Setting Up a Jazz Program

Developing a jazz band at your school can be fun and inspiring.  A jazz band can serve as a mighty tool for recruiting. It helps students with sight reading.  It teaches leadership, self-confidence, and reinforces creative expression.  If your background does not specifically include jazz performance, you can still start a jazz program for your students.

Prepare yourself:

  1.  Observe colleagues with strong jazz programs.  Attending their rehearsals and concerts, both at the high school and college level, will help you build your skills.
  2. Listen to Big Band recordings – current and classic.  Don’t forget about the excellent music from local or regional bands.
  3. Attend workshops and conferences that include help for beginning jazz band instructors.
  4. Research materials appropriate for teaching and encouraging improvisation – the whole point of jazz!
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask.  Many jazz educators can advise you or present a “Jazz Band 101” presentation to your group.

Other considerations before you get started: 

  1.  What equipment will we need?
    • Small trap set – local instrument store can advise.
    • Electric bass and amp.  Stand up bass will need appropriate strings and a pickup.
    • Piano
    • Mutes:  Harmon, Bucket, and Cup Mutes for trombone and trumpet sections
    • A couple of beginning method books to teach style and rhythmic articulation
  2.  Should you select members by audition or all-inclusive?
  3. When will jazz band meet? If outside school hours,how will rehearsals be set up?
  4. Jazz band is an added commitment.  Inform parents & students early about concert dates and rehearsals.  Expect more from your jazz students – they must come to class prepared and responsible to the group.
  5. Encourage students to double on secondary instruments.  Adjudicators love to see flexibility and creativity, but don’t sacrifice intonation and proficiency.
  6. Recruit from outside your band program.  Don’t overlook a guitarist, a vocalist, or a pianist not already in your concert band.  There are some jewels out there waiting to be discovered.

Some points to sell your idea to students, parents, and administration:

  1. How will jazz band benefit the instrumental program?  Students develop new concepts, better recognize musical nuance, learn new vocabulary, and prepare for leadership in other groups.
  2. Stronger, more talented players can be featured one on a part.
  3. Jazz is known as “The American Art Form.”  Learning about traditional jazz artists and its historical value shores up what students are already learning in history and literature classes.
  4. Cooperation among members – an essential consideration.  Although jazz allows for solo and improvisation, it also requires balance and teamwork.  As Wynton Marsalis noted, “You must listen.  You must have a conversation.  The group must work together to achieve its goals.”

Okay – you did it!  You established a jazz band at your school.  Now what?

  1. When ready, take your band on the road! An encouragement-style festival offers helpful written and recorded feedback from adjudicators.  At Forum, we record performances which can be played back in your classroom – a motivator for improved playing!
  2. Look for opportunities to showcase the jazz band!  They can play at Open House, fast food openings, sporting events – lots of experience and lots of PR!
  3. Introduce all kinds of jazz in your classroom – Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Marian McPartland, Dave Brubeck, Diana Krall, the list goes on and on!  All the greats and all the standards.
  4. Join the ranks of your jazzy colleagues.  Join a jazz educator’s organization (i.e. California Alliance for Jazz), invite a colleague to rehearse your band.  Invite a jazz artist, or guest jazz band from the local college to visit your classroom.  Contact Forum if you would like a referral for a jazz band clinician!

Lots of things to consider, but at its core, you’ll decide whether developing a jazz program is something you want for your students.  Rewards are plentiful, but there’s no shortage of hard work.  Only you, given your background, your motivation, and your school’s make up, can determine this.  But once you get started, keep on swingin!