Jazz band

The West Point Band's Jazz Knights perform in West Point's Eisenhower Hall (2011)
The Magna Jazz Band performs at The Queens Park (1988)

A jazz band (jazz ensemble or jazz combo) is a musical ensemble that plays jazz music. Jazz bands vary in the quantity of its members and the style of jazz that they play but it is common to find a jazz band made up of a rhythm section and a horn section.

The size of a jazz band is closely related to the style of jazz they play as well as the type of venues in which they play. Smaller jazz bands, also known as combos, are common in night clubs and other small venues and will be made up of three to seven musicians; whereas big bands are found in dance halls and other larger venues.[1]

Jazz bands can vary in size from a big band, to a smaller trio or quartet. The term jazz trio can refer to a three piece band with a pianist, double bass player and a drummer. Some bands use vocalists, while others are purely instrumental groups. Jazz bands usually have a bandleader. In a big band setting, there is usually more than one player for a type of instrument.

Jazz bands and their composition have changed many times throughout the years just as the music itself changes with each performers personal interpretation and improvisation which is one of the greatest appeals of going to see a jazz band.[1]

Ensemble types

Count Basie and band, with vocalist Ethel Waters, from the film Stage Door Canteen (1943)


Small jazz bands of three to four musicians are often referred to as combos and can be found in small night club venues. In modern jazz, an acoustic bass player is almost always present in a small band, complemented by any other combination of instruments.

It's common for musicians in a combo to perform their music from memory. The improvisational nature of these performances make every show unique.[1]

Three parts

In jazz, there are several types of trios. One type of jazz trio is formed with a piano player, a bass player and a drummer. Another type of jazz trio that became popular in the 1950s and 1960s is the organ trio, which is composed of a Hammond organ player, a drummer, and a third instrumentalist (either a saxophone player or an electric jazz guitarist). In organ trios, the Hammond organ player performs the bass line on the organ bass pedals while simultaneously playing chords or lead lines on the keyboard manuals. Other types of trios include the "drummer-less" trio, which consists of a piano player, a double bassist, and a horn (saxophone or trumpet) or guitar player; and the jazz trio with a horn player (saxophone or trumpet), double bass player, and a drummer. In the latter type of trio, the lack of a chordal instrument means that the horn player and the bassist have to imply the changing harmonies with their improvised lines.

Four parts

Jazz quartets typically add a horn (the generic jazz name for saxophones, trombones, trumpets, or any other wind or brass instrument commonly associated with jazz) to one of the jazz trios described above. Slightly larger jazz ensembles, such as quintets (five instruments) or sextets (six instruments) typically add other soloing instruments to the basic quartet formation, such as different types of saxophones (e.g., alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, etc.) or an additional chordal instrument. The Modern Jazz Quartet was a jazz combo established in 1952 that played a style of jazz influenced by classical music.

Larger ensembles

Seating diagram for a typical 17 piece big band jazz ensemble

The lineup of larger jazz ensembles can vary considerably, depending on the style of jazz being performed. In a 1920s-style Dixieland jazz band, a larger ensemble would be formed by adding a banjo player, woodwind instruments, as with the clarinet, or additional horns (saxophones, trumpets, trombones) to one of the smaller groups. In a 1940s-style Swing big band, a larger ensemble is formed by adding "sections" of like instruments, such as a saxophone section and a trumpet section, which perform arranged "horn lines" to accompany the ensemble. In a 1970s-style jazz fusion ensemble, a larger ensemble is often formed by adding additional percussionists or sometimes a saxophone player would "double" or "triple" meaning that they would also be proficient at the clarinet, flute or both. Also by the addition of soloing instruments.


Jazz Band, by Israeli artist David Gerstein

Rhythm section consists of the percussion, double bass or bass guitar, and usually at least one instrument capable of playing chords, such as a piano, guitar, Hammond organ or vibraphone; most will usually have more than one of these. The standard rhythm section is piano, bass, and drums,[2] augmented by guitar at times in small combos and regularly in large ones. Some large swing era orchestras also employed an additional piano, accordion, and banjo.

The horn section consists of a woodwind section and a brass section, which play the melody[2] and main accompaniment. The standard small combo usually limits itself to one trumpet and one saxophone at times augmented by a second saxophone or a trombone. Typical horns found in a big jazz band include 4-5 trumpets, 5-6 woodwind instruments (usually saxophones), and 3-4 trombones.

Rhythm section

A rhythm section, with bass and drums


Main article: Banjo

The banjo has been used in jazz since the earliest jazz bands.[3] The earliest use of the banjo in a jazz band was by Frank Duson in 1917, however Laurence Marrero claims it became popular in 1915.[4]

There are three common types of banjo, the plectrum banjo, tenor banjo, and cello banjo. Over time, the four stringed tenor banjo became the most common banjo used in jazz.[3] The drum-like sound box on the banjo made it louder than the acoustic guitars that were common with early jazz bands, and banjos were popular for recording.[4]


Main article: Jazz bass
Jazz Bass

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Jazz bass is the use of the double bass or bass guitar, to improvise accompaniment and solos in a jazz band. Players began using the double bass in jazz in the 1890s, to supply the low-pitched walking basslines. From the 1920s and 1930s Swing and big band era, through Bebop and Hard Bop, to the 1960s-era "free jazz" movement, the resonant, woody sound of the double bass anchored everything from small jazz combos to large jazz groups.

Beginning in the early 1950s, jazz some bass players began to use the electric bass guitar in place of the double bass.[5] Most jazz bassists specialize in either the double bass or the electric bass.


Main article: Jazz drumming
Jazz drumming

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Jazz drumming is the art of playing percussion, usually the drum set, in jazz styles ranging from 1910s-style Dixieland jazz to 1970s-era jazz-rock fusion and 1980s-era latin jazz. Stylistically, this aspect of performance was shaped by its starting place, New Orleans,[6] as well as numerous other regions of the world, including other parts of the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa.[7]

Jazz required a method of playing percussion different from traditional European styles, one that was easily adaptable to the different rhythms of the new genre, fostering the creation of jazz drumming's hybrid technique.[8]


Main article: Jazz guitar
Jazz guitar

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Jazz guitar refers to a variety of guitar playing styles used in the various jazz genres. Although the earliest guitars used in jazz were acoustic and acoustic guitars are still sometimes used in jazz, most jazz guitarists since the 1940s have performed on an electrically amplified guitar or electric guitar.

Traditionally, jazz electric guitarists use an archtop with a relatively broad hollow sound-box, violin-style f-holes, a "floating bridge", and a magnetic pickup. Solid body guitars, mass-produced since the early 1950s, are also used.


Main article: Jazz piano
Jazz piano

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Jazz piano has played a leading role in developing the sound of jazz. The piano's role is multifaceted due largely to the instrument's combined melodic and harmonic capabilities. For this reason it is an important tool of jazz musicians and composers for teaching and learning jazz theory and set arrangement, regardless of their main instrument.

Jazz pianists also make extensive use of chord "extensions", such as adding the sixth, ninth, or thirteenth scale degree to the chord. When jazz pianists improvise, they use the scales, modes, and arpeggios associated with the chords in a tune's chord progression.

Woodwind section


Main article: Clarinet § Jazz
Jazz clarinet

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The clarinet is a woodwind instrument with a single-reed mouthpiece. A clarinet player is known as an clarinetist. Originally, the clarinet was a central instrument in jazz, beginning with the New Orleans players in the 1910s. It remained a signature instrument of jazz through much of the big band era into the 1940s.[9] Larry Shields was the clarinetist for Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the first jazz band to record commercially in 1917. The American players Ted Lewis and Jimmie Noone were pioneers of the instrument in jazz bands. The B soprano clarinet was the most common instrument, but a few early jazz musicians such as Alcide Nunez preferred the C soprano clarinet, and many New Orleans jazz brass bands have used an E soprano clarinet.[9] Swing clarinetists such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman led successful big bands and smaller groups from the 1930s onward.[10] Band leader Duke Ellington, active from the 1920s to the 1970s, used the clarinet as lead instrument in his works, with several players of the instrument (Barney Bigard, Jimmy Hamilton and Russell Procope) spending a significant portion of their careers in his orchestra. Harry Carney, primarily Ellington's baritone saxophonist, occasionally doubled on bass clarinet. Meanwhile, Pee Wee Russell had a long and successful career in small jazz bands. With the decline of the big bands' popularity in the late 1940s, the clarinet faded from its prominent position in jazz and the saxophone rose in importance in many jazz bands, probably because it uses a less complicated fingering system[11] and thus could better accommodate the requirement for an increased speed of execution in modern jazz than the clarinet. But the clarinet did not entirely disappear. In the late 50s, traditional jazz experienced a revival, with the notable example of clarinetist Acker Bilk's Bristol Paramount Jazz Band. Some of the works of Bilk's jazz band reached the pop charts.[12]

Saxophone section

Jazz saxophone

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In the saxophone section, all of the saxophones will play a similar melodic line, but the baritone sax doubles by occasionally joining in with the bass trombone and bass to play the bass line. A big band saxophone section typically consists of two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones, and one baritone saxophone.[13] The tenor saxophone plays the counter melody, though they may have the lead in some cases. Saxophone players are often expected to double on clarinet, flute, or soprano saxophone. In earlier periods of jazz, a bass saxophone was used as a bass line instrument, though this is far less common today.

Brass section

Main article: Brass section
A brass section, with various brass instruments


Main article: Trombone
Jazz trombone

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The trombone section consists of three tenor trombones and one bass trombone.


Main article: Trumpet

The trumpet section consists of four trumpets, though some compositions and arrangements call for five trumpets. A trumpet player may sometimes double on a flugelhorn.


Main article: Tuba

The tuba is the largest and lowest-pitched brass instrument. This instrument made its first appearance in the 19th century, being played at orchestras. When involved with jazz, most tubas are played outdoors. Tuba players are generally called "Jazz tubists."

String section

Main article: String section


Main article: Jazz violin
Jazz violin

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Jazz violin is the use of the violin or electric violin to improvise solo lines. Although the violin has been used in jazz recordings since the first decades of the 20th century, it is more commonly associated with folk music than jazz.[14] Jazz musician Milt Hinton claimed that the decline in violin players coincided with the introduction of sound movies, as many violin players were used as accompaniment for silent films.[15]

In jazz-rock fusion styles, jazz violinists may use an electric violin plugged into an instrument amplifier along with effects such as a wah pedal or a distortion fuzzbox.


Main article: Violoncello

The cello is a bowed string instrument. This instrument is the second largest bowed string instrument apart from the double bass. When being used in jazz, the cello is more commonly tuned to fourths. A cello player is known as an cellist.


Main article: Vocal jazz

The precise definition of what makes a jazz vocalist can be unclear, because jazz has shared a great deal with blues and pop music since the 1920s.[16] In their book Essential Jazz, Henry Martin and Keith Waters identify five main characteristics that identify jazz singing, three of which are: "Loose phrasing [...], use of blue notes [...], [and] free melodic embellishment."[17] Often the human voice can act in place of a brass section in playing melodies, both written and improvised.[2]

Scat singing is vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all. Though scat singing is improvised, the melodic lines are often variations on scale and arpeggio fragments, stock patterns and riffs, as is the case with instrumental improvisers. The deliberate choice of scat syllables also is a key element in vocal jazz improvisation. Syllable choice influences the pitch articulation, coloration, and resonance of the performance.[18]


Jazz standards are an important part of the musical repertoire of jazz musicians, in that they are widely known, performed, and recorded, and widely known by listeners.

Another important aspect of jazz is improvisation ("jams"). Bands playing in this fashion fall under the category of jam bands.[19] A common way to incorporate improvisation is to feature solo performances from band members made up on the spot, allowing them to showcase their skill.[20]


Main article: Jazz § History
"Robinson's Band Plays Anything" – an illustration from a 1890 edition of a New Orleans newspaper The Mascot. Jazz historian Al Rose has called it "the earliest known illustration of a jazz band".[21]

Starting shortly after 1915, the first bands from New Orleans began to using the word "jass" or "jazz" in their band name, or to describe their music. Bandleader Tom Brown claims the first usage, which was disputed by Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jass Band.[22]

That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland (1916)
Oldest known recording of Jazz, on an Edison Blue Amberol wax cylinder in 1916

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It is reported that the first known recording of "Jas", That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland (1916) was by Collins and Harlan for Thomas A. Edison, Inc. on Blue Amberol in December 1916.[23]:80

The first Jazz record, The Original Dixieland One-Step was issue 18255 by Victor Talking Machine Company in 1917.[24]:7 This is the first record with Jass on the label, attributed to the Original Dixieland 'Jass' Band. After litigation and claims of copyright infringement, the title was changed to Dixie 'Jass' Band One-Step.

Notable jazz bands


The Miles Davis Quintet (1965-1968), featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, was one of the most influential small jazz ensembles of the 20th century.[25] Lee Konitz was once quoted for saying of the band that "They played so well individually and collectively". Michael Cuscuna complimented the band, saying "They all had their own unique perspective on how to compose and play, and when those unique components came together, they created an absolutely whole new sound. It is extraordinarily creative."

An alternative to the Miles Davis Quintet of 1965-1968, was the Miles Davis Quintet (1955-1957), featuring John Coltrane, Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones, and Paul Chambers. Pianist Pete Jolly once said of this group, "You've got to love that rhythm section" and Chuck Berghofer, who had once played with the band,[26] even ventured to say "They changed music history".

Another greatly influential band was the Art Ensemble of Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. The Art Ensemble was the vanguard for many contemporary pioneers today with their progressive style. Vandermark said of the group "For their first 15 years this group attacked nearly improvising aesthetic with complete originality" while Wadada Leo Smith is quoted for having said "I heard them live and watched them in action. They took theatrics to another level, spontaneous theater that had a theme and character to it.". Oluyemi Thomas is also quoted "The Art Ensemble has moved the music into an area that allows for space and silence. Their unique approach to collaboration is unparalleled in creative music. They have a poetic sense and social consciousness. They have positively influenced my music and all of creative music."

Big Bands

The Glenn Miller Orchestra

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Criswell, Chad. "What Is a Jazz Band?". Retrieved July 25, 2014.
  2. 1 2 3 "Roles of the Instruments". Jazzinamerica.org. Retrieved May 21, 2014.
  3. 1 2 Boyd, Jean A. (1998). The Jazz of the Southwest: An Oral History of Western Swing (First ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press. p. 147. ISBN 0-292-70860-2. Retrieved July 21, 2014.
  4. 1 2 Hardie, Daniel (2002). Exploring Early Jazz: The Origins and Evolution of the New Orleans Style. Exploring Early Jazz: The Origins and Evolution of the New Orleans Style. Writers Club Press. p. 264. ISBN 0-595-21876-8. Retrieved July 21, 2014.
  5. Roger Newell (October 24, 2011). "The history of the electric bass part one: the early days". Retrieved July 25, 2014.
  6. Gioia, T. (1997). The History of Jazz. Oxford University Press: New York, NY. ISBN 978-0-19-512653-2
  7. Brown, Theodore Dennis (1976). A History and Analysis of Jazz Drumming to 1942. University of Michigan.
  8. Brown, T, D. (1969). The Evolution of Early Jazz Drumming. Percussionist, 7(2), 39–44.
  9. 1 2 Lawson, Colin James (1995). The Cambridge Companion to the Clarinet. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521476682.
  10. Schuller, Gunther (1989). The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195071409.
  11. Palmer, Robert (5 July 1981). "John Carter's Case for the Clarinet". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 September 2016.
  12. Kaufman, Will; Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson (2005). Britain and the Americas. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-85109-431-8.
  13. Rzepiela, Jeff. "A Guide to Playing in a Big Band Saxophone Section". Retrieved July 25, 2014.
  14. Haigh, Chris. "Jazz violin". Fiddling Around the World. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
  15. Stewart, Zan (August 27, 1988). "They'll String Along With the Double Bass". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
  16. Will, Friedwald (1990). Jazz Singing: America's Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond. Da Capo (illustrated, reprint ed.). Perseus Books Group. pp. x–xi. ISBN 0306807122. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
  17. Martin, Henry; Waters, Keith (2014). Essential Jazz: The First 100 Years (3rd ed.). Cengage Learning. p. 149. ISBN 978-1-133-96440-7. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
  18. Berliner 1994, p. 125
  19. Hobson, Jacob (September 9, 2013). "Improvising Art: From Jam Bands to Jazz". All About Jazz. Retrieved July 21, 2014.
  20. "What is Jazz?". smithsonianjazz.org/. Retrieved July 22, 2014.
  21. Charles Suhor (April 11, 2001). Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years Through 1970. Scarecrow Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-4616-6002-6. Retrieved July 21, 2014.
  22. Knauer, Wolfram (2006). "An overview of the history of jazz". An overview of the history of jazz. Jazz Institut. Retrieved July 21, 2014.
  23. Hoffmann, Frank; B. Lee Cooper; Tim Gracyk (November 12, 2012). Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925. Routledge. ISBN 9781136592294.
  24. Hancoff, Steve (October 26, 2005). New Orleans Jazz for Fingerstyle Guitar. Mel Bay Publications. ISBN 9781610658294.
  25. Fordham, John (October 13, 2010). "50 great moments in jazz: How Miles Davis's second quintet changed jazz".
  26. "Chuck Berghofers 75th Birthday Bash!". performingartslive.com. Retrieved July 27, 2014.

Works cited

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