Why big bands will never die

Glen Woodcock is the host of The Big Band Show on JAZZ.FM91.


Back in 1963, Duke Ellington recorded an album titled Will Big Bands Ever Come Back?

It’s a question people have been asking since the 1950s.

My answer always has been, “They’ve never gone away,” and I believe that is truer today than at any time since 1947.

Because of so many jazz studies programs at so many universities and colleges both here in Canada and in the U.S., there are thousands of young musicians who either have played, are now playing or soon will be playing in large jazz groups. Consider our very own JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band, for example. No, today’s bands are not going to dominate music the way they once did, but the big band sound is always evolving — and because of all these young players, the musicianship is better than ever.

The late Toronto bandleader and trombonist Dave McMurdo always said he didn’t lead a big band. But it had the traditional big band sections: trumpets, trombones, reeds and rhythm. McMurdo always wanted to come on The Big Band Show and debate it with me, but he died in 2011 before we ever made that conversation happen.

True, his wasn’t an orchestra that played dance music, which is what the big band era of 1935 to 1947 was all about. And, like his, most of today’s active big bands are what you might call large jazz orchestras — playing arrangements meant for the ears and not for the feet. (Stan Kenton and Artie Shaw would approve.) Some examples of bands playing this kind of music are Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band from California, John MacLeod’s Rex Hotel Orchestra from Toronto and the Lorraine Desmarais Big Band from Montreal.

Other large orchestras still play dance dates, but are also right at home on the concert stage and have soloists who can take a hot chorus or two, just like in the heyday of the big bands. Examples include Toronto’s Swing Shift Big Band and Calgary’s Prime Time Big Band.

No, big bands haven’t gone away. And there likely are more big bands around today than at any time since the 1940s.

Jim John, leader of Swing Shift Big Band, estimates that at present in Toronto there are more than 40 big bands — from rehearsal bands to those with regular gigs — while Steve Pettafor, leader of Toronto’s George Lake Big Band, estimates that number to be greater than 50.

Here are 14 of today’s best albums by modern orchestras — seven from Canada and seven from the U.S. — that are keeping the big band tradition alive and thriving.


Swing Shift Big Band – One More, Twice (2017)

One of Canada’s premier big bands, this 17-piece orchestra led by Jim John has been playing for dances and at concerts for more than 25 years. One More Twice is the sixth and most recent album by the group, recorded in Toronto and released in 2017 with a great selection of arrangements, brilliant solos and great vocals. As Duke Ellington wrote, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”


Prime Time Big Band – Live at the Ironwood (2017)

This band from Calgary is not to be confused with an orchestra based in Ontario sporting the same name. Musical director Dave Jones formed Prime Time in 1994 and it has since grown into one of Canada’s best jazz orchestras, featuring charts by Vancouver’s Fred Stride and Edmonton’s Allan Gilliland. As the title says, this album was recorded live at the Ironwood, a Calgary club where Prime Time plays every second Saturday from June to September.


The Ted Blackbourn Big Band Project – In the Tradition (2018)

Since retiring from teaching music in the Toronto area, Ted Blackbourn has been busy, releasing three albums by his large jazz orchestra since its formation in 2014. Although he now lives in Nova Scotia, Blackbourn returns regularly to the GTA to get the band back together and record more of his outstanding arrangements and compositions.


Lorraine Desmarais Big Band – Danses, Danzas, Dances (2016)

This outstanding 16-member jazz orchestra from Montreal doesn’t always perform numbers that are danceable, but always plays with style and passion. Each of the 10 selections on this album are Lorraine Desmarais originals, and they feature not only the leader’s piano but solos from many other outstanding Quebec jazz artists. My personal favourite is Olivier. Give it one listen and you’ll never get it out of your head.


John MacLeod and the Rex Hotel Orchestra – The Toronto Sound (2017)

When he was a young player with Rob McConnell‘s Boss Brass, cornetist John MacLeod learned that jazz orchestras from Toronto have their own unique sound. He now carries that torch with his own orchestra, one of the country’s best and, like the Boss Brass, one that is studded with well-known soloists playing (mostly) originals by MacLeod, Rick Wilkins, Terry Promane and other Canadian jazz greats.


Toronto Jazz Orchestra – 20 (2017)

This album’s title reflects the number of years since artistic director Josh Grossman formed the Toronto Jazz Orchestra when he and the other band members were aspiring music students in Toronto. Many of them are still with TJO and celebrate the anniversary with terrific solos and ensemble playing on eight Grossman compositions and arrangements. Notable is a four-part suite dedicated to mentor Phil Nimmons.


Kitchener-Waterloo Big Band Theory – Evidence (2014)

This relatively new Canadian band was formed by Paul Ellingham and Robin Habermehl in 2011. This album, beautifully recorded in concert at Kitchener’s Registry Theatre, is proof that not all of Ontario’s jazz stars reside in Toronto. A special guest is Order of Canada recipient Don Thompson, who not only performs his magic on vibes, but also contributed several original compositions.


Airmen of Note – Veterans of Jazz (2016)

Originally formed in 1950 to keep alive the music of former Air Force major Glenn Miller, this band based in Washington, D.C., can say “mission accomplished.” But this outstanding service band has evolved into much more than that, as this album shows. There are 11 tracks, all modern arrangements by band members, and each one dedicated to a former member of the U.S. Armed Forces who went on to become a jazz legend.


Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band – Life in the Bubble (2014)

A former musician at Disneyland in California, leader Gordon Goodwin has a humour that’s evident through most of the 10 tracks on this Grammy Award-winning album. Using the same crew of accomplished West Coast studio musicians, Goodwin has put together the kind of modern musical juggernaut that all other bandleaders envy, playing tunes they all wish they had written.


John Daversa – Kaleidoscope Eyes (2016)

Subtitled Music of the Beatles, this live album is chock-full of leader John Daversa’s thoroughly modern versions of songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the 1960s. Titles given a new twist by this Grammy-winning trumpeter include And I Love Her, Michele and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, all played by a superb 39-piece orchestra.


Chris Walden Big Band – Full-On! (2014)

The German-born leader and arranger takes us on a musical voyage of discovery with his West Coast big band, presenting a mix of some originals and tunes from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Hank Williams and Leonard Bernstein. It’s an album packed with great performances by today’s vocal jazz stars such as Tierney Sutton, Melanie Taylor, Carol Welsman and others.


Eyal Vilner Big Band – Almost Sunrise (2014)

The year 2014 was a great one for new CD releases by some of New York City’s best big bands. Israeli-born Eyal Vilner, who plays a mean alto sax, fronts the newest of those bands and plays charts in the swing tradition of Duke Ellington. This is a great blend of old and new tunes, such as the leader’s own Centerpiece and Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life.


DIVA – A Swingin’ Life (2014)

The least-known orchestra in this group, DIVA is composed of outstanding female jazz artists under the direction of drummer Sherry Maricle. Following in the footsteps of the swing era’s International Sweethearts of Rhythm, DIVA performs modern versions of jazz and pop classics in this live album, many of them charts by members of the band such as Leigh Pilzer and Noriko Ueda.


Patrick Williams Big Band – Aurora (2010)

This is the oldest album in the group, made by the multi-award-winning Patrick Williams, a film, television and big band composer and arranger who died in 2018 at the age of 79. Using the very best Los Angeles jazz musicians, this album features eight of Williams’s outstanding compositions, some of which — such as Heat — are destined to be timeless classics.