- James Lincoln Collier
The word “band” is used to denote many types of instrumental ensemble; it is thought to originate in the medieval Latin bandum (“banner,” also “company” or “crowd”). In jazz the term is used of any group of musicians exceeding two in number (a “duo”), but is most frequently applied to larger ensembles for which the terms “big band,” “dance band,” and “orchestra” have often been used interchangeably; a smaller group may also be described as a “dance band” or “orchestra.” In American schools the term “stage band” is used as a synonym for “big band.”
Jazz bands, broadly speaking, may be divided into two categories: smaller groups which play music that is predominantly improvised; and larger groups, in which a substantial amount of the music performed is previously arranged, either worked out in rehearsal and memorized, or actually played from written scores. The determining factor in general is the number of melody instruments in the ensemble: it is widely believed that not more than three or four such instruments can successfully improvise together, and that groups containing a larger number of them must play arranged parts. However, the small groups that played “improvised” music in New Orleans during the early years of the 20th century in fact worked out a substantial proportion of each piece in advance, as was also the case with such later small groups as Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five. Conversely, a few large avant-garde groups, for example, those that were led by Sun Ra, allow as many as 20 instruments to improvise simultaneously. Nevertheless, it is generally true that the music of bands with four or more melody instruments will largely be arranged, and those with three or fewer largely improvised. The terms “small group” and “combo” are applied to an ensemble of any size up to about nine players....