As soon as you can get an appropriate group of musicians together, you should begin to play in a group setting. This is helpful for many reasons. First, if several players are at approximately the same level of ability, then they can learn together. If one member is more advanced than the others, he can help them along. A good rhythm section can often give a soloist ideas or help provide the confidence to allow him to take more chances. On the other hand, you should avoid the temptation to have too many horn players, as you will find the tunes dragging out longer and longer as everyone gets their solos in. The rhythm section will tire of the chord progression, and the soloists will grow impatient waiting their next turn. It is probably counterproductive to have more than eight or so players together at once for this purpose.
Once an appropriate group of people has been assembled, you must decide what to play. It helps if everyone in the group has access to the same fakebooks. That way, when a person calls out a tune, you can be reasonably sure everyone will have it in their books. The New Real Book by Chuck Sher is recommended, since it is available in transposed versions for most wind instruments, and contains a good variety of tunes. You may wish to agree in advance on the tunes to be worked on, so everyone has the chance to familiarize themselves with the changes.
Although it is not necessary to designate a leader for a group, it does help if there is someone to choose songs, decide on the order of soloists, pick a tempo, count the song off, and generally keep things moving along. It is not essential that this person be the best musician in the group, but it should be someone with some leadership or organizational skills.
Once you have selected a song to play, you need to keep in mind the things we have observed about form. Normally, the group would play the melody first. While learning a song, you may decide to have everyone play it in unison, but you should eventually give each performer a chance to play a head by himself, to allow everyone to work on making a personal statement even while simply playing the melody. In performance situations, it is also usually more interesting for the listener to hear a melody interpreted by one individual, rather than stated in unison. This is particularly true for ballads. Fast bop tunes are normally played in unison, however.
For songs with 32 bar forms, the head is usually played only once. For blues tunes or other shorter forms, it is often played twice. The melodies of many songs end on the second to last measure of the form. For instance, Clifford Brown’s twelve bar blues “Sandu” ends on the first beat of the eleventh measure. Usually the rhythm section stops playing for the last two bars of the form to allow the first soloist an unaccompanied two measure lead in, or solo break. In some tunes, such as John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”, this break is traditionally observed on every chorus, but usually it is done only as a lead in to the first solo, or at most as a lead in to each solo.
Once you are into your solo, you are largely on your own, although you should listen to what everyone else is doing around you, feeding off what they are playing, and leading them with your own playing. This is your chance to apply the techniques you have learned so far. Think melodically. Take chances. Have fun!
I have said several times that a solo should tell a story. This means it should have a clear exposition, development, climax, and release. If you were to chart the intensity level of a good solo, you would often find that it starts at a low level and slowly builds to a climax, after which it tapers off quickly to lead into the next soloist or whatever else comes next. Beginners often have difficulty deciding how many choruses to play. This is something that varies for each performer. Charlie Parker normally took only one or two in recordings, although this was partially because of the limitations of the 78 RPM format. John Coltrane often took dozens of choruses, particularly in live performances. When there are many soloists, you probably should try to keep it on the short side, to keep everyone else from getting bored. In any case, when you are approaching the end of your solo, you should somehow convey this fact to the other musicians so they can decide who goes next, or whether they want to trade fours, or take the head out.
If you intend to trade fours after the last solo, someone usually indicates this by holding out four fingers where everyone can see them. Usually, you will go through the soloists in the same order in which they originally played, giving them four measures each. The bass player is often skipped; sometimes the pianist is as well. Often, the drummer will take four measures in between each of the other soloists. More so than during the original solos, the intensity of the four bar phrases will usually be at a consistently high level, and the soloists should try to develop and build upon each other’s ideas. This cycle may be repeatedly as long as is desired; someone will usually tap their head to indicate when to return to the head.
The endings of songs are, without question, the most difficult to keep together. When you have played a given song several times with the same group of people, you may have planned and rehearsed endings. But when playing a song for the first time with a particular group, chaos almost always results at the end. There are a few standard tricks you can use to end songs, however. Once you are familiar with the basic endings, then all it takes is one person to act as leader to get everyone to follow along.
The easiest ending, used in fast bebop tunes, is to simply cut the tune off short after the last note. This works for rhythm changes tunes such as “Oleo”, and other bop forms such as “Donna Lee”. As a variation, you may wish to hold the last note out. Or, you may cut the last note short, but then repeat it and hold it out after a few beats rest. This is done especially on 32 bar forms in which the melody ends on the first beat of measure 31. This note is cut short, but then repeated and held on the first beat of measure 32, or as an anticipation on the fourth beat or on the “and” of the fourth beat of measure 31.
Another ending commonly used on ballads and slow swing songs is the ritardando. Simply slow down over the last two or three measures, and end on the last note of the melody, which may be held out as long as desired. A variation on this technique is to stop on the second to last note, or on any note near the end that falls on the penultimate chord, and have one soloist play an unaccompanied cadenza, signaling the rest of the band to rejoin him for the last note.
When playing medium tempo or faster tunes, a popular ending is to play the last several bars three times before the last note. In a 32 bar form in which the last note is the first beat of measure 31, you would play the form through the end of measure 30, then play measures 29 and 30 again, and then once more, before finally playing measure 31. This can be combined with the ritardando or the cadenza approaches, or the last note can simply be played short.
Another approach is the III-VI-ii-V turnaround. If the song ends with a ii-V-I cadence in the last four bars, then you can replace the final I chord with the four bar progression III-VI-ii-V, which may be repeated several times. For instance, in the key of F, if the song ends
| Gm7 | C7 | F | F |,
then you can replace this with
| Gm7 | C7 | A7alt | D7alt | Gm7 | C7 | A7alt | D7alt | Gm7 | C7 |...
You can also use tritone substitution on any of the dominant chords. In addition, you can use the I chord F instead of the A7alt chord. You may continue this chord progression as long as you like, soloing or collectively improvising on top of it. This is called a vamp. The song is finally ended with a I chord, usually preceded by frantic hand waving to ensure that everyone ends together.
Another popular ending is sometimes called the Duke Ellington ending, because it is associated with arrangements of tunes like “Take The A Train” that were written by Duke or performed by his band. This ending assumes the song ends on the first beat of the second to last measure of the form, that the last chord is a I chord, and that the last note is the root of that chord. Assuming the piece is in C major, you simply replace the last two measures with “C, E, F, F#, G, A, B, C”, where the second note is a sixth below the first, not a third above. If you try to play this line, I think you will recognize the intended rhythm, so I will not try to notate it.
You should be prepared for any number of things to go wrong. If you lose your place in the form, or sense that someone else has lost theirs, do not panic. If you have become lost, stop playing for a little while to see if you can hear where everyone else is. This should not be too difficult if you are familiar with the song and the other musicians are reasonably secure about their own places. Someone who is sure of where they are may wish to call out changes, or shout out “BRIDGE!” or “TOP!” at the appropriate times, to get things back on track. If one person is clearly in the wrong place, and everyone else is sure of where that person is, they can attempt to move over to match the out of place performer, but this is difficult to coordinate. Also, it is better to try to correct the person who is out of step than to have everyone be out of step together, because ideally, you want the form to continue uninterrupted.
Another thing that can go wrong is an unintended tempo change. Some people tend to rush, some tend to drag. Sometimes the interaction between two musicians with good time may cause the tempo to shift. For instance, if a pianist and bassist both play behind the beat, this may make the tempo appear to drag, and the drummer may slow down to not appear ahead of them. If you are convinced the tempo is moving, you may wish to try to conduct a few measures to right the tempo. A metronome can help keep you honest, but playing with a metronome will usually be hopelessly frustrating, because it is virtually impossible to keep a group synchronized with one. For one thing, it is often difficult to hear a metronome when several people are playing. For another, it is difficult to get everyone in the group to adjust at the same time and in the same way should the group collectively get ahead or fall behind. Nonetheless, practicing with a metronome can be a useful way to solidify your concept of time. One particularly sadistic band director I know used to start us off with a metronome, turn the volume down after a few measures, then turn it back up a minute or so later to see if we had drifted.