Instrumentation, aesthetics, ensemble size, stage dimensions, and musical considerations have contributed to a variety of stage set-ups since the big band’s inception in the 1920s. Rather than cataloging and weighing the favorable and unfavorable characteristics of unconventional configurations (like Stan Kenton’s inverted “V” or Thad Jones’ separating the bari sax and bass trombone), this article will explain the reasoning behind the widely-accepted “traditional block” formation, which helps to achieve maximized lines of vision, listening, blend, and balance.
Lead players (alto sax 1, trombone 1 and trumpet 1) should be in the middle of their sections, in a direct line with one another. Unlike the concert band, the lead players should never be seated on the end of the section. For the trumpet and trombone players, the most common configuration is 2-1-3-4, from the director’s vantage point. Seating for the saxophone section is slightly different than the brass sections, and the optimal saxophone section sound and balance is achieved with the following arrangement:
Tenor 1 •Alto 2 •Alto 1 •Tenor 2 •Bari
The rhythm section sets up as a unit, to the left of the wind instruments, from the perspective of the director.
In the diagram above, a short riser is utilized, on which the trumpet players stand and the trombone players are seated. One player per stand is compulsory for all players in the jazz band. Insist upon a low, flat stand directly in front of each player. Student trombonists might argue the benefit of having a slanted stand at the side, but this isolates the player from blending with the section. With the set up in this diagram, a narrow pathway between the winds and rhythm section allows soloists to walk out front when the music permits.
Two guiding principles have been achieved with this seating arrangement: the lead players are in the middle, and the primary soloist chairs (tenor 1, trombone 2 and trumpet 2) are closest to the rhythm section, thereby creating a combo-like setting during solo passages that will help them hear the chord changes as they improvise their solos.
When an arranger has assigned trumpet solos to the 4thtrumpet chair, one might use a trumpet section configuration of 4-3-1-2, which keeps the lead trumpet in the middle, while bringing the soloist closer to the rhythm section. However, many directors prefer keeping all the lowest parts to their far right when facing the band. Correspondingly, the baritone sax and bass trombone are on the right side of the big band, opposite from the string bass. Cases have been made for grouping these three low register instruments together on the left, but ultimately more sonic depth is achieved with the aforementioned configuration.
The Rhythm Section
When setting up the rhythm section, aim to facilitate unobstructed visual communication between each player. In addition to being in close proximity to one another, the bassist and drummer should have clear sight of each other’s hands and faces. This will assist them in synchronizing their beat. Whether the bassist is situated beside the hi-hat or ride cymbal is a matter of personal preference. Some argue that being in close proximity of the hi-hat helps lock in the groove. Others might site a pairing such as Ron Carter (bass) and Tony Williams (drums), as an example of the bassist standing with the ride cymbal directly in his left ear, for time alignment. In the latter example (not represented in the above diagram), the bassist is positioned in the crook of the piano, between the piano and drum set. In this way he/she functions as the rhythm section’s “glue,” in terms of both the harmonic foundation and the time. The guitarist is most often seated next to tenor sax 1 in the row of saxophones. The guitarist and pianist need a clear line of vision with each other, to facilitate non-verbal cues.
A small stage or rehearsal space might necessitate putting the rhythm section on the right side of the band. This is fine, however, NEVER divide the rhythm section with some of the players to the right and some to the left of the band. They are reliant on each other for listening and seeing each other as they strive to establish to play a solid groove.
Common Questions Asked by Directors
With the conventional big band set up now addressed, some variations do occur from time-to-time with set-up and also with instrumentation due to the number of players in the jazz big big band. In this next section, let’s consider some practical questions and variations I often encounter by music educators:
Q: I’d like to carry five trumpets. Where should the fifth trumpet sit and what part should they double on charts written for 4 trumpets?
A: For five trumpets, I like the 3-2-1-4-5 configuration, and suggest doubling the 4thpart. NEVER double the lead part in any section.
Q: I have a ‘REALLY big band,’ with 2 players on each chair in most sections. How do you suggest we set up?
A: In contrast to marching bands, bigger is not always better. If possible, start a second feeder band. The students will feel better because their individual roles become more important, and you will be able to teach and have the students experience correct sectional balance and blending. Under no circumstances should you double rhythm section parts. Two pianists should not share one bench. If you have two bassists or guitarists, have one unplug while the other plays. As in sports, everyone has a specific role, and sometimes even the best players must take a turn sitting on the bench; otherwise, the playing field becomes a cluttered mess.
Q: Where should amplifiers be placed?
A: It’s crucial that the guitar and bass players put their amps behind them so they can hear and adjust.
Q: I realize this is out of the scope of the traditional set up, however, I have students who play non-standard jazz instruments in my jazz band (flute/clarinet/bassoon for example), because the students are either highly motivated, or help to fill out a section that is lacking in players, or both. Where should these players be situated and how can they best be utilized?
A: Be guided by your musical intuition and the above outlined principles when making such decisions. I can imagine seating a highly-motivated bassoonist, French hornist or euphonium player within the trombone section, because of not having enough trombone players. But if their instrument is a different transposition, provide them with a transposed part. Don’t leave this responsibility to the student.
Should you opt to add a flute, give some careful thought as to what lines will be doubled. Use the flute selectively, as an added unison/octave color. Simply handing them a lead trumpet part, and telling them to play down a major 2nd isn’t a good option, as it will negatively impact overall intonation. When the guitar is assigned written melodic lines, I might consider doubling these on flute, and having the flutist sit next to the guitar. Within the same part, I might occasionally have the flute double a muted trumpet part, as well. Although I have seen supplementary woodwind sections seated to the side of a big band, I wouldn’t suggest going this route unless the music calls for it and/or you are willing to rewrite and re-orchestrate the music.
If the students are truly exceptionally motivated, and there are holes in your big band’s core instrumentation, consider encouraging those players to pick up a secondary instrument. It’s certainly easier to achieve acceptable balance between four trombones than two trombones, a bassoon and a bass clarinet.
Further equipping instrumental music educators with the skills and knowledge to become increasingly comfortable in directing big bands was the motivating force behind writing this article. Setting up in a manner which achieves overall musical unity through maximized lines of vision, listening, blend, and balance, will provide a solid foundation.
Feel free to send me additional questions on this topic, or anything else jazz-related, via e-mail. Commenting is also enabled below, should you wish to continue the discussion.