Art and Entertainment


Large Jazz Ensembles Make a Comeback, With New Twist

June 06, 2009 08:00 AM
by Rachel Balik
Initially popular in post-World War II dance halls, large jazz bands are now reappearing in hip venues with arrangements designed to appeal to a contemporary audience.

Jazz Bands Regain Popularity With Eclectic Influences

Big jazz ensembles are starting to attract crowds at some of New York’s jazz clubs, but they are not quite the same as the bands that were popular in the 1950s. Wall Street Journal music writer Martin Johnson reports that the ensembles of today incorporate a variety of styles in their music, even rock and roll and electronic music.

Reviewing one such big band, The Secret Society, Johnson writes that the first album shows the influence of rock band Radiohead and modern classical composer Steve Reich. New York Times critic Ben Ratliff wrote about the Secret Society in 2006, saying that they were clearly trying to “make contemporary sense.” Despite a distinct modern sound, Ratliff also noted that the band took stylistic and compositional cues from jazz greats Charles Mingus and Bob Brookmeyer.

In March, Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Band premiered “The Rolling Stones Project,” 12 classic Rolling Stones songs rearranged as jazz pieces by Matt Harris and Tim Ries, a saxophonist who had toured with the Stones.

The concert gave the music of the rock band the Rolling Stones a “jazz makeover,” the school blog reported. Director Fred Sturm explained that the students would go beyond simply covering the songs: “we’ve re-casted them with fresh harmonies, unique rhythms and the power and colorful shadings of an 18-piece jazz ensemble.” He and co-director Patty Darling felt that the concert would help students learn how to engage contemporary audiences.
The ability to stay musically and culturally relevant is dependent on innovation, as exemplified by Chicago’s New Horizon Ensemble, a jazz group that was founded in 1979 and has played continuously since for 30 years. The band has stood out, The Chicago Tribune writes, for the “outlandishness of its self-styled repertoire.” The ensemble has always sought to integrate several styles of music including “funk, blues, gospel—all aesthetics of African and African-American music,” band member and saxophonist Ernest Dawkins told the Tribune.

Related Topic: The younger generation and classical music

While jazz lends itself to the innovative composition and genre blending that enable it to entice younger audiences, classical music has had a more difficult time finding fans in the current generation. Tom Service, a classical music critic for The Guardian, writes that the trouble in England is not that this music will not appeal to children, but that the educational system has failed to properly expose them to it.

But in 2006, Allan Kozinn for The New York Times wrote that classical music was not declining in popularity. The numbers indicate that although education in classical music might have waned, new recordings continue to be released and sell quite well.

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