Jump, Jive, and Wail: Getting Your Jazz Band to Swing
It’s All About the Rehearsal
By NAfME Member Kim Harrison
I had the great pleasure of attending one of the first Essentially Ellington Band Directors Academy workshops in the summer of 2000 in Aspen, Colorado. I was impressed and intrigued by the clarity of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by artistic director Wynton Marsalis. Through this experience and other jazz camps and seminars, I realized that great jazz ensembles actually made this profound musical art form accessible to the listener. This is accomplished through the clarity of the ensemble’s sound. This presentation at NAfME’s National In-Service Conference will focus on making clarity your jazz ensemble’s priority by utilizing several successful rehearsal techniques.
We, as educators, should try to simplify the jazz language so students can understand it, and in turn, perform at a higher level of musicianship.
Approach Jazz from an Artistic Standpoint
Jazz can be a complex and profound music genre. Directors should approach the music from an artistic standpoint. As contradictory as this may sound, artistry can be achieved by being technically insistent in the details of the music and the various dynamics, articulations, etc. We, as educators, should try to simplify the jazz language so students can understand it, and in turn, perform at a higher level of musicianship.
If you want your band to swing, a person needs to select and perform swing literature. This doesn’t mean you totally forsake some of the new literature. Remember “It Don’t Mean a Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing”!
Gotta Have Rhythm
To really swing we first need to address the rhythm section—the heartbeat and life-blood of the band. This section should receive the lion’s share of your attention. Fine horn sections are somewhat routine at performances and jazz festivals. But if the rhythm section doesn’t swing, it is very difficult for the band to sound great—no matter if you have a great horn section or two. If the rhythm section is solid, it is much easier for the horn sections to swing. As the teacher, learn what specific details to communicate to each rhythm section player so they can achieve their goal of having their “own sound.”
Develop relationships with professional or college musicians who can help your program by giving sectionals or performing for your students in rehearsals. By making connections with the professional jazz community, you help your students with connecting to the “pros.” Play recordings at school and utilize Youtube for great jazz performances as examples.
Here are a few of the rehearsal techniques for rhythm sections:
- Pianists—do not comp in the lower register; you are in the bass player’s territory, so stay out.
- Bass players—don’t ornament too much when walking the bass. The great bass players of the fine big bands of the past supported the band completely. They truly are the time-keepers of the ensemble.
- On ballads, have the pianist use the soft pedal.
- The guitarist and pianist should not comp at the same time. This creates comping chaos! Clarity is the goal and will make your rhythm section stand out.
- Guitarists and bass players must know their amplifiers! The amplifier is an extension of the instrument. Know your axe—know your amp! Insist that the player write down the correct settings and make sure they use the setting on the performance that gives a great sound. Their amplifier is “their sound”.
Tips for Your Jazz Ensemble
The following fundamentals will be addressed in my session:
Setting Up Your Ensemble: How do you set up your ensemble for maximum hearing and volume awareness? This involves the placement of the different sections in a way to increase the musicians’ awareness regarding the music being played. You will learn how to direct a student musician’s attention to primary and secondary musical content.
Rehearsal Tips: Rehearsal problem-solving ideas to provide direction for rehearsing students for success will be presented at my session. Rhythmic accuracy can be taught via a simplistic technique that will help them “internalize” rhythms. I will present ideas to encourage singing without “fear” of being judged by their fellow students and an aide for internalization of rhythmic and melodic ideas. Responsibility and accountability will be addressed. Incorporation of specific articulations, intonation, attacks, releases and other factors in developing musicianship within the rehearsal will be part of the presentation.
Teaching Improvisation: Where does a teacher start to teach students improvisation within the classroom? Successful suggestions to develop an improvisation language will be given. A list of blues jazz licks list that can be utilized in solos will also be available.
Jazz Literature: An extensive literature list characterized in the different jazz genres will be given. The list covers various degrees of difficulty, so younger bands, as well as very mature bands, can perform the music on this list. This list can help jazz educators plan not only one concert, but also concerts for several years within their program.
From inception to purpose to performance, this session will help educators plan and develop a jazz program that will appeal to your students, administration, parents, and to the community that your school is serving!
About the author:
Thirty-six year education veteran, NAfME member Kim Harrison has just completed 33 years in public education, with the last 29 years as director of bands at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas. Harrison received a Bachelors in Music Education from Kansas State University and a Master’s in Music Education from Wichita State University.
Shawnee Mission East jazz ensembles have placed highly in many jazz festivals in Kansas, Missouri, and Colorado over the past 26 years. Successes include: winning Sweepstakes at the Winter Park Ski-Music Festival in 2005 and 2008 — competing against choirs, orchestras, concert bands and jazz bands, 1st place at University of Kansas Jazz Festival in 2014, and winning both jazz band divisions at Drury University Jazz Festival in 2015. In 2001 and 2006, his top ensemble was selected as one of the 15 finalists for the Essentially Ellington National Jazz Festival in New York City, NY. This event brings together the top high school jazz ensembles in the nation, with Wynton Marsalis serving as the artistic director.
In 2002, he was one of four music educators selected from across the nation to study music education as a Fellow at Northwestern University. He served as Jazz Chair for Kansas Music Educators’ Association from 2003-2005. Following this position, he was selected Outstanding Instrumental Educator for Northeast Kansas in 2006. The December 2013 issue of School Band and Orchestra magazine selected him to represent Kansas as one of the “50 Directors Who Make a Difference”. He’s been a jazz educator and performer at High Plains Music Camp at Fort Hays State University since 2006.
The past year Kim Harrison has been an active substitute teacher and has served as a clinician in the NE Kansas schools. He presented a seminar on “Jazz Rehearsal Techniques” at the Missouri Music Educators’ Association Conference in January 2016. He also served as an adjudicator at the Count Basie Jazz Festival at Kansas City Kansas Community College in April 2016. In addition to substitute teaching, he works as an Educational Representative for B.A.C. Music, based out of Kansas City, MO. In his spare time, he enjoys working on his landscaping and spending time with his family and his best friend, Riley the chocolate lab.
Kim Harrison will be presenting on his topic “Jump, Jive and Wail: Getting Your Jazz Band to Swing-It’s All About the Rehearsal” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!
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