The Art of Jazz Programming

Joseph L. Jefferson • May 2024UpClose • May 6, 2024

One of the most important and exciting aspects of cultivating a thriving jazz program begins with intentional programming. Whether you are directing a middle school, high school, or collegiate ensemble, the goal is to find repertoire to showcase the strengths of your group. Ultimately, you want to select tunes to spark curiosity and encourage musical growth and development. This article discusses the challenges of jazz programming while offering insights, resources, and strategies to help educators in their quest to elevate their respective programs.  

Assessing Your Ensemble
Before digging into the abundance of jazz repertoire available, it’s crucial to assess your ensemble’s strengths and weaknesses. Having a strong understanding of the current skill level of the group and its musical limitations can set you on a solid path to selecting appropriate pieces for your group. 

A good way to assess your group is to have a reading rehearsal/session that includes charts of a variety of styles at different grade levels. Areas of strengths and weaknesses will quickly become clear.  Make note of these areas as you are working through your assessment. After the assessment, rather than focusing solely on the weaknesses, use them as strengths in your selection process by choosing charts that will help them strengthen their deficiencies. Conversely, reward them with charts that showcase elements they excel at. This provides a good balance and keeps the ensemble in a state of constant development, always working to improve fundamentals and overall performance outcomes.

Strengthening Jazz Fundamentals
Given that most of your students probably started most of their instrumental training within the Western European classical tradition, it is crucial to establish new habits for navigating the nuances of the jazz language to help with overall musical expression. This begins with codifying articulations and ensuring a solid grasp of essential jazz elements like syncopation, swing, and overall jazz style. For example, singing as an ensemble is a great way to reinforce these concepts.  As the director, you can hear what concepts are solid and which ones are still developing. By instilling a deep understanding of these fundamentals, students can gain the necessary skills for musical expression and cohesion within the ensemble. Building upon this strong foundation not only fosters technical proficiency but also cultivates a shared musical language and understanding that enhances the overall growth and “tightness” of the group.

Programming Essentials
As you embark on the journey of programming for your jazz ensemble, prioritize selections that are grounded in the jazz tradition, while encompassing a diverse range of genres and styles. Jazz tradition refers to tunes that include elements of blues, syncopation, swing, and creative freedom. As you rehearse your pieces, be sure to infuse historical context into rehearsals and concerts, providing insights into the origins of tunes and the legacies of jazz artists being played. By offering a well-rounded repertoire that reflects the rich history of this art form, you create a dynamic learning environment that fosters musical appreciation, exploration, and curiosity.

Programming Pitfalls
Although it might be tempting to select pop charts, I urge you to resist programming tunes that are not grounded or at least linked to the jazz tradition. While pop charts are great, they are more suitable for different groups such as pep bands. Strive for a well-rounded mix of both traditional and contemporary pieces to help your ensemble establish a solid foundation in jazz basics and swing while also welcoming innovation and creativity. Incorporate charts that focus on improvisation, which will encourage the development of improvisation skills as well as artistic and individual expression. 

Securing Your Repertoire
Finding the perfect charts for your ensemble requires dedication and ingenuity. Dedicate time and effort in finding suitable repertoire, collaborating with colleagues, and exploring a variety of online resources and other platforms. Expand your search beyond your “normal” outlets to discover hidden gems that resonate with your ensemble’s unique style and abilities. For instance, collaborate with colleagues outside of your social circle. By compiling a diverse repertoire that challenges and inspires your musicians, you lay the groundwork for musical excellence and growth.

Composer, Arranger & Repertoire Ideas
Determine a thoughtfully selected collection of repertoire ideas across different genres and styles, ranging from blues and ballads to Latin and swing tunes. Tailor your choices to match the skill level of your group, providing a well-rounded program of challenging and rewarding compositions. Explore compositions by established and emerging arrangers to offer your musicians exposure to various musical styles through multiple lenses. If you are still having trouble finding appropriate charts for your group, consider engaging a composer or arranger who can tailor pieces to your programming needs. You could choose to commission a composer or arranger to create an original work or form a consortium with other jazz directors to collectively fund the work of broadening your repertoire. This joint effort promotes collaboration and fosters a sense of community among programs looking for similar repertoire expansions in the jazz genre.  

Organizations such as Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Jazz Education Network offer a variety of resources for bridging the gap for jazz educators. You can find valuable guidance in textbooks such as Jazz Pedagogy: The Jazz Educator’s Handbook and Resource Guide and Teaching Music through Performance in Jazz Volumes 1 & 2. These texts can be transformative for those building their jazz program from the ground up. It is important to seek out conferences, educational programs, webinars, and online discussions dedicated to supporting jazz educators in elevating their program. As the instruction of this art form has transitioned into intermediate, secondary, and higher education levels, rather than solely relying on hands-on, lived experiences and learning from masters of the craft, directors need to acknowledge our roles as “keepers of the flame.” This involves creating an environment that fosters ongoing learning, listening and the building of community, with the goal of pushing forward this art form while preserving its core spirit and essence.

Elevating your jazz program requires strategic planning, thoughtful selection of repertoire, and ongoing professional development and education on the style, and tradition. The music you program holds great significance for many students. These examples may serve as the first introduction to jazz for many, shaping their perception of the art form. By setting a level of excitement and passion for the artform, and showcasing a strong commitment to the tradition, you can establish a jazz program that inspires future jazz musicians.

Joseph L. Jefferson is a Yamaha Performing Artist (trombone), an associate professor of music / director of jazz ensembles at St. Olaf College, and a member of the Jazz Education Network Education Committee.

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