May 31, 2015
Inheriting a Big Band
My normal schedule as a working musician includes multiple duties at Hamilton College in Upstate New York. Those duties encompass private saxophone lessons, directing a saxophone ensemble, and overseeing the Fillius Jazz Archive. Playing gigs and writing the occasional arrangement for local groups supplement my day-to-day schedule.
This past spring semester I had a welcome addition in the form of directing the Hamilton College Jazz Ensemble. This is an opportunity presented to me every five years when the college jazz professor takes a sabbatical. I am familiar with big bands. The bands of Glenn Miller, Count Basie and the like were my first inspiration to pursue music. In college I was a member of the SUNY Fredonia Jazz Ensemble; I led a high school jazz ensemble in the Utica area; and I’ve played on and off with local big bands over the years.
Jazz bands do not require “conducting” per se. The groove should already be there from the rhythm section, and the waving of arms in a traditional sense is perfunctory. As band leader Bill Holman stated in our February 1999 interview, “well, things that are in tempo, dance band or jazz band charts, conducting is kind of a grand word for it, because what you do is get them started and get them stopped.” For me, a few cues from the hips, hands and eyes suffice.
Most instrumental teachers from the middle school level and up are now expected to direct a jazz ensemble. They learn that the standard instrumentation consists of five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones, and one each of piano, bass, drums and guitar. A vocalist is optional.
This year at Hamilton the band I inherited consisted of six saxophones, two trombones, one trumpet, three guitars, three drummers, a pianist, and three vocalists (two male and one female). Both Hamilton student bass players were spending the semester abroad. And while I avoid hiring ringers, I did engage a local bassist, Sean Peters, to fill in. No bass, no band! I sought out a second student trumpet player and recruited a tubist from the brass ensemble. This gave me a marginal brass section, significantly out of balance with the six hard-blowing saxophonists. To be honest, I welcomed the challenge and would have been disappointed if I had inherited a band with the requisite person in each chair ready to read store-bought arrangements as written. I have always loved arranging music as much as playing it, and here was my opportunity to get my licks in, both writing charts and tweaking others for the band’s strengths and weaknesses.
From our first rehearsal I made it clear that learning by ear and spontaneity would be part of our process. We learned Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” and James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” without written music or lyrics. To keep the extra drummers, guitarists and singers engaged, I arranged a piece that included a part for rhythm sticks.
Our two weekly rehearsals were leading to two on-campus performances in May. My eclectic tastes in music were reflected in our concert program, which ultimately ended up in a healthy number of tunes, 14 to be exact, in multiple styles. A gig in the college café served as a warm-up for the main event in a concert hall on May 5.
I have always had faith in the blues to catch people’s ears, so our first two numbers of the performance were 12-bar blues: Cannonball Adderley’s “Sack O’ Woe” and Bobby Troupe’s “Route 66,” giving one of our vocalists his first appearance. The rest of the concert consisted of classic swing from the 1930s, a ballad “At Last” to feature our girl singer, and a premier performance of an upbeat Latin chart composed by our one music major in the band. I was cognizant of the fact that our five-man brass section was going to need a break during the middle of the concert, and also that variety and changes in groove are an integral part of a successful performance. With that in mind, we featured each section of the band. Guitarists played Django Reinhardt’s “A Minor Swing”:
The saxes ripped through Woody Herman’s “Four Brothers” (which I can tell you can survive without any brass at all).
The singers exactly mirrored the vocal trio of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, so we gave the audience what was most probably their first exposure to the extremely catchy tune “Yeh Yeh” with lyrics by Jon Hendricks.
The brass were featured on Horace Silver’s “The Preacher,” and our three drummers engaged in a tom-tom battle on the Benny Goodman classic “Sing Sing Sing.”
The band then reconvened for a medley. I think it’s safe to say that this was the first combination of these particular songs. Trombonist Al Gray wrote a wonderful ear worm called “Echoes of New Orleans,” written to reflect his experience of hearing marching bands pass by his hotel room during Mardi Gras. The planets aligned for this particular song. One of our saxophonists played decent clarinet, a New Orleans staple, and a guitarist fortuitously doubled on banjo. With the tuba, these additions added the exact right touch. I had an intuition that our “I Feel Good” vocalist might know how to really play the tambourine — the kind with the head on it. At one rehearsal I handed it to him and said, “when I give you the nod, let me hear what you can do.” And he really captured the sound of the street. A fade out ending, mimicked the band disappearing down the street, and we transitioned into controlled cacophony. A shouted, “one-two-three-four-WHAP” “I Feel Good” announced our last tune. In a dress rehearsal that afternoon I told the horn players to feel free to rise up out of their seats, since there was no written music. They took me at my word and their impromptu dance around the stage helped inspire a standing ovation at the end of the concert.
Invariably an unexpected situation occurs at such events. I took considerable care in discussing the appropriate dress, the banning of cell phones during the concert, no practicing on stage, etc. I failed to announce, “no shorts,” which apparently can be part of a collegiate dress wardrobe. When three male band members appeared with bared legs, the only thing to do was seize the moment and stage an impromptu “fashion show,” complete with improvised piano accompaniment.
Music teachers are not often taught about arranging. It’s a skill that can be learned from books, but is better experienced by doing, starting with flute duets, transitioning to saxophone quartets, followed by two and three part choral arrangements. You have to learn what to do and what not to do, depending on the age level you are writing for. Computer programs like Sebelius and Finale help. But the musical intuition you learn throughout your career is the best aid.
Leading a band every year is much like having a sports team. Your best and your worst players eventually will move on. And what you get from one year to the next will vary, sometimes immensely. Arranging skills can help you use this situation to your advantage by customizing charts for the strengths and weakness of the players in any given ensemble.