The Jazz Ensemble:
Facing Your Fears

an article printed by

Tennessee Musician magazine


 Tom Hay
Director of Bands
Chester Co. High School & Middle School
Henderson, Tennessee


Many band directors are reluctant to initiate a Jazz Program in their schools, particularly at the middle school level. However, a well-organized program can be a positive experience for the band director, band students, student body, faculty, and administrators.

The small size of a jazz ensemble is conducive to many performance engagements that are inconvenient for larger concert bands and even pep bands. An opportune time to feature this group would be for the student body and faculty at a Black History Program. If your school doesn’t present a Black History Program in February, this would be a good chance to initiate one. My own jazz ensemble has performed for many extra-curricular functions, such as the annual Academics Banquet, and the grand openings of several local businesses.

There are numerous musical benefits as well. Most students find that playing one or two to a part is fun and more challenging. Students are also provided the opportunity to learn to play additional instruments. Clarinet players often do well on saxophone and flute. Saxophonists, however, do not always switch as easily to clarinet. Often the rhythm section can be pulled from other sections of the band. For instance, one bass player also plays the trumpet and tuba, while another is a clarinetist. The guitarist plays tenor sax and the keyboardist is a horn player. Reading jazz charts will vastly improve their reading abilities and strengthen their "chops." Finally, your students will be introduced to a different and exciting style of music enjoyed around the world.

Don’t be deterred by the lack of proper instrumentation. There are many arrangements currently being published that include flutes, horn, treble and bass clef baritone, and tuba. Arrangements are also available for limited instrumentation such as two saxes, one trombone, two trumpets, drums, and keyboard (which includes the bass line). Easy grade music is available, and there are several excellent method books for beginning to advanced jazz ensemble. Some favorites can be found in the Reference List.

Improvisation is another concern that frightens many wishful jazzers. The easy jazz charts have all the solos notated. Duke Ellington and others have charts with none at all. Also, most of the starter charts provide teaching tips at the beginning. These are used to warm up the band before rehearsing the chart. Once the band gets going, then begin to incorporate improvisation using basic blues scales.

Jazz ensembles are easy to start up, even on a limited budget. Usually a used piano can be found, or a student will have an inexpensive keyboard. Guitars often turn up in someone’s closet. You can use an electric bass, or even a second keyboard, since many easy charts include the bass line in the piano part. A drum set can be rigged up using your cymbals and concert and marching drums. The foot pedal would need to be purchased. Start up costs for a jazz program are minimal, but has a very high return. Just remember, you can "swing" with any instrument.

Good luck with your jazz endeavors, and please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments you may have.


Tom Hay is the Director of Bands at Chester County High School and Middle School in Henderson, Tennessee. He was the first instrumental music graduate from the University of Tennessee at Martin, and attended graduate school at Louisiana Tech. He is a member of the Music Educators National Conference, the West Tennessee School Band and Orchestra Association, the International Association of Jazz Educators, the Tennessee Bandmasters Association, and Phi Beta Mu. He has served as president of the WTSBOA, and has served as the West Tennessee All-State Band chairperson. Tom was named Teacher of the Year for Chester County School System, and received an Outstanding Teacher Award from the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts. He has been named in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers, and is also choir director at Lambuth Memorial United Methodist Church in Jackson, Tennessee. Tom has been an adjudicator and clinician throughout the Southeast and Midwest. He has played professionally with several groups and artists, including Clark Terry.

Reference List


Aebersold Music Play-a-Long books and CD’s.

Leonard, H. Hal Leonard Essential Elements for Jazz Ensemble.

Pearson, B. and Sorenson, D. (1998). Standard of Excellence Jazz Ensemble Method. San Diego: KJOS.

Shaughnessy, E. (1997). Basic Drum Set Recipes. [Book with tape]. WIBC, Inc.