[Sheet Music]

Lesson 158: Big Band Jazz

What Is a Big Band?

A big band consists of approximately 16-17 musicians and contains saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a rhythm section. The big band became popular during the swing era from the early 1930s, has evolved with the times and continues to evolve today.

So, a typical big band can consist of

  • 4-5 saxophones
  • 4 trumpets
  • 4 trombones
  • a rhythm section: guitar, piano, bass and drums

Playing Big Band Jazz

When you play big band jazz, good music reading skills are very important. The compositions/ arrangements are through-composed and intricate, new things are happening all the time and you will not be able to fake it - you have to be able to read and play what is written, from the beginning to the end of a tune.

You also have to be able to listen to the other musicians and to follow the conductor/ the leader of the band. When 16-17 musicians are playing together, it is very important that they are tight, well-balanced and in tune. There is no room for sloppy playing in a big band.

There is improvisation in big band jazz, but not as much for the single musician as in small ensemble jazz. In a big band, you may be given a couple of solos per performance at the most. So, you have to learn to enjoy interacting with other players and making the band sound great and not be dependent on shining in a lot of long improvised solos.

A Typical Big Band Composition/ Arrangement

The form of a typical big band composition/ arrangement:


Listen to and study the following arrangements:

  • Birdland by Weather Report
  • Choro Dancado by Maria Schneider
  • The Pink Panther by Henry Mancini
  • A Potter's Song by Maria Schneider
  • Soul Intro/ The Chicken by Jaco Pastorius
  • Splanky by Neal Hefti

Important Big Bands to Listen to

Listen to the following important big bands/ big band leaders:

  • Count Basie
  • Carla Bley
  • Duke Ellington
  • Gil Evans
  • Maria Schneider
  • Snarky Puppy ( not a "real" big band, but for inspiration)

2016 Tomas Karlsson. All rights reserved.