Recently I had the honor of working as an adjudicator and clinician for a couple university jazz festivals. A large number of high school bands participated and, as always, blew me away! It’s always a pleasure to enjoy the hard work of the students and see their enthusiasm.
I take the role of “judge” very seriously and try to offer useful advice (instead of criticism). I was very happy to see the festival organizers leave room at the end of each performance for the judges to do a quick workshop with the band. Obviously, an interactive workshop is far better than static comments on a sheet of paper.
But the real reason I’m writing this is a dilemma I see within the IAJE-approved judging sheet. For competitive judging, there are a number of criteria you’re to assign numbers to. The very first one, for 25 points, is Improvisation. Being a devout improviser, I think this sets the proper tone for the judge work sheet.
The dilemma arises when bands play the repertory pieces from Wynton’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. There was one band in particular who did a stellar job playing three Ellington charts. I mean, this band was swingin’, playing all the right phrasing, etc. But every soloist played the transcribed solo included in the chart. Not one ounce of improvisation.
The kids did an admirable job playing the various solos by Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Bubber Miley, etc. But, as I said, they didn’t do anything beyond just playing them. Is it improvisation? Of course not. But I did give them credit for at least studying the recording.
But I really wanted to give them a zero for improvisation because it just wasn’t there.
My suggestion to band directors is to take these charts from JALC and use them. No one can argue with the quality and the price. In fact, I’m very happy kids are being exposed to this music. But, please, open up some solo sections. Ellington did not play this music in such a static fashion.