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The above is pretty rare, nowhere near 95%, maybe 10%. In the past 40 years at least, most charts are alto 1, alto 2, tenor 1, tenor 2 and bari, or saxes 1 thru 5 where altos are first then tenors then bari. Those also line up with the harmony from top to bottom. Tenor 1 parts are lower than alto 2 the vast majority of the time.
No question about how they're labeled. I didn't write clearly. the 95% I was talking about wasn't the labeling, it was about the roles within the section. You're completely right, of course, that practice of at least the last 40 years is 1st alto = lead, 2nd alto = inner voice, 1st tenor = jazz tenor, 2nd tenor = inner voice.

Even though "tenor 1" may be LOWER in pitch than lead, it's probably more of a melody voice in general than "alto 2", which tends to get the inner voices when the section splits apart. Of course the roles change not only from chart to chart, but from moment to moment in a given chart.

My real point at the beginning before my little digression was that except in rare cases, the "tenor 1" chair is NOT the lead part. There's only one lead part in the section and the vast majority of the time it's being played by the 1st alto.

Another reason I like the old designations is that they are less prone to "first chair-second chair-who's the top dog-I want to challenge for his chair" type interpretation. Not wholly immune to it, but less prone, in my opinion. That whole high school mentality is corrosive in an actual jazz big band sax section. The idea that the baritone player is just the fat kid who is the worst in the section and the director took pity on him and lets him play bari, for example, is guaranteed to produce a poor performing section. Frankly in a school band I'd put the strongest player on baritone, the next on lead. Or, possibly, the three best players on bari and the innter alto and tenor parts, just because baritone is so essential and the inner voices are so hard.

But in high school it's all about the "best" player plays the highest pitch part on the highest pitched instrument.

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There are a lot of older (stock) charts that have tenor lead. Occasionally newer charts will also put tenor in the lead to get that “tenor band” sound.

And then there is Woddy Herman’s herds - 3 tenors and a bari. Very occasionally Woddy would play alto, but even then, it was rare for him to play a soli section.

I just finished reading about Fletcher Henderson, and in his band, often Coleman Hawkins was the lead sax, usually on tenor. Sure that’s the ‘20s, but it was the birth of the modern big band. Saxophone section sizes and makeup were much more fluid prior to WWII.

The change from Alto 1, Tenor 2, Alto 3, Tenor 4, Bari 5 to Alto 1,2 , Tenor 3,4, Bari 5 happened gradually starting in the 50s. By the 70s, the second configuration was standard.

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Discussion Starter · #24 · (Edited)
Well, if people are calling Sax 2 "lead tenor", they don't understand how the standard big band sax section works. It comes from kids in band, who all want to play "first part", never mind that the interesting stuff is mostly down in the middle and lower voices.

This is why I and the few remaining dinosaurs like me, who learned from the guys who came up during the period of big bands' dominance, like the traditional nomenclature:

Sax 1 = lead alto (with clarinet and flute doubles)
Sax 2 = jazz tenor (with clarinet and soprano sax doubles)
Sax 3 = second alto (with clarinet double)
Sax 4 = second tenor (with clarinet double)
Sax 5 = baritone (with clarinet and bass clarinet doubles).

Doubles vary according to the chart; that's just the most common I've seen.

Each chair has a different role in the section.

Of course there are passages in charts, entire charts, even entire bands, where the "lead sax" is taken by the tenor (I'd expect most of these don't have an alto in the section at all), but the above is the standard. I'd say that in 41 years of playing big band charts more than 95% of the ones I've seen adhere to the above. For that matter, even the Herman bands without lead alto, when the sax section was functioning in the standard way, Woody was playing lead on clarinet.
As I say, it depends on what you class as a big band.

I have seen bands that for all intents and purposes operate as a big band and have a line up like this:

Saxes - soprano/tenor, 2 tenors, 1 baritone
Trumpets - 2 trumpets, 1 flugel
Trombones - 2 tenor, 1 bass
Piano, bass, guitar, drums.

When they play it sounds like a big band, they play altered big band charts but sure isn't a traditional line up.

In terms of charts, I very very rarely see the sax 1 through 5 labeling. It's almost always alto 1/2, tenor 1/2 and bari. Personally I don't double beyond another sax, so parts with doubling get amended and passed around. This is where the traditional sax 2 tenor part becomes confusing if someone has only ever seen tenor 2; logically in terms of voice order it's the third voice, but labelled up as instrument 2. Almost nothing else in music is labelled this way for sections or parts, so you can see why it's fallen away as a practice.

The "lead" label for tenor seems to come more from it being a primary solo chair (akin to lead guitar in rock bands, sure isn't leading a section).

Ultimately, I'm really not fussed what they get called as a lable, the roles are well understood and if I write Tenor 2 I'd expect everyone will know that's not for the solo tenor player.

I'm not from the US, but I never witnessed any of the behaviour you describe when I was (a long time ago now) in school or university. And typically in the bands i played in at the time, solos would be moved between players so every single member always had a solo on something.

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Discussion Starter · #25 · (Edited)
More importantly, though, to everyone replying: given your love and experience of big band music, I would very welcome feedback on the musical content of the above arrangements ! 😄
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