Improving High School Jazz Ensemble Rehearsals

by Dr. Edward Joffe

Set Up

While the traditional big band setup is desirable for most rehearsals, it is very useful to occasionally establish alternate seating formations, including a box formation and triangle formation. This allows the players hear the music in a different way and proves beneficial when they are reseated in their usual fashion.

Instrumentation

The standard big band alignment calls for 5 saxophones (2 alto saxes, 2 tenor saxes and a baritone sax), 4 trumpets, 4 trombones (3 tenor trombones and a bass trombone), and a rhythm section (piano, bass, drums, and guitar). An additional trumpet can be added as well as Latin percussion instruments and a vocalist(s) and still maintain the traditional sound. There are also “flexible” arrangements published by Kendor (convertibles) and Smart Music that allow for reduced instrumentations that sound full. A typical reduced big band arrangement might include 4 saxophones, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones and 3 rhythm. Try to avoid doubling parts within the traditional alignment of instruments—i.e. having 2 alto saxophones play the lead part; having 2 bass players playing a bass part together; etc. There are numerous arrangements available from a variety of publishers for quartets—nonets if there are not enough instrumentalists for a full band program.

Often, a high school band director will have non-traditional instrumentalists looking to perform with the jazz ensemble such as flute, violin, tuba, etc. While there are certainly musical scores in the jazz idiom that incorporate these instruments, more often the band director will have to carefully adapt these instruments to more traditional scores by having them double other parts (flute can double a muted trumpet line effectively; violin can do the same with a soprano saxophone lead line; and tuba can mimic a bass trombone or bass line) or write out solos for them as a “featured” soloist. The ability of the band director to arrange music is of primary importance in these instances. Extra musicians interested in playing jazz should be encouraged to join in combo formats where they can receive more playing time and exposure.

Repertoire

There has never been a greater time for teaching Jazz. We have a wealth of materials available to choose from. However, it is essential that the repertoire be chosen to reflect the playing level(s) of the ensemble members and for teaching the basic jazz swing feel. To that end, the music that reflects a Count Basie-like approach should be emphasized in order to teach the essentials of swing rhythmic figure playing, call & response, tutti ensemble passages, Blues and AABA structures, dynamic contrasts, shout choruses, acoustic rhythm section performance, and solos. Charts that have notated piano and bass parts (with accompanying chord changes) and notated solos for featured players are necessary. A separate guitar part is also required, not one that indicates “piano/guitar.”

Be judicious in choosing music that fits the tessitura usually associated with high school horn players. The recommended written ranges are:

Saxophones: “Bb” below the staff to “F” above the staff
Trombones: “F” below the staff to “F” above the staff (lead trombone to “A”)
Trumpets: “C” below the staff to “A” above the staff (lead trumpet to “C”)

Finally, music that has some historic significance or reflects historically important aspects of Jazz should always be a priority when determining repertoire. Avoid music that is very slow or very fast; it’s more important to play moderate-slow to moderate-fast tempos for a majority of the musical styles.

Conducting Technique

Count off a swing chart with finger snaps and/or voice lead-ins (1…,2.…, 1..,2.., 1,2,3,4). Use traditional conducting techniques for ballads, odd meter groupings, changes of tempo, fermatas, and ends of tunes. Don’t feel like you have to conduct every measure. Let the band play!

Starting a Rehearsal

Have excellent audio and/or visual examples of Jazz playing softly when the students enter the room in order to create an environment for this music.

Let the students play a chart before you tune up, work on scales, and refine a musical performance. Bach Chorales are the best way to teach tuning, balance, voice-leading for any ensemble playing any style of music. Arrange some for your groups.

Try to reference historical recordings during the rehearsal time period as a means for teaching them jazz history and for musical interpretation and inspiration.

Concerts

Never program more than 5 compositions for this age group at any one concert. The charts should not exceed 5 minutes each. Make sure the majority of the repertoire emphasizes JAZZ.