Programming Your Jazz Concert

Programming Your Jazz Concert

One of the most challenging aspects of being a director is programming a concert. Balancing the interests of the musicians as well as the audience can be a large task.  A variety of concepts may come into play when putting together a concert. I believe the overarching goals are to provide your students with a quality program, and to entertain your audience who will likely have very diverse musical interests. Let’s discuss some basic ideas and approaches when it comes to selecting your program.

Use Your Strengths

A great way to select initial music is to look at the individual strengths within your group. Do you have a great saxophone section? Or do you have a great soloist?  A great drummer? How about a really strong lead trumpet player? Identifying your strengths can help you select a few pieces that will highlight the talent in your ensemble. Programming to your strengths is a great way to approach selecting music for any concert.

Does It Mean A Thing?

I always try to include something that focuses on the roots of big band training, swing music. Anything from the library of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Sammy Nestico, etc. will not only give you music that is playable by a wide range of levels, but more importantly, music that requires great STYLE to play well.  Getting your band to swing should be one of the most important goals of jazz training and selecting music that focuses on this is always a great place to start.


Another important goal is to provide a variety of musical styles and a wide range of opportunities to grow musically. Creating a program with enough variety for your audience and members alike can be quite challenging. Selecting music with a variety of different styles, genres, meters, keys and tempos, is paramount to a successful performance.

Much like each musician has unique tastes, so does each audience member. While one person may love swing, another may love contemporary music. Their neighbor might prefer Latin-influenced music. The key is to create enough variety in your program so performers and audience alike can grow and enjoy a mixture of styles and influences.

From an educational standpoint, variety also allows your group to develop more musically and stylistically.  Having the ability to read and understand rhythms in a variety of styles is one of the chief benefits from playing in a jazz ensemble.

I’ve found in my career that many of the best sight readers I’ve encountered were in jazz programs during high school and were exposed to not only swing rhythms, but funk, rock, Latin, etc. These rhythms often look quite different from what we typically see in a concert band, so being able to pick these up quickly will raise your overall level of musicianship.

Length and Flow

One of the common mistakes with programming, is a lack of understanding how pace musical selections. Pacing has a direct effect on the overall flow of a concert. Jazz concerts can run into trouble quickly as many standard swing tunes fall into a similar tempo. As you begin planning your event, look closely at tempos and styles to create as much variety as possible. For example, opening with a ballad would not create the same level of excitement as a more uptempo piece would. Likewise, avoiding too many tunes at the same tempo will keep the flow of your concert balanced.

Understanding the length of your program and how your audience will stay engaged is equally important. Be sensitive to their attention span. Luckily, most jazz arrangements are short (4-5 minutes) in comparison to many of the large-scale wind ensemble and orchestral pieces, so this works on our favor. If you are planning a longer concert, I’d suggest the second half being shorter, perhaps 45 and 30, with an intermission in between. Overall, length and flow should a top priority in programming your concert.

Sample Program

Below I have created a sample program for a jazz ensemble concert. I have taken into account many of the aforementioned concepts.

  • Groovin Hard – Don Menza , Arr, Dave Barduhn (straight ahead/ up tempo opener)
  • The Chicken – Arr. Kris Berg (funk tune)
  • Samantha – Nestico (ballad, alto saxophone feature for great soloist)
  • Stolen Moments – Oliver Nelson, Arr. Paul Jennings (medium tempo swing, lot of style)
  • Afro Blue – Mongo Santamaria/Arr. Mossman (great Afro-Cuban Latin style, in ¾)
  • Take The ‘A’ Train – Ellington (authentic swing, having your soloists learn some of the original solos and integrate into their ideas)

This program covers a variety of styles, while providing room for solos, section features, style differences, and a mixture of harmonic and rhythmic challenges.

Keeping your players as well as your audience in mind when programming a concert is top priority.  Over the years I have discovered that my successful concerts had great variety, and that the audience and musicians walked away feeling like they truly learned something.  If the audience’s toes are tapping and their hands are clapping, you’ll know you’ve been successful.

Keep On Swingin’!

Dr. Chip Crotts serves as director of jazz studies and assistant director of bands at the Georgia Institute of Technology. A GRAMMY nominated artist and a Yamaha Performing Artist and Clinician, Crotts has worked with artists such as Ray Charles, The Manhattan Transfer, Natalie Cole, Frankie Valli, The Temptations and Maynard Ferguson.

Presently the brass caption manager for the Santa Clara Vanguard, Chip also remains an active adjudicator for several organizations including Bands of America, Drum Corps International and Winter Guard International.

Dr. Crotts received degrees from East Carolina University, Penn State University and a D.M.A. in trumpet performance with a jazz emphasis from the University of Texas at Austin.

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