Does Big Band Jazz have to be so loud?

After adjudicating at a “stage band” festival in Sydney earlier this year and listening in at some combined concerts where several school bands all played short sets, the ringing in my ears left me asking the painfully obvious question: Why does it always have to be so loud?

Noise warning
This is how many teachers see and present jazz

First, as a quick aside, let’s deal with the “stage band” thing. I don’t really care if people use the term, everyone knows what it means. But the real name of this kind of ensemble is big band. They are jazz bands that are big compared most jazz bands which tend to have three to five or six members. Jazz Orchestra is ok too: unlike small jazz groups, big bands play orchestrations. “Stage band” is a euphemism originally used to try to hide the fact that these bands were playing jazz, music once considered low, uncouth and unsuitable for students. The origin of this attitude lies in cultural snobbery and racism.

As a general rule, music without contrasts is boring. To play an entire arrangement at the same dynamic from start to finish is as tedious as it is unmusical. In fact, dynamic expression is one of the cornerstones of the hard-to-define quality we tend to perceive as musical. So why would anyone ignore it?

I’ll suggest two possible explanations, but of course big band jazz can and should be played with musical expression. To do otherwise is just absurd.

Possible explanation #1: Cultural snobbery and racism.

Now that sounds fairly harsh and is a strong statement to make, but let me explain. It is sadly common, at least in Australian schools and I believe elsewhere, for school big bands to be directed by non-specialists. Most often it is a concert band, or sometimes an orchestral conductor who takes the school stage band. Their background and their priority are concert and orchestral music. Their training has been “classical”. In the hierarchy of the school music program the wind band or orchestra is the pinnacle. The stage band is a fun extension activity for “the most talented students”.

Just a bit of fun. The serious music is played in the wind band/orchestra, leaving the jazz band a bit of light recreation on the side. I’m not suggesting that these concert band people are overtly racist, but the musical snobbery in which they willingly participate is the expression of cultural power and racism. It works as follows. So-called Western Art Music is, well…art. Many of these folks even just call it “Art Music” in an elegantly subtle move that immediately disqualifies anything else, by definition, from claiming artistic status. Other musics, such as jazz therefore are not an artistic activity, but a fun, popularist, light, uncultured, low, dirty, or even dangerous pastime. In the world of school music programs the art ensembles are the wind bands, the orchestras and maybe the choirs. Jazz bands, rock bands and their ilk are recreational ensembles.

So where is the racism, and where is the social power play? Jazz is associated with black American people and developed from an Afro-American musical tradition. Western Art Music is not. Western Art Music is the musical expression of the cultural and social elite and their cultural empire that colonized the world from its western European origins. To this day we see grand monuments to this powerful cultural tradition such as opera houses, symphony orchestras, ballet and opera companies all lavishly funded and sponsored in massive disproportion to the rate at which people participate in or enjoy any such musical forms. Overwhelmingly jazz (and rock) musicians are forced to turn to uncouth commercial sources of funding. In the eyes of the cultural snobs this is just further proof of the non-artistic nature of jazz and rock: they can’t be art if they are popularist and commercial!

So what does this have to do with school bands playing too loud? The reason is simple. If the band director sees the stage band as a purely recreational ensemble, playing non-art music, then things like subtlety and dynamic expression really don’t matter. They aren’t even part of the music in their world view! What matters above all is that the students have fun and a bit of a blast. Released from the artistic constraints of the “serious” ensembles, the kids are free to let their hair down and just have a good time. It is a bit like a musical party. They work hard in the concert band and as a reward can now have fun in the stage band. Sometimes the students can even just make up the music as they go along, just playing “whatever”!

Even worse, this kind of attitude among certain music educators is then used as evidence against jazz, against big bands. “It is all just noise!” they argue, “There is no subtlety, no finesse”. Why, “that jazz music is all just loud and raucous”. Well, the way they encourage their students to play it, that is quite true. But it has nothing to do with the way jazz is played by professional artists who actually understand and value it. And this has nothing to do with the way professional JAZZ educators teach students.

The Play-It-Loud-And-Just-Have-Fun approach to big band music is misguided, wrong, and insulting to the music and its practitioners. It is evidence of a worrying lack of education among concert band types. Not only is jazz a deeply expressive and artistic music, it stands alongside Rock as THE main musical development of the Twentieth Century. It can and should be played with subtlety, beauty and the most wonderful language of rhythmic inflection that is utterly unique to jazz.


Possible Explanation #2: Poor teaching skills

Too often the school jazz ensemble is left in the hands of a director who is not a jazz specialist. There are various types, such as the concert band conductor making some extra money on the side taking another band (in Australian schools) or being asked to teach jazz band due to short staffing (in American and Canadian schools). Then there is the general school music teacher who takes the band as an extracurricular activity in their own time either because they think it is worth doing, or just because someone has to.

Another common problem is almost the reverse situation: The school brings in a jazz musician who knows the music but has no teaching skills or qualifications.

None of these scenarios are good. Few people would seriously suggest that a PE teacher would be just fine as a physics teacher; Or that a fluent French speaker will logically be a great teacher of Japanese; Or that just because someone speaks English fluently, they will automatically be a great teacher of academic English. Schools tend not to hire teachers with no teaching qualifications. And yet the equivalent of all these hypothetical cases is routine when it comes to jazz education! Again, it probably ultimately boils down to the way jazz tends to be dismissed as just a light recreational music in schools. The misconception is that it doesn’t really matter, so long as the kids have fun.

If the person directing the school big band is a concert band specialist, then it seems very, very rare that they have the skill or knowledge needed to professionally and effectively teach a jazz ensemble. I have met few such people. There are some, but they are rare.

Jazz is a vast and complicated field of music. It takes a great deal of background knowledge and skill to either teach it or play it. To be done properly it is a job for a specialist. This is why it is rare for the general classroom music teacher to run a good jazz band: they know how to teach, but they don’t know nearly enough about the music and almost certainly can’t play it. If you can’t play jazz then it is almost impossible to use modeling as a teaching technique, one of the most powerful of teaching tools.

A great concert band conductor will have the same problem as the classroom teacher. They know how to run a band, but don’t have the jazz background of a specialist. Many concert band conductors, as I’ve mentioned, also have an attitude problem that prevents them from ever being competent jazz band directors.

Many concert band directors, in Australia at least, seem to be not even very good at conducting concert bands. They are musicians who have studied for a music degree. Unable to find work as players, they end up “teaching” to make a living. For them the jazz band is some extra income but no more than that.

There are plenty of jazz players who graduate only to find that they can’t earn enough from performing and so go into “teaching”. They may have a better chance than a non-jazz musician at achieving good results, because at least they can model what the various jazz languages are supposed to sound like. Sadly, most apparently don’t. The problem is they don’t know how to teach, they can’t teach, they have no interest in teaching or in learning how, and deep down resent having to do it in the first place. They feel humiliated; see it as an admission of failure as a performer. It is a pity such people are working in schools, they really do a lot of damage. It is a real shame that schools and Band Committees keep employing these people too. But, once again, the prevalent misconception is that jazz is just a lightweight optional extra. Employing inappropriate band directors is a symptom of this offensive attitude.

So what should we be doing, then? Firstly, stop playing everything so loud. Stop making your jazz bands sound so boring and un-musical! Even if you don’t know a lot about jazz, you can still insist your students play it expressively and with dynamic contrast. The loud bits will seem so much more impressive if they are in contrast to soft sections. Students can also use dynamic variation within passages of music to shape individual phrases. If someone is taking a solo, then background material should be softer. The same applies in ensemble passages where one group of instruments has the main melody and others have backgrounds or secondary lines. There should be dynamic balance within and between sections of the band, and it should vary as pieces develop if needed.

Think about contrasts in programming performances too. Don’t play everything at the same volume. Don’t play everything in the same key, or style, or tempo. Don’t have the same people or instruments soloing in every piece. Look for ways to make each piece and each program varied and musical.

Schools and Band committees, if you really want the best for your students then you need to start hiring professional, qualified jazz educators to conduct your stage band/big band/jazz band/jazz orchestra. You will benefit from a better band, better retention of students in the program, better reputation in the community, less staff turnover. Real jazz educators are out there. They are harder to find, but the effort is worth it. Here is what you need to look for:

• Teaching experience with demonstrable good results. You shouldn’t care that someone “took the band for two years at school X”. So what? What did they achieve during their time there? Why did they leave after such a short time?

• Conductors who can give you proof that they have excellent teaching skills

• A jazz band conductor must be an improvising jazz musician at a professional level, but that should not be the only thing they do. You absolutely need someone who is as dedicated to education as they are to performing, or even more so. If their CV or job application consists mainly of long lists of who they have played with, forget about them: no one cares who they played with. You are hiring for a teaching job, not a performing job. Don’t be seduced by fame, unless it is fame as an educator.

• Your new conductor should have a plan for the future of your program and be able to explain how they will work towards that plan with your students.

• Avoid applicants whose application letter is all about them, what they enjoy, how much you can do for them. They aren’t interested in you or your students.

• Treat jazz seriously and expect your staff and students to do likewise. They will have far more fun in the long run being part of an outstanding band and program than just the short-term buzz of being loud and unmusical in a second-rate organisation.


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