The Elusive Big Band Sound

James Warrick | May 2011

This article originally ran in the October 1986 issue of The Instrumentalist.

   Every jazz ensemble director wants his group to produce the rich, vibrant sound that professional jazz bands achieve. Hearing that sound in your mind but not from your ensemble can be a frustrating experience. What follows are proven techniques that can be used to create that elusive big-band sound.
   Establish the desired sound in every player’s ears. Many young players have never even heard a jazz ensemble when they sit down for their first rehearsal, so take some time to play recordings of ensembles that demonstrate the way you want your group to sound. Much of the music published today has professionally recorded demonstration albums available that you can play for students.
   The time ensemble spends listening may have a more lasting benefit than the same amount of time used to work out wrong notes that students could fix on their own outside of class. Of course, there will be no time to listen to recordings if you plan too many concerts too close together or schedule an overabundance of music to learn.
   Sponsoring in-school performances by high school, college, or professional bands that produce the sound you wish your group to emulate can serve two purposes: the students can hear a sound quality not often present in recordings, and everyone will have the chance to listen to how more experienced players sound in your concert hall or rehearsal room. If possible, have the guest ensemble use your group’s sound system, drumset, or guitar amplifiers. This will demonstrate to everyone whether the acoustics of the room actually are a factor in creating an undesirable ensemble sound.
   Be realistic in your musical choices and your expectations of the ensemble. All too often directors make the mistake of selecting literature that is manageable only by older, more seasoned performers, then find fault with the less-than-mature sound of the tape made at the final concert. An eighth-grade trumpet player does not sound like a junior in high school, and a senior in high school does not sound the same as a college graduate student. Many young players have the technical facility to play the notes, but the sound of a high school jazz ensemble will not likely have the characteristics of a college or professional group. Carefully select arrangements that will highlight an ensemble’s assets, not its weaknesses.
   Use visual aids to demonstrate your goals. To show the internal balance within the ensemble, draw three pyramids on the blackboard representing each of the wind sections. Each section needs to maintain the internal balance shown in these pyramids with the overall blend and balance of the rhythm section acting as the base. When a section performs independently in non-unison passages, the players have to produce that pyramid by supporting the lead player, even for only a few beats. When the entire ensemble performs, however, each section has to contribute to the pyramid, with the lead trumpet as the apex.

   This format gives everyone in the ensemble the same focal point and relieves the lead trumpet player from playing beyond his dynamic capacity. Such a concept is especially important when the lead player is concerned with endurance.
   Begin by establishing balance in the rhythm section. A recording engineer works first to achieve balance and tonal equalization in the rhythm section before adding the other instruments. As you listen to the balance of your rhythm section, consider the questions that go through the mind of an engineer:

• Is the bass drum too loud (or soft)? the snare? the ride cymbal?
• Is the drummer exerting enough pressure with the foot on the hi-hat cymbals to produce a tight, clean chick sound?
• Are the drums tuned like those on the recordings you are trying to emulate? Many school drummers use drumsets that are tuned more for rock than jazz. Consider hiring a professional jazz drummer to tune the school’s drumset if you are unsure how to create the sound you desire.
• Can you hear specific notes out of the bass amp, or is the sound one low rumble? Experiment with different settings of the tone controls and require bassists and guitarists to write down those settings for that piece of music. Also, ask them to try playing the strings at different locations in relation to the pickups. Small guitar equalizers are rather inexpensive and can make any bass or amplifier sound cleaner.
• Are the guitarist and pianist both playing the same type of comp patterns, with the same type of chord voicings, in the same range, at the same time? This homogeneity creates a bland, muddy texture.

   Teach rhythmic stability. Members of professional big bands have a keen sense of keeping time. To teach young players how to play in a steady tempo, regularly use a metronome or drum machine during rehearsals. Small, inexpensive electronic metronomes made with output jacks that connect to an amplifier or headphones can be worn by members of the rhythm section during portions of a rehearsal. While at first the headphones may interfere with the rehearsal, eventually students take them for granted. It is not at all uncommon for professional musicians to perform with a click track in recording studios. These players know how to ignore the click so it doesn’t get in the way of their playing. Schools might be wise to purchase a drum machine for members of the rhythm section to use during home practice or to have available on that unfortunate day when the drummer is absent.
   Tune first. It is not a waste of time to tune, both before and during rehearsals. What’s more, a chord played in tune sounds fuller and more resonant than an out-of-tune chord played loudly. Ensembles will never produce that elusive, professional sound unless everyone plays in tune.
   Make sure guitarists have enough time to tune as carefully as the wind instruments. Electronic tuning devices are great for these string instruments, but only if they are properly calibrated and powered at full strength. Small electronic tuners are so inexpensive today that directors would be wise to purchase one or two for students to check out to use at home, as they would a library book. Tuners can be a boon to brass players who need to learn the degree to which a mute placed in the bell affects intonation.
   Short of electronic sound reinforcement, there is little that young saxophonists can do to compete with the brass section without playing out of tune. The major contribution of the sax section should be to add color and texture to the ensemble’s blend, not volume. The mental attitude of the saxophonists needs to be one of control at all times, with special thought directed toward playing in tune.
   Be wary of doubling parts. Do not double parts and expect the result to sound like one player. It may be uncomfortable to tell an extra player to sit out for one composition, but if two players share a part it is impractical to expect perfect intonation and balance from them.
   Direct the brass bells toward the audience. Every marching band director knows that brass instruments produce a directional sound, Achieving proper direction of the bells over the music stands and toward the audience for brass players is perhaps the easiest way to produce an immediate improvement in a jazz ensemble’s overall sound. If this is not done, the tonguing, which creates the clean, precise sound associated with professional ensembles, is lost to the floor or the backs of the saxophonists.
   Be resourceful during problem years. There are certain times in every ensemble when incomplete instrumentation creates problems. Many times there are other students in the department who are willing to help out. Before omitting a fourth trombone part due to a shortage of players, consider using a second baritone saxophone, a tuba, or even a bassoon. Certain compositions lend themselves to the addition of a French horn to double unison saxophone lines or assist a weak lead trombonist. A vibraphonist can be an asset when the lead trumpet needs help.
   Assess the instruments used by ensemble members. Often, students struggle with poor-quality instruments, mouthpieces, and reeds that would make a good performance impossible even for a consummate professional. Take time to evaluate the equipment of each student, especially those who do not study privately. If you do not feel confident in certain areas, consider bringing in a clinician for a day to help.
   A notable aspect of the Stan Kenton Band was the consistency in the drum sound over the years, despite personnel changes. This was partly because Kenton owned the cymbals and required each of the drummers to use them. If you are serious about your jazz programs, consider purchasing a hand-picked ride cymbal and a pair of precise sounding hi-hat cymbals.
   Avoid the overuse of sound amplification equipment. Too often a jazz ensemble sounds completely different on stage than it does to the audience because the sound system is used incorrectly. The use of too many microphones creates more variables and increases the potential for problems with balance. In most cases, less amplification is better. The Woody Herman Thundering Herd performs using only three microphones.
   Treat sound engineering as an art; it should not be the hobby of a poorly trained student. Require the sound reinforcement engineer to listen to professional recordings of the music already performed by the group being amplified, or at least to excellent recordings of professional big bands. It is critical that the engineer realize the primary sound source should be produced by the acoustic instruments on stage, not the public address speakers. He should use the sound system to fill in only the sections or individuals that cannot otherwise be heard. It is absurd to take the beautiful natural overtones and harmonics created on thousands of dollars of fine musical instruments performed by young people who have spent thousands of hours working on the art of performance and have the music crushed, condensed, and amplified through an improperly equalized public address system with its inherent distortion qualities using inexpensive amplifiers, microphones, and speakers.
   Develop soloists. Regardless of how good a jazz ensemble sounds, it needs strong soloists to earn attention. While some directors inherit soloists who have developed naturally, most have to train students to improvise. Two axioms exist regarding improvisation: Axiom one – there is no alternative to learning the theory associated with chords and scales. (Students who rely only on their ears without learning chord and scale construction have a limited existence as jazz improvisers.) Axiom two – there is no alternative to listening to recordings of proficient jazz soloists to develop a jazz language. (Too many young players are expected to stand up and solo with little or no exposure to the musicians who have gone before them.)
   Special activities can help generate extra enthusiasm. Consider hiring a local college or professional jazz ensemble director to work with an ensemble for one or two rehearsals. Someone listening with a fresh perspective will be able to point out problem areas to which the ensemble has become accustomed. Even if a guest repeats what you have been telling the students, they will listen to him as an expert and give his statements more credence.
   Another change of perspective can be gained by taking the ensemble to perform in a jazz festival. The established jazz educators who judge these festivals know how to communicate positively with young players. Students can evaluate themselves, too, so take the time to make recordings of your ensemble and to have students listen to these recordings in an environment just as intense as your most important rehearsal.
   Finally, do not be afraid to ask students what they think about the music you give them to perform. If you find you are on a completely different wavelength, it may be time to buy a few more albums, attend a few more jazz concerts, and request demo albums from a few more publishing companies.
   Nowhere else in the world do young people perform jazz music at as high a standard as in America’s schools. Likewise, nowhere else do music educators have the resources available to them to cultivate even higher quality musical performances. As audiences grow more demanding, so should the desire of the ensemble director to have a group that sounds like the pros.