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Getting in the Groove

John Robert Brown

Nearly all jazz ensembles are founded on a rhythm section. Normally this is a trio of keyboard, bass and drums, though sometimes one of these instruments is omitted, or a rhythm guitar may be added. There's no standard definition of what constitutes a rhythm section. Extra instruments can be introduced, such as a wind bass (tuba or sousaphone), or Latin-American percussion. The only safe generalisation is that a rhythm section is a self-contained unit which provides a harmonic and rhythmic foundation (a continuo), and can function as a complete band on its own.

Some of the most important ensembles in jazz history testify that no single instrument is essential to a rhythm section. The famous Benny Goodman Trio, popular in the mid-thirties, was comprised of clarinet, piano and drums only, with no bass. In the fifties, the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, with trumpeter Chet Baker, used bass and drums only, with no piano. Later, Bob Brookmeyer (trombone) and Jimmy Giuffre (reeds), with guitarist Jim Hall, seen in the movie Jazz on a Summer's Day, gave a charming and unforgettable performance of The Train and the River with neither a drummer nor a bassist. Each of those ensembles swung like a monkey, made its mark on jazz history and was all the more interesting for having an unusual rhythm section. Later, from the time of the Miles Davis recording of Bitches Brew, released in 1970, all-electric rhythm sections led the way in jazz, using even-eighth rhythms (eight-eight), offering many new possibilities.

The wind ensemble above the rhythm section, called the front-line, can vary from a solitary saxophone, trumpet or trombone to as many as twelve or fourteen players. A small band is called a combo. When an ensemble contains more than, say, ten or eleven players we refer to it as a big band or a jazz orchestra. A band which has a more commercial aim, maybe playing for dancing or providing accompaniment for a singer, could be described as a big band. An ensemble that features an appreciable amount of improvisation could be described as a jazz orchestra, but these categories are vague and not always strictly applied. Here, for clarity and simplicity, I'll use only the term 'big band'.

So, when contemplating organising a jazz ensemble, there is much to be said for choosing a big band instrumentation, even if the list of instruments played by your available musicians doesn't quite match the standard big band instrumentation. Today, a typical complete big band would have eight brass (being a section each of trumpets and trombones), five reeds and three or four rhythm.

The brass is comprised of four Bb trumpets and four trombones (three tenors, one bass). Saxophones are usually two Eb alto saxophones and two Bb tenor saxophones, with one Eb baritone saxophone. The conventional rhythm section is piano (or electric piano), bass (or bass guitar), kit percussion, rhythm guitar.

To these seventeen players may be added more brass (a fifth trumpet and fifth trombone are common), and maybe a couple of French horns, with assorted upper woodwind (piccolo, flutes, clarinets) and even tuned percussion, according to the orchestration. Arrangers make much use of brass mutes, which create a wonderful effect. However, for mysterious reasons some young brass players seem to dislike using mutes, going to great lengths to avoid the muted sound. Even in college-level bands, directors confront players with attitude who 'forget' their mutes, who are unable to carry them to rehearsal 'because their instrument case is too small', or because 'they can't afford to buy any mutes'. None of these excuses is acceptable. In a parallel scenario, some young drummers dislike using brushes, asking: "What do I need brushes for? Do you want me to paint something?" Insist that the arranger's wishes are respected.

Saxophonists may be asked to double on clarinet or flute. The first alto (lead alto) sometimes doubles on soprano saxophone, the baritone saxophonist sometimes doubles on alto. Oboe and bassoon are rarely used - but if you have good players of these instruments on your team, orchestrations that will make use of them can be found if you search thoroughly. The arguments in favour of beginning with a standard big band line-up include:

  • Flexibility is possible in the numbers involved. To a limited extent, players can be added and removed without wrecking the sound;
  • A clear history exists. Around seventy years of tradition and evolution stand behind the big band;
  • CDs of historic performances are easily available;
  • The most modest efforts, well rehearsed, can sound strong and modern;
  • An enormous published repertoire of pieces is on sale;
  • Only a few members of any big band need to be able to improvise;
  • The drums, piano, trumpets, trombones and saxophones are identical with those needed for classical music, thus minimising demands on resources;
  • The image of a big band will appeal to some pupils who are not interested in classical music, thus widening your music department's reach;
  • A wide range of abilities can be accommodated.

To begin without notated music is possible. The early big bands did just that, playing what became known as head arrangements using nothing more than a simple memorised theme and some idea of the harmonic scheme. The rest was made up. Even at such an early stage in running a jazz ensemble, a knowledge of guitar chord symbols is important for the rhythm section players, for the jazz soloists and, crucially, for the band director. Thus, the most effective basic homework that you can do as conductor of a big band is to learn how chord symbols work. And you must listen to some professional bands playing the kind of repertoire you are going to tackle.

For quick results the answer is to buy a few big band arrangements, called 'charts'. Some recommended sources of these are given below. Just as jazz is very different from classical music, the more effective rehearsal techniques used to get the best out of a big band differ from what you might ordinarily use. To give a idea of style, try playing the assembled musicians a few bars from a CD of a top band playing the same piece. Frequently, to hear an inspiring recording is all that it takes.

Rehearsing the front line without the rhythm section is an established way to help the band swing. If they can groove well with no help from the bass and drums, they'll swing like a pendulum when the rhythm section kicks in. Point out the importance of beats two and four in four-four time. If rushing is a problem, ask the players to tap their feet on the off beat. Racing is almost impossible when beating only on two and four.

To tidy up the internal balance and tuning, try stopping the band and asking a selected player to recall the texture at that point. With which instrument is s/he sharing notes? Who has the melody? Was the bass playing in two or four? What was the drummer doing? Were the saxophones in unison or divisi. Inexperienced players don't listen in the way that veterans do. The more that musicians are aware of what others do, and the more that they play with one ear on the rest of the band, the better the music will sound.

One common source of a scrappy ensemble sound is the uncoordinated release of notes. Long notes must end together. A very simple rule governs this: a long note ends where the next note would have begun. Thus a half note (minim) at the beginning of a bar endures for two beats and ends on three. A bar of four-four containing a whole note (semibreve) endures for four beats and ends on one. Exactly!

Listen out for players ending early when a flurry of notes is approaching, or because they are looking for a coda sign. And try to stop screech trumpet players 'hanging on' after everyone else. One gets the impression that trumpeters do this to make sure that we all realise that they made that top zed. In reality, people down the street can hear them; they don't need to feel unappreciated.

  • National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) scores available from Stanza Music, 211, Victor Road, Harrow, Middlesex.
  • Kendor Music. Top American compositions by some of the greatest jazz writers, including Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer.
  • Maria Schneider. Top New York jazz orchestra composer and Grammy winner.
  • Sibelius Music Website has thousands of compositions, many of them free. Uneven quality, but you can hear before you buy.
  • Lush Life Music, American arrangers on a British site, with free arrangements available.
  • Walrus Music sells many charts by top LA writer Bob Florence.
  • Marina Music Service for charts by Count Basie arranger Sammy Nestico.
  • Jazzwise has orchestrations, jazz books, play-along records.

These orchestrations are moderately expensive. A price between $45 (c.£25.00) and $100 (c.£56.00) per chart is common. If you are new to big bands, take advice from an experienced band director or player before buying music that may be inappropriate. A good strategy would be to attend a concert by one of the well-known youth bands, such as NYJO, NYJO2, the Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra, the Midlands Youth Jazz Orchestra (MYJO), the Aylesbury Music Centre Big Band or the Doncaster Youth Jazz Orchestra. Take repertoire notes during a concert and try to chat to the director afterwards. But above all, enjoy it.

An edited version of this essay was published in Music Teacher, June 2006. Used by kind permission.
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