Culture Music

Bob Graettinger and the Big Band Avant-Garde

Stan Kenton has become an icon of the American experimental jazz scene and was one of the most commercially successful artists of his time. The same cannot be said of his arrangers, however, and none more so than Bob Graettinger.

Graettinger worked as an arranger for Kenton for ten years until his death in 1957, at which point he fell into obscurity. His magnum opus City of Glass (1951) is a ground-breaking work that challenges what it means to be jazz, pushing the instruments into shocking new timbres and soundscapes while utilising distinctly idiomatic part-writing that demonstrates familiarity and fluency in the big band tradition.

During the lockdown I have spent a lot of time analysing and thinking about City of Glass, and have produced a playlist that explores the musical universe it operates within. Today I will introduce three of Graettinger’s most striking charts from this playlist.

Thermopylae

‘Thermopylae’ is one of the few Graettinger charts that we have the luxury of multiple recordings of. For me, the Ebony Band Amsterdam’s rendition outclasses the original Kenton recording through a more nuanced performance that captures the physical power and emotional unrest that Graettinger’s style emanates.

This sense of unrest is cultivated through contrast: the slight decrescendo of the cymbals every bar reinforces the abruptness of the brass chords that follow; the mechanical rhythms presented at the beginning are interspersed with a behind-the-beat swing feel and lush sax soli superimposed over dense quartal and whole-tone harmonies; and the wall of sound that the brass create is framed by the stark, quiet opening and ending gestures. Moments of release are occasionally offered via brief harmonic progressions, but only a few bars later the static dissonance returns.

‘Thermopylae’ also demonstrates a formal feature often emphasised in Graettinger’s works, which is the sense of ‘looking in’ from a defined perspective. The song does not have a meaningful beginning or end: it begins in tempo, building to the primary dynamic level over two bars, and ends via a decrescendo over the same chord.

It is as if a window onto a scene has been opened, remaining open for a finite amount of time before unceremoniously closing again. The monothematic material and cyclic structure render this scene static, devoid of activity, as if we are to imagine this virtual landscape continuously ticking away even while no one is listening.

A Trumpet

While Maynard Ferguson is widely remembered for his supersonic high register playing, the unapologetically cheesy disco covers and the Big Bop Nouveau, it is often forgotten that earlier in his career he spent several years working with Kenton in the Innovations Orchestra.

This period presents Maynard at his most avant-garde: not only did he sit in for the 1951 recording of City of Glass, Graettinger also wrote him a fiendishly difficult solo piece tailored to his virtuosic abilities. Simply titled ‘A Trumpet’ (or ‘Maynard’s Solo’ as it appears on the original manuscript), this song is a vibrant mosaic of angular melodies and dazzling harmonies that demonstrates the immense power and energy of the big band medium.

What I find most striking about this song is the way the accompaniment is tailored to blend with the high register trumpet: the vertical orchestrations seem to magnify the energy of the solo, particularly in the loud tutti passages of the first half, while also creating space for a more reflective character to come through in the quieter moments (the final chord is a major triumph in this respect).

That the piece fluctuates so rapidly between brash, powerful statements  and more sensitive ones suggests a sense of vulnerability and fragility that is so uncommon in the lead trumpet repertoire. Where many big band charts simply add high register playing on top of an otherwise standard orchestration for the ‘wow’ factor, Graettinger has managed to capture the excitement and power of the lead trumpet sound and embody it in an orchestra.

April in Paris

When ‘April in Paris’ was released by Count Basie and His Orchestra in 1957 it became an icon of the big band era. In this respect, Graettinger’s arrangement of the hit song establishes perhaps one of the most direct dialogues between the avant-garde and the traditional.

The easy swing of the Basie recording is extrapolated into a rich, lilting haze of sound that feels truly Parisian. Much like ‘Thermopylae’ the song retains a sense of stillness interspersed with energetic outbursts, but the textures here are truly outstanding. The heterophony of the opening balances the richness of the trombone melody without seeming disconnected, while the intricate melodic ornaments in the dense sax and trumpet backings give a sense of liveness to the static harmonies.

The latter is a common feature in Graettinger’s work, most notably in the opening of City of Glass, and is symptomatic of his tendency to use transformations of numerical series to construct textural ‘blocks’ of sound. Such serial techniques are relatively rare in the jazz repertoire – they originate in the early 20th century classical tradition – and their usage here contributes to the originality of Graettinger’s sound.

When listening to these songs we must consider the question of authenticity, which has surrounded the progressive jazz scene since it began. For many, the likes of Kenton were not producing ‘jazz’, but classical-rooted music that appropriates jazz aesthetics. Much of this stems from the fact that these composers were largely white Americans not only participating in but becoming the face of a black artistic tradition. There is much to be unpacked in this respect, and while beyond the scope of this article I would encourage everyone to consider the social and cultural privileges that shaped this music.

My playlist, titled Into the City of Glass, contains a wide variety of music by Graettinger and his contemporaries including samples from both jazz and classical traditions. Little is recorded about his life and work, making research in this area difficult even without a pandemic; but for me Graettinger’s songs contain some of the most original and beautiful moments in the history of the big band, and deserve rediscovering.

Listen to the playlist here.