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Improving Your Jazz Band Saxophone Section

Dr. Patrick Jones

Playing in jazz band is a great opportunity for every student. Besides the obvious change of genre and music style from concert band, it also allows for students to develop good listening habits by working in an ensemble with just one instrument per part. If you are working with a young jazz band or perhaps with your first student jazz ensemble, you may be unsure as to how to start students down the road to successful jazz band performances.

Here are some tips that can help:

Listening AND Transcribing is the key to improving the player’s jazz skills.

You can relate music to speech. How can someone learn how to speak English or any language without hearing it? Jazz and many other musical forms are similar to this. In order to play effectively, we must listen effectively. This is especially true for jazz since, in addition to mastering your instrument, you have to be a composer. Many ideas come from listening to other artists’ ideas and how they approach a tune. When you read a jazz piece, you are expected to articulate and inflect the head (melody) even though the music lacks musical notation. Jazz is an oral tradition and we are expected to understand how to interpret a jazz phrase with few if any markings. In order to do this correctly, we must listen to jazz artists for correct inflections in addition to improvisational ideas.

Generally, the key to a good jazz sound and improvisation is found by first have the student transcribed solos from a favorite jazz artist. Instead of just reading the music, the student should try to learn a tune from the original artist’s recording. In time and with practice, the students will create their own solo lines, but it’s best to establish a comfort level by mimicking successful artists before venturing out.

Although it’s important to transcribe other instruments, it’s advised (in the beginning) for saxophonists to transcribe saxophone solos, rather than those of another instrument. The student must be able to hear how to manipulate the saxophone’s air stream to achieve a classic jazz saxophone sound much easier than another instrument.

Saxophonists can also listen and transcribe the head from any tune, making sure to mimic all inflections to the best of their ability. I recommend beginning with recordings from artists who say a lot with only a few notes. The saxophone, much like the flute, lends itself toward ease of facility so young saxophonists might want to pick something relatively simple if it is one of their first transcriptions.

One of the most important things to do when transcribing a solo in the beginning is to mimic the soloist and their inflections, not just to get the “right” notes on paper.

I have had students who have written down each note correctly but could not play the solo with convincing jazz inflections. Simply transcribing the notes was an excellent exercise to train their ear but it did not make them sound like a jazz saxophonist. Be sure any transcription includes marks for inflections.

For saxophonists, I usually recommend someone playing cool jazz or in the blues style. Generally, Lester Young is a great jazz saxophonist to learn from. For cool jazz, a few recommended soloists include Paul Desmond (alto), Gerry Mulligan (baritone) or a less involved Stan Getz (tenor) solo. For the blues style, a few recommended soloists include David “Fathead” Newman or Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.

After transcribing a few simple solos, they will begin to understand the jazz idiom and hopefully pick up a few ways of playing over standard chord changes.

Proper Equipment

While it’s not necessary to change equipment to play jazz, saxophonists especially will find it beneficial to use a different mouthpiece from their “classic” concert band set-up.

However, while this change can definitely help, it can also hinder your progress if the basic embouchure is not set. A student should not attempt to switch mouthpieces unless they have at least some individual instruction.

A good jazz mouthpiece will help develop a ‘bigger’ sound with higher partials, giving the player a good jazz tone that cuts through when necessary, but also blends well within the section. Young players will benefit from a mouthpiece with combines this ‘edge’ and power with traditional solid tonal center. A few suggested mouthpieces that can help are E. Rousseau, Otto Link, Claude Lakey, Berg Larson, Meyer.

The mouthpiece should have, at least, a medium facing in order to project effectively. The greater the facing, the bigger the sound; however, the more open the mouthpiece is, the harder it is to control the sound. Unless you are playing lead alto, it might be a good idea avoid purchasing a mouthpiece that is too wide or too open for ensemble work. Discourage the use of a metal mouthpiece for young players, for just this reason.

Learning to Swing

It is important to get away from march-like dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythms. Most jazz artists smooth this rhythm out into more of a triplet feel. It is difficult to use this rhythm the faster you play; therefore articulations on off beats can give the illusion of “swinging”.


Contrary to belief, most jazz soloists use legato articulation. If the tongue is used to accent, it can sound choppy or too march-like. Space or a push of air can give the necessary accent intended by the composer or artist. For reed players, be sure to tongue on the very front tip of the tongue to the back tip of the reed.

Ghosting notes is another essential tool to help “swing” a line. When someone ghosts a note, it means the sound has been dampened resulting in a de-emphasized, softer or “ghost” note that has been fingered. You can usually hear the note although it’s a fraction of the sound and keeps its place rhythmically in the melodic line even if it’s not audible. It’s generally expected that a musician will inflect a jazz line at will (from experience) but if we see a ghosted note written down in music, the composer will generally use an “x” in place of the note head. This important technique in jazz can be achieved in a number of different ways but the most common one for saxophonists is to dampen the reed (usually side) with the tongue. Another way is to come back with the air or immediately decrease the air stream for a fraction of a second. One could also “swallow” the note by decreasing the space in the oral cavity momentarily, which essentially decreases the airstream.

Other Effects

Use any technique that is special or common to your instrument. (Strings-double stops, reeds-altissimo, brass-double tongue, etc.) These effects are really what give color to a solo. Jazz effects or inflections to the melodic line are essential elements to “speaking” the jazz language. Some of these techniques include (but are not limited to) glissandi/scoops, growling, flutter tongue, high notes (altissimo), slap tongue, vibrato, mutes, etc. Be careful not to overuse any of these techniques. Be sure the student has a guide (teacher) to help them develop these good effects without developing bad habits!

Tips for Ensemble Playing

The lead player needs to dictate style, so listening to the lead saxophone player is very important for the section. The lead alto saxophonist might need to use more of an open mouthpiece, but this is not always necessary. Either way, they must be heard over the rest of the saxophone section. The rest of the saxophone section should not use vibrato unless they take over lead. Soli sections should phrase exactly like the section leader. Overall, lead trumpet dictates the style of the jazz band, so be sure to keep an ear out for the trumpet lead, as well as the rhythm section.

Do not breathe in-between rests. This can ruin the integrity of the rhythm or line.

Excite the air or line with good air support and keeping the intensity by not breathing at every rest.

Performing is key to success!

Everyone has experienced performing well in a practice room but not living up to their potential when they are in front of an audience. Most people get nervous but the more often they perform, the better they get at making nervous energy work positively. Performing with other artists is also a wonderful way to learn from other musicians and exchange ideas. Throughout history, we have seen artists learning from other artists. You cannot replace learning how to communicate in an ensemble with other musicians.

A big part of a successful solo is how aggressively/confidently you approach it. For wind players, using a solid stream of air is absolutely essential. In general, you must use an energized sound in order to portray confidence. A soloist could use all of the “right” notes but if the sound is not energized, it might sound like they do not know what they are doing. Many students shy away from mistakes, but many great solos have been built on “mistakes”. Whatever music you play, be sure to use lots of passion and energy.

There are no absolutes in jazz. Everybody should try and create their own voice or find their individual style. By using these effects in creative ways, this will help to get you closer to your goal. Listening is always the first step in achieving this success.

American saxophonist Patrick Jones has performed as a soloist, recitalist and chamber musician around the world. As a featured soloist he has performed with the Grammy award-winning ensemble Imani Winds, Zagreb Saxophone Quartet, Erie Philharmonic, and Erie Chamber Orchestra. Additionally, he has been broadcast on the nationally syndicated NPR Program “Saint Paul Sunday” and “Performance Today” playing with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Andreas Delfs. He is an active performer, educator, clinician, and Yamaha Performing Artist. He also plays and endorses E. Rousseau mouthpieces.

Jones is currently an Assistant Professor of Music at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Other faculty appointments include University of Iowa, International Allegheny Summer Music Festival and the International Youth Music Festival. Contact Dr. Jones at