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Jazz Clinic: Strong Combos Make Strong Big Bands

Tom Lizotte | October 2019

    Although it seems counterintuitive, the secret to building and sustaining a great big band is to create one or more great combos. The usual approach has often been the opposite; people looking to begin a jazz program often start with a large ensemble. The buzz that can be generated by a big band is laudable, but choosing that strategy in the beginning has some serious drawbacks. In the early stages, instrumentation is often incomplete. The skills necessary for strong rhythm section playing differ markedly from the wind pedagogy and from that of concert band. These are often more difficult to teach in a large group setting. Improvisation is also difficult to teach in a large ensemble.

A Quick Start
    Investing in a strong combo program is an essential building block in establishing a great big band. For programs just getting started, success can be achieved early on with combo. You can start a program with yourself, a horn player and a playalong recording. Then two or three horn players and that same recording. Then add a drummer, who can be a rock drummer you teach the basics of swing, and bass (even if it is a keyboard bass) – still with the recording.
    Follow this by adding a classical piano player who doesn’t know jazz voicings. Avoid having your pianist read the piano parts of published big band charts. Teach the piano player simple shell voicings and you are on your way. Shell voicings are two notes, typically the third and seventh in the left hand. These are easy, but sound hip. Bebop pianist Bud Powell is a good example of someone who used shell voicings.

The Art of Melodic Paraphase
    In the early years of jazz, soloists had eight or 12-bar windows on recordings, so the solos had to be cogent and fully assured. Jazzing up the tune was a route many 1920s players took, and it is a great springboard for young soloists.
    Teach the students the tune – preferably by ear – and give them tonal centers. A tune without a bridge (such as George Gershwin’s Sum­mertime) works best. Then have them play the tune again, just changing rhythms while keeping everything else the same. This is improvisation; it is formative, but legitimate. I have taught improvisation this way for many years, and never has there been a student who hasn’t experienced immediate success. Some students will have a more natural ear for what to do than others, but all will immediately realize they can do it. This is important because with beginning improvisers, the psychological element is the most important part. Nurture students’ belief that improvising is natural and achievable, not voodoo magic.

Introducing Form
    The next step is to find a 32-bar standard – the simpler the better – and teach students that tune, giving them tonality changes to use as landmarks to help their memory: “The tune is in C. At the second melody (bridge) it changes to F. When the original tune returns it goes back to C.” This is all the information they need to understand form.
    Those two tunes could be the combo’s debut. That group would excite other members of your concert band about jazz, establishing a strong foundation for a big band and perhaps inspiring additional combos to form.

Moving to Big Band

    When you do get into a large group, do not start with published arrangements. You can use the written bass part if you wish (although learning changes is preferable and simple). Find a big band chart on a standard tune and teach it to the horn players by ear. Then, let everyone take a shot at improvising on it while using melodic paraphrase. Those who have been in your combo will know form, but those who are brand new to jazz won’t have to at this point. If they follow your instructions to change only rhythms, they will be fine.
    Set everyone up for success. Some students can be especially shy. Break the tune into eight-bar segments and let students take turns on a portion of the tune or have two of them play together. You do not want to run anybody off; you do want to show them what is possible.

Playing Written Charts
    It is only after all of the above that I would pass out a written chart. This approach takes more time but is well worth it. Combo should remain the focus of the program at this point to give greater depth to your pool of soloists.
    It is important to have a strategy to big band programming. It is easy to fall in love with a chart that you think the band can play, but if there is a wide divide between the ensemble quality and the soloists’ ability to keep up, you have a problem. Before picking a piece, you need to take a close look at the chord changes. This is especially true with arrangements of standards. Arrangers of standards often shift harmonic schemes to freshen up familiar material. These arrangers’ changes are attractive but can create pitfalls for soloists. All it takes is an unexpected ii-V or substitute chord to create unnecessary drama. There is nothing wrong with reverting to the original changes when you get to the solo section. On more than one occasion I have heard a band struggle with a blues, only to find out they have been tripped up by arrangers’ changes.
    The combo format allows you to get into the harmony in much greater detail, but in a big band setting there are several options for odd changes. First, make sure all soloists have memorized the original tune. Unless the soloists are advanced, have them start with melodic paraphrase. On borrowed chords (such as an E major chord in a C major tune), give students a target note – preferably the third because that is the out-of-key note – and a resolution for that target note. This opens the door to more extensive improvisation.

    One of my mentors once said, “A jazz experience isn’t about playing the third trumpet part in a Count Basie chart.” All of our students deserve an authentic jazz experience. Give them that, and a jazz culture emerges. Such a culture is powerful and uplifting.