Choosing Jazz Ensemble Repertoire

Selecting repertoire is one of the most important decisions a jazz band director makes each year. Beyond choosing what will be performed at the next concert, repertoire selection reflects the director’s core beliefs about jazz education and curriculum. It is through repertoire that lessons are taught in style, musicality, articulation, technique, and even history. The selections need to challenge and captivate the band’s interest over an extended period, while also having the function of engaging an audience. The problem is compounded for new directors with limited big band experience. They are the intended audience for this article, although the following considerations, insights and approaches should be helpful for any director in finding appropriate jazz ensemble pieces.

Assess Strengths, Weaknesses and Growth

Start by identifying the strongest players and sections of your band. Determine who could be featured. Assess what brass ranges are feasible. Diagnose where there are less experienced players. Given the band’s current performance level, imagine how they might improve and grow as players by year’s end, given the right challenges and motivations. You might consider incorporating music at an increased level of difficulty in the second half of the year.

Listen, Listen, Listen

Peruse the various catalogues and web sites of publishers, and listen to sound bites. Beyond J.W. Pepper, investigate eJazzLines, Sierra Music, Pro Jazz Charts, UNC Jazz Press, 3-2 Music Publishing and Smart Chart Music.

Take a copy of the program when attending concerts, festivals, and conferences. Write down titles and arranger’s names.

Know Your Arrangers

If you are looking for new publications, certain arrangers “hit the ball out of the park” every time; Mark Taylor, Mike Tomaro and Eric Richards never disappoint. Their charts are well-crafted and accessible. Mike Mossman and the late Fred Sturm also fit this category, but the difficulty level increases.

Considerably more important is exposing students to classic big band repertoire, from which they can learn the nuances of swing by studying and playing along with recordings. Citing Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Thad Jones as being comparably significant to Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, only in a different genre, wouldn’t be unreasonable (although I’ll clarify that Basie had others write for his band).

The Count Basie Big Band produced countless classics. Sammy Nestico, Neal Hefti and Frank Foster are quintessential Basie arrangers. A short list of their notable works includes:

Sammy Nestico: Basie Straight Ahead, The Queen Bee, Hay Burner, I’m Beginning to See the Light, Smack Dab in the Middle, High Five

Neal Hefti: That Warm Feeling, L’il Darlin, Splanky

Frank Foster: Blues in Hoss Flat, Four-Five-Six, Shiny Stockings

Thad Jones made an extraordinary contribution to the classic big band canon. Until recently, most of the music was beyond the technical reach of the average high school ensemble. However, Mike Carubia of Smart Chart Music has created a solution to this problem. He thoughtfully re-scored many of Thad Jones’ charts in lower keys (thereby reducing range demands), added breathing spots, simplified solis, and provided some written solos, etc. These orchestrations are really well done and receive my unequivocal endorsement.

David Berger’s transcriptions of Duke Ellington repertoire are a tremendous resource. Written for the annual Essentially Ellington high school competition at Lincoln Center, they are available through Ellington’s music can be difficult. There are often clarinet doubles in the reed section, extended ranges in all of the brass parts, and many of his orchestrations are for a somewhat smaller band (three trumpets and three trombones).

Representing many eras and bands would be an admirable goal in programming. Charts by the Jimmy Dorsey and Artie Shaw bands would nicely complement and contrast Ellington in the category of authentic 30s and 40s dance band music. Basie typifies the 50s, as Thad Jones does with the 60s and early 70s. Buddy Rich (John LaBarbera, etc.) and Woody Herman (John Fedchock) and Maynard Ferguson led the bands which thrived in the 70s. And no arranger embodies the 80s & 90s better than Bob Mintzer. Although Maria Schneider could be considered the most highly regarded jazz composer of the current era, her music is written at an extremely challenging professional level and requires woodwind doubling expertise.


Clinicians, festival adjudicators, guest artists, jazz educators, and professional players are all great resources for finding appropriate charts for your band. Don’t hesitate to ask for recommendations. Additionally, many of them will gladly express their opinions regarding what writers and publishers produce second-rate pabulum (off the record, of course), and what songs they would wish to never hear again at an educational festival.


When working as a high school director, my UConn colleague, Doug Maher, used the following motto as a guide: “One for the kids, one for the parents, and one for you.” One for you might be a Thad Jones piece. One for the kids might be a funky selection. One for the grandparents used to be “In the Mood,” although these days, great-grandparents are the ones who might recognize a Glenn Miller hit. This approach can be especially helpful in the early stages of building a program, when parental support is needed. The challenge is not crossing the line into audience pandering. From the standpoint of curricular value, I would suggest that there is no place for a unison arrangement of “Louie, Louie” in a jazz band set. Is there pop music for jazz band worth playing? Perhaps. If you firmly believe kids will stay in the band if their parents relate to the music, Mike Tomaro’s charts of Stevie Wonder, Tower Of Power, Steely Dan tunes are valid options, but only in conjunction with introducing them to great repertoire and jazz in general. In my experience, students and audiences alike gravitate towards whatever is excellent.

Aiming High or Aiming Low

The dilemma for most music educators is whether to select easier charts which cater to the strengths of young bands, or to pick music slightly above their band’s level, to challenge and motivate the group. Students typically appreciate the challenge and will be better served by not taking the safe route. That said, disregarding range (and some technical limitations) can yield disastrous results.

Modify, As Needed

After identifying potential selections, evaluate the charts’ playability in relationship to the band’s strengths. Some slight edits might be necessary; if the arrangement calls for a trombone solo, and you don’t have a trombone soloist, simply transpose the solo changes for trumpet (or another instrument). If you have too many tenor saxophonists and not enough trombones, transpose a trombone part for a saxophonist, etc.

Festival Sets

In a three-song festival set, you can’t go wrong with two canonical selections, say Basie and Thad Jones, with something more contemporary or unconventional to provide contrast. This could be a Latin or straight-eighths funky piece. One of the three selections could be a ballad. A ballad could be a great vehicle for featuring an especially capable soloist.

It is a reality that at most schools, festival music is rehearsed from September until the festival date, and it may not be ready for the winter concert in December. Because festival charts typically feature advanced players, selections that encourage all students to try improvising would be advisable for winter and spring concerts. Sometimes you get a beginning soloist, but he/she is encouraged to keep working at it, and their parents are thrilled.


Commissioning up-and-coming jazz composers to create new, customized pieces for your band not only gives your students the amazing opportunity to work directly with a composer, but you get to play a personal role in helping to advance the artform. The experience is worth every penny. If the higher rates of some well-known composers are inhibiting, you can easily identify skilled, younger composers by Googling the major, annual competitions for jazz composers and arrangers. These include the Sammy Nestico Award, the Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize/Manny Albam Commission, and the Wohlhueter Jazz Composition Contest at Ithaca College. Commissioning fees are generally negotiable and surprisingly affordable, considering the benefits. If possible, include at least one rehearsal with the composer in your agreement.


At the easy levels, there is a glut of weak music published, much of which is void of strong melodic content. Working with arrangements of American Songbook standards by George Gershwin or Cole Porter, for example, ensures the presence of strong melodies. A litmus test for identifying standards is searching a song title to see if it has been recorded by known jazz artists. If so, then it is more likely to be a worthwhile investment of the band’s time. Have students listen to a variety of versions, including renditions by vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett.

There are so many choices at a music educator’s disposal. Unfortunately, there are just as many pieces not worthy of consideration, as there are gems. I hope these guidelines help you choose wisely.

Earl MacDonald is the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Connecticut. As a composer, he has completed big band commissions for the USAF Airmen of Note, the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, UMASS Jazz Ensemble 1, Grant MacEwan University, Amherst College, the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra, Marshall University’s Jazz One Ensemble, and Manchester High School, among others. His latest CD, Open Borders features his arrangements for a 10-piece band.

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