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What Is a Big Band Orchestra?

H. Bliss
Updated May 23, 2024
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A big band orchestra is a mid-sized musical performance group that plays big band jazz. Generally, these groups have between 15 and 30 members playing rhythm, string, and wind instruments. This type of group usually plays a type of music called big band swing. Some big band orchestras play old-time jazz standards, while others play original swing-style music. While the types and numbers of instruments in a big band orchestra can vary slightly, there are some basic instruments most people expect to see in this type of group.

Standard instruments in the wind instrument section of a big band orchestra include saxophones, trumpets, and trombones. There are usually multiple instrumentalists playing each type of wind instrument. Sometimes, a non-standard type of instrument like a flute, french horn, or tuba may join the wind section. Some jazz ensembles also have singers.

The basic rhythm section in a big band orchestra includes an electric guitar and bass guitar or acoustic bass instrument alongside drums and a piano or keyboard. Some jazz groups may also have a mallet instrument like a marimba or vibraphone. A big band orchestra always has a drummer playing a drum kit and usually includes a second drummer playing auxiliary percussion like congas, wood blocks, and chimes.

There are ideally five saxophones in a big band saxophone section. Generally, the section includes two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones, and one baritone saxophone. Saxophone players often play more than one type of saxophone. Alto or tenor saxophonists may switch to the soprano saxophone for solos in some songs. It is important to have at least one strong saxophone soloist on alto and tenor, since these instruments have frequent solos in big band jazz pieces.

Generally, brass instruments in a big band orchestra include four or five trombones and three or four trumpets. One of the trombones is often a bass trombone, a type of trombone designed to reach a lower range than the standard trombone. Usually, the trumpet section in a big band group includes at least one trumpet player capable of loudly projecting the high notes on a trumpet.

This type of performance group differs from jazz combos because the music in a big band orchestra relies much more upon written music than combo music, which is largely improvisational. Big band orchestra music does often contain improvisational solos, but improvisation plays much less a part of the overall performance than in a jazz combo performance.

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H. Bliss
By H. Bliss
Heather Bliss, a passionate writer with a background in communication, brings her love for connecting with others to her work. With a relevant degree, she crafts compelling content that informs and inspires, showcasing her unique perspective and her commitment to making a difference.
Discussion Comments
By matthewc23 — On Jan 21, 2012

@jmc88 - Speaking of listening to big bands live, I actually went and saw the Glenn Miller Orchestra perform back in 2004. Of course, no one from the original lineup was there, but it was at least an incarnation of the original. I don't have any idea if they are still touring or not.

It really was a fun time, though. They were just playing at the local high school, and even though it wasn't a packed house or anything, you could tell they were having a lot of fun playing. They sounded really good, too.

I thought the best part of the whole thing was that there were a lot of older couples who remembered listening to people like Glenn Miller in their youth, so they had a dance floor and everything set up where they could dance.

I think it is really great to hear about younger people getting interested in this music, so that it stays alive.

By jmc88 — On Jan 20, 2012

@titans62 - It is always good to see someone getting interested in big band music. You're right about Lawrence Welk. He was very popular, and his music is technically big band just from the arrangements, but it's not the same as the original big band music.

The number one band I would point you toward is the Glenn Miller Orchestra. You may have never heard of them before, but I can guarantee you've heard one of their songs called In the Mood. It may have very well been the song you listened to in class, since it's probably one of the most well know big band songs. They also play Chattanooga Choo Choo that was mentioned before. If you listen to them, you'll probably pick up a few more familiar songs.

Someone else you might want to look into is Duke Ellington. He was another of the famous big band players on clarinet.

It is really too bad that these bands aren't around to hear live anymore.

By titans62 — On Jan 19, 2012

@kentuckycat - Does anyone here know of any good big band orchestras for someone who is just learning about the style?

In my music class, we just started talking about big bands today and listened to a couple of different songs. I have listened to a little jazz before, and I always thought they were kind of the same thing, but now I can tell they are completely different.

I asked my parents, and the only person they knew was Lawrence Welk. A recording of one of his shows happened to be on TV that same night, and I watched it for a little bit, but it just wasn't the same thing that we had been listening to in class.

Unfortunately, I don't remember what the song was we listened to in class or really where to start looking for other big band musicians. Any help would be appreciated.

By kentuckycat — On Jan 18, 2012

I have always loved listening to big band music. Unfortunately for me, I never really learned how to play an instrument, so I could never participate in any of them. I just don't think I have the musical talent required.

I think one of my favorite songs of all time might be Chattanooga Choo Choo. It is a great song in general, but I think part of the reason I like it so much is because listening to it on my parents' record player was one of my first memories.

They had a pretty large collection of big band records that I have kept to this day, and still listen to quite a bit. I think one of the things that drew me to the song was the way the trombones and trumpets at the beginning mimic the sound of a train horn. I always thought that was neat.

H. Bliss
H. Bliss
Heather Bliss, a passionate writer with a background in communication, brings her love for connecting with others to her...
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