For those who think only of Glen Miller when they think of "big bands," and who assume that big bands died when Miller's plan crashed in the English Channel, WSJ's Martin Johnson provides an update. The sublime assemblages of saxophones, trombones, trumpets and rhythm--designed and perfected by such greats as Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter and Duke Ellington--continue to press forward into new musical territory.
Of course, Ellington never stopped moving forward. In the decades following his death, Thad Jones wrote superb charts for the Monday night orchestra that he and drummer Mel Lewis led at Manhattan's legendary Village Vanguard. Johnson notes what's happening right now with bands that blend jazz, contemporary classical, Latin, African, Middle Eastern and rock influences with the traditional instrumentation, sometimes modified.
At its best, contemporary big band music is exciting, challenging, still accessible, and always swinging. It's the perfect antidote for people who find predictability in other genres.
For gentle readers who don't know what all this is about, we recommend a visit to a nearby venue. Columbus, Ohio maintains a municipal jazz orchestra known for doing traditional arrangements as well as some accessible contemporary stuff. In Cincinnati, there's the extremely vital Blue Wisp Big Band, playing every Wednesday night since time began under the direction of immortal drummer John von Ohlen, who drives the band like Jim Clark drove race cars. Elsewhere, check your local listings.