Miking Traditional Jazz Combos Live, Pt. 1

My experience has been that many live sound engineers are not familiar with the techniques (now seen as rather archaic) needed to produce an authentic vintage jazz sound. In the following series of articles, I will share with you some of the techniques that I use with my own bands to produce a vintage sound. I’ll also share some thoughts on the history and aesthetics of our music, so that you’ll be better equipped to assist less experienced bands who don’t yet have a clear understanding of how to achieve a vintage sound.
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The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra, with Crytzer on guitar.
Thirty years ago, geriatric Big Bands or Dixieland groups (clad in powder blue tuxedos or red vests with arm garters, respectively) seemed to be the graveyard where the music of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s would be laid to rest. In the late 1990s, Swing made an attempt at a popular culture comeback. The Gap’s “Khakis Swing” commercial and films like The Mask, Swing Kids and Swingers kickstarted a brief resurgence of “revival” bands which mixed vintage swing with rock, ska, and lounge music. Ultimately (and fortunately) the “neo-swing” movement landed in the heap of other awful ‘90s trends like Hammer pants, frosted hair and Crystal Pepsi, but this flash-in-the-pan parody of swing music piqued the interest of many musicians and would-be jazz fans.

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In the 20 years since the neo-swing movement, young musicians and jazz fans have dug deeper into the vaults of old recordings and films and have cultivated a taste for authentic vintage music from the Jazz Age and Swing Era. As films and TV Shows like Boardwalk Empire, Bomb Girls, Agent Carter, Midnight in Paris, Treme and The Great Gatsby have brought vintage culture into the public eye, the scene created by these young enthusiasts has grown.

Today, nearly every major city in the world has some kind subculture in which people in their twenties and thirties imbibe classic cocktails, dance the lindy hop, and listen to the music of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Jimmie Lunceford, and there are bands performing vintage jazz in venues around the world, ranging from concert halls to dive bars. Here in New York City, listeners have their choice of five to 10 different vintage-style bands nearly any night of the week.

When it comes to sound set-up, there are a variety of practices in play. The spectrum ranges from bands that distinctly prefer to modernize their sound for practical or aesthetic purposes to other bands (like my own) that prefer to emulate the sound of the bands who originated the style of music that we play. My experience has been that many live sound engineers are not familiar with the techniques (now seen as rather archaic) needed to produce an authentic vintage sound. In the following series of articles, I will share with you some of the techniques that I use with my own bands to produce a vintage sound. I’ll also share some thoughts on the history and aesthetics of our music, so that you’ll be better equipped to assist less experienced bands who don’t yet have a clear understanding of how to achieve a vintage sound.

Part 1: Background

Jazz grew up in American dance halls, brothels, saloons, and pool rooms around the turn of the 20th Century. At that time, if you wished to be heard more clearly by the audience, you played or sang more loudly; conversely if you wished to more clearly hear the music, you danced or chattered more quietly (as bassist Matt Weiner puts it, “There’s a reason they invented paying more to sit up front”).

Though the first public address systems appeared in the mid-1910s, the microphone would not make its presence felt in jazz until the late 1920s. Singers with big voices like those of blues shouter Bessie Smith or vaudeville belter Al Jolson dominated the pre-microphone age. Into the mid-1920s, somewhat effete tenors became all the rage, their high voices more able to carry to the back of the room. After a brief national fascination with acoustic megaphones, the microphone became finally more ubiquitous, allowing singers like Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo to develop a more intimate style of singing. This paved the way for singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra.

Contrast the blues shout singing style of Bessie Smith, whose style developed without the aid of microphones, against the more intimate style of Billie Holiday.

As the microphone came into common use for vocalists, it was also available on stage to help reinforce softer instruments like the piano, violin, string bass, and guitar. With the guitar, for example, manufacturers worked tirelessly in the 1920s to create louder instruments that could compete with the tenor banjo for the role of “time keeper” in large bands. Once microphones were commonly available, guitarists could extend their role beyond keeping time and could take obbligato and featured roles as well. By 1936, the first electric guitars would become available to the public, finally allowing the guitar to take on the same kind of soloist role as the horn players.

Bing Crosby sings “Please” with Orchestra as Eddie Lang plays obbligato filigree behind Bing’s vocal.

It is important to note that in the late 1920s, it would have been extremely rare for a band to have more than one microphone at its disposal for live performance, even in massive halls. It was not that this technology did not exist; it simply wasn’t seen as practical or necessary. The mic was available for singing and special features, but the music was still meant to be heard acoustically with the microphone as an augmentation device.

As musicians spent more time in radio and recording studios, the ability to use lighter techniques on their instruments by placing themselves closer to a recording mic helped to slowly change the course of jazz. For example, the piano style of Count Basie in the early 1940s differed dramatically from his playing in the mid-1930s and from the playing of the stride pianists who came before him. While early jazz pianists needed to play in a way that produced the most sound, pianists like Basie, with the benefit of a mic, could develop a lighter and more sparse style. The microphone also allowed us to hear the full range of the clarinet, even over a loud band. This enabled it to be a featured instrument during the big band era and opened the door for Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, and others.

Compare the thick “orchestra” 1920s piano style of Jelly Roll Morton (solo at 1:55) with the sparser single-note 1940s style of Count Basie (solo at top of tune).

By the end of the 1930s and into the 1940s, portable P.A. systems were available with as many as four inputs and large halls could have had the capacity to mic every instrument. Yet, it is clear from examining photos of different bands in live performance, research into accounts from the time, and talking with a few musicians who still remember the Swing Era, that jazz was still at this time thought of as acoustic music, with microphones adding support for horn soloists (so that the other horns could play loudly behind them) and to help support the rhythm section as the horn sections became larger and larger. Individual miking was not used in recording studios either, as the effect of a close miked band was aesthetically less appealing to the pioneering jazz musicians and early listeners.

After WW2, everything began to change. Electric instruments took on greater importance and new genres like rock, country, pop and rhythm and blues replaced jazz as America’s popular music. Though jazz absorbed much of the new electrical technology that these genres featured, its decline in popularity with young people and its aspiration toward art music moved jazz from the dance hall to the concert hall, and this caused a significant aesthetic shift within jazz. It is somewhere around this point where we draw the “end line” for vintage jazz as those musicians who continued to draw upon the older aesthetic were seen as old-fashioned.

What stands as unique about early jazz is that it is music rooted in acoustic tradition that grew up along-side and incorporated electronic technology as it developed. Classical orchestras and opera singers have largely refrained from updating with the times by adding microphones to their performances while technology is a natural part of rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, soul, disco, and so on, but early jazz delicately balances the acoustic and the electric.