Arranging & Composing

Jazz Arranging Big Band
Duke Ellington

Why learn arranging & composing?

Jazz composition and arranging, whether for small band or big band, is not an easy art to pin down. As with pop and rock, many jazz performers become composers purely to write music for their own performance. For jazz improvisers, composition is also a logical extension of performance because improvisation is, after all, on-the-spot composition.

Recognition in academia

Jazz composition is now recognised as a legitimate area of study at schools, universities and music college, but due to the nature of jazz as soon as you try to academicise it, you fall into the trap of losing some of its originality and spontaneity. All of the resources on these, along with some of the material you will find on the saxophone pages, may be useful I hope, but it is essential to immerse yourself in the music: listen to jazz of all eras, play jazz and ideally find a personal tutor.

Arranging Hints & Tips

  • Transcription of existing arrangements is one of the best ways to learn because different arrangers have created their individual styles either by bending or breaking the rules, or creating their own.
  • Write legible parts because you will get more time rehearsing the creative stuff instead of interpreting bad handwriting.
  • Write untransposed scores. Again, you’ll save time on rehearsals that can be spent having ideas.
  • Encourage musicians to be critical and listen to any input they have.
  • Don’t always try to be clever. Unisons and octaves can often work well instead of complex harmony. They can be very powerful, or supply a contrast to thick harmony.
  • When using backing figures or counterpoint it often works well to have the lead in harmony and the backing in unison, or vice versa. It can be very effective to use unison on an anacrusis (pickup) or faster melodic passages, followed by open or closed harmony on slower moving lines.


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