The Anatomy of a Big Band

Darcy James Argue and The Secret Society

Darcy James Argue

At the center of every big band is one person that transcends the individuality of its parts to become the representative of the whole. This person is the brain of the organization; they have complete understanding of each note in each part of each tune. They are the heart, as well: the impetus for existence, pumping effort and energy through every extremity, from bari sax to lead trumpet, and instilling the band with a sense of purpose. This person represents the ego and the id of the organization. They are intimately involved in the mundane pragmatic concerns of rehearsal time and space, noting cut-offs and mute choices, while also instigating the risks and making the wild leaps into space.

While this description may be overtly tinged with the mystical, not to mention the hyperbolic, Darcy James Argue is the closest to a complete embodiment of this model that I’ve ever met. And, it shows. As will be noted in the other articles in Anatomy of a Big Band, he is a bandleader respected and revered by his musicians for his creativity, empathy, and strength in maintaining the Secret Society since 2005.

Beyond this, he’s one of the most fascinating conversationalists I’ve come across since beginning Sound American, which is saying something. And, I admit that I find arguing with Darcy to be a guilty pleasure, as his logic is solid and we often come from different perspectives. With that in mind, I put forth in my initial e-mail to him the half-baked idea that the musical hierarchy of different big bands could be shoe horned into a widely abstracted set of political philosophies: democracy, socialism, anarchy, totalitarianism. A few e-mails back and forth made it clear that Darcy disagreed with this idea and that, in feeding my love of arguing with Darcy, it may be an area ripe for further discussion. All this goes toward preparing the reader for an unexpected digression from the interview at the end of this text—a left turn that may seem jarring at first, but ultimately takes one into a completely fascinating new territory. While it may seem off-topic in a musical journal, I think Darcy’s response is worthy of being included here for his insight into our present political, and by extension cultural, situation and for the deeper knowledge of Darcy James Argue as author, artist, and human being.

So, without further ado, the head, heart, ego, id, limbs, and locomotion of the Secret Society: Darcy James Argue

Big Band Darcy James Argue
Darcy James Argue. Photograph by Lindsay Beyerstein.

SA What was your attraction as a composer, early on, to big-band music as opposed to chamber music or orchestral music?

DJA It started when my high-school band director brought in a simplified, “junior jazz band” version of a Thad Jones chart called “Us,” a kind of fusion-y blues. In the middle of that piece, there’s this amazing brass chorale. At the time—I don’t know if you know this, but I’m a lapsed trumpet player—I was playing fourth trumpet, which, in that section, gets to play all the juicy notes. Normally it just doubles the lead trumpet at the octave, but in this chorale it has all the sixths and ninths and sharp elevenths. So, that piqued my interest enough that I went to my school’s audio library to listen to the original [Thad Jones/Mel Lewis recording]! It was like the light bulb literally going off above your head. Back then, those recordings were really difficult to find. Most of them were out of print. I had a “best of” cassette that I got at Sam the Record Man, but that was it for a while. I listened to it pretty obsessively. Then, the Mosaic box set came out with the five first albums from Presenting… in ’66 to Consummation in ’70.

Around the same time I got the Mosaic box, I also picked up Inside the Score. It’s a really incredible book that we take for granted a little bit. It’s by Rayburn Wright, who taught composition and arranging at Eastman, and it’s a case study of eight different big-band scores: three by Thad Jones, three by my eventual composition mentor, Bob Brookmeyer, and two by Sammy Nestico. It gets incredibly granular. First off, you have the full, transposed score. Then, below it, it’s condensed onto five staves: a grand staff for the saxes, a grand staff for the brass, and then a rhythm reduction. Below that, there’s a harmonic detail staff, where he analyzes every single harmonic choice those composers make throughout the entire chart.

For example, in this Bob Brookmeyer ballad, “First Love Song," there are some fairly remote re-harmonizations, and in the book you can follow the logic of it all. I could sit and play through it on the piano and then listen to the recording with the analysis and that’s really how I started to learn about harmony. The Thad Jones song “Us” is also there, so that amazing brass chorale that I played fourth trumpet on was presented in a way that I could finally dig into to see how it works.

I often find myself wishing there was a book like this for other kinds of music. If you had something like this that really went through the Bartók string quartets in that level of detail, or even like one movement of a Brahms symphony, one movement of a Mahler symphony, and one section of The Rite of Spring, and go into those works and fully account for everything that’s going on at that granular level of detail.

So, I was lucky that the type of ensemble that I became interested in, because of my jazz training, happened to coincide with this amazing resource that allowed me to get “under the hood” of this music on a really detailed level—how to write for a brass section, how to write for a sax section, what all those harmonic choices mean, how to balance vertical and horizontal concerns. It’s all there.

SA So, when did you write your first big band piece?

DJA There’s a Canadian piano player named John Stetch who graduated from my undergrad alma mater, McGill University, and he had this wonderful tune based on a Ukrainian folk song called “Carpathian Blues.” So, I used that to write this Bartók-influenced big-band version and as is the way it often happens in these settings—I wrote it for an arranging class—you work all semester on writing a big-band chart. You work on sections of it and get some feedback and then, at the end, after months of working on this thing, frantically copying out parts and bringing them to the reading session, hoping that everyone shows up, and it finally gets read through once, top to bottom. You have to hope there are no train wrecks. Then that’s it. You have three or four months of work distilled into ten minutes of not-very-satisfying scuffling. Especially if you do something sort of out of the ordinary, and this chart was definitely that. I didn’t really even get into Stetch’s tune until half-way through. The rest was this naive kind of exploration of other Slavic melodies, you know, really my best attempt at ripping off Bartók.

But I think what I just described is the experience that most jazz musicians have with big-band composition. You have to do it because you’re in a class and it’s assigned to you. But it’s so time-consuming, you slave over this thing and it ends up becoming a labor of love. If you’re lucky, there’s a reading. Sometimes all you get is your own horrible MIDI mock-up. If you write something very simple and conventional it can be very satisfying, because it is sight-readable, but if you do anything off the beaten track that first reading is probably going to be an unmitigated catastrophe, at which point you begin to ask, “Why bother?” But, I guess I must have heard enough of that first chart to think, “Okay, that was heartbreaking on one level, but on another level, there were little glimmers of really cool stuff.” It was just enough of a high to make me want to chase it.

SA Then you went from McGill to New England Conservatory to study with Bob Brookmeyer, and I imagine that at a certain point you got used to having an ensemble you can really work with.

DJA Well, when I went to NEC, I was not planning on becoming a big-band guy. I was writing, but I was writing for quintet. I had a group together in Montreal—a quintet playing original compositions—and that was the format I was expecting to be working in. When I went to NEC, I enrolled as a composition major, but I had been intending to focus on my piano playing and on small-group writing.

But, a couple of things happened. One was that—you know at NEC you can split your lessons between multiple teachers—and I had intended on splitting my lessons between Brookmeyer and a dedicated piano teacher. And, Bob contacted me and actually seemed a little bit hurt that I wanted to split my lessons [laughs]. He said something like, “Listen, we went through some extraordinary effort to get you some funding to get down here, so I think you should study with me. And, I don’t know if you know this, but I play piano.” I did know that and that seemed fair, so okay.

I did actually play a lot of piano in the lessons with Bob. We would play duets and that was always a blast but, more to the point, there was a Jazz Composer’s Orchestra at NEC. And, instead of meeting once a semester to give a quick read-through of student compositions, they met every week and did two concerts every year of exclusively student compositions. They would rehearse on Wednesday, so you could literally write 32 bars on Wednesday morning, extract the parts, print them off, bring them in, read it down, hear it and record it and, if you liked it, build on it, and if you didn’t like it, take that stack of paper straight to the recycling bin [laughs]and start again next week. So that was incredible, because you really do get a chance to explore the decisions you make. All of a sudden you go from this very abstracted way of writing to the closest I’ve ever come to instant gratification.

One of the difficulties that you have as a big-band composer is that all the little details matter. So, in the scope of a large composition, as you’re trying to listen back and figure out what worked and what didn’t, it’s very easy to skate over some of those things and to not consider the implications of, say, “I put a #11 in this chord, but does it really need a #11?,” you know? And “I put it in fourth trumpet, but should it have gone in third trumpet?” Having those rehearsals every week, and the possibility of bringing in incomplete work, meant that you could attend to those smaller details, especially when you had just the beginning of a chart. Those are the kinds of details that are very time-consuming to get into in a composition lesson, when it often seems like there are other, bigger concerns. But, those individual details are, obviously, super important, and it was great to be in an environment where there was time and space to focus on those—in addition to the big-picture issues, the storytelling issues, the issue of patience, and the issue of, as Brookmeyer would say, trying to listen to your music “as if some other motherfucker had written it” [laughs].

Behind the scenes with Secret Society as they record Real Enemies.

SA Considering those big-picture issues, I want to go from writing 32 bars that may or may not have a connection to any larger context, depending on how you feel about it, to a piece like “Brooklyn Babylon,” which is a massive evening-length composition. Did you always want to write large pieces that tell a story beyond the kind of tune-based tradition of big bands? It seems like the road less traveled, with the exception of Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown, and Beige.”

DJA There’s kind of an astounding amount of critical ink spilled trying to prove that Ellington’s large-scale works are failures. If you look at some of the criticism of “Black, Brown, and Beige” after he premiered it, and even the way Terry Teachout talks about it in his latest biography of Ellington, it’s pretty savage. And, from all reports, Ellington took it to heart and never attempted something that structurally ambitious again. He returned to what he was continuously told his strengths were, which were working in miniature and suites where the individual movements are only loosely related—or like some of them are written by Billy Strayhorn and originally had different titles and got shoe-horned into The Far East Suite or Such Sweet Thunder.

And so I guess large-scale composition in big bands always gets talked about as the great white whale of jazz composition. That’s a project that seems cursed in a way, like [Charles] Mingus’s “Epitaph” for instance, where the stagehands are bringing the curtain down in the middle of the concert. Everyone’s attempt to do work on a quasi-symphonic scale seems to have been foiled in one particular way or another… and so that makes it attractive to try!

SA I’m getting to a certain place with this, but I want to back up and talk a little bit about the impetus for Secret Society because, when you’re talking about symphonic scale being daunting for the big-band composer, I can’t help thinking that just being a big-band composer with your own group is something with a high possibility of failure. But, maybe with the exception of Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck, you're the only person recently that has found a way to have a long-standing group with members that are pretty consistent throughout; that travels worldwide; and that gets consistent attention. How do you transition from wanting to write for a quintet and play piano to having a successful large ensemble?

DJA It really became apparent to me, once I had the opportunity to write for big band regularly, that my voice as an artist was coming through much more clearly as a large-ensemble composer than it was as a pianist, even though I was performing original material in the small-group setting as well. I split my final recital at NEC between my quintet music, where I was playing piano, and conducting a large ensemble. I listened back to that, and thought: “If I’m honest with myself [laughs], clearly I am better at one of these things!” And, I could keep trying to get better at the other thing, but the thing that I happen to be good at and have some talent for is also the most time-consuming and most logistically difficult thing. And the other thing—piano playing—is the most highly competitive thing, especially in New York where there are so many amazing pianists. So, even for someone who appreciates attempting foolhardy things like writing large-scale jazz compositions [laughs], the thought of trying to run a big band while also trying to get my piano chops up to the point that I would be hire-able in New York just made it clear that one of those things had to go.

And, also, you have to not starve.

SA But also, as you’re talking about it, I get the feeling that writing for big band is more satisfying to you.

DJA I would say that writing for and playing in a small group is also very satisfying. Conducting has taken over as a surrogate for piano playing as a way for me to be involved in the live performance and the shaping of the music, because I still really love that. I love being involved with everyone in the band about larger things like tempo and feeling and phrasing and all the things you can do as a conductor—to have a conversation with the musicians as the piece goes on.

At the same time, it was hard. I had always thought that being a great piano player was the goal, even as I was studying composition, so then to set that aside was a difficult and heart-breaking decision. Especially to put that aside and focus on something that seemed impossible, which was to have a steady big band and also pay the rent.

When I came to New York, I became involved with the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop, and I got to meet lots of other young composers on the New York scene, most of whom had their own bands. That was really the impetus for me, feeling that this was a thing one could do: you could cold call busy New York musicians who you’d never met in person and ask them to play a rehearsal of your difficult music for no money. That’s a terrifying thing to do when you’re new in town! But, there were other people doing it, and they told me the steps I had to take if I wanted to start a band: organizing those reading sessions to find people that like you and your music.

I founded Secret Society in 2005, but we didn’t record until the end of 2008. At the time, I was looking at the amount of debt I was going into just living in New York, and the prospect of going into a studio to record and mix and master the music just seemed totally impossible! But then there was this very lucky convergence of some commissions and awards that made me think I could just barely do it. And, fortunately, right around the time I had decided to record, I also had a really great conversation with some people from New Amsterdam Records. They had come to a gig we played at Le Poisson Rouge—before it even opened, like a soft-opening gig—and they were so enthusiastic about the music that it seemed like the stars were aligning. It’s one of the great things about New York that sometimes, through happenstance, coincidences happen to pile up in a way that reveals a little crack in the façade that you can kind of throw yourself into. And so that’s what we did.

At the time, I didn’t anticipate that that first recording would make much of a difference. Obviously, you need to have a record to open doors for festivals and higher-profile performances, but, being realistic about the prospects for the recording, I had kind of tamped down my expectations. But the record was just insanely successful in a way that is still kind of shocking to me. I still don’t know what happened! [laughs] I’m gratified, obviously, and happy that the music got the kind of reach that it did. It really did change everything, and it also meant that this band that I had started—and I didn’t know what the natural lifespan of the group would be—turned into my job and my priority. All the focus of my energy had to go into getting as many opportunities for this group to get out there and perform as possible, because that’s what the expectations were now.

SA I know that we’ve had a short discussion on this topic and established a certain level of friendly contention over it, but I believe your thoughts on it deserve to be presented here, so, with your indulgence, I’ll bring it up again here.

I have this theory. Well, it’s not a theory per se, but I’m interested in the organizing structures of large ensembles and in this issue there is a certain subconscious delineation of the groups I talk about regarding how I perceive they are organized. So, like the autocracy of Buddy Rich or things that are more hierarchical-democratic, which your band falls under, and then something like King Ubu Orchestra, where it’s overtly anarchic or socialistic. Do you ever think that way in regard to the way your band is run? I think you wrote in one e-mail to me that you think of everyone in your band as a soloist. That’s different from, say, the Woody Herman example, where you have Sal Nistico and Bill Chase, which sets up this hierarchy of Woody, those guys, then a bunch of other guys. How do you view that breakdown in your band or do you completely balk at the idea?

DJA There are a lot of questions there, so let me unpack it. First, as I think I tried to convey to you in an e-mail before we met, I’m skeptical that someone’s individual politics and their way of seeing the world has a one-to-one relationship with the way that they organize their music! I think there is a tendency amongst fans of the avant-garde to valorize more open, anarchic music-making as being more progressive both musically and politically, and that’s where I begin to step back a little bit. I feel like those kinds of comparisons are too reductive.

I think, in terms of ways of organizing music, there’s obviously a spectrum of approaches from hyper-notated, hyper-detailed contemporary music where every note has a dynamic and an articulation and a micro-tonal inflection and a bow-pressure staff above the violin and all those kinds of things. Some of that stuff is great, and it’s one method of organization. On the other end of that spectrum there’s the concept of putting 30 people in a room together who have nothing in common, musically, and just…starting. And, that also is sometimes amazing! There are things you can get out of both those approaches that you can’t get any other way, but there’s also stuff you can get out of my approach, which is fairly detailed and specific but in a way that, I hope, inspires musicians to bring their own personalities to bear. At the same time the musicians have to make an implicit compact that what they play and the way they solo is going to serve the arc and narrative of the piece. And, so that narrows your choices as an improviser. Some musicians appreciate that and enjoy interacting with the pre-composed materials behind the solo, and see, within those reduced options, that there is also stuff to keep them interested as a player and bring out aspects of their personality by creating textures and narratives that wouldn’t happen in, say, a small group situation.

SA And that sort of playing is a skill in itself. It’s as much a discipline as playing completely free at a high level.

But, to play devil’s advocate, and only because I find your thoughts interesting on the topic so I want to keep going, in what you just described, there is a kind of social contract. You’re saying that you’re providing music for everyone to work on together, but everyone has to sign on saying they’ll give a little responsibility to make it happen, which is an acknowledged starting point to state or political organization, right?

DJA Let me put it this way. You often hear people trying to make the claim that a big band is a metaphor for democracy. That’s a very common claim, but it’s not something that stands up to a tremendous amount of scrutiny, because…well, unless you have a situation where a group of musicians comes together and votes for who is going to write their music, the metaphor feels forced to me. And I also feel like it’s an attempt to try to elevate and valorize the big band by leveraging people’s goodwill about democratic norms and institutions and, well, at this particular point in time, that feels hollow.

But now I want to just restart this answer and go in a completely different place with it, so just go with me on this, okay?

SA I’m with you.

DJA I’ve been doing a lot of reading and listening to podcasts lately about failed republics. I just read Tom Holland’s Rubicon, which is about the dying days of the Roman Republic. There’s also a really great podcast series by Mike Duncan that’s almost 190 episodes, a comprehensive history of Rome.

And, it’s interesting to me how democracy dies, because we’ve had these cycles happen before in history. In the Roman Republic you had, essentially, 400 years of peace and stability and peaceful transfers of power. Then, following the assassination of the tribune Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC, you have this period of intense instability and civil war and political violence, capped by Caesar’s assassination and the ascension of the Emperor Augustus and that is essentially the end of democracy everywhere on the planet for over 1,000 years

Mike Duncan has another podcast now, called Revolutions. I’m particularly interested in the French Revolution, which starts relatively peaceably with a wide swath of French society coming together from the three estates asking for reform. And so they came up with the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is this incredible document. There was a period after the inauguration of the new constitution where it seemed like the moderate reformers had achieved all of their political goals with a minimum of bloodshed, had reformed the system and created a constitutional monarchy, one where the king doesn’t have absolute power but cedes some responsibilities to the people. At that point, they had an argument for non-violent, incremental change. But then everything goes to shit!

And so these inflection points, like Rome in the wake of the assassination of Tiberius Gracchus or France when the revolutionaries declare war on Austria, become tipping points. These are fascinating to me: I want to understand why everything went to hell, and what started the spiral of uncontrollable violence. What can we learn?

One thing we can see is that a lot of the norms that are essential for the functioning of a healthy democracy can be shredded with impunity. But it’s still shocking to see it happening now, every day. And, I think it’s a reminder of the inherent fragility of democracy as a system of government. We’ve grown up with it, and we’ve internalized it as the natural state of affairs. But, it’s actually not. There’s so much work that we all need to do as citizens to prevent everything from spiraling completely out of control.

And, my hope for the present moment is that we all take a moment to remind ourselves of what we each need to do, as citizens, if we are interested in preserving democracy. Because it is not the natural state of affairs; quite the opposite. It is incredibly fragile. It is something that good people throughout history have fought and died for, only to see all of their labors wiped away.

So, what does this have to do with running a big band? Well, look, not to make too crass a comparison, but if there is a way in which a big band is like a democracy, I think it’s not a stretch to say that running and organizing a big band is not a natural state of affairs. The sustainability of any large ensemble is always very fraught. Look at the difficulty that Ellington had keeping a band together throughout his career. And he was Duke-fucking-Ellington! So, if there is one take-home lesson from this admittedly over-facile comparison, I think it’s an appreciation for the fragility of this musical situation, for the fact that it constantly needs to be reinvigorated. I, as a composer and as a leader, always have to remind myself that what I have is an inherently unstable formation, and to try and to do everything I can to take maximum advantage of the musical opportunities to work with this incredible group of musicians while it lasts.

Darcy James Argue and The Secret Society