Creating an Authentic Big Band Sound

The history of Big Band music dates back to the mid 1920’s with the likes of bandleaders Paul Whiteman and Ted Lewis. This was the start of the dance bands in America, and over the next 10 years their output became the popular music of the time. Big Bands came into prominence around 1935 with such notable bandleaders as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and later Glenn Miller. The big band sound could be heard everywhere, whether it was on the radio, in a movie or at the local dance hall, this genre of jazz music was to stick around for some years to come.

Moving into the 21st century, we have the modern contemporaries of this art-form with such bands as The Brussels’ Jazz Orchestra, The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, The Big Phat Band and closer to home, The Mothership Jazz Orchestra, all of which are keeping the torch alight for this music and leading it into the next era of big band music.

Whether you are playing in or directing a Big Band, there is no denying how exciting this music is, and teaching our students about its various forms is as relevant today as it ever was. From swing to latin, to funk and beyond, your students will enjoy playing all the sub-genres of big band music.

In this article I will be talking about techniques that relate to Getting The Best Out of Your Big Band, Teaching Improvisation in a Big Band, and Repertoire Suggestions for High School and Community Bands.

Getting The Best Out of Your Band

First and foremost, encourage your students to LISTEN. I’m not talking about listening within the band to the lead player or listening to the rhythm section (however important this listening is!) I’m talking about encouraging your students to get their hands on recordings of the great Big Bands (some of which were mentioned above) and to absorb what they are hearing. We, as band directors, can’t expect our ensembles to play “authentic” jazz if they haven’t heard it before. Wherever possible, find a recording(s) of the charts you are working on and take them to your rehearsal, or ask the students to go home and find their favourite recording online. With resources such as Youtube and iTunes etc great recordings can be as easy as a click away. Through listening, students will start to develop an understanding of the stylistic elements so very important to this music.

  1. As with any ensemble, we must have a good BALANCE throughout the band. I have found it invaluable in explaining to the various sections the role of each part, and what makes a good section player. For the most part, there is only one player per part, making every part crucial for the overall success of the ensemble.

For example, let’s take the trumpet section, the most noble of all sections. Attributes that determine the success of players in each role within the section are as follows:

1st (Lead) Trumpet

  • Must be accurate in all elements of execution, and preferably in sight reading
  • Should have a good understanding of styles
  • Determines length of notes, dynamics etc
  • Good range and stamina

2nd Trumpet

  • Must also have good range to support lead player
  • Needs to blend their sound with lead player
  • Very often solos are written in the 2nd part so this player should be a keen improviser.

3rd Trumpet

  • Needs to blend their sound with lead player
  • Needs to have good flexibility as they play a harmony to the melodic line (played by tpt 1) and         has often got awkward jumps and intervals.
  • 3rd Trumpet is sometimes used as “split lead” to give the lead player a rest.

4th Trumpet

  • Needs to blend their sound with lead player
  • Needs to have good flexibility for the same reason as the 3rd player.
  • Needs to have excellent pitch, as they will often be playing in octaves to the lead player.

Once you have given the musicians a better understanding of what their role is within the section they will quickly (hopefully!) start to think about the balance of the section more.

After you have gone through this with all the sections, you can make it the responsibility of the lead players to work out a balance throughout the ensemble (with your guidance of course).

You may find rehearsing in a box formation will help with this, as the sections will be able to hear each other better.

Another key area for balance is attending to the rhythm section. Achieving a balanced sound between your rhythm players will make life easier for everybody else. Soloists need to hear the harmonic information played by piano/guitar and bass so they can improvise, and the horn players need to hear bass, piano and drums for intonation and a good sense of time. Often what your rhythm players are hearing come out of their amplifier is not what you hear out the front. For example, at an outdoor performance your bass player may feel that they are playing the appropriate volume because the amp is right next to them, which they can clearly hear. The truth is that his or her sound doesn’t carry as far outside, so the audience has no volume or clarity. They may need to turn up a little or put the amp on a chair etc. Work with your rhythm players to get the sound you want. (Firstly; ensure you know what you want through wide and varied analytical listening yourself)

When your ensemble has excellent balance the players will have better endurance and intonation, and all of those intricate little parts that the composer spent so much time to get right will be heard.

  1. Articulation. This is something I work on a great deal with my ensembles as I think it is the quickest way to make the ensemble sound “tight” and is what gives the music its character. The length of notes will vary depending on what style of music you are playing and at what tempo.

When playing pieces with a swing feel, quaver passages are played legato unless marked otherwise. The off beats will often be accented to achieve a back-beat effect, or a heavy swing. The last quaver of a run will be also be accented and played shorter than the others. The faster the tempo, the shorter the hat accents should be played. If you’re playing a slow, heavy swinger, the hat accents can be broader, or fatter as we like to say. They would also sit on the back of the beat to really accentuate the swing feel.

Latin jazz has its own rules for interpreting articulation markings. Say you are playing a Bossa Nova, the quavers will be played straight and with a relaxed feel. Notes marked staccato or with a hat accent are detached but not too short. If you were playing a Samba on the other hand, the quavers would remain straight but they would be played more at the front of the beat giving the music a driving pulse. Notes marked with staccato or hat accents are to be played quite punchy and are short or clipped off.

Pop or Funk charts are generally played with a straight 8ths feel unless otherwise marked. The pulse is very even, sitting right in the middle of the beat. Articulation markings are quite literal, if it’s marked long you play it long, if it’s marked short you play it very short.

Whatever style you are playing, cut offs are very important. Encourage the use of pencils to mark where a note should be cut off. Say for example I want the note to be cut off on beat 3 I would mark   -3 above the note etc.

Taking the time to work on getting the length of notes and articulations correct will result in a polished and exciting performance.

  1. Dynamics. We all want our performances to sparkle, and by using the full spectrum of dynamics we can achieve music that is engaging, exciting, and full of character.

As a band director, I like to hand over some of the responsibility of dynamics to my lead players. This is how it’s done in professional bands and there is no reason why it can’t be done at a school level. Encourage the lead players to talk to their sections (in a calm, polite way!) about how they are going to play a particular section. I have found that by doing this the students become more engaged in the music and take ownership for what they are playing.

I hear a lot of bands that are good at playing loud dynamics but few which can play whisper quiet. Exaggerate the dynamics and your audiences will love you for it!

Teaching Improvisation in an Big Band Setting

One of the challenges we have working with big bands is getting all of our musicians to play improvised solos. Some will take to it like a duck to water, others however will be hesitant and worried about what the other band members will think of them. Quite simply, the earlier you start with them, the better! Your aim is to create a culture where improvised solos are the norm, and not the exception.

A technique I have been using for a few years now (which has really paid off) is to run part of my rehearsal as if I were directing a small group jazz combo. For these exercises I don’t use any sheet music.

Firstly I set the band in a box formation so they can all see and hear each other. Start by teaching the rhythm section a basic 12 bar blues progression. Choose an easy key such as Bb or F. Next I will teach the horns a blues melody or “head” such as “Now’s The Time” by Charlie Parker (very repetitive). I will play the head on my instrument and ask the band to repeat what I have just played. Straight away you have their aural skills engaged! After they all know the head you can put it together with the rhythm section and move on to soloing.

Work your way around the band choosing players at random to play 1 chorus (12 bars) each. Always be encouraging and congratulate each soloist after they have done their 12 bars. Whilst one player is soloing you can choose another section to make up a background figure to play behind the soloist (you may need to demonstrate how to do this before they start). To keep it fresh for the rhythm section, every 3 or so choruses ask them to change the feel to a bossa nova or funk, or even change the time signature to say 3/4 (for a more advanced soloist). The beauty of this exercise is that you can cater for the least experienced to the most advanced students.

Remind the musicians to start simple and to leave space. Rests are just as important as notes. Encourage them to concentrate on developing strong rhythmic ideas rather than an elaborate melody. It would be unrealistic for me to suggest that every student will embrace this with open arms, but in my experience it has been very beneficial for the vast majority of the ensemble.

You may be fortunate enough to have a couple of students who develop a keen interest in improvisation and would like to know how to practice at home. Most of us would know about play-along books such as the Jamey Aebersold series, which can be a great tool for students to use at home. You could also suggest that they start transcribing the solos of their favourite jazz musicians. If they aren’t up to transcribing yet, there are plenty of books on the market with transcribed solos, which they can learn. Lastly and probably most importantly, suggest they start a combo with other members of the band specifically aimed to playing jazz and improvised music. They will develop in leaps and bounds!


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Tim Crow (B.mus, Jazz Performance) is the Director of the NSW Public Schools Jazz Orchestra. Since graduating from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 2004, Tim has enjoyed a successful career as both a music educator and professional performer
. As an educator he has been heavily involved in The Arts Unit, tutoring the Symphonic Wind Ensemble and Wind Orchestra. Tim has been the Stage Band Director of the Schools Spectacular since 2008. He is also involved in many of the leading school band programs throughout Sydney.

As a performer Tim has worked with such notable names as Harry Connick Jr, Jerry Lewis, Franki Valli, Mike Patton (Faith No More) Bobby Rydell, Petula Clarke, Barbarra Morrison, Jim Pugh (Steely Dan), The Cinematic Orchestra, and rock band “Spoon”.

He has played trumpet in many professional theatre shows including Grease, Legally Blonde, A Chorus Line, Mary Poppins, An Officer and a Gentleman, West Side Story, Annie, Wicked, The Producers, Guys and Dolls, Chicago, Little Women, South Pacific, Jersey Boys, Titanic- The Musical.

Tim is a regular band member for some of Australia’s leading entertainers including Megan Washington, Rhonda Burchmore, James Morrison, Tom Burlinson, Glenn Shorrock, Paulini, Pete Murray, Kate Miller-Heike, Human Nature, David Campbell, Monica Trapica, Doug Parkinson, Emma Pask, Guy Sebastian, Tommy Emmanuel, Dan Barnett, Anthony Callea, Todd McKenney, The Sydney International Orchestra and Ensemble Offspring

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