Can a music genre die? Only if you cast it in amber

Today I’m considering the fate of a particular music genre: big band.

Big band, swing band, stage band, dance band, jazz orchestra, whatever you choose to call it. It’s a genre defined more by its unique instrumentation than by any particular musical style. The classic format is five saxes (two altos, two tenors and a bari), four trombones (one of which may or may not be bass trombone), four trumpets (occasionally five), and a rhythm section, consisting typically of at least drum kit, bass (upright or electric), and piano, usually adding guitar, and occasionally auxiliary percussion, vibraphone, or even steel drums.

Music genres ebb and flow, and most tend to have a peak of popularity. Big band’s heyday was roughly the 1930s to the early 1950s. Then small combo jazz briefly took over, peaking in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before rock-and-roll (later losing the “-and-roll”) began its dominance for most of the last four decades of the 20th century. Then it was hip hop’s turn, followed by EDM-inspired pop. It’s hard to say if there even is a dominant genre today, largely because the Internet has allowed for an absolute explosion in the amount of music available, along with a fracturing of the audience into small niches.

The decline of a particular genre’s dominance in the zeitgeist does not spell its end. Genres continue to evolve and endure. Contrary to what you may have heard, rock isn’t dead. You just don’t hear much of the new stuff on the radio anymore, because “rock” in the popular conception has been cast in amber as being the music of the 1970s through the 1990s.

Small combo jazz didn’t die. In the 1960s it evolved rapidly through cool jazz, hard bop and post bop, with the tangential bossa nova genre spawning in Brazil and becoming a part of the jazz language worldwide. Late 1960s psychedelia brought free jazz and avant garde, and in the 1970s jazz went electric, merging with elements of rock and funk, as jazz fusion. This continued into the 1980s, although it arguably went a bit astray, as jazz musicians tried (and in my opinion, mostly failed) to find ways to incorporate the plastic sounds of early digital synths and drum machines into the mix.

Then the 1990s happened, and a retrograde movement — led at least in part by Wynton Marsalis and his influential role in Jazz at Lincoln Center — took over jazz. The genre tried to get back to its roots with acoustic instruments and a more straight-ahead style. The result was resurrecting some classic sounds that had been largely cast aside at the end of the 1960s, but in so doing, it also buried most of what had happened in the subsequent two decades, and once again, tried to cast the genre in amber. When I was studying jazz in college in the 1990s, I treated it as a (nearly) dead genre — in fact, I said as much in the postscript of my college thesis in 1996 — because at the time, it felt that way. It wasn’t until a new generation came of age in the 2010s, disregarding the arbitrary distinctions the 1990s imposed, that it really felt to me like jazz was alive and growing again.

So where does that leave big band? Did big band die in the 1950s? Of course not! Elements from the genre’s peak lived on. No one ever stopped playing Basie or Ellington, or for that matter Glenn Miller (even though we’ve all heard “In the Mood” one too many times), and of course there was the swing revival of the late 1990s. But after Stan Kenton pushed the artistic boundaries of what could no longer reasonably be called “dance music” (my “Greatest Generation” grandma hated Stan Kenton) in the late 1950s, the music continued to adapt to the times with more volume and energy, with the likes of Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. The latter evolved into the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and still to this day has a regular Monday night residency at the Village Vanguard in New York.

Big band never died.

Big band is also the way that, at least since the 1980s (based on my own experience), most kids learning music in school get their first exposure to jazz. Their first exposure to improvisation, to the kind of dynamic listening and communication that can happen through music, that is only barely touched upon while they’re first learning their instruments and the rudiments of music theory. Big band opens up a whole new world of musical experience to kids. Today. And into the future.

Still, there’s an approach to big band that can get hung up on the legacy of the genre’s heyday, to try to cast it in amber. I do think understanding history is important. But the essence of the history of jazz, both big band and small combo, is that it is a living art. It adapts to and reflects the world around it. Jazz musicians have always engaged with contemporary culture. In the 1960s that frequently meant creating arrangements of popular songs from Broadway musicals. (Once again, see my college thesis.) It’s the same reason why, during his 1980s comeback, Miles Davis featured his own arrangements of then-current pop songs, like Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” People criticized him for “selling out,” but they were missing the point. He was doing what jazz musicians had always done — adapting to, and engaging with, the times.

Big bands do that too. There’s some really exciting stuff happening in the big band world at the moment, like one of my current favorites, John Wasson’s arrangement of “Tank!” (the theme from the legendary anime series Cowboy Bebop), or arrangements of video game music by the 8-Bit Big Band. This is a genre still engaging with the times, alive and relevant, while connecting a whole new audience with the rich and vibrant history of this very unique way of performing music.

I’m 50 years old. I have a ton of nostalgia for old music. I think it’s important to remember and honor that heritage. But there’s a difference between honoring the past, and casting it in amber. I loved playing tenor sax in jazz ensembles (a.k.a. big bands) when I was in high school and college in the 1990s. And I love playing electric bass in big bands now. But what really excites me about it is not just playing old music, music from before I was even born. It’s playing the full range of sounds and styles that can be produced by 13 horns and a rhythm section. Connecting with the audience by playing music that is familiar and fun, and challenging their ears with some things that may be new to them (even if they’re old). There’s room for it all, and that’s what keeps big band music alive.

Addendum (June 16, 2024): This.

Double dating musical nostalgia

“Double dating” is a concept my wife and I have talked about for a while; it’s where a piece of media — usually a movie or TV show — exhibits elements of two distinct time periods. Most commonly it results from the art being set in a particular time period, but unintentionally carrying distinctive elements of its own time period as well, which don’t really become apparent until much later. Think “Happy Days.” It’s set in the ’50s, but there are definitely elements (like hair styles) that are more characteristic of the ’70s era when the show was actually produced.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been having a lot of the same feelings towards the music of Com Truise. I discovered Com Truise (stage name of musician and graphic designer Seth Haley) around 2012 when his In Decay album was released. I immediately latched onto the hazy nostalgia it evoked for my early ’80s childhood and the exciting technologies of that era.

I listened to a lot of Com Truise from about 2012 to 2014. And now when I listen to this music, I have a different kind of nostalgia. I still feel that pull to my ’80s childhood, but I also have much more distinctive memories from the early 2010s to associate with the music as well. I had a lot of good things going on in those years. My business was relatively new and growing, my kids were in school and starting to have their own distinctive personalities, and I was just generally enjoying a lot of what was going on in the world because things seemed to be pointing in a positive direction.

I’ve lost a lot of that optimism over the past 8 years though. In a nutshell, it’s not so easy as a white person to ignore all of the terrible things other white people do in the world. And even as a light has been shone upon these transgressions, the worst among us are doubling down on bad behavior and destructive attitudes. Plus we have the increasingly frequent climate change-related disasters that only the most stubborn or brainwashed can continue to deny.

But there have been more personal struggles as well: aging (and then eventually dying) parents, the difficulties of adolescence for our kids, my own aging body, the souring of some aspects of my business (*cough* Gutenberg *cough*). There have been plenty of good things too though, especially around my involvement in music. But overall, I would give the past several years a negative score.

All of that does make me nostalgic for the halcyon days of the early 2010s, and that’s a period I strongly associate with the music of Com Truise.

Happy 70th birthday to Geddy Lee of Rush!

I got seriously into Rush in late 1988, as a freshman in high school. But several years later — 2003, I think — when this 1984 tour film was finally released on DVD, I realized that I had seen it on TV (only once) circa 1985, presumably either on MTV or HBO, and had been completely enthralled with it as an 11-year-old. But since I never saw Rush again on TV, or heard them on the radio, I kind of forgot they existed until a friend (re)introduced me to them in high school, with a cassette tape of the then-new A Show of Hands concert album.

My jaw dropped the first time I watched this Grace Under Pressure Tour DVD, because I knew I had seen it before. Specifically, it was the video intro to “The Weapon” by Joe Flaherty as his SCTV vampire character “Count Floyd” that triggered the memory. Wow!

Geddy Lee was the reason I picked up the electric bass as a sophomore in high school. Happy birthday!

Chick Corea on the 8’s

After 30+ years, I’m trying to give this album another chance. (It’s not on Apple Music so I had to find it on YouTube.) I bought this album in high school after I joined jazz band and wanted to learn more about the genre. But I really did NOT like it, so I sold the CD, and haven’t heard it since.

I remember liking Chick Corea’s playing and John Patitucci’s bass, but I thought the synth tones were cheesy, the snare drum was mixed way too loud (I still think that), and I didn’t really care for either Frank Gambale’s guitar or Eric Marienthal’s sax.

Listening now… well, I think it’s much better than I remember it being, even if some of it does sound like it should be playing on the Weather Channel’s “Local on the 8’s.”

Radiohead albums as a timeline of my work history

I’m in a Radiohead mood today, listening to A Moon Shaped Pool, and I decided to kill some time (a.k.a. distract myself from work) by looking for a “listicle” ranking their albums, to see if I agreed with it. Here’s what I found. Pretty good. I would swap the positions of Amnesiac and Pablo Honey, and probably knock The Bends down to fifth (moving A Moon Shaped Pool and In Rainbows up by one each). Honestly I have barely listened to Pablo Honey (ever) or King of Limbs (beyond about a month after its release)… and I haven’t really listened to Hail to the Thief since In Rainbows came out.

It’s also hard for me to process the fact that they only have 9 studio albums… back in the early 2000s when I listened to them a lot there were a handful of EPs, extended singles, a live album, etc. that made their catalog seem a lot bigger.

(Also yes I did notice the author got the release year of Pablo Honey wrong… it was 1993, not 1995!)

I can tell when some of these were released by the mental image I have of where I was when I was listening to them.

Pablo Honey (1993) and The Bends (1995) — I didn’t really listen to Radiohead in the ’90s, but I remember these being on the periphery of my awareness in college.

OK Computer (1997) — I first heard this one in a friend’s studio apartment in Loring Park, Minneapolis shortly after it was released, and now I was paying attention to these guys. (We were living in California at the time, but I spent the night hanging out with some college friends when I came back to visit my family in Minnesota.)

Kid A (2000) — I remember first talking about it with my bandmates (one of whom was a coworker at my job at the time) at a rehearsal in our drummer’s basement in the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis.

Amnesiac (2001) — I was working from home for the first few months after we moved to Atlanta, and I listened to this sitting in my basement workspace.

Hail to the Thief (2003) — Another basement… this time I was working for a travel industry startup with a terrible early 2000s tech startup name (and long-since defunct), and my desk was in the basement of a converted house in the northern Atlanta suburbs.

In Rainbows (2007) — The first pay-what-you-want album! I splurged for the big vinyl-plus-CD-plus-coffee-table-book set. I most associate it with my home office in the back bedroom of our first house in Minneapolis.

The King of Limbs (2011) — My wife was teaching at the University of Minnesota when this came out, and I was already self-employed at that point. I would meet up with her on campus for lunch once a week, and on those days I would generally just hang around somewhere on campus with my laptop working. I always associate this album with sitting in the open area on the lower level of the then-brand-new Bruininks Hall.

A Moon Shaped Pool (2016) — Another one I immediately purchased on vinyl. This was spinning frequently in the storefront studio space I was renting at the time in the East Nokomis area of Minneapolis.

Oh yeah… since that listicle I linked to will probably be as dead as my old travel industry tech startup’s website when I want to look back on this in 10 or 20 years (eek), here’s my ranking as of right now:

9. The King of Limbs
8. Pablo Honey
7. Amnesiac
6. Hail to the Thief
5. The Bends
4. A Moon Shaped Pool
3. In Rainbows
2. OK Computer
1. Kid A