When Sammy Miller and Evan Sherman bring their big bands to the Appel Room this weekend for a battle royale, they'll be bringing quite a bit of history with them.
The shows will showcase two bandleaders most familiar from their work hosting Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola Late Night Sessions as well as many of New York's most promising young jazz musicians. They'll also hearken back to a tradition of rivalry that's been with jazz ever since its beginnings.
Jazz musicians in general are not exactly non-competitive; the "cutting contest" is not a new concept. In turn-of-the-century New Orleans, trumpet players vied for dominance at battles held in Storyville clubs. Throughout the 1920s, stride pianists took part in competitions where they'd try to play each other off the stage—James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith took part in a number of friendly cutting contests in New York.
But these battles grew in scale once big bands got involved. Harlem's famed Savoy Ballroom, formerly located between 140th and 141st Streets on Lenox Ave., was ground zero for these historic events. The first such confrontation is generally agreed to have been the "Battle of Jazz," which took place on May 15, 1927, and featured bands led by Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, Fess Williams, and King Oliver.
Over the next decade, the Savoy hosted a number of additional battles, many of which featured Webb's ensemble (also the Savoy's house band). All were adjudicated by hugely appreciative audiences, who flocked to the shows and lined up around the block to get in. Webb mostly held his own, defeating Fletcher Henderson in 1937 and then the Benny Goodman Orchestra in one of the most famous battles, held in 1938. He also battled the Count Basie Orchestra to a draw (though some maintain Webb was victorious) on another jam-packed night that featured Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and a solo Duke Ellington. However, it's generally agreed upon that Webb's band was blown off the bandstand by Ellington's orchestra when they battled in 1937. "We tore them up, man," Ellington drummer Sonny Greer later told an interviewer.
That was the golden age of the big band battle, but musicians have done their best to carry on tradition. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis has engaged in its fair share of skirmishes, including last year's "Battle Royale" in Chicago with the Legendary Count Basie Orchestra. They also battled the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra back in 2008's Big Band Bash.
On Friday and Saturday nights, Sherman and Miller will put on a fiery big band battle of their own, employing comedy, friendly one-upmanship, and high-velocity virtuosity, and audiences will get a taste of a bygone era when such battles were commonplace.
Sammy Miller & The Congregation
Saxophones: Patrick Bartley, Patrick Sargent, Ben Flocks, Camille Thurman, Dan White
Trombones: Sam Crittenden, Mariel Bildsten, Andy Clausen
Trumpets: Jumaane Smith, Enrique Sanchez, Alphonso Horne, Riley Mulherkar
Bass: John Snow
Piano: Dave Linard
Drums: Sammy Miller
Evan Sherman Big Band
Saxophones: Julian Lee, Immanuel Wilkins, Stacy Dillard, Jerry Weldon, Dean Tsur
Trombones: Corey Wilcox, Frank Lacy, Coleman Hughes
Trumpets: Brian Pareschi, Pete Desiena, Bruce Harris, James Zollar
Bass: Ben Wolfe
Piano: Joel Wenhardt
Vibraphone: Joel Ross
Drums: Evan Sherman
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