How to Write for a Jazz Orchestra
By Mitch Glickman, Music Director, Symphonic Jazz Orchestra • July 23, 2020
Forward-thinking composers have experimented with mixing jazz and classical music for decades. So how do you balance these unique musical vocabularies in your score? Symphonic Jazz Orchestra founder Mitch Glickman offers some pointers.
Feeling inspired? Submit an original piece blending jazz and classical music to the sixth annual ASCAP Foundation/Symphonic Jazz Orchestra Commissioning Prize by August 17, 2020. The winner will receive a $5000 commission, with the resulting work premiered by the SJO in 2021/22 and entered into its repertory.
There’s no better way to understand the possibilities of the jazz orchestra than by hearing the music of its greatest composers, past and present. Even before Gershwin’s musical lightning bolt struck in 1924 with Rhapsody in Blue, composers had been experimenting with this special mix between the worlds of jazz and classical music. Check out Darius Milhaud’s ballet score La Création du Monde (1923) or Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha (1911) to explore the beginnings of the genre.
Some of the important composer/arrangers over the years include Claus Ogermann, Gil Evans, Nelson Riddle and Don Sebesky. More contemporary writers to listen to include Vince Mendoza, Mark Anthony Turnage, Maria Schneider and Patrick Williams.
Here’s a very short listening list (hear most of them in the Spotify playlist below):
- Don Sebesky - “Bird & Bela in B flat”
- Claus Ogermann - “Cityscape”
- Eddie Sauter - Focus
- Patrick Williams - “An American Concerto” (listen on YouTube)
- Vince Mendoza - Epiphany
2. Know your ensemble
The joy (and challenge) of symphonic jazz is the blend between two very different instrumental traditions, the classical European symphony orchestra and the improvisatory language of American jazz and the big band. The more you know about the intricacies of these ensembles and what makes them click, the better your results.
3. The reality of limited rehearsal time
This holds true for most large ensembles – and while there are plenty of amazing composers who have written complex works, the number of these performances (and repeat performances) are very limited. The Symphonic Jazz Orchestra, like most large ensembles, works on a very tight rehearsal schedule. The ensemble is comprised of incredibly diverse studio players who are masters not just in jazz and classical music, but Latin, R&B, pop, world music and beyond, but there is never enough rehearsal time. So…
4. Write smart
Know the ensemble you are writing for! Do you really need multiple meter changes every other bar? Or flat9 triple stops in the strings? Or extended trumpet parts that live above high C? How can you get the best sound out of the musicians knowing that they have limited time rehearsing this music?
5. Explore new colors
I like to say the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra is the greatest Crayola box in the world, because just about every color combination you can imagine is there. So armed with your knowledge of the jazz and classical worlds – and others – what new combinations await?
What We Look for in The ASCAP Foundation/SJO Commissioning Prize Submissions
If you are considering submitting to the annual ASCAP Foundation/SJO Commissioning Prize, the judges agonize over, and hotly debate, every one of the competitions we have held these past five years as the submission talent continues to grow each year. Here are some of the key elements we are looking for when we examine your music:
- Craft: Can you handle a symphonic-sized orchestra? Do you have command of the jazz language and writing for rhythm section? How efficient is the writing?
- Voice: Do you have something to say? Is the music derivative? Do you incorporate different genres?
- Remembering George Duke: The ASCAP Foundation/SJO Commissioning Prize was created in 2015 in celebration of SJO co-music director and ASCAP Board member George Duke, and is a celebration of his life and career. Does your piece evoke his adventurous spirit as a composer and musician?
Have questions? You can always reach us at info@SJOmusic.org or call 310-876-8130.