In the 19th century dance music was dispensed by everything from a single violin or flute to a full orchestra. When no musicians were available it could be readily furnished by the singing and handclaps of the dancers themselves. Grand, formal, and state balls often required larger instrumental combinations, as did the splendent occasions of the wealthy.
Small groups of brass horns were especially suitable for the seasonable outdoor and semi-outdoor dancing much favored in the American north, and after mid-century many a fiddler learned to double on trumpet, saxhorn, or trombone to ensure his obtaining work. There was a close association between the wind band and the dance. All such ensembles had a dance repertoire, many bandmasters composed dances, and some conducted dancing schools. After the Civil War the large concert bands were often engaged to provide music for sizable urban galas at armories, hotel ballrooms, and exhibition halls. Marches became a standard part of an evening of formal dancing, and from the 1890s accompanied the two-step and later the cakewalk, the one-step, and various ragtime patterns. From the introduction of commercial sound reproduction until 1920 dance recordings by both name and studio wind bands remained a staple of that industry.
String combos of three to five players offered quadrilles, waltzes, polkas, and schottisches, or more traditional country dance music, as personal inclination and local taste prescribed. The more polite balls of the well-to-do, the socially successful, and the politically prominent were usually the province of the ‘social dance orchestra’, consisting of several string players and one or more solo winds performing simple written arrangements. Such orchestras could be easily enlarged or scaled down to provide the proper volume of sound for a particular setting. By the end of the century this ensemble had been replaced by the more gentle intimate sound, the more florid musicianship, the lilting buoyant rhythms of the ‘society dance orchestra’. Sporting a similar instrumental makeup but featuring musicians of greater formal training, it first found favor among the very rich by essaying a lighter more salon style of European dance music, then gained general acceptance at hotels, cotillions, house parties, and summer resorts catering to the smart social set and later at ballrooms, dances, and private functions frequented by the nation’s middle classes by adding musical show hits, "Tin-Pan-Alley" tunes, ragtime and other novelties. Partially written and partially improvised, its music often bore the stylistic imprint and personality of a particular leader under whose name and business aegis like-sounding units could be dispatched as needed, setting the pattern for society orchestras of the 20th century.
Dance musicians of all combinations and styles commonly incorporated popular tunes, operatic airs, and folk favorites into their sets, often altering them to conform to the mood and steps of a specific dance pattern. From the 1870s publishers issued folios of music arranged for dancing and two decades later their printed orchestrations of popular songs began to be adapted and utilized by the more progressive society outfits.
In general, dance music of the 19th and early 20th centuries was repetitive, unstructured, monotonous, and often devoid of color or variation, consisting of a single reiterated unison melody or series of melodies fitted, by the more urbane orchestras, with a simple chordal-rhythmic accompaniment. The creativity of an individual performer or later the use of a printed score might contribute a harmony, a simple countermelody, or an obligato, but apart from the special concert renderings of the large bands and orchestras this music was purely functional.
After 1910 dance fever, probably an expression of national progressive optimism, began to infect the United States. The new dances were fun, slightly naughty, possessed an attractive continental elegance and sophistication, and had steps that could be simplified and smoothed out into a one-step, quickstep, later a fox-trot, or simply a fast walk, so that all might participate regardless of age, talent, or training. Adopted by the nation’s leading hostesses, they developed from a curiosity into a rage and would in time become a social necessity. Managers of hotels, restaurants, and cabarets found it prudent to offer public dancing. Entrepreneurs exploited its new respectability by opening nightclubs and dance emporiums. Musicians with appropriate skills were much in demand, and the ready returns of dance work enticed many from the pursuit of concert or theatre careers.
Dance music changed as it started to incorporate distinctive elements of several traditions. From the military band came the tuba and drums, the heavier rhythmic emphasis, the use of "breaks", and the cornet-trombone-clarinet front line which could reproduce in miniature the polyphonic ensemble of a wind band. From ragtime came syncopation, the full piano style, and the rhythmically penetrating popular banjo mannerisms. From the theatre a sense of drama, urgency, split-second timing, and a host of novel musical and extra-musical effects were acquired, as was the showy trap-drummer and the increased use of publishers’ printed "stock" arrangements(most of which had been penned by theatre musicians). Jazz contributed the heat of low-life entertainment, the effervescent abandon of controlled chaos, the distortion of instrument tones to simulate a variety of human and animal sounds, and the expressive alteration of a melodic line by embellishment. Blues brought the wail, the cry, the blue and bent note, while the male quartet contributed the radiant warmth of its harmonies to the brass and woodwind writing that became possible as dance groups increased from six to ten to fourteen pieces by the mid- twenties. Saxophones, employed for years in certain wind bands and recently experimented with in theatre orchestras, became dominant, popularized by African-American theatrical troupes and by novelty stage and recording acts such as the Six Brown Brothers from Canada. The sound of the dance band saxophone came to symbolize the so-called "jazz age".
As music for dancing became more sophisticated the public came to expect more in the way of variety, novelty, and interest in their dance music. To stay competitive bands not only adapted publishers’ "stocks" but began working out original orchestrations, soon entrusting this function to members with compositional skills. Quick to utilize and organize tonal effects improvised nightly by their fellow musicians, these men became vital to the individuality and success of the best dance organizations. Many soon left the stand to more fully devote themselves to writing, eventually offering their services to other bands as well. Ferde Grofe, Isham Jones, Roy Bargy, Don Redman, Bill Challis, John Nesbitt, Fletcher and Horace Henderson, Gene Gifford, Russ Morgan, Duke Ellington, Fud Livingston, Glenn Miller, Will Hudson, Lenny Hayton, and Benny Carter pioneered the creative and musically satisfying dance arrangement that not only filled dance halls and sold records, drawing the attention of music industry song-pluggers and radio advertisers, but became an art form itself. Succeeding decades would hear this art form taken to even higher levels as Ellington, Sy Oliver, Eddie Durham, Jimmy Mundy, Spud Murphy, Buster Harding, Andy Gibson, Larry Clinton, Dean Kincaide, Eddie Sauter, Bill Finegan, Jerry Gray, Billy Strayhorn, Ralph Burns, and Neal Hefti , working within the joyful and irresistible relaxed swing tradition developed by the top bands, added the sensuous colors, lush harmonies, and structural variation of modern symphonic works, balancing them with smoother more incisive rhythms and the riffs and call-and –response patterns native to work songs and gospel music.
Writing in the late 1930s, composer and ace theatre musician Robert Russell Bennett considered dance orchestration then to be "the most imaginative and productive of all arranging", and all arrangers coming of age between 1925 and 1960 developed a thorough working knowledge of its conventions, practices, and possibilities. Many started distinguished, successful, and rewarding careers by an association with one or more of the top resident hotel bands or major touring outfits. Victor Young wrote for Ted Fiorito and Isham Jones, Gordon Jenkins for Jones, Vincent Lopez, and Benny Goodman. Ferde Grofe started in the bands of Art Hickman and Paul Whiteman, Lenny Hayton in those of Whiteman and Cass Hagan. Axel Stordahl and Paul Weston arranged for Bert Block and Joe Haymes respectively before coming to work for Tommy Dorsey. Toots Camarata was with Jimmy Dorsey and Charlie Barnet while Glen Osser created scores for the bands of Shep Fields, Paul Whiteman, and Les Brown. Frank DeVol spent formative years with Horace Heidt and Alvino Rey, Ray Conniff with Rey, Dan Murphy, Bunny Berigan, Harry James, and Artie Shaw. Nelson Riddle early on contributed scores to Charlie Spivak, Tommy Dorsey, Les Elgart, Elliott Lawrence, Tex Beneke, Bob Crosby, and Frankie Carle, Hugo Winterhalter to Nye Mayhew, Larry Clinton, Jack Jenney, Raymond Scott, Will Bradley-Ray McKinley, Count Basie, and Vaughn Monroe. Henry Mancini(Tex Beneke), John Scott Trotter(Hal Kemp), George Williams(Gene Krupa), Leroy Holmes(Harry James), Jack Pleis(Jan Savitt), Monty Kelly(Paul Whiteman), Marty Gold(Charlie Barnet), and Robert Lowden(Claude Thornhill) all served dance band apprenticeships. In England Peter Yorke(Jack Hylton), George Melachrino(The Savoy Orpheans), Cyril Stapleton(Henry Hall, Billy Ternent), Angela Morley(Oscar Rabin, Geraldo), Tony Osborne(Carroll Gibbons, Ambrose, Cyril Stapleton), Bob Sharples(Ambrose, Roy Fox, Harry Roy) and many others could point to similar experience. Notables we commonly do not associate with "that big band sound", such as Leroy Anderson, Percy Faith, David Rose, and Henri Rene, all gained youthful experience writing for local dance outfits. Mantovani and Frank Chacksfield ran successful restaurant dance ensembles in 1930s England, and Fred Waring, long before his days of glee club presentations and music publishing, led one of the most popular American dance orchestras.
In the twenty years following the Second World War popular enthusiasm for dance bands cooled, but their spirit continued to burn brightly in appearances and recordings of large, usually local, jazz ensembles. Among the arranger-composers who contributed richly to this tradition in later years we might include Toshiko Akiyoshi, Bob Brookmeyer, Billy Byers, Gil Evans, Bob Florence, Frank Foster, Quincy Jones, Thad Jones, Johnny Mandel, Gary McFarland, Gerry Mulligan, Sammy Nestico, and Patrick Williams.
The war and its aftermath prompted the organization of dance and jazz-oriented units in various branches of the American military that continue to nurture talented writers and instrumentalists. High schools and colleges began the experimental development of similar ensembles in the late 1950s, and the resulting educational stage band curriculum even now enlightens, enlivens, and varies the musical life of many a young student.
continue to Part 5 back to Main Menu