Tips for Choosing Jazz Literature

“Many music teachers begin the school year looking forward to the music-selection process,” says Greg Bunge, former  Wisconsin MEA Jazz Education Chair. “This is an exciting time that allows them to listen to lots of different music. Listed below are a few points to consider when planning a program for jazz ensemble:*

  • Select a variety of tunes that feature the bands’ strengths.
  • Include a tune that features one soloist or section.
  • The four main categories for selection are swing, ballad, Latin and contemporary.
  • Select standards that provide an opportunity to explore recordings and history.
  • Remember that the opener sets the mood for the rest of the concert.
  • Choose charts that match the groups’ technical and musical abilities.
  • For younger bands, find charts that are notated for the rhythm section.
  • Match the lead trumpet and lead trombone players’ ranges.
  • Find reference recordings (e.g., Sammy Nestico tunes are recorded most often by the Basie Band).
  • Program charts that are enjoyable to the audience, the musicians and the teacher. There will be a good deal of time spent working on these charts, so if the teacher gets bored soon after they are passed out, the band will as well.

“When building a library, it is helpful to create a variety of musical styles, from swing to contemporary and Latin to rock,” continues Bunge. “When purchasing new arrangements it is also good to find the recording of the original band. In many cases the publisher includes this information (e.g., as recorded by the Duke Ellington Band).”

* Many thanks to Bob Baca of the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire for providing many of these tips.

Excerpted from “A Guide For Jazz Literature Selection” by Greg Bunge, originally published in January 2004 Wisconsin School Musician

Gregory D. Bunge is director of bands at Badger High School in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where he teaches three concert bands, jazz ensemble, jazz lab, combos and general music


—Nick Webb, September 14, 2011, ©National Association for Music Education (