Assessment and the Jazz Combo

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” —Socrates

Ancient Greece’s master educator was probably exaggerating to make his point here, but it is well taken.

“Musicians are constantly refining their craft by reflecting on how they performed or composed, and through feedback from others,” says Sam Bergstrom, former Minnesota MEA Jazz Chair. “This concept directly ties into National Standard 3—Evaluating music and music performances. The jazz combo provides an ideal setting for this process.

“Learning good practice techniques, picking out quality literature, developing listening skills, honing rehearsal techniques, working well in a group setting,” continues Bergstrom, “are some of the things we’re trying to pass onto our students, especially those who are self-motivated and searching for skills to serve them beyond the band room. Incorporating a jazz combo into your program can help in all of these areas, give students a positive experience in self-directed learning, and increase your program’s visibility.

“Adding a jazz combo requires some extra time and work, but the goal is to give the students just enough help so they can run things on their own. The big difference between a jazz ensemble and a combo (besides the size) is the amount of improvisation. Offering a jazz combo experience is a great way to let your more advanced students shine or give your younger players the opportunity to practice their improvisation, which can only add to the quality of your larger ensembles.”

Benefits for the Student

  • Improvisation is essential to the jazz combo. Students working on improvisation
    will develop their jazz language and style, and apply their music theory to real time demands.
  • Students who perform in jazz combos generally become more independent as musicians, while simultaneously experiencing the group dynamics in self-directed small-ensemble playing.
  • There is nothing more rewarding and motivating to a student than creating an original composition. Easy blues tunes and riffs are great to give students ideas for creating their own heads and melodies.

Benefits for Your Program

  • Starting a jazz combo will provide the option for more performances in the school and community, which will,  in turn, promote your program.
  • A jazz combo can also give you a break. You might have been in situations where you were asked to have an ensemble perform for a school or community event. It’s not always feasible to have the entire ensemble perform, but a combo could be great option in many of these circumstances.

How to Get Started

  • Recruit some enthusiastic students. A typical group will consist of a rhythm section (drums, bass, piano and/or  guitar), and at least one horn player (sax, trumpet, or trombone, but not  limited to these). However, you can start a combo with virtually any combination of instruments.
  • Develop a variety of repertoire that will excite and educate the combo in different styles. Start with some easy  charts that provide simple changes for soloing, such as blues or modal tunes.
  • Try to find multiple recordings of the charts so that students can get ideas in terms of form, groove, comping,  and soloing.
  • Help the students at their first rehearsal with rehearsal techniques and in coming up with musical ideas.
  • Help them set goals, so that the group won’t fizzle. They can include regular practice times, gigs, and how much or how little music they want in their repertoire.


  • The Standard of Excellence Jazz Combo Sessions by Dean Sorenson (great start for young combos)
  • The Jazz Combo Pak series published by Hal Leonard (offers great arrangements that can be played with flexible instrumentation)
  • Fake books, such as the Real Book and the New Real Book (contain almost every tune you can think of—will challenge students to create arrangements with plenty of room for improvisation and creativity)

Adapted from “Assessment in the Jazz Combo Setting through Student Reflection” by Sam Bergstrom, originally published in Winter 2008

Sam Bergstrom teaches at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Coon Rapids, MN. He and his wife, Melissa, who chairs the Music Department, both play in the Anoka-Ramsey Music Faculty Jazz Sextet—guitar and flute, respectively.

—Nick Webb, February 9, 2011, © National Association for Music Education