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Teaching Jazz Through the Big Band

Jazzed Magazine • Lessons LearnedNovember/December 2017 • November 30, 2017

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By Andrew J. Allen

To some, the title of this article may appear redundant. What is being taught through school big bands if not jazz? All too often, unfortunately, a very myopic version of our great art form is communicated to students through their interactions with “jazz band.” An accidental focus on a few genres or a gravitation towards complex orchestrations can often subvert many of the key principals that most of us would wish to share with our students. As the big band constitutes the entire jazz curriculum of many middle- and secondary schools (and even some small colleges), a conscious effort must be made to teach the art form holistically through this format.


It would be easy to argue that the unifying factor in all eras and styles of jazz is the act of spontaneous musical creation, or improvisation. From New Orleans to the most forward-thinking free jazz innovators, this direct expression has been key. However, due to looming performances and a false belief that “you either have it or you don’t,” or a well-meaning misunderstanding that a student has to have the technical facility of Coltrane to say something meaningful as an improviser, improvisation takes a backseat in many academic programs.

Quite simply, if our students are to know anything of the jazz tradition, they must have some comfort and ability to improvise. In addition, improvisation holds some of the greatest potential for future vocational music making for many of our students. Whether playing in bands or simply performing for their own enjoyment, spontaneous creativity can create a lifetime of happiness once students leave the classroom.

While the act of teaching improvisation can seem daunting, we all know that it is as easy as teaching students how to play a blues and offering all students (without exception) the opportunity to solo. This need not be in performance. Rather, much good can be achieved through ten-minute “jam sessions” at the ends of rehearsals, where students have the freedom to explore ideas with their friends. Once students are comfortable with the blues scale, pentatonic scales can be introduced, et cetera. Eventually, “jam sessions” can be structured around simple ii/V progressions and simplified standards. With the conscious goal of creating comfortable improvisers, much can be achieved.

Style and Literature

Another major area of concern for the conscientious director should be the exposure of students to the full breadth and scope of jazz history and literature. All too often, the academic big band focuses on a rather narrow stylistic milieu, ranging from Ellington to Basie to more contemporary big band styles. Sometimes the “jazz band” is merely an ensemble that plays pop arrangements. While there is nothing wrong in engaging students with popular music, this should be done sparingly if the end goal is, indeed, educating students.

Today there exist many incredible arrangements for groups of every skill level encompassing the entire history of jazz from New Orleans style to contemporary hip hop-fusion. Systematically, directors should rehearse and perform pieces from all time periods. Students should be familiar with important composers, performers, and stylistic hallmarks of New Orleans, swing, bebop, hard bop, cool jazz, free jazz, fusion, and everything in-between.

Avoiding “performanceitis” is of the utmost importance. While public performances are always important and can serve an excellent educational and public relations purpose, they are not the entire point. Rather, performance can serve as a means to an end: Creating technically and musically proficient young players with the intellectual understanding to create meaning for themselves to one extent or another.

Pieces should be chosen for their artistic merit and for the ability to introduce wider concepts and principals to students. If performing a New Orleans style arrangement or a Basie-type swing chart, students should be introduced to the historical background, important figures, and stylistic hallmarks of the genre. Above all, listening to great examples is of the highest value.


The big band is more than just a performing ensemble: It is one of the best opportunities to introduce students to the great traditions and present of jazz. Young musicians can see this great art form for all of its past glories and its future potential. Even more importantly, if approached in the right spirit, it create the next generation of jazz messengers, eager to sing the praises of America’s great contribution to the culture of the world, and, perhaps, to create the next group of great jazz artists.           

Andrew J. Allen is an assistant professor of music at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. Dr. Allen has premiered nearly twenty works for saxophone and has performed and lectured at the World Saxophone Congress, the International Saxophone Symposium, the National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors Conference, and national and regional gatherings of the North American Saxophone Alliance and the College Music Society. He currently performs with the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra, the Lone Star Wind Orchestra, SAGA Quartet, Rogue Two, and the Allen Duo. His debut album with saxophone/percussion duo, Rogue Two, is forthcoming on Equilibrium Records. Dr. Allen currently serves as editor of The NACWPI Journal and is a member of the editorial board of  The Saxophone Symposium. He is a Conn-Selmer Artist-Clinician and performs exclusively on Selmer Paris saxophones and Vandoren mouthpieces, ligatures, and reeds. Learn more at

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