The problems I find in the brass sections of many jazz bands are in these seven areas:

Concept of Time
Balance and Blend
Dealing with Unfamiliar Harmonies
Volume Control from Top to Bottom
Phrasing of Written Lines

I’ll say a few words about each; but first, let’s talk about rehearsal set-up. I do not use the standard block formation: trumpets in back, trombones in center, saxes in the front row, and the rhythm section on my left as I face the band.

For rehearsals, I prefer to have the players in a square,
with yours truly standing in the middle.

Each side of the square is only long enough to accommodate 5 trumpets, 5 trombones, 5 saxes, and the rhythm section. With this set-up I can hear each individual much easier and can reach any chair without going through or around a row. I find that the band can get the charts cleaner, in less time.

This set-up also helps with intonation, as it permits each section to hear itself with a lot more definition.

I encourage “self-tuning,” because it really is the responsibility of each player. I certainly correct them when they are out of tune; but I stress the fact that Basie, Woody, Stan and Duke all expected their musicians to tune by themselves.

Try having the piano player sound 4ths and 5ths  (Bb with an Eb or F) for the wind players. After all, this is what piano tuners do, and it works.

It is also helpful to show students that by closing off one ear while playing they can hear the band with their open ear and their own pitch with the closed ear. This should be done during the entire course of any performance.


Too many trombone sections depend on the trumpets to pull them along, time wise. When they face each other in this rehearsal set-up, they begin to pull together.

Who is in charge of the time feel?
I am, and I insist that they play with the feel that I want. We often discuss certain lines, in regard to maybe playing a bit more on top or laying back some; but the final decisions are mine.

Some band directors may feel that a band cannot get the time together unless they are in the normal set-up; but I disagree. I can remember bands playing at the Metropole in New York City, standing in a row behind the bar, and yet they held it together. And how about the Kenton Band with that huge “V” formation? The guys called it the B-17.


Although these three functions are separate, they are dependent on each other. Problems result because the various members of each section are unequal in their musical maturity. This is not the case with the professional bands. For example, the 3rd trumpet player in the Mel Lewis band is just as strong as the lead player. Undeveloped or immature players simply do not get on those bands.

In music education, we put the strongest players on the first part and end up with the weaker players on the inner parts. It is impossible to achieve any sort of balance or blend if immature players do not know how to deal with certain musical situations.

Unfamiliar harmonies will always intimidate the immature player. Let’s say the
trombone section is playing an F dominant 7th/9th chord, voiced this way:

Play this voicing on the piano. When the trombones play it, I guarantee that one of two things will happen: (1) the 3rd trombone player will play the D so softly that it cannot be heard, or (2) if the D is played full volume, it will cause the 2nd trombone to subconsciously move the slide out past 3rd position.

With the same find of voicing, trumpet players will ask, “Is this not right? I have an E and Bill has an F!”

I tell young players to imitate a diesel locomotive horn. It amuses them to practice playing half steps against each other, and soon they no longer fear that type of harmony.

I also point out that the lead trumpet is much easier to hear than the 4th trumpet or the 3rd trombone, so the inner and bottom parts must be played a bit louder in order to sound the same. Rehearsing the brass section alone (no rhythm section) really helps point this out.

Once these functions are understood, the balance and blend starts to happen.


I have never found any method that works better than listening to jazz band recordings and singing the lines. Don’t be afraid to make up nonsensical words or syllables to help show the correct flow of the line.  Have the students listen to Ella scat sing. I’ll often sing a line such as, Doovah Doovah Spit-It, Doowah…” The students sing it back to me and then play on their horns what they just sang. It can be done in unison, which eliminates the fear of playing individually.


In rehearsal, I want my jazz soloist on the left side or end of the row, so when we are in the normal performance set-up, that person is right next to the rhythm section. Most of the time, the soloist is really just playing in a combo. (I’ve never seen a combo stretched out over 25 yards, and I really don’t want to.)

I expect my soloists to learn the changes; I don’t want them reading while playing a solo. If it’s a feature number from top to bottom, I expect the soloist to come out front (preferably without music) and stand with the rhythm section. I realize that is a bit much for most public school situations, but it certainly should be a professional goal in any college program.

When I rehearse using the standard jazz band set-up, I find that during a performance in any other location the kids always worry about the sound and say they can’t hear the way they can in the rehearsal hall. But when I rehearse in the square (using the regular set-upon 1-2 rehearsals before the gig), they never complain, regardless of the performance set-up, sound of the hall, or difficulties of an outdoor mall. The difference is that they are relaxed with the sound they get, no matter where they are performing. The concept has proven to be very helpful.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Band Directors Guide, November/December 1989 issue published by Village Press, Inc. All rights reserved Copyright 1989.

Rich Matteson has performed as clinician/guest soloist at schools and conventions throughout the world over the past 21 years. He is co-leader and arranger for the Matteson-Phillips Tubajazz Consort. For 13 years he taught jazz improvisation at North Texas State University. In 1986 he was named Koger Distinguished Professor of American Music, an endowed position at the University of North Florida, where he regularly thanks his wife Mikki for mowing the yard so he can write articles.
by Rich Matteson
Band Director Guide Nov/Dec 1989