What Judges Really Want to Hear at Jazz Festivals/Competitions

By Mike Conrad, University of Northern Iowa

Although I have only been adjudicating at jazz festivals in Iowa for the past six or seven years at this point, I have noticed that there often seems to be a disconnect between what directors think judges want to hear and what they actually want to hear. I interviewed a handful of adjudicators in Iowa who have way more experience than I do, and there was quite a bit of overlap in terms of what we all agreed was important in a jazz festival performance.


The importance of choosing high quality literature that is appropriate for your group cannot be overstated. There have been a number of good articles written on this topic, including an entire JEI Newsletter devoted to repertoire back in November of 2013 (Newsletter No. 10). 


When I am judging or clinicing at a festival, I want to hear good music! There is so much amazing music that fits under the broad umbrella of jazz. Our students deserve to be exposed to the best parts of this rich tradition, and our audience (including the adjudication panel) deserves a performance filled with beauty and variety.

Appropriate for Your Band

One of the adjudicators I interviewed for this article said he’d almost rather hear lower-quality music played well, as opposed to high-quality music that the band just can’t perform convincingly. My thought is: can’t we have both high-quality music and ensemble-appropriate music? There is enough great jazz music out there that will work for the unique strengths and weaknesses of your band; it will simply take a lot of time and effort to find it. To reiterate a point Steve Shanley made in his article “Literature Selection is Our Curriculum,” “your programming decisions are worthy of a serious time investment.” Set aside time to listen to recordings and check out scores, keep detailed notes on what’s out there, and reach out to your local jazz repertoire experts (Kyle Engelhardt, Chris Strohmaier, and Christopher Merz are a few who come to mind).


Most directors seem to understand the need for variety in their set. A point that came up multiple times in my interviews was that there are other ways to achieve variety beyond the “formula” of swing opener, ballad feature in the middle, and Latin closer. Christopher Merz explained to me that he always appreciates directors who break this mold, who avoid the low-hanging fruit (publisher “best-sellers”), and think of their repertoire selections as an artistic statement. I agree! I am always delighted to hear something new and interesting that I have never heard before alongside some classic swingers and deeper cuts by writers like Benny Carter, Mary Lou Williams, and Duke Ellington.

Stick to Three

I asked each adjudicator that I talked to for their opinion on programming three tunes vs. four in a 20-minute festival set. Everyone generally favored three. I’ve often heard Bob Washut say that we should “leave them wanting more.” Another interviewee explained, “if you can’t say what you need to say in three charts, that fourth chart is not going to help.” Perhaps it’s one of those things that has developed into a norm over the years at Iowa jazz festivals to the point where bands playing at a certain level feel the need to program four charts. As an adjudicator, I don’t want to hear it! In fact, it will sour my opinion of a band’s performance if that fourth tune is not well-prepared or if that fourth tune duplicates a style and tempo that was already represented in the set. If the best way to showcase the unique and diverse strengths of your band while performing a variety of great music is to program four selections, then so be it; but generally speaking, I recommend trying to say it in three.


Of course, programming music that swings is essential. For a high school director with the right priorities, over 50% of the music played by their jazz band in a given year will be swing. It should go without saying that at a jazz festival, jazz music should be performed! This brings me to the topic of authenticity.


As jazz adjudicators, we are most interested in the elements that are unique to jazz music. While intonation, balance/blend, dynamics, etc. are all important, these elements of basic musicianship and ensemble performance are also kind of expected. We will of course address when the band is not in tune or when one section is way too quiet (I’m looking at you, saxophones!), but our focus is usually on 1.) characteristic jazz articulation (swing articulation in particular); 2.) creative improvisation that fits the tune rhythmically, stylistically, and harmonically; and 3.) the rhythm section!


Some common issues:

  • Over-tonguing — Use the minimum amount of tongue needed to get the articulation to come across, particularly on 8th note figures.
  • Over-swinging — The faster the tempo, the more even the 8th notes should be. Keep it light!
  • Choppiness — This goes hand-in-hand with the first two. 8th note lines should be legato until the last note. Blow through repeated notes.
  • Phrases that lack shape — In swing, the first note, the highest note, and the last note of a phrase should usually be accented. The articulation is entirely dependent on the contour of the line.


While the general guidelines above will help get a band “in the ballpark” in terms of authentic articulation, there is no way to really make it happen without going to the source — the recordings! Rather than operating with some Iowa jazz festival version of what we think the “rules” of jazz are, we should study what actual jazz musicians do, and strive to capture the stylistic nuances that make that music sound the way it does.

Here’s the problem: most high school students will not listen to jazz, or won’t listen to it often enough and with the depth and attention to detail that is required to sound like they are really speaking the jazz language. The ones who do fall in love with the music, who listen to it obsessively and practice like crazy, will sound great, but the reality is that most of the students in your jazz ensemble are not there. That is why the director needs to be the gatekeeper for jazz style and authenticity. Your students might not listen to enough jazz, but YOU should. In order to give an authentic-sounding jazz performance, the band must know what the music should sound like (imagine being asked to paint a detailed picture of a creature you have never seen before); this begins with the director knowing what the music should sound like and helping the band know what to listen for.

Make sure to take rehearsal time to listen to recordings together as an ensemble. This is not to relinquish you from the responsibility of strongly encouraging your students to listen to jazz on their own time. Paul McKee’s Recommended Jazz Recordings list (available on the JEI website) is an excellent starting place.

Rhythm Section

With the rhythm section, it’s the same thing — what I am listening for is a connection to the recorded history of the music. Do the comping rhythms and voicings sound like comping rhythms and voicings played on great jazz recordings? Are the quarter notes in the walking bass line long, full, and driving like Ray Brown’s quarter notes? Are the drum fills and setups for that Basie chart similar to the Sonny Payne fills that work so well on that arrangement?

If the students and their director are listening to the recordings, they’ll know how the music is supposed to sound. With careful attention to detail, they’ll learn that the drummer generally does not play beats 1 and 3 on the bass drum in a swing chart and does not play 2 and 4 on the snare drum (that’s what the hi-hat is for). I can mention this on my judge’s tape, but for the drummer to really understand it, they have to hear it.


It’s important to emphasize that a jazz performance should come from a completely different mindset than the marching band festival performance model in which everything is highly controlled and should be exactly the same at every performance. Jazz music, by definition, requires the potential for change, and should be different at every performance. Naturally, you will want written ensemble material to be well-rehearsed and consistent, but when there is room in the chart for creativity (and there should be), let the students be creative!


Nothing makes me more upset than hearing a band try to pass off prepared solos as improvised ones. It’s dishonest, a disservice to the music, and most importantly, a disservice to the students who are being robbed of the beautiful opportunity to creatively express themselves through improvisation. Improvisation is an absolutely essential ingredient to jazz music, and a skill that must be practiced frequently in our jazz rehearsals. I have no problem with a student having some go-to “licks” that they tend to use. Compare Lee Morgan’s solo on the album cut of “Moanin’” with his solo on the alternate take. Notice how he uses a lot of the same language in both solos while still allowing himself to be “in the moment,” following his ideas where they lead him. This is very different from a solo that is entirely predetermined and doesn’t have the potential for change. Playing a written/memorized solo in an attempt to fool the audience into believing that the solo is improvised is antithetical to jazz and is simply unacceptable.

Rhythm Section

The rhythm section also needs to have the space to be creative and to make musical choices that change the performance. A predetermined shape to the accompaniment for each solo (e.g. to start soft and build into the second chorus) will get old and predictable. We need to teach our students to be open to reacting to what the soloist is offering, and teach our soloists to be intentional about trying different solo shapes that get them out of the rut of the expected. “Ok, you tried that and you know it works — now you can try something different next time.” Even mixing up the solo order or number of courses per solo from one performance to the next can keep things fresh and keep the performers from disengaging.

Jazz adjudicators can hear the difference between musical moments that are scripted and ones that are organic. More importantly, the students know and feel the difference. Do we want to rob them of the thrill of those exciting and unplanned things that make jazz what it is? There’s a completely different feeling/energy from watching an improvised comedy show like Middleditch and Schwartz as opposed to a fully-scripted TV series. I’m not saying one is good and one is bad, but reciting an Aaron Sorkin monologue at an improv comedy show would be like playing a Robert W. Smith piece at the Tallcorn Jazz Festival. The feeling of spontaneity is central to jazz, and we need to make room for it with the music we select and the ways we coach our students to play.

In summary, to answer the question of what the judges really want to hear at a high school jazz festival:

We want to hear high-quality jazz music, played with sensitivity, creativity, and a connection to the recorded history of jazz.

I think that anyone who made it to the end of this article probably cares a great deal about teaching, and is doing an excellent job in front of their jazz ensemble. Perhaps reading this gave you a few good reminders. I know that I got a lot of great reminders through the interviews I did with various adjudicators for this!

Please reach out to me (michael.conrad@uni.edu) if I can be of service to you, or if you’d like to chat more about any of these topics. I care a lot about this music and how it is taught/ played; I would love to hear your thoughts on these things as well.

I’m sure we’ll run into each other at a jazz festival down the road!

Mike Conrad is Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies & Music Education at the University of Northern Iowa where he directs Jazz Band Two, and teaches courses/lessons in Jazz Improvisation, Jazz Pedagogy, Jazz Methods, Jazz Theory, Jazz Piano, Jazz Composition, and Jazz Arranging. Dr. Conrad is in high demand as a clinician and guest director for jazz bands, and is simultaneously an active performer (piano and trombone), and a prolific composer/arranger for the Iowa Jazz Composers Orchestra and many other ensembles.

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