Jazz Band Essentials

with Vandoren Artist Chris Madsen

Date Posted: December 03, 2023

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Vandoren Artist Chris Madsen is an in-demand performer and composer based in Chicago, IL. He has performed with and written for the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, Kenny Washington, and Aaron Diehl, along with releasing five albums as a bandleader.

What are some of your essential repertoire selections for jazz ensembles?

Middle school

Lil’ Darlin, Cute (Neal Hefti) Sing Sing Sing (Louis Prima, arr. for younger bands)

High school

Jessica’s Day (Quincy Jones), Never No Lament, Ko Ko (Duke Ellington) Tall Cotton, Hay Burner (Sammy Nestico)


Hello and Goodbye, Willow Weep for Me (Bob Brookmeyer), Groove Merchant, Kids are Pretty People (Thad Jones) Wyrgly (Maria Schneider)

Any recommended listening for big bands?

Evanescence (Maria Schneider)

The Blanton-Webster Band, And His Mother Called Him Bill (Duke Ellington)

Sinatra at the Sands with Count Basie, E=MC2 (Basie)

Consummation, Central Park North (Thad Jones/Mel Lewis)

Kenton in Hi-Fi (Stan Kenton)

Do you have any rehearsal techniques that you’ve found particularly useful for teaching younger jazz ensembles?

  • Picking a small section (2 to 5 bars) and repeating it ad nauseum
  • Forcing the kids to listen to something very specific while playing (ride cymbal, soloist, etc.)
  • Insisting they tap their feet on 2 and 4 for slower tempi, 1 and 3 for faster ones. Start the whole chart over if you catch someone not tapping
  • ALWAYS listen to the recordings especially when first learning a piece!

What should the horn players be listening for in a rhythm section? Particularly in regards to style…

In a big band, they should be listening to the ride cymbal in swing patterns and to the general subdivision in straight-8th charts. The ride cymbal is the easiest thing to hear for horn players because it’s the highest pitch of anything on the band stand and it is supposed to keep the beat so they can tell if they’re rushing or dragging (but they’re probably rushing.)

How do you teach a band to play in a certain style? What are the most important factors to playing within a certain style?

Listening is far and away the most important factor in getting students to adhere to a certain style. It can tell the students so much more than we ever could. Incorporate listening as a group into rehearsal time; it’s not a waste of time at all and absolutely essential.

It’s also important for us as conductors to be familiar with the style of whatever piece we want to do so we can instruct the students accordingly.

How do you communicate phrasing and articulation? Do you have students write them in or transcribe from recordings?

When we listen, we notice certain things as a group about how the band on the recording articulates or phrases certain things. This then has to go onto the page as the students write it in their parts. Eventually, the students will begin to phrase in an accurate style on their own, but as directors we must listen to everything closely in order to offer our guidance, sing it, and play it on our own instruments if possible.

What role does equipment play in your students’ success in jazz band?

Once in high school, a jazz mouthpiece particularly becomes more and more important for your saxophone players. The basic point is that it’s nearly impossible to produce a decent jazz sound on a classical mouthpiece with a small tip opening. A jazz mouthpiece won’t solve the issue itself, but it’s a crucial step for a student to take in order to divorce them from their classical training.

What equipment do you recommend for your jazz students?

I always recommend Vandoren V16 mouthpieces, Optimum ligatures, and Vandoren jazz reeds to my saxophonists.

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