Sholto Byrnes: Talking Jazz

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There's an old joke about the precarious finances involved in the jazz life: "How does a jazz musician wind up with one million dollars? Start out with two million." But however difficult it is to make a living as a jazz musician, the riskiest pecuniary venture of all is also one of the grandest of endeavours - the maintenance of the jazz orchestra, the big band.

So it's sad to hear that Radio 2 is axing its long-running National Big Band Competition. "It ran for 30 years and finished in 2005," was the explanation from a BBC spokesman, rather implausibly making it sound as though the competition's demise had been planned from its inception in 1975.

The future absence of just one showcase for big band music may not seem too great a disaster, but this is a form of jazz that needs all the support it can get. It's hard running a big band, and the truth is that, apart from a period from the 1930s to the 1950s, it's always been hard. Even the great names, the Basies and the Hermans, had to break up their units during the lean times, when paying the salaries of 16 players was simply not a possibility.

We're not talking about dance bands here, although those commercialised cousins of the big band often shared some similarities of orchestration and borrowed the odd lick or two out of the jazz book. We're talking about a form that provided a grounding for so many of jazz's leading practitioners.

From Fletcher Henderson's band in the 1930s, which featured Coleman Hawkins and Rex Stewart, to the ensemble run by the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, whose sidemen included Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Harry James and Charlie Christian, it was through big bands that the great players rose.

Even the beboppers paid their dues, with Dizzy Gillespie putting in a two-year stint with Cab Calloway (although his employer hated the trumpeter's adventurous solos, which he labelled "Chinese music").

The heart of jazz may be improvisation, but the language has to be learned, and there is no better school in which to pick it up than a big band. Here players can tackle intricate phrasing and absorb the great harmonies of an Ellington arrangement without risking overexposure as an unsure soloist.

Not that one should overlook the role of the non-star members of a big band in contributing to its sound - they also serve who merely sit and play fourth trombone.

As for the jazz composer: for him, there is no greater canvas than the big band, with its serried ranks of trumpets, trombones and saxophones appearing in relief over the primer laid by the rhythm section.

This can vary from the hard-swinging, Basie and Buddy Rich model, which is carried on in the UK by groups such as the Pete Cater Big Band, to the impressionist or experimental ensembles put together in this country by Michael Garrick or the Guildhall School of Music, and whose inspiration is more Ellingtonian.

Enthusiasm for the big band tradition is still alive, particularly in the north of England. Ensembles such as MYJO (the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra), which won the last Radio 2 competition, Jazz Jamaica, and the Matthew Herbert Big Band continue to demonstrate the rich palate of sound to be heard in a large jazz group.

But the task of keeping these outfits together is a hard one. "Duke Ellington's band has something in common with the Supreme Court," the US critic Whitney Balliett wrote in 1963. "Its members tend to stay put for life."

One would be hard pressed to find a British jazz ensemble of which one could say the same. The audiences for this music, as Birmingham Jazz's chair, Tony Dudley-Evans, notes, are there, but they tend to be older.

So the end of Radio 2's competition does matter, for it represents one less chance for newcomers to connect to big band music, and for younger people to realise that it isn't all about "In The Mood" - that it is, in fact, some of the most exciting music you're ever likely to hear.

I defy anyone to listen to Buddy Rich's "Time Check", Maynard Ferguson's "Give It One" or Count Basie's "The Kid from the Red Bank", and not be thrilled by the bravura of that brass juggernaut, the big band, as it speeds down the highway flattening any who get in its way.

Has there ever been a better arrangement of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess than the one that Gil Evans wrote for his ensemble and Miles Davis? Where would Frank Sinatra have been at his comeback concert at Madison Square Gardens, in 1974, without Woody Herman and his Young Thundering Herd to back him?

And anyone who thinks such big, horn-laden groups can't fit into the brave new world of beats and computers should listen to ed/ge, the British outfit led by the saxophonist Ed Jones and the Us3 producer Geoff Wilkinson.

The big band is a great, shiny glory of jazz, a treasure trove of its past and a vehicle with plenty of room to take on board its future. It wouldn't cost much for Radio 2 to play its part in that future by reviving the competition.