ARE BIG bands coming back? Longtime radio personality and swing-era authority Ed Walker, queried on the issue, quoted drummer Buddy Rich: " 'They never went away.' " Walker went on: "There's always been a certain amount of interest in big bands, and I think what's happened is that they're becoming more visible and the young people are beginning to appreciate them. They got tired of disco, and some of them have discovered records their parents had, and they realize that this is a good way to dance, a good beat."

Big bands in the D.C. area include military units such as the Airmen of Note, the Army Blues and the Navy Commodores; college bands such as the University of Maryland Jazz Ensemble, the Howard University Jazz Repertory Orchestra and the UDC Jazz Lab Band; bands that work once a week or so like the Washington Jazz Battalion, the Frankie Condon Band, the Sunday Morning Jazz Band, the Starlite Orchestra and the Zim Zemarel Orchestra; and less frequently performing groups under the direction of Rick Henderson, Bill Potts, Tony Kelly, Tony D'Angelo, Doc Dikeman and Vic Simas. The Count Basie and Woody Herman bands turn up in the area now and then as do the "ghost" orchestras of Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Charlie Spivak.

Another Washington radio veteran, Raymond St. James, has had the opportunity to observe the reaction of dancers and listeners to both the original and recreated sounds of the big-band years in the Shoreham's Marquee Lounge, where the nine-piece Doug Sorensen orchestra plays from the books of Duke Ellington, Les Elgart, Miller and others of the big-band era. St. James, who both hosts the evening and plays vintage 1940s and '50s records during the orchestra's intermissions, is convinced that the music is "definitely" stronger than it was five years ago and feels that "has a lot to do with the state of the country right now, the things that are happening and the problems that we have in the world. It's a haven, people going back there and reminiscing about the good old days and they're trying to make it a reality."

For the new, young fans of the music, St. James says, the dancing is the big attraction, especially the idea of touch dancing: "People are trying to come back together and touching is a method of recognizing the oneness we have with each other." And, he says of these younger devotees of the genre, "They want to swing."

Tonight at 8:30 one of the stars of the big-band era and one of the few still active as a leader, Harry James, will lead his orchestra and blow his sometimes ballad-warm, sometimes swinging-hot trumpet in the Shoreham's Regency Ballroom under the sponsorship of the Big Band Society (call 843-9407). An hour or so into the evening he will be inducted into the hotel's Entertainment Hall of Fame, an honor which in recent months has also been bestowed upon Sammy Kaye, Tex Beneke, Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman.

James, who will celebrate his 44th anniversary as a bandleader in January, still spends 11 months of the year on the road, traveling the length and breadth of this country and fitting in tours to Europe, South America and Japan. That's all he's ever known. He talked about his life from a hotel in Huntington, W.Va.

"I was born in Albany, Ga., and my mother left there with me when I was 13 days old and rejoined the circus. My dad was the band director and she was the prima donna and aerial performer. We went all over the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It's hard to say what it was like because I didn't know anything else. My dad started to teach me the trumpet when I was 9 and by the time I was 11 I was playing in the circus band with him. My idol at all times was Louis Armstrong although my grooming was for legitimate playing and I didn't start playing in jazz bands until I was around 14."

James said he has played the Shoreham before but can't recall the year. He remembers playing the Howard Theater in the 1940s. "At that particular time . . . Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman and myself were the only white bands that ever played there. We played the Earle Theater many times."

For the dance tonight James expects to play medleys of his hits over the years along with contemporary materials. "If I like a tune, I play it, if I don't like it, I don't play it." Selections wil include old favorites like "Two O'Clock Jump" and "You Made Me Love You" along with newer numbers like "Pink Panther Theme."