Stay in the Pocket! 7 Tips for a Killer Jazz Ensemble

with Bobby Watson


What would you suggest as essential big band repertoire for the middle school, high school, and undergraduate levels? 

Bobby Watson: Basie, Duke, Sammy Nestico, Neil Hefti, Thad Jones are always solid. Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster charts are always swinging. Contemporary composer/arrangers are vital to check out as well after the ensemble has shown an ability to interpret the masters in a convincing manner.


It’s not unusual to see school jazz bands with more than one player on a part, what are your thoughts on this? 

BW: I can understand the desire to wanting to be all inclusive but I think that doubling parts is counter productive to your goals for the understanding of blend, and individual responsibility to the group sound. It’s OK that everyone can’t be in the group. To me, that promotes motivation to become apart of what is a smaller and elite ensemble. 

"Listening is the most important component in learning how to swing or how to play any style of music." - Bobby Watson


It can be challenging for horn playing directors to speak to rhythm sections. Do you have any tips? 

BW: That is a difficult question, I would advise directors to first, recognize their weakness in that area and to reach out to area professionals to come in to work with the rhythm section. Bass players, drummers, guitarists, and pianists. Everybody learns.


Teaching swing is more difficult than it seems. What's your advice? 

BW: Listening is the most important component in learning how to swing or how to play any style of music. I think directors should encourage listening and spend time with their ensemble listening to: 

A. the charts that they are working on, and 

B. classic recordings by the masters mentioned at the beginning of this article. 

There are books on articulation, Lennie Niehaus has some time tested books on swing articulation but nothing replaces listening. It is really on the director to lead the band into the areas of sound and concept that most of the young folks today are not so familiar with. Some things are timeless and will benefit students for the rest of their lives no matter which direction they pursue. Listening to swing is one of them. This applies to budding soloists as well. 


How can a director help horn and rhythm sections play together and stay in the pocket? 

BW: While the rhythm is keeping time, (even on one chord!), have the band pat their feet on 1 & 3 together while snapping their fingers or clapping their hands on 2 & 4. We are told that the hip way to count is on 2 & 4 but that is only the top part of the beat. I’ve seen many great players over the years that pat their foot on 1 & 3, the strong beat. It keeps you grounded and it also helps with sight reading. The 2 & 4 is still there. The faster the tempo, the bigger the beats. On an uptempo song, pat your foot on “1” (2,3,4) “1” (2,3,4). On a ballad pat your foot on every beat, 1,2,3,4 etc.


What are your thoughts on equipment for jazz? 

BW: I feel that the saxophones need a different setup for jazz band more so than the brass players.  Brass players who play at a certain level usually have a good fundamental sound that will transfer to a jazz ensemble. Playing with dynamics and concept is always the biggest hurdle. Everybody is different, but, I play the new Vandoren V16 8S+ with an Optimum ligature and JAVA Green #3s.


What are some "must have" big band recordings directors and students should have in their library? 

BW: I will end this the same  way I started, any recordings by Basie, Duke, Buddy Rich, Kenton, Thad and Mel, Sammy Nestico, Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster, and older recordings by Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, who Fletcher was one of his chief arrangers. Again, it is very necessary to have music by contemporary composers and arrangers in your book – Jim McNeely, Maria Schneider, Bob Mintzer, me, etc. There are too many great charts being created and published today to mention. I believe you have to have a balance of the “old” and the “new” because as I mentioned, certain qualities in the music are timeless and guarantee success for your students. 

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