Jazz Course: Fall 2019 Semester Big Bands: The Development of an American Jazz Orchestra

Written by on September 3, 2019

This Fall, WICN’s commitment to Jazz education will swing in a new direction, with the first course offering focused on Big Bands! This semester, Professor Ben Young will lead “Big Bands: The Development of an American Jazz Orchestra.”

Classes are held on Tuesdays, 6pm to 8pm, in WICN’s Studio 50, 50 Portland Street in Worcester. 

Instructor Ben Young will teach the course, which meets on September 24, October 1, 8, 15, 22, and 29, and November 5 and 12.

This eight-week course introduces how big bands function, along with an examination of how the ensemble sound has grown and changed throughout the last century. We’ll demystify the concepts and terminology and help you to listen better to this extraordinarily rich field of music. We will, of course, focus heavily on the Swing Era of 1935 through 1950, but also follow the unique sounds that belong to the prehistory of big bands in the hands of Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and others, and the continuing adaptation of big band sounds into modern times—highlighting Sun Ra, the Vanguard Orchestra, and several standout groups here in New England.

As always, there are no tests, no homework, no participation required, no judgments, no preconceptions, and no question is too basic! You’ll simply enjoy the great sounds of the ingenious folks who helped to shape this art form. If you’re a big band skeptic, this will be the course to open your ears, and even those raised on Big Band sounds will dig something they’ve never heard before. Tell a friend, or give the course as a gift to someone you know would benefit.


Classes are held on Tuesdays, 6pm to 8pm, in WICN’s Studio 50, 50 Portland Street in Worcester. 

Instructor Ben Young will teach the course, which meets on September 24, October 1, 8, 15, 22, and 29, and November 5 and 12.

$80/membersClick Here to Purchase Tickets

$140 non-members; price includes 1-year WICN Membership. Click Here to Purchase Tickets
If you are unsure of your membership status send an email to Emily@wicn.org or call 508-752-0700

For those on the fence or curious about the particulars, here are a few Big Band Course Frequently Asked Questions:

Big Bands… Isn’t that just square music played at weddings by a bunch of geezers in blue tuxedos?

Our purpose is to help rewrite this bad reputation that big band music has gotten. In modern times the bands can seem like a throwback—whether for better or worse.  Maybe this nostalgia phenomenon relates to how we feel about steam engines or percolator coffee: What seems like a quaint novelty we’ll find out actually has advantages and nuances that can’t be duplicated using more modern tools.

Will all my favorite pieces get played in the course?

If not all of those pieces, at least many of them. And, we’ll also introduce you to some new favorites. We certainly will spend time on the hits—especially using them to understand the inner workings of how these tunes came to be. 

Will you play my favorite bands?

Probably so, and a lot more. We should get to examples by at least 30 different groups. In addition to those named above, we’ll hear from the bands led by Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Carter, Paul Whiteman, Andy Kirk, Bennie Moten, Woody Herman, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Erskine Hawkins, Bob Crosby, Cab Calloway, the Dorseys, Don Redman, Jean Goldkette, Dizzy Gillespie, Claude Thornhill, Lionel Hampton, the Casa Loma Orchestra, Buddy Rich, Lucky Millinder, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, and—duh—Benny Goodman. And others: Depth and breadth will mean a lot in the course, though we can’t quite get to every one of thousands of bands in the broad field of the Swing Era. We may even follow Ellington’s advice and scrutinize Lawrence Welk…

Why should I take a class on something that I already like?

The principle is that to know more is to appreciate more about the music that you like, even if it’s already the soundtrack to your life. Our course is not too different from a course on wine-tasting: We make sure everyone knows the basic components of the genre, then put some examples under the microscope to really savor their distinctiveness. And you’ll come away with a keener ability to appreciate those details as you listen further.

When did the big bands die out?

The handwriting was on the wall with the beginning of the baby boom just after World War II. Tastes and entertainment habits were changing enough that the pre-war styles started to fall out of favor.  Some groups were dismantling already in 1946; work opportunities were getting thin a couple of years later, and by 1950 almost the whole field had dried up. Some big bands remained active, but in a changed environment of work and also different sounds.

Is the course suitable for high school big band musicians?

Absolutely.  Sign up your school-age musician, and while you’re at it, sign up and take the course with ‘em. Possibly also middle school students who have been playing for a little while. Practicing musicians will recognize the terminology of performance, and perhaps even have played some of the arrangements. What’s likely to be new and valuable for student musicians is the historical perspective on what made the sound change through the decades.

Will we get to see a big band?

We may not use class time to watch a band performance, but we’re looking now to find at least one good performance that we can use as a field trip, to apply the listening tools we’ve been sharpening in class.  And of course to dig the bold sounds in person together.

How can any of this possibly matter anymore?

Most importantly, because of the power of swinging music. Big bands give us a strong dose of the creative tensions that’s basic to jazz: organized music versus extemporized; collective juxtaposed with individual; and balancing the composer’s input with innovative interpretation. In the long view of jazz history, big band culture is responsible for a lot of what has been handed down as “the tradition”—including styles, literature, key figures, and the changing role of jazz in American society. We don’t have pet dinosaurs (most of us, anyway…), but by understanding them, we can value where birds and today’s reptiles are coming from. Whether your bag is Louis Jordan, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, or King Cole—let alone Armstrong, Buddy Rich, Coltrane, Ellington—a big-band root led to the flowering of their careers, and by extension the whole shape of our music today.


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