The Rise and Development of the Contemporary European Big Band


After having studied at the Berklee College of Music, in 1988 an opportunity arose for me to relocate to Germany. As I began to establish myself musically I found myself involved with a number of big bands, from the more official bands of the Frankfurt Music Conservatorium and the Youth Big Band of the State of Hesse (Jugendjazzorchester Hessen) to local bands in the smaller towns around Frankfurt. There I found myself often playing big band charts by European writers whose names I didn’t recognize.

Years later I found myself in Trieste, Italy, where I was preparing for a series of concerts and workshops, culminating with a performance at the local jazz festival aptly named, “Trieste Loves Jazz”. I had been in attendance at the press conference for the festival and got to know a number of local musicians. One of the people I met there was the bandleader of a local hot jazz big band who subsequently invited me to accompany him to a big band festival that was being held in the village of Marezige, Slovenia.

A big band festival? In Slovenia? Incredibly, for over ten years this small locality located on the hills overlooking the port city of Capodistria has been hosting what may be the world’s first and only big band festival. This is no small event, either. The festival is two days long, featuring five big bands per day and is covered by the Slovenian press and on Slovenian national television, with big bands from all over Slovenia and Italy performing there, for little or no fee.

I began understanding that the big band, something we often associate with American high schools, colleges, and professional groups, has been for many years a worldwide phenomenon, not solely an object of American provenance. This paper takes a deeper look into this trend by introducing the reader to the general historical background of big band jazz in Europe and how that led to the development of three composer/arrangers you may or may not be familiar with: Germany’s Peter Herbolzheimer, Switzerland’s George Gruntz, and, Canadian-born, but known for his work in British jazz, Kenny Wheeler. First, a historical perspective is needed.

Historical Background of Jazz in Europe

The beginnings of jazz in Western Europe can at least in part be attributed to American racial policies, i.e., the stigma of race and the weight of American history. In both World War I and World War II African Americans who served in Europe experienced for themselves the lack of the burden of American racial history and the relative freedom of European attitudes and lack of prejudice, as well as a more general embrace of culture amongst the European populace. During and directly after the first World War, groups as diverse as the regimental/ragtime bands of James Reese Europe and Will Vodery, the Original Dixieland Jazzband, and the Southern Syncopated Orchestra were some of the first groups to play jazz in its earliest forms for dance-crazed European audiences.

After the First World War many African-American jazz artists became staples on the burgeoning European scene, while the clarinetist and soprano saxophonist virtuoso Sidney Bechet became an idolized and revered public figure in France. With the rise of Hitler and fascism starting in the early 1930s, these American “jazz exiles” were given the hard choice of leaving Europe or getting caught up in the impending conflict. By the beginning of World War II, most if not all American jazz artists had left the continent.

However, after WWII, a number of African-Americans opted to remain in Europe. These first few pioneers would become the forerunners of a trend that was to become a choice for many jazz musicians hoping to escape the still full-fledged racism of the United States, as well as pursuing what they believed to be better economic and performance opportunities than they were able to find at home.

Another important point was, that during the Second World War, Jazz became a symbol of resistance. Illegal in many German-held areas, this form of music thus became popular amongst nations yearning to throw off the yoke of Nazi oppression and embrace their newfound freedoms. To help fulfill this gap, the American Armed Forces Network, Voice of America, V-Disks, and US military bases hosting live jazz performances were first points of contact for many Europeans.

The end of the war prompted a reorganization of the media in Europe. New formations across the continent, forerunners of the modern radio big bands, became another source of contact with jazz music for many European listening audiences. As jazz began to be disseminated across Western Europe, and more American musicians relocated there, a cultural exchange began to take place.

In the following years, the integration of European and American jazz continued apace, beginning with the Kurt Edellhagen All Stars in Germany. A high-point was reached with the establishment of the European-American group, the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band in 1961. This ensemble consisted not only of long-time American expatriate and bebop drumming legend Kenny “Klook” Clarke, but also a number of other American and European jazzmen. Another example is of the pianist, composer, arranger, and theorist George Russell, who relocated to Sweden in 1964 and started his own big band there, greatly influencing the development of jazz in Scandinavia. European-led big band aggregations soon followed.

A further development that helped to set European jazz apart from its American counterparts was the much wider acceptance of free jazz in the 1960s and its call for “Emanzipation” from the prevalent American aesthetic. This movement, inspired by a waking African American consciousness, and spurred on by events in Europe such as the 1968 Protests, breathed new life into musical activities. Starting with seminal recordings by musicians such as Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and late John Coltrane, along with the relocation to Europe by artists Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, and the Art of Ensemble of Chicago, led to a new approach being applied to Western European ensembles as evidenced by Germany’s highly influential Peter Brötzmann, and Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra, Holland’s Willem Breuker Kollektif and the Instant Composers Pool, Mathias Rüegg’s Vienna Art Ensemble, Italy’s Giorgio Gaslini and his work with the Italian Instabile Orchestra, and the various projects by the British composer/arrangers Mike Westbrook, Kenny Wheeler and Django Bates, among many others. Let us take a look at some specifics first of all in Germany.

The Rise of the German Radio Big Band

After the end of the Second World War German radio stations were reconstituted under a regional system, and jazz was there from the start. Starting in 1946, various radio Tanz und Unterhaltungsorchester (dance and entertainment orchestras) were formed in each of the four (later 9) regions, with the idea of playing popular music and jazz for the listening audiences. These bands were on staff with the radio stations, funded by a tax on the number of radio receivers in a household. Not all of them survived over the years, but those that did were able to do so by making the transistion from entertainment orchestras with a jazz flavor to a versatile jazz ensembles that could still fulfill the necessities of a radio orchestra by playing on a TV show or recording a jingle for the station as needed. The most famous and successful of these became what we know today as the WDR, NDR, and HR Big Bands.

Kurt Edelhagen

In 1957 Kurt Edelhagen was under contract at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR). Edelhagen, a trained pianist and clarinetist, began his career in the British and American jazz clubs that sprang up around Germany after the war. He quickly established himself as a bandleader leading ensembles at the radio stations of Stuttgart and Nuremberg before landing a steady engagement at the Südwestfunk (SWF) in Baden-Baden in 1952. That year he rose to international prominence through his work with the singer Caterina Valente, and further established his bona-fides with the premiere of the work, “Concerto for Jazz-Band and Symphony Orchestra” (perhaps the first true “Third Stream” work, by the way) by the composer Rolf Liebermann in 1955.

With the demise of the SWF band (later re-established as the SWR Big Band), Edelhagen was given the responsibility of creating and running the WDR jazz orchestra. There, though not a composer or arranger, he was involved with establishing the forerunner of what we now know today as the WDR Big Band. He populated his big band, the Kenton-inspired “Edelhagen-All-Stars”, with top international jazz musicians and promoted original compositions amongst many European arrangers from within and without his band (among which were future arrangers and bandleaders Francy Boland and Peter Herbolzheimer).

Though no discussion of European big band history can be complete without mention of the Clarke-Boland band, which took over where Edelhagen’s band left off, being constituted by many members of the former group, the writing of Boland in general tended to remain in the more tried-and-true style of his American counterparts. It wasn’t until Peter Herbolzheimer began his group that a new direction took hold in big band writing in continental Europe.

Peter Herbolzheimer (1935-2010)

Trombonist, composer, and arranger Peter Herbolzheimer’s musical roots began in his birthplace of Bucharest, Romania. In 1951 Peter emigrated to West Germany, settling in the city of Nuremberg. Herbolzheimer traveled to Detroit, Michigan in 1952 as an exchange student and ended up working for a while for General Motors, giving guitar lessons as a side job. In 1957, he returned to Germany to pursue studies in music. While there, a lack of reliable amplification for his electric guitar led to him to switch to trombone. As there were no competent teachers in arranging, Herbolzheimer learned his trade by listening to recordings and studying sheet music, as well as trying to meet with American musicians stationed in Nuremburg.

Herbolzheimer soon began arranging for the radio big band in Nuremberg, conducting the band as well as playing trombone on many of their recordings. In time, he was asked to write arrangements for other big bands, including Edelhagen’s, who was by this time established in Cologne.

As the 1960s came along, popular music styles began to change, and with them, new styles and new electrified instruments acquired popularity. Suddenly, there was an influx of electric keyboards, guitars, and basses. Drum sets became larger and various percussion instruments joined rhythm sections along the way. At first, the blues-based rock sounds were quite disparate to jazz, but over time the two styles blended to form what came to be known as Fusion or Jazz Rock. Groups like Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago, Tower of Power, Sly and the Family Stone, and Frank Zappa led the way to more jazz-influenced bands such as Return to Forever and Weather Report. Herbolzheimer was not immune to these developments. Influenced by these new sonic possibilities, he began adapting his big band repertoire, incorporating both these new instruments and new rhythms.

Rhythm Combination and Brass and the New Big Band Sound

After years of writing for other bands, in 1970 Herbolzheimer took advantage of the moment and got together his favorite musicians and recorded a live concert of his new-sounding arrangements in Munich, Germany. This and a subsequent session the following year led to the LP, “My Kind of Sunshine”. The recording featured former Edelhagen bandmembers plus American and international jazz notables Herb Geller, Jiggs Whigham, Art Farmer, Jimmy Woode, Jr., Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen, Palle Mikkleborg, Ack van Rooyen, Dusko Goykovich, and Dieter Reith. Apart from the aforementioned use of electric instruments and percussion, Herbolzheimer eschewed the typical big band saxophone section, opting for a single reed instrument, so as to avoid the “…softness of [a typical] sax section…” The following decades saw Herbolzheimer not only continue to develop and expand his band, but he also began to enlarge his group up to and including a full sax section and an expanded Kenton-sized brass section. In later years, Herbolzheimer also expanded his activities into music education, founding and running the Bundesjugend Jazzorchester National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Germany (fondly referred to as the Bujazzo) starting in 1987.

In a general summation of his style, when stating melodies Herbolzheimer tends to favor unisons and octaves. He required that each player’s part be singable, so that the music could be played effortlessly. One also notes a general regularity of four- and eight-bar phrases as opposed to odd-number groupings of measures, and a tendency to use standard song forms as opposed to extended or through-composed forms. Unlike the other two writers we will examine, his harmonic language tends to be based in more standard jazz and rock voicings, eschewing hybrid harmonies and odd-time signatures (e.g., Kenny Wheeler), and more recent contemporary developments taken from the world of contemporary classical and world music (e.g., George Gruntz).

A Short History of Modern Jazz in Switzerland

Swiss modern jazz dates to about the mid-1950’s, with saxophonist Flavio Ambrosetti actively touring throughout Europe. However, it was difficult for jazz musicians from this small country in the middle of the Continent to get much international notice. It was only with the formation of the Newport International Youth Band (NIB) that a musician from Switzerland – pianist George Gruntz – made international impact. This group, assembled from the best young musicians found in Europe, performed at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, opening new doors for both Gruntz and Swiss musicians in general.

Over the following years, Gruntz, along with fellow Swiss jazz musicians Flavio Ambrosetti, Flavio’s son trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti, and drummer Daniel Humair through their recordings on the ECM label were able to increase international visibility of the Swiss jazz scene. The importance of jazz to Switzerland as a whole was firmly established with the introduction of regular funding of jazz projects by the national Swiss organization Pro Helvetia in 1989.

George Gruntz (1932-2013)

The Swiss composer, arranger, pianist, and bandleader George Gruntz grew up and spent the majority of his life in the town of Basel, which lies situated in an area known as the Dreiländereck – where the Swiss, German and French borders meet. During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Gruntz began seeking out performance opportunities while also commencing private piano study. In 1950, he came into contact with another important Swiss musician, Hazy Osterwald.

Various attempts to establish himself in the European scene however did not pan out until he met with the Swiss Bebop pioneer saxophonist Flavio Ambrosetti in 1955. By 1958 he was representing Switzerland in the aforementioned Newport International Youth Band (NIB), which brought him to New York and into contact with the great American jazz stars of the time.

While Gruntz continued performing with Ambrosetti his skills as a composer and arranger were developing as well. In 1962 he wrote the music for the film, Mental Cruelty (Seelische Grausamkeiten), and in 1963 his skill as an accompanist landed him a gig touring with Rahsaan Roland Kirk. As his career continued apace, Gruntz was writing music for stage and screen, as well as more formal concert music.

During this time he began his lifelong experimentation with unusual instrumentation and musical forms. He initiated some of the earliest Ethno-Jazz productions, starting with his integrating Tunisian Beduin music in his successful recording, Noon in Tunisia in 1967, but he was also experimenting with Third Stream music both with his Jazz Goes Baroque recording, featuring Gruntz on both piano and cembalo, and his collaorations with the influential composer and concert organizer Rolf Liebermann. In the late 1960’s he was constantly on tour with Phil Woods’ European Rhythm Machine, and during the 60s and 70s he performed with with a number of important jazz stars, including Dexter Gordon, Donald Byrd, Lee Konitz, Chet Baker, Johnny Grifffin, Gerry Mulligan, and Art Farmer.

In 1970 Gruntz became the musical director for the Schauspielhaus Zurich, and in 1971 began working with the NDR Big Band in Germany. From 1972 to 1994 he was the artistic director for JazzFest Berlin. Most importantly for this paper, though not the last of his many projects, Gruntz founded the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band (GGCJB) in 1972.

The George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band

In 1972, Gruntz, along with Flavio and Franco Ambrosetti, Daniel Humair, and Gerard Lull founded a big band. At first, it just went under the name, “The Band”, until in 1978 it was finally christened the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band (GGCJB). Though Gruntz was responsible for the majority of the arrangments, in the beginning composing responsibilities were divided up between Gruntz, Humair, and both Ambrosettis.

Throughout its 40-year history from 1972-2012 the GGCJB was to remain an international project – one which over the years tended to feature ever more American musicians. The original band, which only made two records between 1972 and 1976, is noteworthy as it consisted mostly of musicians from the recently defunct Clarke-Boland band.[1] Over the years, an impressive number of international jazz stars recorded with Gruntz on this project, including Peter Herbolzheimer and Kenny Wheeler. In all, the band released eight LPs, twenty-one CDs, and went on fourty-eight international tours.

An Overview of the Development of Contemporary Big Band Jazz in Great Britain

The United Kingdom is closest to the United States in term of linguistic and historical background, as well as being the next nearest large European nation. With the advent of jazz recordings, this new musical style was quickly and successfully exported to the island nation. This was followed up with tours and residencies there by jazz luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Sidney Bechet. Local musicians soon began following in these Americans’ footsteps, and many British jazz bands were formed.

In spite of the start of World War II there would have been a good chance that Great Britain and the United States would have remained in lock step in terms of jazz development except for one major hinderance: The Transatlantic Music Ban. For twenty-one years, from 1935-1956, at the behest of the British musician’s union no American bands were allowed to perform in Britain, unless an equal number of musicians were given the same opportunity in the US. Seeing as how there was no great demand for British jazz musicians in America, the number of tours were few and far between. Even Benny Carter, who spent the years 1936-38 as a staff arranger for the BBC, barely performed in the UK due to these drastic provisions. It seems the only American who managed to find regular work in England was tenor giant Coleman Hawkins, who played with the Jack Hylton Orchestra for five years, 1934-39.

Partially for this reason, British jazz developed more slowly. As the 1950s rolled around, instead of bebop, Britain found itself in the midst of a trad jazz craze. In 1956 the government’s ban on American musicians performing in the UK was finally lifted. Stan Kenton and Louis Armstrong played in London that year, with others to follow. Ronnie Scott opened his Jazz Club in 1959, while other clubs flourished across London and the UK. In the 1960’s British artists began to explore ‘free jazz’. Jazz also began to incorporate the new sounds of the rock revolution, with big band leader Mike Westbrook being one of the first to respond to the demands and challenges of both free and rock influences. As this scene developed and began to thrive, trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler got his start.

Kenny Wheeler (1930-2014)

Of the three persons I am examining here, Kenny Wheeler is very likely the most well-known, popular, studied, and written-about European composer/arrangers. Well-loved by virtually everyone who came in contact with him, this shy, soft-spoken man can be viewed as the paradigm of the contemporary European jazz composers. What makes this an even more intriguing situation is that, technically, Wheeler was not even European.

Born of British and Scottish stock, trumpeter and flugelhorn specialist Wheeler hailed from the province of Ontario, Canada. However, having moved to Great Britain in his early 20’s, he became such a force and influence that it is almost impossible to speak of contemporary British jazz, if not European jazz as a whole, without including Wheeler in the discussion.

Kenny attended the Royal Conservatory in Toronto in 1950, and moved to Britain in 1952. He worked with various bands while also establishing himself in the studio scene. As bebop became the jazz language in early 1960s, Wheeler felt he was not up to the demands and found himself drifting into the London free music scene. There he established his credentials with groups such as the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Mike Westbrook’s formations. His first big band recording under his name occurred in 1969 after he received an offer to do a show on the BBC of his music.

In 1973 Kenny recorded his first big band album, Song for Someone, featuring Norma Winstone on voice, and his colleagues from the free scene Evan Parker and Tony Oxley. His profile continued to rise through his mostly small-ensemble recordings on the ECM label. Probably his single most important work was Music for Large and Small Ensembles, but Kenny continued writing and leading his big band throughout his career, with the final recording, The Long Waiting being released in 2012, two years before his death.

What sets Kenny’s work apart from his contemporaries is his use of new non-diatonic chord structures and harmonies, his incorporation of the voice as an instrument, extremely memorable and playable lines, and the emphasis on melody and counterpoint, creating a sound that one immediately recognizes as his. Though work with his big band was always sporadic – often in conjunction with a project for the BBC – his large ensemble writing remains unique and highly valued.


There is no question that jazz originated in the United States. That being said, the export of this music, starting first in Western Europe, almost immediately found itself promulgated around the world. In the majority of cases, this activity appears to have been begun by American touring artists and via the technology of recordings; however, it is quite evident that this original music quickly became adopted, and very often adapted, in the various places where it was introduced. That we speak of a New Orleans, a Chicago, a Kansas City, an East or West Coast sound can be equally applied to a German, a British, a Norwegian, or a Swiss sound, and so on to other nations outside Europe.

An American-centric approach to jazz, jazz writing, and especially jazz performance is simply out of step with the reality of jazz history as we know it today. Add to that the fact that most if not all European nations include direct support for the Arts, including jazz, via various subsidies – be that for festivals, clubs, radio big bands, recordings, touring support, support for individual musicians and groups, and so on – and it becomes clear that, if anything, the United States risks falling behind in being able to provide an infrastructure to maintain this most American art form into the future.

(c) Copyright Russ Spiegel 2016.




[1] The first two albums feature Clarke-Boland alumni Phil Woods, Eddie Daniels, Dexter Gordon, Shahib Shihab, Benny Baily, Woody Shaw, Dusko Guykovitch, Jiggs Whigham, Ake Person, Niels Henning Oested Pedersen, and Palle Mikkelborg.


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