How to Select Better Music for Your Jazz Band

By Kelli Swehla

Memes tend to do a good job of summing up something in a funny way.

I offer you exhibit A:

If you’re like me, you laughed at this. Then you realized something: we all do this or have done it. If you’re a little bit older (also like me), these years are hopefully mostly behind you. If you’re not a little bit older (welcome to the profession), you may be falling victim to the “why don’t my bands sound good,” mentality. I’m here to tell you, your bands might not be reaching their potential because you don’t spend enough time thinking through literature in the way that helps you and your students be successful. 

Now, rest-assured, most of us are never completely successful at this endeavor. Sometimes and during some years, things just go more according to plan than others. The evolution of a band director and more specifically, a jazz band director, is a long arc.

Here are some common mistakes when choosing literature and following, some practical ideas to address them. (Disclaimer: this list is not exhaustive and neither are the solutions.)

Common mistakes include choosing music… 

  • That’s too difficult or a group of charts that are, in general, too demanding for your group
  • That features a student on a piece who isn’t equipped for that yet
  • Too quickly because your first rehearsal is coming up
  • From your library for no other reason than that it’s in your library
  • That emphasizes students or sections that aren’t your strongest
  • Without understanding the improvisation requirements and if they’d work for your students
  • With rhythm section parts that are beyond your students’ capabilities
  • That boxes yourself into the idea that you must perform a ballad or any other genre of chart
  • That ignores historical contexts, both in selection and in preparation
  • That doesn’t complement the rest of the repertoire you’ve selected or will select
  • Or a chart that’s too difficult and refusing to take it out of the mix when it just isn’t working, or, making this determination too late before an upcoming performance
  • Without listening to and evaluating enough literature to make the best selections for your group
  • Without asking for advice, especially if you are not a “jazzer”

Solutions

Get to know your group

Take an inventory of who’s in your group and what they can do. Very carefully estimate what they might be able to do individually and collectively with a little practice. Things you must know before selection of charts include:

  • What are the ranges of your brass players?
  • Can your piano and/or guitar players read chords/comp?
    • Do you know what comping means?
    • Are you comfortable teaching students how to comp if they don’t know?
  • Does your bass player feel comfortable composing a walking bass line, or does the bass part need to be completely written out?
    • Do you feel comfortable writing the walking bass line or teaching the student how to do it if the publisher does not provide it?
  • Is the drum part that is written on the music useful to the student or not? (Many older composers/arrangers expected drummers to just listen to the band and figure it out; that’s why you see very basic drum parts.) If not, are you able to write one out?
  • What are the styles that they have performed well in the past? Ones that they haven’t attempted or haven’t done well?
  • Which student is ready to be featured on a tune, if any?
  • What is the comfort level your students have with improvising and to what degree can your more developed improvisers perform?
  • What are the improvisation requirements of the charts you’re interested in and are they accessible to most of the students who might take a solo?

Listening to charts

For most of us as teachers, we can choose a decent concert band piece in the course of an hour of listening and searching. Jazz is different, however. Under the umbrella of jazz there are many different styles of music and many unique considerations since it is a chamber ensemble with improvisation as a requirement. Your goals in selection are different and generally take longer to accomplish, especially if you don’t have a list of charts/arrangers/composers that you know very well. This task of listening to a wide variety of charts is especially important if you don’t have a strong background in jazz. 

Here are some examples of goals in understanding your selection that are unique in a jazz band setting:

  • Lead trumpet leadership abilities (sound, rhythm, articulation, pitch) and range
  • Lead trombone leadership abilities (sound, rhythm, articulation, pitch) and range
  • Lead alto sax leadership abilities
  • The improvisational abilities of each student
  • The ability of all students to “carry their weight” in the chamber ensemble
  • Rhythm section responsibilities to written parts versus non-written parts (written out/expected vs. implied)

As jazz band teachers, we have to listen for the sake of listening (so do your students, by the way). Get to know the different styles and all of the people who have written in them and will write for them. Start making a list that may include things that work now or could work later. That may include charts that would work for your group when you have a great alto soloist or ones that work to emphasize your current strengths. Getting to know more charts will help you narrow down charts for your group when that time comes around. The more you listen (think: summer project) the easier life will be in jazz band in the long run. 

Start rehearsals with one goal: to learn about your kids

Most of us choose charts that we think will work. Then, when they don’t, we do one of two things: we keep trying or, we move on. There are so many good charts out there. This one is simple. When choosing charts for your band to start with, have several to read through (include the solo section) and see how the kids do. If something doesn’t work, accept it and move onto a different chart. The most common reason something doesn’t work: it’s too difficult

Variety is the spice of life

Let’s say you want to choose 3-4 charts for a performance; this could be competitive or not. The best way to showcase your band is to make sure they always sound good. Saying this may sound remedial or even like it’s a joke. But really, this is the number one thing we sometimes forget. You want the group to sound like it’s constantly in control of their performance, that nothing is a “crapshoot” (especially solo sections) and that students clearly understand how to approach their role within the group. 

The next step is to operate with variety in mind. No one wants to listen to three tunes that sound like the same. The same could be true with a host of other things. Here are some considerations regarding variety:

  • One swing chart is generally a good rule of thumb and sometimes required. The next 2-3 charts should be different in terms of style. This means they can be a Latin style (under the Latin umbrella resides a whole host of styles), a contemporary chart, a ballad, a different type of swing chart or even another style I haven’t listed. 
  • Pay attention to the (chord) changes in each chart. Is at least one of the charts going to facilitate a lot of improvisers? Each piece should have different changes but ones that suit your group, for both more developed and less developed improvisers. This could look like this:
    • Blues (swing style): usually 12 bars and the blues scale is useful if the changes aren’t as accessible**
    • Modal (can be multiple styles): generally one scale works for most or all of the solo section
    • Cha-cha-cha (Latin style): a blanket pentatonic scale can be useful if the changes aren’t as accessible**
    • **Accessible chord changes means that students can read the chords and improvise over them, outlining each change; a blanket scale (a scale that can be played over all of the chords) can be useful with students who aren’t able to follow the changes. 
  • Vary the time period of the charts you choose. What era do your charts come from? What’s the historical context of the charts? You could potentially choose a wide variety of styles but all from the same time period. Students should have experience in performing charts from different parts of history.
  • Most will say that Basie and Ellington can be compared to Bach and Beethoven in terms of historical importance. Do your students know who these bandleaders/composers were and have they played one of their charts? There are several arrangements out there for younger bands that work very well (think Mark Taylor, Rick Stitzel) and for high school students, the David Berger arrangements of the Essentially Ellington series are outstanding (and free if you sign up – see below). Basie also had many composers write for him. Of them, Sammy Nestico is one of the most popular Basie-style composers for young groups. 
    • What other composers do you want them to know? 
      • Look for composers in your area that come recommended
      • Look for contemporary arrangers/composers that are up and coming
      • Look for other composers that were well-known in their time but maybe haven’t been played much recently
      • Who are the giants that you haven’t played yet?
  • Other things to vary
    • Key signatures
    • Tempo (a traditional ballad is not necessary if there is contrast in tempo)
    • Feel/groove
    • Difficulty levels between pieces
      • Consider not choosing pieces that are equal in terms of demand as you’ll likely figure out that it’s too heavy a load; shoot for average difficulty level between the charts to meet your band where they are
      • Ignore the levels ME (medium-easy), M (medium) and MA (medium-advanced); many times these are equal in lots of ways but hard in other ways
        • For example, the chart could be ME for the horns but MA for the soloists and rhythm section but marked ME by the publisher
        • Just listen to the charts, see where the difficulty lies and decide whether or not it matches your band’s strengths
        • Easy charts are generally easy and advanced charts are generally advanced; it’s what’s in the middle that needs investigation
    • Who listens to your band? It shouldn’t be only you.
      • In this day and age, you can ship off a recording to any other band director friend and have them give you some feedback. Do it.
      • Invite a clinician in 
        • Maybe swap with a friend; you can go listen to their band and vice versa
        • If you don’t know who to ask, reach out to a trusted mentor-colleague or any JEI board member for help.
      • Organize a Zoom call to have a clinic with someone who doesn’t live near you

Things to remember

The most powerful variable is you, the teacher. Your literature decisions directly impact how successful any group will be. Don’t be afraid to admit that some of this is trial and error; it is. However, with any luck, the more you do this the better you’ll get and the more resources you’ll have. Listen all the time, ask for help/advice, and then make the literature selections fit your group like a glove. Easy, right? (Cue: My Heart Will Go On)

Resources for literature: ejazzlines; JW Pepper; Sierra Music; UNC Jazz Press (good for contemporary charts); 3-2 Music Publishing; visit iowajazzchampionships.org to see what other groups have programmed; join the Essentially Ellington Jazz Academy (it’s free) and get great (FREE) charts each year (academy.jazz.org/ee/participate/membership)  

Finally, remember that you as a teacher must keep pushing yourself to learn and get better, too. I’ve had points over the years where it sounds like my group is getting worse rather than getting better. What got better were my ears and that’s why it sounded like the band got worse. Know what you want and be able to precisely model this to the students. Speaking the jazz “language” (which is different than concert band) as the teacher is important so that you can tell when things aren’t going well, be able to convey what’s not going well to students and improve collectively. Then, together, you’ll stay afloat. 

Kelli Swehla has spent 16 years as a music educator in eastern Iowa and for the past 12 years, been Director of Bands at Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids, IA, where she teaches marching band, concert band, jazz bands, lessons, music theory and conducts the pit orchestra. Swehla completed her Bachelor of Music with trumpet emphasis in 2005 at the University of Northern Iowa and earned her Master of Music Degree in Music Education and Conducting from Kansas State University in 2015. She has previously served as chair of Jazz Band Affairs for NEIBA and is currently serving as President-Elect of Jazz Educators of Iowa, is on the Board of Directors for the Iowa Jazz Championships and is a Commissioner for the Cedar Rapids Municipal Band. In addition to teaching, Kelli Swehla is an active musician in the Cedar Rapids area performing regularly on trumpet with the Cedar Rapids Municipal Band, the Revival Theatre Company pit orchestra and Heartland Brass Quintet. Furthermore, Swehla performs with and serves as co-manager of the Iowa Women’s Jazz Orchestra, a group dedicated to fostering the involvement of young women in their jazz band programs.

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