Programming Tips for Jazz Band

Tom Lizotte | January 2018

    Zoltan Kodaly said it best: “Children should be taught with only the most musically valuable material. For the young, only the best is good enough.” Programming is the part of the preparation process that requires the most attention but that often receives the least. Your new assessment rubric is due, the principal is crunching for budget numbers, you have to write finals, and graduation music needs to get out. You are hurtling to the end of the year like a runaway freight train. Has anybody jumped into the Pepper catalogue a few weeks before the end of the school year and said, “This one, this one, this one?” The fate and educational value of our ensembles are established before we teach a note. You could be the second coming of Ray Ricker or Gene Aitken, but if the material is wrong, your group will have limited, if any, success.
    Programming should be an ongoing process. It is advisable to think ahead, not only to the next year’s program, but to two and three years ahead. We always want to build the present with an eye toward the future. If you want students to be able to play intelligently over Have You Met Miss Jones? or All the Things You Are, it takes more prep than just putting the chart in front of them. If I want to play Perdido in big band a year from now, I should be working on it in combo now. If you want to play a bebop tune, prep ii-Vs several years in advance.
    A while ago I knew one of my groups would play Cottontail, so the previous year every combo performed a contrafact on the I Got Rhythm changes. A contrafact is a new tune built on preexisting chord changes. You can copyright a tune, but not chord changes, so contrafacts, which became popular during the bebop era, are attractive to recording performers and publishers.
    The ancillary benefit to the shared language of rhythm changes was that at combo night I was able to cherry pick students in the audience, bring them up on stage and say, “Rhythm in Bb, twice through the head, one chorus apiece, then once through the out chorus.” I had put together an instant combo and taught a valuable lesson on the importance of universal language.

Group Identity
    Early on we decided that a big mission of the Cape Elizabeth jazz program would be teaching jazz standards. Our top group does a mix of standards and more contemporary pieces. Our second band is called the Repertory Jazz Ensemble, and it focuses on historically important jazz literature. Not In the Mood, but pieces such as Moten Swing, Taking a Chance on Love, and Travelin’ Light.
    Part of our philosophy is to teach literature that has historical value. That doesn’t mean that every piece should be a museum piece (and it shouldn’t), but teaching music that has a true Kansas City connection means you can teach Kansas City, including Tom Pendergast, the Great Depression, and racial relations. Teach Ellington and you can teach 1920s Harlem.
    Much of what is out there today is ephemeral – music written to make school groups sound good. There is value to this music, but a steady diet of it compromises a key part of our educational mission, which is history. With the exception of bebop heads (which in themselves have become standards) it becomes more difficult to teach history through contrafacts. The good news is that some publishers are really getting this. An increasing number of jazz standards are being published, particularly for younger groups. The writing is often skillful; writers such as Rich De Rosa, Rick Stitzel, Rich Sigler, and Michael Sweeney write beautifully for young band.

Know Your Ensemble

    This starts with a realistic look at strengths and weaknesses, including instrumentation, ranges of brass players, and strength of soloists. You can take advantage of incomplete instrumentation. If you have only two trombones, consider Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy or some 1950s Maynard Ferguson. For ensembles with limited brass tessitura possibilities but a good sax section, Benny Carter’s music, much of which is published, is an answer.
    If your soloist options are limited but you have an all-state concert band player in your band, have something crafted for that player. At one point we had an all-state level trumpet player whose trumpet playing was ahead of his improvising. For a modest fee we commissioned a piece based on a Clifford Brown with Strings cut. We were able to put our best player out there in a setting in which he and the band could be successful. There are many writers who would be eager to write for your band for a reasonable fee. All it takes is the courage to pick up the phone.

    A common programming problem is a mismatch between the ensemble ability and the maturity of soloists. The solution is to program from the inside out. If your soloists are in the formative stages, pick tunes based on the accessibility of the changes. Some have tried to skirt this by having the original solos transcribed and memorized. There can be value to this, but educationally this approach is limited, and unfortunate for students.
    If there is a tune that you feel you absolutely must do. look carefully at the chord changes. Often these can be simplified. Writers will often reharmonize a standard tune to put their stamp on it. You are then left with what are called arranger’s changes. It is entirely acceptable to revert to the original changes for the solo section.
    A great example of this is a tune commonly played in festivals. Bill Potts’s Big Swing Face. It is a blues, but with altered changes. I recall one director telling me, “My soloists are really struggling with the changes,” to which I responded that the piece was a blues, and it was okay to change the changes. Sharp judges won’t penalize a band for this; they will credit you and your group for knowing what you are doing.
    You can also take a standard tune and solo over just the A section, meaning the soloists would not have to solo over the bridge. A common arranging trick for young bands is to have the soloists blow over the A section (which is usually in one key), while the bridge (with a variety of modulations) becomes an ensemble interlude. With one pentatonic scale you can get many students soloing with success.
    Another common problem is charts that are long to the point that the ensemble loses steam at the end of the program. This is especially true in charts written for professional or for college ensembles. Look for places in which shout choruses can be edited. A second or third run through the form is often a great show of compositional virtuosity, but not necessarily a great programming strategy. As Dave Sporny, a great jazz educator from the University of Massachusetts puts it, “Rig it for yourself.” 


Problem-Solver Pieces
Ideas for Ensembles with Non-Standard Instrumentation

Few or Inexperienced Trombones
    At the grade 2 level, many charts are written with only one trombone part, and this is often doubled by tenor saxophone. One great source for bands with less than ideal instrumentation is the Kendor Konvertibles series by Doug Beach and George Shutack.
    For grades 3-4, 1920s Duke Ellington tunes, such as Black and Tan Fantasy by Bubber Miley and Duke Ellington (Alfred) work well as a solution to this problem. Whisper Not (by Benny Golson and arranged by Mike Abene (Sierra), recorded by Maynard Ferguson, is an example of a substantial chart written for reduced instrumentation. Another is Blues for Kapp by Marty Paich (Sierra). In­stru­men­tation is 4-4-2-3.

Strong Saxes, Weak Brass

    Kansas City Suite by Benny Carter (Sierra) is ten movements of excellent music in various styles recorded by Count Basie in the early 1960s. A very good Basie-style chart with modest brass ranges is Basie Eyes by Shorty Rogers (Sierra).

Strong Brass, Weak Saxes

    Moten Swing by Eddie Durham, arranged by Ernie Wilkins (Sierra). This classic Bennie Moten band piece gives brass the opportunity to play strong, achievable tuttis and has modest saxophone demands.

Surplus Percussionists
    Latin charts are a great way to use rhythm sections with more than one drummer. Limbo Jazz by Duke Ellington (Alfred) is a great chart of modest technical demands that lends itself well to auxiliary percussion.

Featuring Flutes

    Flute Salad by Oliver Nelson (Sierra). The piece features flute and bass clarinet, but you can substitute saxes as needed.

Solos for Multiple Instruments

    Stardust by Hoagy Carmichael, arranged by Big Holman (Sierra). For vibes, flute, and soprano sax.

Bari Sax Feature
    Moanin’ by Charles Mingus, arranged by Mark Taylor (Hal Leonard). Jalen publishes a chart by Dave Mills on this piece at a similar difficulty level.