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Teaching Improv in a Big Band Setting

Tom Lizotte | February March 2024

One of the most difficult tasks in jazz education is teaching improvisation in a big band setting. It can be done, but the challenges are formidable.

In many districts, the high school band director can be assigned chorus, middle school band, study hall, and several other jobs. There is no time, either during or after the regular school day, for combos. Choices are limited to playing written solos, finding a private teacher for selected students, or trying to teach improv to the whole group.

Steve Massey, former director of the renowned Foxboro (Massachusetts) High School Jazz Ensemble put it best: “A jazz program without an improvisation component has dubious merit…A jazz experience isn’t playing fourth trumpet on a Basie chart.” Massey has a point. If your program fits this description, you can use circumstances to your advantage. It takes courage, but jump in.

Your first tasks are to make improvisation a natural part of the rehearsal day and convince every player that improv is something they can do. (Jamey Aebersold has often said, “Anyone can improvise.”) From moment one, create a safe haven because some students will be reluctant. Their self esteem is at stake.
Start this way: “Rhythm section, play a Bb chord in a four-bar loop. We’ll call this 123. Horns, play the first three notes of a Bb concert scale. I’ll count you off and you will put together some rhythms using any of those three notes. Use one note if you want.

“There is going to be a lot of activity, but if you stay in your lane, it will sound great.” With everyone playing at the same time, it is a perfectly safe environment. Everyone has improvised, even if it is just a little bit.

Recently, I was asked to give a clinic for two combined middle school bands with nearly 50 students who had never improvised. The instructions from the teacher? “Improv.” So, we did what is described above and produced a highly active but glorious sound. We then had saxes and rhythm alone, then trombones, then trumpets. Then, one section against the other. Eventually there were volunteers to play solo.

The next steps were to add the fourth note of the pentatonic (the fifth) and then the last (the sixth.) Every student left that session with the tools to sound good over a Bb progression. The pentatonic is the springboard and the secret sauce.

If circumstances require teaching improvisation to an entire big band, this is where to start. You need to devote some time every rehearsal to this, even if it is only five or ten minutes. You want to make improv as natural a part of the jazz experience as playing a concert Bb scale.

The next step is helping students develop a rhythmic vocabulary. This is the most important part of developing soloists. Students will learn quickly what notes sound good. The reason judges hear so many long note and quarter note solos from young soloists is that they lack ideas for what to play rhythmically.

Take out your horn and play a simple jazz rhythm or two and have the students do this as a call and response. Call it “rhythm du jour.” Then, play it on tones one and two of the pentatonic and have them imitate you or a strong player in the band. Then, go through the pentatonic. Soon these rhythms and note choices will start appearing in their solos. You can also add this: “I will play a rhythm. You play one that responds to it.”

Some students may ask if they can play the written solos provided in some charts. The answer is yes, but only if this doesn’t substitute for learning how to improvise. For a while, some publishers provided the song’s melody as the solo in the solo section. This is a great idea if you teach the soloist not to play it straight but to alter it. I might suggest, “Keep the notes the same, but change the rhythms. Jazz it up.” Then you can teach some chromatic approaches, arpeggios on long melodic notes and style – growls, glisses, and bends.

It helps to give each potential soloist a copy of the original tune and approach it in this way. Have them memorize the tune. Many players run away from the tune rather than referring to it in their solos. Melodic paraphrase is a great way to keep a solo grounded in the harmony and to provide cohesion to the overall arrangement. Soloists need to understand that their responsibility isn’t to themselves alone. Improvising is a highly collaborative process.

If you have a written solo that goes beyond the melody (the more common practice these days), you can have the soloist learn the solo but then change it up rhythmically, with chromatic approaches, rhythmic deletions, shifting dynamics and anything else they can handle. With increasing experience, they will prefer to create on their own.

Using these techniques in class will lead to several students wishing to pursue improvisation more seriously. At this point, provide a list of recommended recordings and set them up to improvise with a recorded rhythm section.

The Aebersold recordings have been the industry standard for many years. The lyrics and recommended listening lists, in particular, are gold. Most band rooms have several Aebersold volumes. In recent years, I have used IReal Pro, a popular practice app. This has two advantages – tempo, style and key control and access to 1,500 sets of chord changes. The disadvantage is that, unlike, Aebersold, just the chord changes are provided. You would have to purchase Real Books for the melodies.

Say you are playing Summertime as a festival tune. Send students to practice rooms with either of these two resources, and they will make progress. Soon they may ask to lead combos themselves. Set them up with The Real Easy Book. It has changes, melodies, sample bass parts, guitar and piano voicings and good tunes.

This is how to establish a jazz culture, regardless of your scheduling circumstances. Every student deserves a good and complete jazz experience and, with creativity, any one of us can provide it.