DEVELOPING A JAZZ SAXOPHONE SECTION
SCSBOA Winter Conference 2009, Cole Conservatory of Music-Updated 1/2013
Seating order of the saxophone section
The normal seating arrangement
of a big band sax section, as viewed from the front:
2nd Alto 1st Alto
2nd Tenor Baritone
-Generally, writers and publishers
supply parts for this instrumentation. While you can add more players, that does tend to upset the balance
that the composer/arranger intended.
-Avoid doubling the lead alto chair. You
need a solid, stable center of pitch and style there. Two or more players is not a good way to make a bigger
sound on that chair. To avoid pitch, style, and rhythmic conflicts, you would need to have two or more
really great players there. If you have those, you will be better served by putting one on lead and the
other(s) on 2nd alto.
-If your saxophone players don't double on flute or clarinet
well, or at all, don't despair! Of course, DO encourage them to learn these instruments if at all possible. A
more expeditious solution that works quite well: have some of your flute or clarinet players from the wind ensemble
or orchestra become members of the jazz ensemble. This will allow your band to play much more literature than they otherwise
could, and you will expose more players to jazz performance than the 'usual suspects' of the jazz ensemble. If you try
this, have these players sit on one side or the other of the section, i.e. to the right of the 1st Tenor or left
of the Baritone. Hopefully, you will be able to convince some, or all, of your saxophone players to begin doubling.
They can get started with some tips from you, and very likely if they are studying with a private teacher that person will
already double on one or several instruments and can help them. While I am always willing to help my students learn
their doubles if they are open to it, I often suggest the following: find a good teacher for whom the flute or clarinet
is their principal instrument, and study with THEM. Most of the top doublers I've known did this in one form another,
with each double they play well. A great source of teachers: your local University music department. Talk
to the professors who teach flute and clarinet and ask for a recommendation. Many of these young players will be happy
to work with your saxophonists! And don't forget to look right under your nose: the first chair players in your
orchestra or wind ensemble sections often will be a great source for help and/or recommendations for teachers.
What Each Player Does, And What Kind Of Player Should Be Sitting There
Leads the section. The person needs to be a strong player, with excellent intonation, and a strong
sound that can keep up with the lead Trombone and lead Trumpet players. Something I hear a lot is a lead
player with “chops” who has a weak sound, i.e. the player who read the best at auditions, and played their prepared
material the best. If it comes down to a choice between a player with a great sound and style, who made a few mistakes
on sight reading and prepped material, and one who nailed those tunes but has a weak sound and style issues, pick the first
player for this chair. Improvisation skills will often be required on this chair, but again, sound, style and
confidence should prevail. You can always pass an improv solo written on the lead chair to another saxophonist if this
person can't quite handle it. 1st Alto often doubles on Soprano Saxophone. If
your 1st player does not there will be charts that you will not be able to play, so encourage your saxophone players
to learn the soprano.
2nd Alto: Actually, this is one of the most difficult
positions in a big band. If this player cannot match the style, time, and intonation of the 1st
Alto, you will have problems. At the very least, they must be willing to follow the lead player and be
taught how to do this! Many times section intonation issues can be traced to problems between these two players, as
can blend and time/style inconsitencies. A great 2nd player will shelve their ego and “mimic”
the style and phrasing of the lead player perfectly.
Often considered the “jazz” chair in the section, so improvisation skills will be required.
This player needs to have enough confidence to stand up and perform when soloing, and then be able to sit down and
follow the lead player in section work. 1st Tenor also is often written in duets or trios with
a trumpet or other saxophones.
2nd Tenor: Some of the wackiest,
most difficult parts end up on this chair. A special skill that is important here is the ability to play
softly, on the lower register of the horn. If you want to entertain yourself and the band sometime, ask
this player to play an excerpt from a great saxophone soli. You will be amazed at the musical acrobatics
that end up on this chair!!
Baritone: This is a multi-role player’s
job. The Baritone plays with the saxophones, the trombones, and on its own. A mistake
that is often made by teachers is to put their 5th best player on this part. Ideally, put your
best SOUNDING baritone player here. Many arrangers write the same part for the bari
as they do for the Lead Alto, with the other chord tones distributed through the rest of the section. So
your bari player needs to be a “low lead alto” kind of player. Players who are hesitant or
who tend to drag will cause problems here. Keep in mind that this instruments wants to speak a little later than the
smaller alto, but your player is being asked to line up with the lead alto (!). A timid player will hurt the time feel
in the section.
Blend, Pitch, and Tonal Concept
saxophone is often compared to the human voice in terms of its expressiveness and ability to be both a solo and choral voice.
This is what you should strive for in your section-the lead is often the melodic voice, with the rest of the section
harmonized below it. A common problem is an inner voice player that plays louder than the lead player, especially 2nd
tenor players that can’t play the lower notes softly and easily. If your lead player has a weak sound,
the other players will have to play softly and weakly too in order for the balance to work, which will compromise the entire
group. What usually happens is the other players bury the lead alto. Again, that chair
must have a big sound!!
-Ideally, the 2nd Alto, 1st & 2nd Tenor players
will be able to play as loud as the lead, but then will back off to allow the melodic line to be the dominant voice.
If you have a weak player on one of the inner chairs, you may end up with a “hole” in the blend.
Baritone players need to be able to keep up with the trombones, AND blend with the saxophones. If you are playing a
funk or rock chart, this person will need to be strong and, sometimes, fearless (see above).
time to work out tuning between intervals. Often, I hear sections (indeed, entire bands) tuning on an ‘A’
or ‘Bb’. This is important, but don’t stop there: have the players tune
on a chord. Have the baritone play the root, 2nd Tenor on a 5th, 1st Tenor on a 3rd, 2nd
alto on a root, Lead Alto on a 7th, as one example. Point out things like the 3rd
needing to be somewhat flat, 5th a little high, and so on. Another great way to get them to
really listen-play open 5ths. Switch the players around-if they were playing the 3rd, now they
play the 5th. Does the tuning sound as good? What do they need to do to fix
it if not? Once they have heard and experienced how great it feels to be in tune, few players want to go back to their
old, non-existent concept. Remember how great it felt when you discovered this? It is worth all the time you need
to spend to help them understand and hear intonation.
-The best sections have a “sound”.
This comes from the players all having a similar tonal concept. If, for example, the 2nd
alto plays softer than the lead and 1st tenor, but with a brighter sound, you have a problem. An
overly dark section (going for the same tonal concept as they would use in a concert band section) will get buried by the
brass section in a big band.
-Great saxophone sections to listen to:
Ellington, especially later recordings such as “The Great Paris Concerts”
Thad Jones/Mel Lewis
Big Band, of which a growing number of examples are available on YouTube
Count Basie and his orchestra;
if you own one recording, make sure you have “Atomic Basie”.
Modern bands: Maria
Schneider, John Fedchock Big Band, Bob Mintzer Big Band, The Big Phat Band
Horns, Mouthpieces, Ligatures, and Reeds
-Find the best saxophone/woodwind technician in your town,
and court that person shamelessly. When first meeting a new student I always play their saxophone.
Often it is VERY badly out of adjustment, and leaking terribly. Getting the instrument working at
its best is critical to YOUR success as a band leader, let alone your student's progress. On several occasions I have
picked up a student's Yamaha Custom Z or Selmer Mark VI (yes, some of the kids do have horns of this level) and could NOT
play the instrument. Some of the lesser models and brands actually do play really well when they are in adjustment.
As you know all too well, the charts can be quite difficult when everything is working, so insist that they play on well-maintained
saxophones and doubles.
-When a student wants to upgrade a horn, find a saxophone pro in your area and
have them go with the student and parents to pick one out. DO NOT buy a horn because of the name or without
the assistance of teacher or another pro or semi pro player. Every maker has produced stunning examples,
but each instrument is a little different-many are handmade. Just one example: some
players are naturally bright, and some dark, and there are brighter and darker Selmers, Yamahas, Cannonballs, etc.
Pairing a naturally dark player with a dark horn might be perfect for classical playing, but not jazz.
Paying a teacher or pro to help pick out a great horn that matches the player, or reaches a good compromise for a variety
of styles, can save a lot of aggravation for them, and you, later.
-If your saxophonists
are doublers, make sure they have a good stand for the saxophone and for the doubles. Hamilton, K&M
and several others all make excellent combination stands that will hold a saxophone and one or more doubles. Its
a good idea for them to own a saxophone stand, whether the student is a doubler or not, as it prevents things like laying
the horn down (key damage, other people not seeing it and stepping on it, etc).
-Mouthpieces and reeds
are critical, very personal pieces of gear for your students. Most likely the stock mouthpieces that come
with a new or rental horn (yes, even the very, very best saxophones) will not cut it in a big band-they're just too dark.
If a given student is already producing a big, strong sound with no major pitch problems, one thing you can do is send
the student to a mouthpiece refacer, who will clean up the little imperfections in the mouthpiece and make it even better.
-For students who are just moving up to jazz and are looking for a mouthpiece to use, here are some recommendations,
listed from a close facing to a more open facing (more on this in a moment):
A6S, A6M; Meyer 5, 6, or 7 with a medium chamber; Beechler (hard rubber) 5, 6, or 7
Tenors: Vandoren V16 (rubber)
T7, T8; V16 metal T55 or T75; Otto Link hard rubber or metal 7, 8 or 7*or 8*; Berg Larsen hard rubber or metal 100/0, 110/0
Vandoren V16 B7 or B9; Otto Link rubber or metal, 6, 7, or 8; RPC hard rubber, Berg Larsen hard rubber 105/2 or 110/2
is not a comprehensive list. The main point is to find something that works well for the player!!
DO THE NUMBERS MEAN???
As I’ve listed the mouthpieces above, the smaller number corresponds to a smaller tip opening,
the distance between the reed and the curved opening on the mouthpiece. The bigger this distance, the softer
reed you will need to make the mouthpiece play, and so as the openings get smaller, you’ll need a harder reed.
A harder reed usually means a darker, more controlled sound, and therefore a “small” or “closed”
mouthpiece (small opening) is a good choice for a beginning player, since they require less control. A
lot of band directors suggest that their students to play on radically open mouthpiece, based on the idea of 'more power'.
These are often purchased because they get a “huge” sound, but it comes at the price of control and intonation.
Another issue with very open mouthpieces is lack of response in the low registers.
vs. HARD RUBBER/PLASTIC
Metal mouthpieces guarantee nothing!! Some of the most robust tenor
sounds among pros are created with hard rubber mouthpieces. Do not recommend metal mouthpieces just to
get a “brighter” or a “jazz”sound. The player must go and try a number of mouthpieces,
preferably with a teacher or pro saxophonist, and find what works for that player. Often players, especially
alto players, who go for a metal setup at this stage of their development lose the core of their sound. Most
stores will allow you a trial period, and I would recommend dealing with one that does this. In general (very
general) a student moving into playing jazz and big band music who has done well in concert band will do best on a more open,
hard rubber mouthpiece that plays well with 2 ½ or 3 reeds.
a personal choice. Students should be encouraged to try different brands and types and see what works well.
Most important, is making certain that the ligature fits their mouthpiece of choice. Some suggestions: Vandoren
Optimum ligatures; BG Tradition ligatures, Francois Luis Ligatures, and if you can find them, Harrison or Harrison copy ligatures.
Usually the more of the ligature that contacts the reed, the darker and less responsive the reed will be.
Sometimes the simple ligatures that come with the horns are the best, if they fit. You will see pro players occassionally
using a ligature that's too large, with paper or some such placed between the lig and the mouthpiece to 'make it fit'.
Usually that's a trial idea, NOT a permanent solution. Even worse is a ligature that is so small that it won't go all
the way into the proper position. This stifles the vibrations of the reed or just doesn't allow the reed to stay in
For some reason the students get the idea that a harder reed
means they are improving. Not so!! The numbers are similar to the mouthpieces, i.e.
the bigger number is harder to play and more resitant. If you observe a professional sax section you’ll
see a lot of #2 ½ and #3 reeds in use for jazz playing. Important point: most
classical saxophone setups are CLOSER mouthpieces. A popular classical setup is the Vandoren AL3, with
a lot players liking the Vandoren “Blue Box” #3 or #3 ½ reeds to play with it. For jazz,
those same players will often move up to a mouthpiece like a Vandoren A6S or Meyer 7 with a #2 ½ or #3 reed.
A student will be working VERY hard to get a big sound in a jazz band with a closed setup, such as the AL3, and a hard
reed. In fact, it is far easier to play in a concert band on a jazz setup, using darker sounding reeds, than to go the
I use Vandoren reeds exclusively on all my saxophones and clarinets. If you
are interested in my setup on any of my instruments, feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can find me
on Facebook and send a personal message or post a question.
lead alto player should plan to play soprano saxophone if at all possible. If this can’t be done,
when looking at a chart that calls for soprano sax, check to see if it has an optional alto part to use in place of the soprano…many
-Many writers think of the lead and 2nd alto as the flute doublers, the
tenor players as the clarinet players, and the baritone as the bass clarinet player. As previously
mentioned, if you don’t have saxophone players who double, add in flute/clarinet players from elsewhere in your program
to play those parts. If they are a little reluctant, give them a few recordings of some of the finest jazz
players who WEREN'T saxophonists to ever walk the planet:
Flute: Hubert Laws, Jim Walker
Eddie Daniels, Buddy DeFranco, Paquito DeRivera
All of these players are classically trained, GREAT jazz players
on these instruments!
Remember, NOT having those parts covered will limit your choices of music!!
like the charts available from bands that are currently working (i.e. the Phat Band) please note: the writers
are creating those parts for the players on those chairs. Two examples: my own chair
in BPB calls for some pretty serious flute playing, and Charles Pillow from New York, in Maria Schneider's band is a great
tenor player who also sounds amazing on oboe/English Horn, so she writes for him. My point here is that if you want
to perform some of these charts, don't hesitate to add players from your other groups to play those instruments and parts,
or if the tenor chair calls for flute but your lead alto player plays flute and your tenor player doesn't, just copy those
measures and move the doubling parts around. DON'T deny your students the opportunity to play some music that you want
them to just because you don't quite have the right folks in the group...make it work, and everyone benefits. You never
know, maybe one of your flute or oboe players will be inspired by this!
questions regarding saxophone playing:
www.jaymasonmusic.com; My email address is here;
please feel free to ask any questions you have, and I will be happy to answer them as best I can!!
www.vandojazzusa.com There’s an area on this site where Vandoren Artists
can be contacted by email to answer your questions. There are blogs too…very informative.
www.saxontheweb.com A forum that’s been going
for years now, with hundreds of topics. Most likely someone has asked the same question or had the same
issue that you are facing, and you can find some help here.
www.gregfishmanjazzstudios.com Check out his articles on improvisation.
His two jazz etude books and jazz duet books feature him on alto and tenor, and he sounds great. These
are excellent resources for students who are lacking a teacher, trying to learn what a fine saxophone sound is.
www.saxquest.com Similar to SaxontheWeb.
www.starsteachmusic.com Lessons available to watch online
or on iPod, often for less than $5.00!! Players like: Dan Higgins, Bill Liston, Sal
Lozano, Bob Sheppard, and many more.