Big Band Jazz. Part 1—Preparation


Big Band Jazz. Part 1 — Preparation

The old Boy Scout motto of ‘Be Prepared’ comes to mind as I begin this short article on preparation. It is very relevant to my current circumstances (and after all I WAS a Boy Scout). Upcoming projects mean I must prepare myself well and manage my time (and timing!) well too. Easier said/written than done of course.

(Note: in the article I talk about ‘fills’ – drum fills. This is where the drummer breaks from a steady backing rhythm and usually moves around the tom-toms creating excitement…signalling change…creating dramatic accenting…or all of these! These fills can be highly impressive and effective.)

What am I preparing for?

The first event I am preparing for is a week long jazz course here in France where I will be the course’s drummer. It seems it’s in a marvellous spot and all is paid for (in terms of accommodation and food). I feel comfortable playing jazz but having accepted the offer of joining the course I found out there was Big Band work involved too. This means I will need to read music. Of course I can read drum notation (and melody lines in music generally) but Big Band scores for drummers are a different ‘kettle of fish’. The problem here is knowing what and when to play.

I think I’ll do a good job (and I’ll report back) but there is some trepidation. It is unknown. What will be is always unknown. I trust that my approach to this specific of drumming will carry some ideas you can use in life in general. Approaching anything requires clarity of thought…an understanding of what is required….practical preparation and the will and confidence (and self-belief) to see it carried through. In my notes below you’ll see how I am going about preparing myself for this course. The first and foremost thing is to take oneself and others seriously – but be light of touch when interacting musically and socially (and maybe light of touch in playing on occasion too!).

The first thing I asked the course organiser was to send me a list of the tunes we’re likely to play and any arrangements she has. The tunes I tried to find ‘on-line’ (and am still in the process) and the arrangements I have printed out. ANY help is to be welcomed. Any pre-planning being worthwhile. Thus, with a tune playing and the music lying in front of me I have gone over the overall arrangement of the piece and then subsequently into some of the specifics.

Obviously the bar lines and repeats are set (and codas etc)…but the drum notation is always open to interpretation and things written for us as drummers may mean:
a/ playing those notes written

b/hearing what the band is playing (and thus not necessarily playing the notes) but rather interpreting the music and applying one’s taste accordingly

c/ playing/filling in-between the notes

d/ All of the above!

I have the the scores but have had difficulty finding performances that match. When I have found such it has been both reassuring and alarming. I can see that some notation reflects band phrasing but some is specific. The only way, therefore, to approach this is to listen to the tunes and gain a familiarity – and try and listen to different versions/interpretations. To listen and follow the various interpretations where there is a connection between performance and score and see/listen to what the drummer is doing if watching a video. By trying to grasp all possibilities I hope that I’ll cover ‘all bases’. I am presuming that on the day of a tune’s rehearsal I will be given a score reflecting what we’re expected to play! (Of course.) At that point I will have some time to look at the piece and get a feel for the overall arrangement. Here one must pay special attention to repeat marks (with first and second time endings if written) and codas. My position as course drummer means I will be expected to play without too much preparation at the time. (Hence THIS preparation!)

Having sat in with a Big Band many years ago I know I can swing along nicely…but on this course I want to be – and need to be – at the top of my game. Thus my approach will be to play along with the band (and still drive it) watching out for the overall structure of the music; constantly scanning for repeats; counting bars of the various sections and trying fills where marked. But I will begin adding details and shading in nuance as we repeat sections or the whole tune. The others on the course will be learning and feeling their parts and the conductor, no doubt, will be concentrated on them. If I can keep my place in the music and make mental notes of phrasing and fills I can gradually join the dots, or more accurately, colour in the shapes.
1/ I don’t know which tunes we will be playing

2/I have a range of tunes and scores we MIGHT be playing

3/ I am listening to various versions of the tunes to prepare myself for their interpretation(s)

4/ I am working out parts of the music to familiarise myself with this type of drum notation – trying to get into the head of whoever has written the parts

It’s all an unknown at the moment. I simply don’t know the levels of the players on the course and the expectations of me. Again I can familiarise myself with the style of notation (lots of syncopated tied notes – you know the typical sax phrasing you hear in a Big Band); I can practice filling in between notes and accenting those notes between fills; I can play along with the music for its feel. Listening to the tunes will render them familiar and take away the anxiety of the unknown. Also, and most importantly, I’m preparing myself to have fun AND to be challenged – and thus grow and improve myself. As musicians I think it important to imbibe all sorts of influences and genres. It can be easy to get locked-in to a style – being a drummer actually opens up possibilities as we are usually interpreting the styles of others. I have played drums (and/or percussion) in Classical music right through to hard-core punk!

Okay ANY event that looms that you are uncertain about:
1/ Find out as MUCH as possible about the event

2/ Who’s involved

3/ Past events or similar events

4/ Past participants (and any relevant recordings/articles/videos)

5/ Expectations

1/ Work towards what is expected/required from you

2/ Be prepared (in all the ways you can be)

3/ Be confident (if only seemingly!)

4/ Have fun – enjoy things

There’s no short-cut to being prepared and it requires discipline. I need to prepare for the jazz course but this is only one of the upcoming events I have. Management of time is essential…and…well, it’s a beautiful sunny day out there and I could easily make some tea and take a book out and read. I am my own boss! Maybe I’ll take some of the scores outside and try and imagine the ways they could be interpreted. Or – I can REWARD some revision/practice with a mug of tea under the sun when completed.

Playing music – as I always say – is the application of both technique and taste. Both technique and taste need to be developed. We are always on a road…and we never reach our true destination – but we get to stop off at a few pleasant places on the way.



Tim Bragg, an Englishman living in France (married to a French woman), is a writer-musician, and the founder of two prominent organisations—the (now-ceased) cultural publication, ‘Steadfast’, and the environmental campaign group, ‘English Green’. He is the author-editor of a number of books. And a singer-songwriter who plays a variety of musical instruments. He is also the recipient of an Akademia Award for Best Rock/R&B Song. You can find his drum videos here.

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