In the Pocket

in the pocket: (slang) refers to the rhythm section being really together, as in…“Those guys are really in the pocket tonight.”

“The rhythm section is the heart and soul of the jazz band,” says NAfME member and long-time jazz instructor, Harry Miedema. “Whether a big band or combo, it has unique responsibilities within the ensemble. Consisting of the drums, bass, various chord instruments, and extra percussion, as a section, these players must:

· Maintain a steady, unified pulse
· Keep good balance
· Guard the form of the tune during solos
· Raise intensity levels where appropriate

“Rhythm section parts are almost always an outline, not specific note-by-note instructions,” continues Miedema. “The bassist should be able to improvise a walking bass line, the drummer should be familiar with fills and set-ups, and the chord instruments should know some chord voicings. Often, these things are not written in the parts, and if the players aren’t well-versed in them, it is impossible for the rhythm section to take care of its ‘group’ responsibilities.


The bass is the most important instrument in the band. The bassist lays down the fundamental pitch of the chords and provides the basic time feel (swing, Latin, etc.) It’s every bandleader’s dream to have a bass player with rock-solid time, who will not budge an inch when the horns start dragging or rushing. The bass is where the groove starts. The bassist must also be able to create a smooth and primarily conjunct walking line.


The drummer has to consider all four limbs, because they each have a job to do. The right hand and left foot need to be in a groove with the bassist. When starting rehearsals for the year, have the drummer use only the right hand and left foot and focus on finding that groove with the bassist. It’s tempting to concentrate on all of the set-ups and fills the drummer is supposed to play and forget to work on the fundamentals of drummer/bassist unit cohesion. But if they can’t play together, everything else the drummer does won’t really matter. With that relationship established, the drummer can start playing with the left hand on the snare, emphasizing figures the band play during tuttis. The right foot won’t be used much, mostly for supporting major figures of the band. It should never be played on all four beats of the bar.


The pianist’s job is to create the “sound” of the chords and enhance the time feel. This is no small thing. When young players look at chord symbols, they tend to play the “notes” of the chord. Jazz players will play notes that suggest the chord, often leaving out the fifth, and adding the ninth or thirteenth at their whim. Pianists shouldn’t play roots. Roots are part of the bassist’s job. They should also put their right foot under the sustain pedal. Sustain masks the ability to improvise rhythms. It blurs rhythmic activity.

Many charts have whole note or half note voicings for pianists, which works well enough, but pianists must be able to improvise their own rhythms. This is where they enhance the time feel set up by the bass and drums. How will they know which rhythms to improvise? That comes primarily from listening. Play a recording of a big band chart and have the members of the rhythm section check what their instrument is doing to enhance the performance. The pianist might notice how often his/her recorded counterpart does not play. When the horns are playing a tutti passage, there is very little the pianist can add. The horns are already playing the voicings. This is a good time to put one’s hands in one’s lap.

other resources:

The Evolving Bassist by Rufus Reid
Jazz Keyboard by Jerry Coker
Introduction to Jazz Piano by Luke Gillespie

Adapted from “Big Band Set Up and Performance Practice” by Harry Miedema, originally published in September 2003 Indiana Musicator

Harry Miedema is Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Indianapolis, author of the book Jazz Styles and Analysis: Alto Saxophone, leader of his own jazz group, The Bossa Rio Sextet, and first-call saxophonist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

Got a question about jazz or teaching jazz? Then march on over to the Jazz forum to post it, and take advantage of this exciting benefit made available exclusively to NAfME members.

Got a jazz lesson plan you’d like to share with other music educators? Post it on My Music Class.

—Nick Webb, March 17, 2011, ©The National Association for Music Education.