February 24, 2014

The Scholastic Jazz Festival

Most junior high and high schools now support a jazz band, formerly called stage bands, formerly called big bands. March and April are the months when many directors take their jazz groups to juried festivals. I adjudicate at least one of these every year, and have seen them develop and change, mostly for the better. Many festivals are now set up in a less competitive fashion, avoiding those situations where a band wins “first place” by a margin of .1 (as at marching band competitions). Bands can earn a bronze, silver or gold rating, and individual players can be recognized for an all-star category. From an adjudicator’s standpoint, here are a few observations for directors and student musicians.
Ideally, when your band comes out to perform, the first thing the audience and the judges are going to hear is the downbeat of your first song. This is not the time for tuning up or practicing that annoying little lick that they just can’t seem to get. Your guitar players and bass players may have to make sure their amps are working, but keep extraneous noise to an absolute minimum, so the first thing we hear is your band playing together.
Young brass players tend to point their horns at the floor. Make sure your students put the stand high enough that they have to lift their bells up for the sake of projection.
Adjudicators usually have a form they’re looking at, and a certain number of points are assigned to each category. There’s one category that says “appearance and enthusiasm.”  As far as your band’s enthusiasm, I don’t feel a “locker room speech” works in this situation. Your band should look like they’re having a good time, smiling and supporting each other. This attitude comes from rehearsals, where making music is fun, not a chore. The enthusiasm will follow the group onto the stage. I don’t have specific advice about uniforms, but your band should have some kind of look. I prefer the all-black or white shirts and ties, as opposed to the band tee-shirt — not a terrible choice but a bit informal for the situation.
Regarding soloists, judges like to see students attempting improvisation. We can usually tell when a student is playing a written out solo, most obviously because they are standing up but reading from their chart. Judges would rather hear a simple improvised solo than a well-played performance of a written solo.
And then there’s the microphone. Why should a student be expected to know how to use a microphone? This needs to be practiced beforehand, and they need to understand that a microphone does not make you sound better, it only makes you sound louder. If you play with a tentative tone, what the judges will hear is a loud tentative tone. Students need to practice knowing how close to be to a microphone; they need to learn how to project; and to listen to the hall, meaning “play the room.”
Some school bands come in with oversized ensembles: eight, nine, ten saxophone players, twice the normal amount. I used to be annoyed by this until I realized that numbers are important for music teachers to help justify their programming. But I don’t know of any judges who give points for the most players. Be aware that the more players you have, the unintended consequences may be problems with intonation and cohesiveness.
When I listen to high school and junior high bands I find that most of my comments have to do with the rhythm section, and there’s a reason for this. Rhythm players are eventually required to play things that aren’t in the music. This process takes a lot of time and judicious choices, including what not to play. In the words of master bassist Milt Hinton, referring to bass players and rhythm sections, “we provide a rhythmic service first.” Here are a few specific comments for rhythm section players and directors.
Piano players, your parts are going to be overwritten almost all the time. The music is written for non-jazz piano players and it behooves you to learn what chord symbols mean and how to use them. If you’ve ever seen a video of the Count Basie Orchestra with Mr. Basie at the piano, you will notice that for many measures he is playing nothing, he’s simply waiting for his moments. Playing nothing is a lot harder than playing something, but often times is the best choice, so keep that difficult concept in mind.
For guitar players, you need to learn about the “Freddie Green.” Freddie was a key factor in the Basie swing machine, strumming subtly but with force on every beat. Modern master guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli and James Chirillo follow the Freddie Green style. As explained by bassist Jay Leonhart, the technique is described below:
Jay Leonhart
JL:   The two of them [James and Bucky], they’ll take the third and the seventh, right in the middle of the strings, right in that nice middle range around middle C, and they’ll just sit and play the third and the seventh. It’s either a minor third or a major seventh. Or maybe a sixth if they want to get adventurous. And they can just sit there and play like that. And the only notes coming out of the guitar are the relevant ones. And they’re not doubling the third, like making Bach turn over in his grave.
I have been told that heavy strings combined with minimal amplification and aggressive strumming will help “do the Freddie.”
Directors, if you have two guitar players, they should be taking turns unless one of them can be assigned to double a melody or a bass line at certain parts. Taking turns can also apply to pianists and guitarists as they comp behind the soloists.
Bass players, make sure you’re set up next to the drums with your amp behind you or at least to the side. You should never be sitting behind your amp, and you should always be tight with your drummer.
Drummers, you’ve probably all heard that Buddy Rich — who was often called the world’s greatest drummer — could not read music, and he was not alone. Traditionally in professional swing bands the drummers were self-taught, and they learned the chart by listening to it and finding the appropriate thing to play. I find that drum parts in current scholastic jazz music are far too complicated. Every brass hit and every rhythm written for the horns seems to be included. This does not mean that drummers should play all of them. Swing is established by syncopated rhythms reacting against a smooth 4/4 beat. If every instrument is playing the hits and the syncopation, there will be no swing. Bucky Pizzarelli had a relevant comment about Basie’s All-American Rhythm Section:
Bucky Pizzarelli
BP:    If you study, I have, the music of Count Basie, the rhythm section never played figures with the band. When they [the horns] played eighth-quarter-eighth, they [the rhythm section] just kept chunking away through the whole thing. And it works better that way. The minute everybody’s doing the same thing it doesn’t work. It’s like a drummer hitting figures with the brass section. It’s terrible.
The drummer’s first responsibility is to keep time, to help the band swing or rock or make things funky. Do that first before you try to react to everything the band is doing. Try playing the arrangement without the music. You will listen harder and internalize the musical moments that need to be reinforced.
And directors, you have a responsibility. While most schools have jazz bands, the music colleges do not necessarily require the appropriate training in the curriculum. So listening and observing is required for you also. Make sure your band is set up as well as possible in these festival situations, especially your rhythm section. Avoid identifying your soloists in mid-song, but rather introduce them before or after. We are trying to listen to the music and not your voice. Pick charts that are a challenge, but playable for your group, so that they can make their best impression. Encourage enthusiasm and, during the year, experiment with setting your band up in different configurations so that they can hear the music in a new way. Have your horn players face the rhythm section, or try the Stan Kenton “Flying V” formation with the rhythm section in the middle, anything to get students listening. And encourage them to listen. Why should they know how to play swing music if they have not heard it? Everything is available these days so they should be listening not only to the charts they’re playing, but the classic Basie, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis groups. Encourage the festival hosts to arrange their event in a manner that allows bands to listen to and support each other.
Often times judges (at least this judge) get to a point where all they really want to say is “you’re young and you’re doing fine. Carry on.”