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The Art of Jazz Festival Programming

By Tom Lizotte

The success or failure of your students’ jazz festival performances and experience is inextricably dependent on the quality of your programming. In many cases, a group’s fate is determined before a note is taught or performed.

The music performed is the curriculum the director provides. Quality curriculum makes the enterprise educationally valid and gives an ensemble a great shot at successful performances.  The lack of a quality curriculum creates a jazz program of dubious educational merit.

First and foremost, quality jazz programming goes beyond merely choosing charts for festivals and community performances. It is a statement of educational philosophy and the aspirational goals of jazz education. It is our textbooks. What value is the jazz experience for our students intellectually, and what do we seek to teach?

Craig Kirchoff of the University of Minnesota puts it this way: “The quality of our students’ music education is directly related to the quality of the curriculum they study and perform.” Once you decide that jazz is about the education of the total child and that your program is going to stand for the highest level of education, now is the time to dig in.

There are two aspects in choosing literature for jazz ensemble – music that will be studied (performed in public or not) and festival material. In some programs, festival programming drives the literature choices. In others, it is a presentation of three or four works that are being studied as part of the larger jazz curriculum. Both approaches (as long as the total curriculum isn’t just the festival charts) have validity. Contact time with the ensemble is a key determining factor.

Successful festival programs have:

  • Variety
  • A good match between the ensemble and the charts
  • Balance between technical and musical challenges
  • Credibility
  • A vehicle that presents soloists in their best possible light
  • Interesting material for all sections

Less successful programming has:

A lack of contrasts Much of the material is in the same style, key, or tempo. Herb Pomeroy, the great jazz educator who taught at Boston’s Berklee School of Music for over 30 years said, “You have got to set the audience up with contrasts.” He also warned against having back to back tunes in the same key. Otherwise, Pomeroy said, the set “sounds like one big, long tune.” Each set must have a shape.

A mismatch between the ensemble ability and the charts Either the charts are too difficult or not difficult enough (usually the former). Some state adjudication forms have a section on suitability for adjudication; others, a programming number. It is critical that the director heed the advice given here.

What mismatches are commonly heard by festival adjudicators? Principally in brass tessitura. As a judge, there is nothing more disheartening than hearing a trumpet section “almost” make an ensemble shout chorus. As a judge and teacher you know the issue is developmental. You know that the chop issues will take time. It’s not like woodshedding a saxophone soli more.

Certain bands/writers create more peril than others in this important area. As wonderful as the Stan Kenton band was, many young brass sections have crashed on its shoals. You may have a real horse as a lead player, but if the second trumpet is not at almost that level, there will be balance, pitch and quality of sound issues. Trombone parts, in the style Kenton preferred, can also be rangy. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t program Kenton, but be very aware of these issues and find Kenton material that does fit your band.

If you find yourself in this boat, the case isn’t necessarily terminal. Remove the section harmony and make it a unison or unison with lead on the octave above. This does change the nature of the writing, but better than trying to perform voicings your current section would never achieve.

Also, be keenly aware of the prevailing sound of the chart. If the writing calls for a lush, four- or five-trombone sound, don’t even consider the chart if you have two trombones. Two trombones with tenor and bari sax filling in the missing voices isn’t going to make it. Look at Maynard Ferguson charts, some of which have just two trombones.

Imbalance between technical and  musical challenges The expression “just because you can” doesn’t mean you should fill a program with rhythmically dense, technical charts. A good rule of thumb for festivals: one stretch piece and two in the technical pocket. Try to program a ballad or light bossa (if none of your soloists can carry a ballad)  in the middle. This segment is critical because it is your opportunity to really showcase the musicality of your band. For me as a judge, the quality of the ballad performance is a large determining factor in the final grade. In working highly technical pieces, work the “music” first rather than chasing notes then attempting to superimpose expressive applique. The expression must be natural– not studied — to be real and to be rewarded. A good judge will at the least sense the difference.

A huge difference between the quality of the soloists and the quality of the ensemble This is something that occurs too often. It is easy to become enamored with a chart and leave the solo changes as an afterthought. The process should be the opposite. To have soloists who can’t make the changes or who make the changes in only a rudimentary way exposes things about your program you don’t want us to know. It also puts your students in a frustrating, sometimes embarrassing position.

If you think a chart is perfect for the band but realize it isn’t a good fit for your soloists, you have two options: don’t do the chart or simplify the solo changes. Many times charts have what are called “arranger’s changes” – reharmonizations of a standard to make it hipper or provide a different, more modern twist. These can always be brought back to the original changes or otherwise simplified. However, if the prevailing sound of a chart is altered dominant and your soloists aren’t comfortable with that language, look elsewhere.

Final Thoughts

This brings us to the subject of memorized solos/transcriptions. Some judges (not me) are philosophically adamantly opposed to having any memorized solos. There is middle ground. “If it is learned beforehand, it isn’t improv,” is a matter of viewpoint. Lawrence Brown’s preferred process was to work things out in advance. That wasn’t Charlie Parker’s process, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t creative. As teachers, we need to make sure that the ideas a student has assembled continue to develop. Improvisation is an important part of the development of the creative parts of students’ brains. We must do our best to encourage and nurture this.

Try to provide programming that focuses on more than one period. A program of all contemporary or all historical charts isn’t the best educational route. That is where variety can help drive the process. The right program can be an opportunity to teach in a multicultural fashion. Program Charles Mingus and you can teach racial relations and the civil rights movement. Teach Basie and you can bring students into the world of the Wild West that was  1920s-’30s Kansas City. Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes and Oscar Micheaux’s Harlem Renaissance go hand in glove. Our Shakespeare is out there, and our students are anxiously awaiting. We just need to get the programming right.

Tom Lizotte recently retired after 31 years as a high school teacher, the last 17 at Cape Elizabeth, ME. High School. A frequent jazz festival adjudicator, he is a member of the Maine Music Educators Association Hall of Fame and 2019 recipient of the Jazz Education Network/Berklee College of Music John LaPorta Jazz Educator of the Year Award.

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