UC Davis Jazz Ensemble: A Sonic Community
The UC Davis Music program hosts a wide variety of groups that meet regularly to rehearse and perform, ranging from early music ensemble choirs, to jazz combos, to concert bands and the symphony. All of these musical groups provide great opportunities for research as sonic communities; I chose to focus on one of the jazz big bands for my research. The jazz program at UC Davis has undergone significant expansion in the last few years, starting when Professor Sam Griffith was hired for the 2013-2014 school year. Before, there was just one jazz big band, but the program tripled in size to three ensembles that meet weekly, in addition to jazz combo and improvisation classes. My area of focus centers on the role of the instructor during rehearsals and preparations for the quarterly concert that is held. The instructor, who is the band’s conductor, is crucial for the band as the band’s sound progresses; the effectiveness of the instructor and the efficiency with which they rehearse the band is integral in the band’s development of a unified sound.
I attended the Tuesday night jazz ensemble’s rehearsal on May 23, 2017, which happened to be their last rehearsal before the quarterly concert, which was on May 25. I also happen to be in one of the other two jazz bands as a trombone player, so I have a sense of familiarity with how Sam Griffith runs his bands’ rehearsals. First, everyone warms up individually at the same time, which results in a loud clamoring of noise as everyone produces different sounds through their instruments. After warming up, Mr. Griffith tunes the band on a concert B-flat; members of each section listen to each other to hone in on a central, unified pitch. This prepares everyone to be warm and in-tune with one another as the first chart is started.
Because this particular rehearsal was right before the concert, the instructor approached the material differently than he would have on previous rehearsals. Rather than dedicating large chunks of time to run through and repeat specific sections, he primarily used the time to have the band play through all the songs that they would play at the concert two days later. Normally, he has no problem cutting off the band between phrases and causing multiple repeats of sections in order to improve the togetherness and punchiness of the ensemble’s sections and members, but for this rehearsal, he did not stop the band very much, preferring to give them an opportunity to play the songs through. There could be multiple reasons or interpretations of this tactic; one obvious answer is that the band simply sounded good enough to not require too much work on any one piece. Another answer, which I also believe is a factor, is that Mr. Griffith was attempting to give the band a realistic emulation of the concert. How would it be to play all the songs through in order? As a trombone player, I can empathize with other wind instruments about the stamina required to continue playing over the course of multiple charts. An opportunity to rehearse songs fully and in order is a great opportunity for the wind instrument players to strengthen their embouchures before the concert.
Mr. Griffith offered different sections advice after the band finished each run-through of a song. After the first song, Mr. Griffith asserted that the band needs to maintain energy after the trombone solo. This responsibility falls heavily on the drummer and bass player in the rhythm section. One student suggested to take the song again from a position near the end; Mr. Griffith agreed, and afterwards seemed pleased with how this chart went. He had different advice for the second song, telling the band to “have fun with it to make it work.” He commented on the drum player’s snare technique, pointing out some intricacy that was too subtle for me to discern.
Mr. Griffith had more advice for the drum player after the band played the next chart. He instructed the drum player to make sure not to rush through the breaks in the song, since his treatment of each fill sets up the band for transitions between sections, and has a lot to do with maintaining the initial tempo of the chart. Mr. Griffith made sure to tell the drummer to not let certain sections of the piece surprise him as the chart transitions through its changes. Here, Mr. Griffith spent the most time that he does all night, rehearsing two specific sections in an attempt to improve the band’s sound at those spots. One of the spots seemed to have a difficult trumpet line, so in order to work through it, Mr. Griffith guided the band through multiple iterations of that section, first slowly and gradually increasing the speed until the trumpets seemed comfortable with it at the song’s normal tempo. This is a common practice: having the band repeat sections multiple times, starting slow and increasing speed until reaching the normal tempo. This is hugely effective in working through areas that the instrumental players cannot manage without extra practice.
The fourth chart that the Tuesday band played was longer, with regular and difficult-sounding switches between Latin and swung sections. Tempo was initially a concern, and Mr. Griffith again had words for the drum player. He instructed the drummer, “Don’t get too lost in the music. Trust yourself – you have good musical instinct.” The band and Mr. Griffith decided to insert an extra chorus into the song at a certain section, which is a good representation of the way the band and instructor can choose to modify the way they play any particular arrangement of a tune. Often times, especially in jazz, the band can decide to omit repeat sections, or repeat certain sections more times than prescribed by the chart itself; this could be to make a smoother transition between sections of the piece, or could be a way to allow more instrumentalists a chance to take a solo, or extend an existing one. Again addressing the chart’s tempo, and before running through the piece a second time, Mr. Griffith maintained that the particular chart “works better faster.”
In the last chart that the band played, Mr. Griffith had the trumpet and saxophone sections do an exercise to improve a particular part of the song. They alternated playing random notes at the same time as everyone else in their section, and this repeated twice. This was the first time I had ever seen this particular strategy used to give the players a better sense of the key, and it seemed to work reasonably well in improving the passage. After doing so, the players in the band seemed to have a better understanding of the key area that they were in, and less mistakes were made. Most importantly, the vibe of the song became clearer; a more uniform sound is generally stronger, and is certainly more enjoyable to listen to.
Upon the conclusion of the rehearsal, I had a chance to ask Mr. Griffith a few questions pertaining to the band and his rehearsal strategies. I first asked if he had any particular strategies for efficient rehearsal strategies. He stated, “I try to find the things that involve the entire band, so that I’m not picking on one section or one person. I try to find those moments.” Then, I asked if he had to rehearse different sections of the band differently; I wanted to know, from his point of view, how it felt to face the entire band and all its sections at the same time. “There’s definitely a big difference between rhythm section and horns,” he said, “just for the purpose of intonation. Intonation has to be approached carefully.” He also mentioned that the rhythm section had to deal with different things than the instrumentalists, and keep them all together. I then asked how a rehearsal before the concert differs from a rehearsal near the beginning of the quarter. He said that “You have to be more concerned with the bigger picture. How does this song sound, and does it go somewhere? You have to be concerned with if the song goes somewhere.” My last question was specific to his rehearsal methods: what was his favorite and most effective ways to improve a particularly difficult passage or run, like a unison section? His answer was interesting. “I think it’s most effective to start with a small chunk, hopefully in the middle. And then do it an obnoxious amount of times so that it gets internalized.” He added that it can be effective to have one trumpet or trombone play a passage at the same time, or, as he preferred, to randomly have everyone with a certain color shirt to play the passage together. These various strategies, coming from the professional himself, were intriguing and explained much of what I had been wanting to learn.
With the completion of Pitzer Hall before the start of the 2016-2017 school year, the jazz bands enjoy the privilege of being able to rehearse in the same place that they perform. The hall’s state-of-the-art acoustics provide a large arena for the sound to pervade. Previously, the bands had to rehearse in one of the smaller rooms in the music building, which were significantly louder and balanced the sound much differently. The difference in overall volume level during rehearsals is tremendous, and it makes it simpler to rehearse in the same space as the performances at the end of the quarter. This is similar to the experience the musicians who first played in Symphony Hall had, from the Emily Thompson acoustics reading: “…the musicians simply required time to become used to playing in the new hall. As they grew familiar with the sound of the space, they learned to adjust their technique in order to fill the space with the sound they desired.” Practicing in Pitzer gives ample opportunity for the players to learn what dynamic range is appropriate. In particular, Mr. Griffith comments regularly how professional jazz bands have a normally louder volume; their version of “piano” (meaning quietly) is our version of “mezzo-forte” (medium loud) or “forte” (loud); he encourages his jazz bands to play with varied dynamic range, but generally asks for more volume in order to fill the sound of Pitzer hall.
During my observation of the rehearsal, I was in the second row of the seats in Pitzer hall, facing the band. This is much different than my position when I’m playing in my Thursday night band’s trombone section. During the rehearsals in which I was a member of the band, I was positioned with the rest of the trombone section, in between the trumpets and saxophones. This means the trumpets normally blare into the back of my head, while the saxophones play facing away from me. This caused me to become accustomed to a trumpet-heavy sound, which is much different than what the people in the crowd hear during a concert. By placing myself in the second row during their rehearsal, I was able to change my vantage point and was surprised with how dramatic the result was; changing my position completely modified my perception of the sound.
Changing my perception also gave me new insight on the role of individual sections, and in them, individual players. For example, the second trombone had a long solo in one of the songs, as is rather typical for the person playing second horn. The lead saxophone player has an important job in unifying his section, as do all the section leaders. Each player has a different part, besides the instances of doubling a part in the saxophone section.
An interesting way to analyze the roles of the individual players in the band presents itself through the lens of Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis. Yes, it’s true that the band plays its songs at a particular tempo, and the melodies themselves have their own specific rhythm. Breaking it down to the individual player, however, Lefebvre asserts that “In a place of a collection of fixed things, you will follow each being, each body, as having its own time above the whole. Each one therefore having its place, its rhythm, with its recent past, a foreseeable and distant future.” In a musical setting like this, in which rhythm is often perceived quite literally, this approach of focus on the individual rhythm of a player can be quite interesting. While the drummer is keeping time and making fills between sections to keep the band together, each and every instrumentalist must keep a beat in their head in order to maintain the song’s tempo. If the rhythms are off, the sections will not be unified, and the band will slow down or speed up, which is not the goal. The rhythm section – drums, bass, guitar, and piano – is called such because they are the most crucial part of the band’s drive, and yet individual instrumentalists must be able to maintain the tempo that the rhythm section sets, or else the song will devolve into a mess of sound.
In retrospect, the role of the instructor is vital to the way each rehearsal is run, which dictates the development of the band’s sound and the abilities of the instrumentalists to play the jazz repertoire. Each week throughout the academic quarter, the bands meet and develop a set of five or so songs, which they practice throughout the quarter until the performance. Mr. Griffith uses specific techniques to rehearse different sections of the band, and tailors each rehearsal’s focus based on what is needed to improve the overall sound of the band as efficiently as possible. Jacques Attali has words that resonate with the experience of being a member of a jazz ensemble like the UC Davis groups. “The musician, like music, is ambiguous. He plays a double game. He is simultaneously musicus and cantor, reproducer and prophet.” The musicians, in this case just students at UC Davis, rely on Mr. Griffith to lead them in a rehearsal that is as effective as possible, and the result is consistently fantastic. Each quarter, the ensemble concert churns out great jazz music at a high level of performance, in beautiful Pitzer Hall, and a large part of it is because of the instructor: a vital role.
Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis (MN): University of Minnesota, 1985, 12.
Lefebvre, Henri. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, 2004, 31.
Thompson, Emily. The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2002, 56.