One top feature of the IAJE conference this year was a focus on big bands. They included student and faculty ensembles and a reading session group, but also mainstream ensembles like the Maria Schneider Orchestra, the US Army Blues Band, the Mingus Big Band, the Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra with Nnenna Freelon and Barry Harris. The last two of these groups gave a most memorable concert on the Saturday evening (January 14), which ended in a “battle of the bands” and an amazing impromptu jam session.
On the Thursday afternoon (January 12) there was a panel discussion on the subject of “Strings in the Big Band – Past, Present and Future”, chaired by Paula Zeitlin, with panelists Bill Kirchner, Sonia Jacobsen, Akua Dixon and John Blake Jr. While most of the other strings-related events were consigned to the early morning hours – it was noticeable that even Christian Howes was given a 9 am slot – this one, with its relevance to the world beyond the "string caucus", was scheduled at the more popular hour of 5 pm. The audience contained some distinguished personalities in the field of jazz, including the arranger/composer Sy Johnson (who arranged for and played with many of the best-known performers in jazz, including Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Charles Mingus, Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme), trumpeter and composer/arranger Cecil Bridgewater (who wrote many of the charts for the Max Roach Double Quartet and Uptown String Quartet), and trombonist and composer/arranger Steve Turre. Indeed, there was some question as to why these three important figures were not on the panel itself, but only somewhere in the audience, as their contribution to the role of strings in jazz has been a defining one.
Bill Kirchner, who spoke first, appeared to take a rather negative view of the possibilities for strings in the big band. However, he outlined what he perceived to be the history of the genre. For him, the blending of strings with other jazz instruments in a large ensemble - as distinct from the routine incorporation of strings in the dance bands of the 1920s - began with the Paul Whiteman band. Kirchner played a rather lengthy excerpt from a Paul Whiteman recording, a piece in two sections with a lyrical string section and then a band section that seemed unrelated. Kirchner also referred to Artie Shaw and his "Strings Orchestra" as being among the earliest examples of blending strings with other band instruments. Again, he played a rather long example.
When pressed, Kirchner merely confirmed that in his view these recordings demonstrated an example of the best way for string players to contribute in a jazz setting: in his view, as string players are almost by definition classically trained, they don’t blend with other musicians who have a working experience of jazz. They “look at the notes” and “don’t listen to the brass”, and their approach to eighth notes is a classical one. He talked about the disillusionment felt by composer/arranger Gil Evans in the 1950s in his experiments with string writing. The often-repeated claim that “strings don’t swing” holds largely true, Kirchner appeared to be saying, though he made no reference, for example, to the strong and pioneering work of Max Roach and the Max Roach Double Quartet, and the later Quartette Indigo. The implication seemed to be that while strings could be used for coloration and effects, they weren’t really jazz instruments, and in any case most jazz arrangers didn’t know how to write for them.
At this point, John Blake intervened in order to introduce and play some short excerpts from some tracks by Duke Ellington. They included the three-movement “Night Creature”, originally commissioned in 1955 by conductor and composer Don Gillis to be played by the Symphony of the Air in concert with the Ellington band. The 1963 recording presented by John Blake features the Ellington band with musicians from European symphony and opera orchestras, who certainly do swing on these tracks at any rate, and also a fine solo from violinist Ray Nance in the second movement. John also referred to Ellington’s recording of the 1949 “Non-Violent Integration”, which not only features swinging strings, but also an oboe solo by the principal oboist of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra. These examples appeared to contradict much of what Kirchner had been saying.
Next to speak was Sonia Jacobsen, whose New York Symphonic Jazz Orchestra is one of the few big bands in New York – perhaps the only one – to include a full string section. Picking up one of Bill Kirchner’s points, she commented on the difficulties of incorporating strings into a big band context. One major problem is that very few jazz arrangers are cognizant with the technical modalities and possibilities of string instruments, and have little knowledge of how to write for strings. She suggested that one way round this would be for jazz arrangers to make themselves acquainted with the use of strings by classical composers - in compositions of the baroque period. and in 20th century works of composers such as Bartok and Shostakovich. Sonia also referred to the difficulties of amplification of strings in the big band - she mentioned the points raised by Chris Howes in his morning clinic, concerning the most effective methods of actually playing a string instrument with amplification: he suggested that the violin is best played with very little bow pressure, a very small bowing width, and a very low dynamic, probably pianissimo. All of the rest of the details are handled by Yamaha! There may be a danger here, Sonia implied.
Sonia also bemoaned the fact that many classically-trained string players are told by instructors (who ought to know better) to play swing eighth notes like triplets. As she pointed out most graphically, in jazz music this simply gives the wrong feel.
Cellist Akua Dixon made the point – which badly needed to be made – that classically trained string players who want to play in a jazz setting must familiarize themselves with the language of jazz by listening to jazz music. They need to begin with the larger forms and structures, like blues, and work in toward the details of breathing/bowing, phrasing and articulation. This familiarity and knowledge can only come from actually hearing the music played and sung – no amount of abstract theory can substitute for this. The string players also need to develop a historical awareness of how the jazz language developed, and to discover how to incorporate that awareness in their playing and their interaction with players of other instruments.
The rest of the discussion was devoted to an overview by John Blake of strings in the big band context. In addition to the considerable contribution made by Ellington, he discussed the work of musician/arrangers Cecil Bridgewater and Harry Lookofsky. In particular, Lookofsky’s “Stringsville” album was singled out for praise and study, as an example of how ensemble strings could really swing in jazz. In response to Bill Kirchner, John asserted that there is really no “right” way to play eighth notes in jazz. Different players in jazz have different attitudes to the eighth notes – just as in classical music there is a difference between the eighth -note styles of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. Turning to the situation of string players, or the string quartet, in a big band setting, John Blake suggested that like the other instrumentalists in the ensemble, what they need to do above all is to listen, and to follow the style of the band leader. Noting an eagerness among younger jazz string players to concentrate on soloing, he counseled them to spend more time on studying bowing and phrasing, and on learning ensemble playing so that others can mesh with them. He also stressed the importance of studying the history of jazz, the blues, the different styles of the music, and how the different ways of playing the eighth notes can sound.
The discussion was brought to a close very promptly at around 6 pm, and it turned out that there wasn’t time to cover the final topic, which was to have been a consideration of the possibilities opened up by technology for strings in the big band.
It was an inconclusive discussion. But I then had a most enjoyable evening in the company of John Blake, Akua Dixon-Turre and her sister Gayle at Virgil's on West 44th St., with great Southern food, including gravy and biscuits, ribs, chicken, beer - and all the trimmings.
And we drank to the health of Anthony Barnett, who in his very active role as a compiler and publisher of historic recordings has done so much to further the cause of strings in jazz. There is no doubt that his presence on the panel was also sorely missed - for one thing, he would have been able to counter some of the viewpoints presented by Bill Kirchner.
See also in this blog:
IAJE 2006 - 1
IAJE 2006 - 3