On Monday nights in New York City, musicians who normally command top dollar pack up their instruments and go out to play for expenses because they like to play in big bands. It's a tradition that began when Broadway theatres stayed closed on Mondays and pit-band musicians could therefore afford the indulgence of doing whatever gigs they pleased. Now the habit has spread and one-night big bands can be found most of the week somewhere along the archipelago of Greenwich Village jazz clubs.
Though their leaders are now dead, the bands of Sun Ra and Charles Mingus reconvene for weekly sessions at The Fez; Oliver Lake has recently taken over the spot held for years by David Murray's big band at the Knitting Factory, and at Visiones the 18-piece orchestra of Maria Schneider has just completed its final Monday night of a five-year run, the gig coming to an end after the club was bought up by its richer neighbour, the Blue Note. On their last night, Schneider's band was astonishingly good, proving that there is still life in the hoary old form of the 18-piece big band. It must be the sheer power of a big band in full flight that makes musicians want to play for peanuts on a Monday night.
Schneider, a strikingly red-headed composer and arranger in her mid-thirties who was born and brought up in the jazz-desert of Minnesota, makes her British debut at the Barbican on Wednesday, as part of the year-long "Inventing America" season. She won't be bringing her own band - the economics of touring large ensembles put paid to the big band boom in the 1950s - but instead leads the famous Danish Radio Orchestra and the star soloist David Sanborn, in a programme devoted to the music of her principal influence, the late Gil Evans.
It was Evans's orchestrations for Miles Davis on albums such as Sketches of Spain that created a whole new language for big band jazz in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Evans changed the customary instrumentation - adding French horns to create a more expressive, orchestral, effect - and favoured harmonic subtlety over the impeccably-timed brash brass and reed choruses that had dominated the form since the swing bands of the Thirties. By doing so, he revitalised a jazz format that, with the exception of Duke Ellington's band, was something of an anachronism amidst the jazz experiments of the post-war years. But despite the example of Evans, the neglected George Russell (who brings an orchestra largely made up of students to the Barbican next month), and a few other notable exceptions, the big band has become an ungainly dinosaur to be trotted out at festivals and big occasions as a vehicle for bravura blowing sessions, or else relegated to the nostalgia-circuit of Glenn Miller soundalikes.
The big band music of Maria Schneider proves that the form has a future, although no-one is going to get rich from it. At Visiones last month, the musicians had to be playing for love, because although the tiny club was packed, there couldn't have been more than 80 people there. The l8 members of the band tripped over each other in order to get to their positions on the trio-sized platform, and Schneider had to set up a recording system herself - stringing microphones along the walls like fairy lights - while simultaneously dealing with an angry trumpeter who was surplus to requirements. At the end of the first set, she went out to get sushi for the band.
Like Evans, Schneider adopts an orchestral approach to the traditional 18-piece ensemble, and her arrangements are coloured with delicate, Debussy- esque washes of sound. "Gil used French horns and everything to get that sound, but I couldn't fit the French horns into Visiones," she says. "So I've been writing for a standard big band but doing everything I can to create more colour and interest, using bucket-mutes, alto flutes and clarinets, and mixing colours so that you don't really know what it is, like blue- green with a little grey. I recently wrote a piece for the Metropole Orchestra in Holland where it was like finally getting the super-set of Crayola crayons where you've been used to working with only the small pack!"
Schneider's reverence for the work of Gil Evans was already well-established when she moved from Minneapolis to New York and began working as a music copyist. "I loved Gil Evans's music because it was so expressive," she says. "Big band music is not typically very expressive of emotion. It has an expression of joy and intensity but I heard in Gil all that subtlety and softness that classical music could have, yet it also had the drive and the quirkiness and the beauty of jazz, and the excitement of improvisation." When a friend whose music she was copying introduced her to Evans, she began copying for him, too, before moving on to transcribing and then re-orchestrating his pieces for larger orchestras. They also worked together on the score for Martin Scorsese's film The Colour of Money, and on music for a European tour by Sting before Evans died in 1988.
Schneider used all of her savings to pay for the recording of her first album, Evanescence, but it remained unreleased until Matthias Winkelmann of Enja Records saw her big band at Visiones one Monday night and was impressed enough to put the record out on his label.
Although Schneider has made the big band, as it were, her home, she has no reverence for its traditions. "The big band is a form that exists in lots of places and I can get my music played there, so I never feel limited by it," she says. "But with my music, you can't just stand up and blow a solo on it. The players really have to get inside of the piece to make it happen. In typical big band music, people write a tune, everyone solos on it and then the tune comes back, but in my music they have to carry the action from point A to point B and not just spill out everything they know and sit down again." If Monday night musicians are more than happy to play for cab-fare, Schneider's music has to be something special.
The Legacy of Gil Evans: Maria Schneider, David Sanborn and the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra, Barbican, Wednesday 4 Feb, 0171-638 8891.
Five contemporary big band albums
Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra's `Evanescence' and `Coming About' (Enja); George Russell's Living Time Orchestra: `The London Concert' (Label Bleu); Mingus Big Band: `Gunslinging Birds' (Dreyfus); Kenny Wheeler: `Music For Large and Small Ensembles' (ECM)