big band

Why you need more than just big band

From time to time we meet young musicians who are about to finish high school and aspire to study at one of the reputable tertiary jazz schools but are taken aback and disappointed when they don’t get past the audition. Why not? After all, they were one of the best musicians at their school, even in their town. They played in the top stage band/big band at school. Maybe they did their exams and played some jazz pieces, and did really well. What is the problem?
We can explain:

1. Stage band (big band) is the wrong kind of jazz.

Yes, stage bands (aka big bands in the real world) play a kind of jazz, but it is a kind of hybrid music that tends to be more like classical music than the kind of jazz played by professionals and taught by the universities. Big bands focus on accurately reading a part, just like in a classical orchestra. The creativity lies with the composer, the arranger, and to some extent with the conductor. There are moments of improvised solos (or should be – in school bands, sometimes not even this happens) but the focus of performances and rehearsals is on blend, balance, playing the right notes, correct rhythms, and so on.
These things are important, especially for big band and commercial music. But they are very common skills. Pretty well everyone can read music and play accurately. You don’t need to be jazz-trained to do that.

2. You need to be trained in how to play in a jazz way.

The kind of playing that underpins jazz involves a way of playing. Think of jazz as a way of playing music, not a genre. A skilful jazz musician can play pretty well any music in a jazz way. You need to know what that is and how to do it.

The fundamental concepts of jazz playing are Improvisation + Variation + Interaction.


Jazz players know how to move seamlessly between playing something exactly as written, changing it slightly, reinterpreting a theme, improvising solos based off the chords of a song, and playing completely “free” or abstract music. They don’t always do all these things, but do whichever is needed for their current performance. They know how to do these things, and what effects each creates, and can fly between different ways of playing at will. These skills involve improvisation and variation.
Interaction is another variable that jazz players know how to control in real-time as they perform. It is common in jazz for spontaneous interaction to be a key part of a performance. What the rhythm section plays depends on what the soloist plays, and what the soloist plays depends on the rhythm section: all the participants respond to what the others are doing, as in a conversation. The performance is not all pre-arranged: some of it might be, but most of it is often improvised collectively in real-time.
These things are essential skills for jazz, and experience in and awareness of them are things that university audition panels tend to be looking for. You don’t get these skills just from playing in a big band, no matter how good a band it is. You also don’t get them from playing jazz pieces in an exam.
To be able to play jazz like a jazz musician you need experience in an improvising small group (aka “combo”), you need to know how to vary and improvise around a tune, and you need to know how to interact in real-time during performance with other jazz musicians. There is theory and concepts and skills that go together to make up various jazz improvisation styles, and you need to learn and practice those things too. But none of the theory means anything without that fundamental ability to “fly” at will between different levels of improvising and variation, and the knack of creating spontaneous collective arrangements in real time.
Because you don’t get those things from big band alone, many keen and promising students end up disappointed and with a year or two of hard catching-up to do or, even worse, quitting in frustration.

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