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Big Band and Combo Jazz: Musical Groups Comparison

The purpose of this essay is to compare two types of musical groups, big band and combo jazz. Both of these directions are deeply rooted in the history of the music of the 20th century and received the most significant development and popularity in America in the 1930s and 1940s. The emergence of these bands coincides with the development of the recording industry, which gives the listener the opportunity to hear for themselves the specifics and differences of these styles of performance. Having subsequently evolved into other, more complex forms of jazz music, these two types of jazz groups deserve to be considered historically important. Big bands and jazz combos, while existing in the same musical sphere, represent vastly different structural approaches to jazz music.

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The big band format has its own historical predecessors, in particular the Dixieland style that developed in New Orleans, using orchestral arrangements to perform dance music. Big bands carried in their head a special arranger who determined when and with what duration and dynamics the performer would play a solo on his instrument, which gave a special color to the music. Big band leaders like Duke Ellington went on to become iconic jazz musicians with successful solo careers (Etinde-Crompton & Crompton, 2018). Such bands played in the ballrooms of major cities in the United States and were also distributed by radio and through the record.

One can take Glenn Miller’s orchestra, popular to this day, as an example to highlight the distinctive features of this type of ensemble (Merrick, 2007). Rhythm big band section includes piano, guitar, bass, and drums. Wind instruments, on the other hand, serve to color and arrange the sound – as a rule, there are several such instruments, including brass and woodwinds. In general, the big band justifies its name with the number of participating musicians, which should be more than ten. Big band music is danceable and high-tempo, evoking the popular Swing style, whose golden age was in the 1930s (Booker, 2020).

Jazz combo is a term used to describe groups on a smaller scale, such as a trio or quartet. A moderate number of performers affects the specifics of the sound, which can vary in dynamics and express different moods. Smaller combo groups perform in smaller venues compared to big bands, taking up space in nightclubs. Compared to a big band, combos are more collaborative and focus on self-organization. The music in a jazz combo can be more improvisational, as the nature of the material being played is not so strongly tied to the directives of the conductor and the bandleader.

The combo format allows each member of the group to communicate with the other through the performance of music non-verbally. Thus, the performer has the opportunity to improve not only individual playing skills but also collaborative dynamics, providing a unique experience in both performance and listening. The difference in the very nature of the performance can be characterized as philosophical. Contrary to the directives of the conductor, the dialogue among the musicians in the combo group is more abstract and has more positive support.

Thus, the difference in the composition of the two types of groups characterizes the music itself, its specificity, and its emotional character. The music of combo groups usually turns out to be significantly less structural. Big band musicians play music strictly by notes, while combo performers have only general directives – tonality, chord progression, and melody. Combo proves to be more capable of improvisation, change, and adaptation, evolving into sometimes unpredictable and exciting musical forms. At the same time, the big band has much greater synchronicity, and because of this, the strength and immediacy of the effect are produced by simultaneous sound extraction.


Booker, V. A. (2020). Lift every voice and swing black musicians and religious culture in the jazz century. New York University Press.

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Etinde-Crompton, C., & Crompton, S. W. (2018). Duke Ellington: Legendary composer and bandleader. Enslow Publishing, LLC

Merrick, A. (2007). Glenn Miller-“Caribbean Clipper” [Video]. Web.

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