[Dixielandjazz] Big bands

BillSargentDrums at aol.com BillSargentDrums at aol.com
Mon Dec 29 12:11:58 PST 2003

Watching with interest this latest thread on Big Bands, and whether they're 
alive and well or dead, here's my experience:

My "Big Band" has been alive and well for 21 continuous years now (as of 
November). Our configuration has always been 14 instrumentalists plus 1 to 8 
vocalists. For over a decade now, it's been 14+4 and sometimes 14+1.

During the peak market years, our bands would average 20 dates per month, 
with our Big Band doing 85 - 90% of the gigs. (I have several bands including a 
Dixieland Band, small 5-7 piece band, and do occasional custom stuff.)

Currently, although the market has been depressed for several years, our Big 
Band still gets the majority of the work and works as much or more than many 
other "working" bands.

One of our "handicaps", if you will, is the fact that 99% of our gigs are 
private functions . . . fundraisers, balls, corporate events, conventions, and a 
whole bunch of weddings.

Most "public" events or venues simply can't afford us, so therefore, some 
folks aren't aware of our continued existence. But frankly, they're awareness 
doesn't put food on the table. I don't see the musicians in the bands that play 
for tips, or $25 a night, or cheap public events making their living 
exclusively on their musical performance as I have now for 36 years. (I'm 49).

Although we play for weddings and events of the life, we play material that 
not only pleases our audience, but our musicians too. All the sidemen LOVE to 
play on my band because my book is very cool. We play commercially viable jazz 
charts 90-95% of the night. Basie, Goodman, Nestico charts . . . very nice 
stuff . . . not the commercial "sweet band" crap. And, unless I am programming an 
evening specifically for this, we don't do all the tangos, cha-chas, rhumbas 
and the like. After all, my philosophy has always been that if you go to 
Mexico, I'm sure their audiences aren't requesting Count Basie.

I break up my evenings with small group with vocal stuff giving various 
musicians a chance to solo. My rhythm section guys play jazz for cocktails and 
dinner background.

I have the finest musicians available anywhere . . . certainly the best in 
Wisconsin playing on the band, many for years and years.

So, I guess you would consider that "alive and well", as the band is playing 
better now than at any time in 21 years, I am enjoying it more, and we are 
getting paid more, with the very highest class of clients around.

Our audiences are digging what we are playing and are no longer giving us 
stupid requests for tunes that aren't cool as they did in the eighties. Our 
audiences are also covering all ages groups.

I called our group a "Big Band" as I never liked the term "orchestra". Having 
played in real symphony "orchestras" I never saw any similarity. I always 
connected the term orchestra with strings (violins, etc.) and non-swinging.

Yes, I know that some of my favorite bands used the term orchestra, Goodman, 
Basie, etc. etc. . . . but so did all the sweet bands that didn't swing.

So, in my mind, I made a separation between sweet, ballroom dance bands and 
called them orchestras, and swinging bands, and called them Big Bands.

All that said, I'd like to now give you my perspective on the other side of 
the Big Band or Orchestra market.

Having played as sideman with "name" bands like Clyde McCoy, Russ Morgan, Jan 
Garber, Dick Jurgens, etc. throughout my whole career, I have watched that 
market change over 3 1/2 decades. The sweet bands, for all intensive purposes 
are, in fact, dead.

It has been my contention that in 10 to 15 years, all of these bands will be 
out of work entirely, except maybe for that novel gig for kicks once every 
month or two.

The market has been dwindling as those who grew up with such bands are dying. 
The people outside this group of "ballroom dancers" for the most part, have 
never learned to dance the ballroom dance tempos and styles, so therefore the 
audiences these bands have been playing to are 99.9% over 70 years of age.

Don't get me wrong, as there will always be a very small, specialized 
audience for ballroom dance stuff, for those who have chosen it as their hobby. but 
it is NOT large enough for bands to survive performing for such. I am convinced 
that those audiences will turn more and more to dancing to "canned" 

However, that does not appear to be the case for bands such as my own that 
play MUSICALLY exciting music, as folks from all ages are digging it, hiring us, 
praising us, paying us top dollar . . . and very, very few of them know dance 
steps. Doesn't bother them . . . and it doesn't bother us.

My guys are happy, we got to play incredible music, we get to blow jazz, we 
get to play together with awesome musicians, and we get paid well. Most of all, 
I, as a drummer, get to kick and drive the swingingest band in Wisconsin.

And people wonder why I'm so happy and smile so much :-)

Keep Swingin'!

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