molded the sound of his music to fit the members of his band.
Throughout his career Ellington contributed a number of pop hits to the canon of American music, including “Mood Indigo”, “In A Sentimental Mood”, and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing). He expanded the genre’s form beyond the three-minute dance number, beginning with 1927’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” and ending with the stunningly beautiful suites (Far East Suite, Such Sweet Thunder, and the Sacred Concerts) of his late career.
Ellington died in 1974 due to complications from lung cancer. His funeral, held in Manhattan’s massive St. John the Divine Cathedral was attended by 12,000 mourners.
The earliest recordings, setting the template of his balance of individual voices and an ensemble sound.
His career started over a decade earlier, and I love the earliest recordings, but this is Ellington (and his composing partner and musical equal Billy Strayhorn) coming into full mastery and maturity with an extraordinary cast of musicians.
Legendary concert that re-energized his career.
Touring band at the height of their powers, a masterclass in swing and ensemble playing.
Recorded after Strayhorn’s death, a beautiful tribute to Ellington’s compositional alter ego.
His career can be looked at in two major periods, the early swing years featuring legendary soloists like Lester Young (tenor sax), Sweets Edison (trumpet), and Basie himself on piano, )”, and the arranger-driven band featured on his 1950s recordings mostly on the Roulette label
Williams James Basie was born in Red Bank, NJ. Both of his parents were musically active and his mother, Lillian, gave the future ‘Count’ his first piano lessons. Basie was initially influenced by James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, resulting in the stripped down quasi-stride solo style for which he became well-known.
After a few years in the vaudeville circuit, Basie joined Walter Page’s Blue Devils in 1928. He went on to join Bennie Moten’s band until the leader’s death in 1935. Basie took some of his Moten bandmates—notably saxophonist Lester Young and vocalist Jimmy Rushing—and started his own band, the Barons of Rhythm, which had its first major engagement at Kansas City’s Reno Club.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Basie band created some of the eras most recognizable dance hits, including “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin at the Woodside”. The group became well known for their infectious and raucously swinging “riff” style of playing and for the iconoclastic sweet solos of Lester Young and fierce trumpet statements by Buck Clayton.
Beginning in the 1950s, the band moved toward a more composed approach as tunes like “April in Paris” and “Everyday I Have The Blues” gained popularity with international audiences, becoming more important than the spontaneity of the jazz soloist, even though the band, at this time, contained such future jazz luminaries as Joe Williams, Frank Foster, and Thad Jones.
Basie died in Florida on April 26, 1984 from cancer. His recorded jazz work as well as the band’s reputation as the backing group for pop stars such as Sammy Davis, Jr, and Frank Sinatra has cemented his position as one of the great bandleaders of the 20th century.
...Also the arranger-driven band featured on his 1950s recordings mostly on the Roulette label
One of the most important early jazz composers and pianists, she was also a mentor to the bebop scene, and kept evolving her music into the 1970s.
Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, later Mary Lou Williams, was born in Atlanta in 1910. A musical prodigy, Williams began playing piano at age seven and moved to Kansas City in 1930 where she performed, composed, and arranged for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy. Due to her early success with Kirk Williams quickly found herself in high demand as a composer/arranger, and contributed arrangements to Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and other big name groups of the era.
After a failed marriage, Williams moved to New York City. It was the early 1940s and she threw herself completely into the progressive compositional and improvisational style of bebop. Her reputation with big bands made her a central figure on the Greenwich Village scene where she was an early mentor to Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. During this period, Williams also premiered her 12-part composition Zodiac Suite at Carnegie Hall, a composition far ahead of its time.
After a short time in Europe, Williams returned to New York and continued to push her musical boundaries. She began her own record label and publishing company in the 1950s at a time that most jazz stars were still dealing with major labels and publishing houses. She had also become a devout Catholic, which expressed itself musically with the inclusion of sacred and church music in her compositions from this period, culminating in the wonderful Mass for Peace. Never one to rest on her laurels, Williams always maintained a relationship to the most forward-looking players of each generation, even releasing a live two-piano concert with a young Cecil Taylor.
Mary Lou Williams died in 1981 from bladder cancer. Her influence as a composer, improviser, entrepreneur, and as a trailblazer for women in jazz makes her one of the country’s underappreciated artistic treasures.
A grossly overlooked early master, his work as composer and arranger was as crucial in defining the big band sound as Ellington. Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins’s first big breaks came playing in Henderson’s band, and after his own band broke up, Henderson was the principal arranger for the more popular Benny Goodman Orchestra.
James Fletcher Henderson was born in Cuthbert, Georgia, the son of two educators. His mother taught him piano in his early life, but the composer and pianist initially pursued a career in math and chemistry at Atlanta University.
Upon graduating college, Henderson moved to New York intending to find work as a chemist, but the racism of the period barred him from this career path and he turned back to the music education of his youth as a way of making ends meet. He took work as a song plugger for publishers on Tin Pan Alley before starting his own orchestra with, the equally underappreciated, Don Redman as arranger. The group started its first long-term engagement at the Roseland Ballroom in 1924. That same year Henderson hired the incredible Louis Armstrong as the group’s trumpet player.
Armstrong stayed only a year and Redman was gone by 1927. This latter departure forced Henderson into being the group’s arranger. Henderson showed an almost meteoric talent for big band composing and arranging. Unfortunately, he did not show the same aptitude in his business dealings and soon found himself selling his arrangements to Benny Goodman to keep his band financially afloat.
Henderson joined the Goodman band as staff arranger in 1939, after years of trying to keep his own band together. He did try, unsuccessfully to revive the group in the 1940s but his dream of the world famous Fletcher Henderson Orchestra never quite materialized. He died in 1955, paralyzed after a stroke five years earlier, one of the tragic voices lost in the jazz world of the era.
This pessimistically titled collection captures much of his best studio recordings.