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Let’s Roll!

by Robert Rawlins

Start a jazz band and reap the many benefits it will bring to your music program

Perhaps you’ve been thinking of starting a jazz band, but are not sure how to do it or even if it’s worthwhile. Jazz bands can accommodate students with diverse levels of skill, and they provide the only popular medium in which improvisation can be explored in a meaningful way. In addition, jazz has come to include many different musical styles derived from various roots, meaning school jazz bands are in keeping with educational trends toward multiculturalism. What’s more, they’re another way of promoting the entire school music program within the community, and they also aid in recruiting new students.

Now that it’s clear a jazz band can be a valuable endeavor, how do you get the ball rolling?

Available resources

Don’t assume that a school jazz band must have five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones and a rhythm section. Although this traditional big-band format has dominated school jazz programs since the 1960s, that’s because it was the most common instrumentation for a big band when jazz education began to take hold. Today, arrangements are available for a wide range of ensemble sizes. Jazz bands with less than the usual selection of horns are by no means inferior to larger bands. To start, you’ll need to work with the students you currently have.

Fill the slots

Jazz ensemble charts are generally intended to have only one player per part. As a result, all parts are important, and even the “inside” chairs have independent parts that must be played with conviction and confidence.

The following recommendations assume a band with standard instrumentation, but this is by no means a necessity.

Trumpets: Unlike pop music, in which the rhythm section is central, the lead trumpet holds the primary position within the jazz ensemble. This player sets the style, lays down the pitch and generally drives the band. Of course, the support of other players in the section is essential.

Drummer: As timekeeper for the band, the drummer establishes the rhythmic feel and makes the band swing. This student must be able to keep a steady beat and interpret a variety of musical styles and rhythms. Look for a percussionist who seems most naturally inclined to this position’s requirements; don’t just hand it over to the first student who offers to bring in his own drum set.

Trombones: Generally, the strongest available player should be on the lead book. He or she should have good range and, ideally, play a medium-to small-bore instrument. The trombone of choice in jazz bands is a “straight” horn, with no F-attachment. A bass trombone is a welcome addition to the section, but is by no means crucial.

Saxophones: This section presents the widest array of skills and instruments in the jazz band. Players should be carefully placed to take advantage of their strengths and abilities. The lead alto player needs a well-developed sound and should exhibit strong musical and sight-reading skills. Choose the player who exhibits the best improvisational skills for lead tenor.

The baritone sax should be able to produce a large sound and maintain a secure sense of time. The rest of the section, and sometimes the entire band, will depend on the baritone to play independent parts that can have an important harmonic role.

Rhythm section: Filling out the rest of the rhythm section will depend on who is available. Unless you have a particularly strong upright bass player, use an electric bass. Young students will likely feel more comfortable with this instrument.

It is unusual for young keyboardists to possess advanced skills in chord reading and comping. Fortunately, as long as a guitar is available, the piano is not crucial as a chord instrument in the jazz band. Select a pianist with good reading skills, and then gradually introduce the concepts of playing from chord symbols and improvising accompaniment parts.

Although rock guitarists will likely have experience playing basic triads, they may find themselves starting from scratch when more advanced jazz harmonies are encountered. Therefore, select the student with the best overall technique and the most knowledge of theory and harmony, with the understanding that learning to fill the guitarist’s role in a jazz band is going to take time, effort and commitment.

What to play

Avoid being tempted to choose arrangements of the latest pop hits. Any effort to “keep the kids interested” by meeting them on their own turf is likely to fall flat. Jazz band arrangements of pop tunes rarely sound good, and your students will be the first to notice. Jazz boasts a rich and varied repertoire that dates back more than a hundred years. Let the music do what it does best.
When in doubt, choose arrangements that are too easy rather than too hard. Students need to develop at a measured pace, mastering material within their grasp before moving on to more difficult music.

Make sure there’s a wide variety, including material for sight reading. Don’t rehearse only a small group of pieces for the purpose of presenting a program. Students need to be exposed to many different arrangements. In addition to developing their ears and their sight-reading skills, it will also keep interest high.

Where do they sit?

Not to be overlooked is the physical setup of the band. The most dependable way to set up jazz ensembles of various sizes is to use a standard “block” form. Have them sit as close as possible without getting in each other’s way; be sure the sound aims out toward the audience, but that the players can still hear each other; and situate the instruments according to their volume and sound characteristics.

Typically, the rhythm section will be assembled stage right of the wind instruments. Winds will be assembled with trumpets in the back, trombones in the center and saxophones (or other woodwinds) at the front. Section leaders should be placed toward the center so the rest of the players can hear them well. Moreover, first players in each section will then be in a column, back to front, so they can interact with one another.

Rehearsing the band

Listening is the critical ingredient in jazz, and interpretation, style, and rhythmic feel are of primary importance in jazz performance. Notes on the page will never become real jazz unless the students know how they want those notes to sound. The subtleties of jazz inflections are often difficult if not impossible to notate; experienced jazz musicians learn to “read between the lines.” That’s why listening should be a part of every rehearsal (see box).

Finally, jazz ensembles demand a special approach to mastering new music. For the most part, a certain looseness and “hands-off” approach should prevail. This is not to say that mistakes should not be corrected or that sections should not be drilled. What it does imply is that competence in jazz ensemble playing takes time and that “leaving it alone until it settles” is often the best approach.

Students who listen and concentrate will eventually improve, and the jazz band experience can become an enjoyable one for teachers, students and the community.

Learning a new chart by listening

  • Set up the band and place a sound system where all can hear it.
  • Play a selection while students follow their parts without playing.
  • Repeat the selection, this time having students finger their instruments.
  • Play the track again, having students play softly along with the recording.
  • Have the band play the piece alone.
  • Dr. Robert Rawlins is chairman of the music department at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. He is the author of A Simple and Direct Guide to Jazz Improvisation (Hal Leonard, 1995) and Intermediate Serial Duets for Two Flutes (Southern Music, 1990).