Instant Big Band – Just Add Beer

Mmmm, horny… Who’s got the #9th? Who cares?

or How to Be an Arranger without Really Trying.

If you have a busy jam session it can be great fun to get every horn player in the room up together for a feature number at some point in the night. A gash big band number. Even if it’s all a bit wobbly, the sheer sound and sight of massed ranks of people puffing on brassy objects playing “together” can be quite the trip. Try it. Bully them to get up!

People come to jams to play, it’s good to give them as much playing as you can, and a bit of ensemble stuff can be very interesting for them and the audience.

Obviously it has to be a tune everyone knows, and preferably by heart, because if you’ve got six horns onstage it’s a push for space to have them clustered round music stands as well. This may sound like a trite point, but jazz arrangers have always been pragmatic beasts.

Another pragmatic point is that if you’re going to have that many people onstage together, you don’t want them standing there feeling goofy while they’re waiting for their turn. Give them something to do!

This is actually the case with all arranging, even for classical orchestras. First, you’ll get more out of a player if you engage them and give them something interesting to play, rather than sawing away in half-notes all night. Second, an orchestral director won’t bother hiring a contrabassoon if all you’ve given them is seven notes at bar 247 in the third movement, and they’re doubling the basses anyway.

Certain tunes sit in the intersection of the Venn diagram of tunes that people know – A Train, Well You Needn’t, Caravan, Blues (major and minor), Rhythm changes, So What, Blue Bossa, Night in Tunisia, etc.  Depends a bit on your particular jam crowd, but you generally can’t really go wrong with those.

Tired old donkeys, eh? (I mean the tunes, not the musicians, of course.) Well, the opportunity for a bit of artfully co-ordinated ensemble playing will get even the most hardened cynic up to do Summertime. Even the soggiest old chestnut can get a tremendous new lease of life if you give it the mob-handed touch – as long as you’re canny about it.

Unless you’re a masochist, leave them to it for the heads.

"My lord I have a cunning oboe" "This is bound to be the worst plan since Ellington said: 'what this band needs is more One Direction covers'"

“My lord I have a cunning oboe” “This is bound to be the worst plan since Basie said: ‘what this band needs is more One Direction covers'”


When flash-mobbing a tune, instead of having everyone soloing their faces off in turn, why not try a chase-me-charlie affair, where people alternate 8, 16 or a chorus (on a fast tune) down the line? Or have them soloing together in pairs. Or start with one approach and end with the other.

This can be far more interesting to listen to, and fun to play, particularly since it virtually forces the players to listen to each others’ ideas and riff off each other. It becomes a voyage to Planet Us, rather than Planet Me. Machiavellian, me?


Guide-tone backings behind the soloist on the bridge or one of the A sections. Simple but incredibly effective – often remarkably so, when you’ve got three or more horns up. Gives everyone something to do, keeps everyone listening, supports the less confident players. And the group consensus will keep the form in shape on those tunes that sometimes go sproing.

This is also rewarding for the players, because they can contribute to the group event by their choice of notes in the accompaniment. It can also be interesting to observe the effect that deflecting soloists into an accompaniment role can have on their solos when their turn comes…

A slightly cuter version of this approach is to have someone quietly singing ad-hoc short effective rhythmic riffs into a couple of the players’ earholes during the downtime while someone else is soloing. Let them choose their notes from the harmony, just give em the rhythm of the riff. This can work really well, as long as you’re dealing with players that won’t lose the form while you’re cooking up a riff with them.

Don’t overdo it with backings! Clue’s in the name – “backings”. A little here and there is magic, too much is a mess.


Bullet-proof all-purpose mini arrangements. Ambitious, this one, and comes with a bit of a health warning.

Precompose and write out some four or five-part snippets of backing. Not too much, no more than 4 or 8 bars worth, and not too florid – you want to make them punchy, effective, easily readable – and you don’t want to bury the soloist.

Then number the voices 1-4 (or however many) and write them out giving each one in Bb, Eb and bass clef. As regards octaves and tonal balance, you’re at the mercy of whatever constellation of instruments turns up on the night, but basically everyone picks a number and plays that part. And they can experiment and pick a different voice each time round.

What about the health warning? Well, not all players are great readers, so you might get some surprises. But sometimes you get very interesting surprises when someone misreads a part. Oh, and it’s a good idea to write the chords above each part – it gives jazzers a star to steer by.

Experimenting with writing catastrophe-proof arrangements – music that can withstand any randomising of ranges and missing voices, any klutzing and any amount of alcohol – is fun and can be an art form. Horace Silver is a great practical arranger in this vein. Enjoy!

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Posted in b) Harmony & Comping, c) Musicianship

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