If the first thing you do when starting your jazz band is pass out a few charts, I would like to suggest trying a different approach. No matter what level of jazz ensemble you are directing, delaying handing out written jazz charts will encourage them to listen to each other and play independently.
Warm up and Rhythm
While the technical faculties of middle school students are limited, they should all know Remington and a few scales. Start them out with concert F on four connected quarter notes followed by a whole rest and repeat multiple times. Your drummer can stay on the bass drum (four to the floor) during the rest. When they do well with that, add accents on two and four while the drummer adds the high hat. This will take some time because they may not play beats one and three soft enough or together.
Once the accents sound good it’s time to add the triplet subdivision on beats two and four. They should practice singing, “Doo, Doo-oo-Dah, Doo, Doo-oo Dah, Doo” before playing. Your drummer can then add the ride cymbal at this time if ready. Gradually take out the middle triple for swung eighth notes. Having half the band play the full triplet and the other half swing eighths is really helpful. Again, keep it smooth and make sure they accent the swing upbeat. Have sections and individuals take turns demonstrating. Then transfer all of these concepts while playing Remington or moving up a scale. Keep the emphasis on style and don’t let them look at any warm up sheets so they concentrate on how they sound.
High School students can do all of this as well but can move to more complicated rhythms faster. I write a different rhythm on the board each day at the beginning of class to play on Remington or scales. Use one or two measure rhythms you find in simple jazz charts. Make sure they do a lot of singing before trying to play them. It’s important for the students to identify which notes are on the beat and which are the swing upbeat and perform with the right style. You will find that your jazz students will be your best sight readers in your concert band if you apply jazz rhythm reading every day. Rests and long notes are a challenge in jazz just like in concert band. Here are the vocalizations for singing that I use:
Doo-long notes on the beat
Dah-long notes off the beat
unDit-Use this for staccato note off beat if preceded by a rest so they feel the downbeat first
unDaht-Rooftop off the beat preceded by a rest
Learning the ‘Changes’
The other important concept to teach middle school and high school jazz kids is how to read the changes at the beginning of the year. I recommend having your drummer move to the vibes at this point. For this task, I give the students staff paper and show them how to write out three lines of four measures each. Beginners should start with the most basic blues progression in Bb or F. Advanced students can begin with a blues progression that incorporates the ii V on the third line or whichever blues progression they need to learn for the TMEA region try out. Begin by learning the roots of the chords first on whole notes. Make sure to stop and hold on each new chord in the beginning to make sure everyone is changing at the right time. When they have this mastered you should add a one measure rhythm they use for each chord. Keep it very simple. You can then ask for volunteers to come up with their own rhythm. This is the beginning of improvisation.
The next step is adding the 7th of each chord going down from the root. Explain to them first that it is a whole step down. Move from the root to the 7th on simple half notes. Once they are comfortable doing so, add different but simple rhythms to that movement. Then add the third of each chord and show them how the third of one chord is a half step from the 7th of the next chord. Practice interchanging thirds and 7ths a lot so they are comfortable doing so. The younger folks will really take a long time understanding this so keep reviewing.
Finally, we add the 5th of the chord. There is so much you can do at this point but always keep it simple. Emphasize moving stepwise to the next chord. They can use their staff paper showing the chord stacked up for help. Make sure they write it themselves. They will understand it more if they are required to write it down.
Learning the Melody
Somewhere during the process of learning the changes, usually once they know the roots, we add a melody to it. I strive to choose tunes that have historical significance. For beginners, I like to learn “Blues by Five” by Red Garland or “C Jam Blues.” High school students can move on to the TMEA State changes as well or the changes to a chart you will hand out soon. The High school TMEA region jazz etude packet will tell you which tune it is based on.
When learning the head of a blues tune, I like to teach by ear. Let the kids know that this is historically how all the great jazz musicians learned from each other. They should sing along to the melody a lot to develop a strong aural model. Take it four measures at a time and go slow. Have the kids help each other if one or two are learning it faster.
Printed copies of the below listed tunes are available in certain Jamey Aebersold Volumes and the Real Easy Fake Book set (Sher Music). The Real Easy Fake Books are great because they include walking bass lines and voicings for guitar and piano. If you use the Real Easy Fake Books, stick to the melody and don’t bother with harmony or background lines. It’s more fun if the kids can come up with their own background parts.
Recommended list of tunes for playing and listening:
C Jam Blues
Blues by 5
Mr. P. C.
Now’s the Time
Straight No Chaser
Sonnymoon For Two
You should be playing recordings of the blues for them every day. Use active listening strategies like tapping their foot, raising their hand when the chord changes, or saying I, IV, V at the correct time. How many choruses did the musician take? What instruments are accompanying the soloist? Have some follow up questions ready as well.
The time to hand out their first full chart varies. I strive to hand it out in mid or late September. For the first concert in late October we perform one Blues tune and one very easy swing chart. Every student improvises. As the year progresses, we continue learning the changes in other keys and from other jazz standards to use as a warm up.
Approaching the beginning of the year in this way will help your kids read chords and understand jazz rhythms. Your students should also be more comfortable with improvising. In my opinion, improvising is all about a few things; melody, rhythm, harmony, style, and confidence. Keep encouraging them and have everyone take an oath at the beginning of the year to support each other on this journey to be jazz musicians.
Tonia Mathews is Director of Bands at Clint Small Middle School in Austin ISD. She has taught jazz for over 20 years, including nine years at the middle school level and 12 years at the high school level. Under her direction, the 2008 Austin High Jazz Ensemble from Austin, TX, was selected to perform at the prestigious Essentially Ellington Festival and Competition in New York City.
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