Coaching Your Jazz Rhythm Section

Communication Is Key

The main focus of your jazz rhythm section needs to be communication. Lisa Werner, Wisconsin MEA state chair for jazz education, says, “This is a multi-faceted concept; the rhythm section has to communicate with each other, as a unit with the band, and, of course, with the director.” Below, she offers tips on how to approach each of those elements.

Inter-Section Communication

Rhythm section members need to be able to communicate through eye contact. This should guide the setup:

  • The bass player should be in line with the hi-hat of the drumset since they keep the pulse of the selection.
  • The pianist and guitarist need to communicate since they also have similar roles. They should decide who is comping underneath each soloist and what role each will fulfill.
  • All four musicians should be able to make eye contact.

Inter-Ensemble Communication

During any tune, the rhythm section should provide the proper style to the ensemble. If the piece calls for a swing style, the ensemble is going to get that feel from the rhythm section. Because of this, each rhythm section member must play with the proper jazz style. Listening to professional jazz recordings can help students develop good style and communicate that style to the entire ensemble.

Communication with the Director

As the director, you should have ongoing communication with the rhythm section during rehearsals. For example, you communicate tempo at the count-off. If the section sticks to the tempo, they’re communicating back to you that they get it. If they don’t, then they’re communicating that something’s wrong. They may not have the endurance to keep an up-tempo piece going, or they may lack the maturity to keep a ballad slower. It’s up to you to help the section work together and work with the band to achieve the desired result.

With the proper communication between all, your rhythm section will be the solid foundation of your band—swingin’ in no time!


This article was adapted from an article of the same title by Lisa Werner. The original was published in the January 2008 issue of the Wisconsin School Musician. Used with permission.

Lisa Werner is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher who teaches band and orchestra at North Lake School in northwestern Waukesha County, Wisconsin. 

–Anne Wagener, June 9, 2009, ©  National Association for Music Education