The Big Picture = global + local planning

By Eric Richards
Assistant Professor of Composition/Jazz Studies

My name is Eric Richards and I’m the assistant professor of composition and jazz studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Prior to beginning my 2nd career as a college professor, I spent 20 years as composer/arranger with the US Army Field Band based near Washington, DC. I’ve had the good fortune of having my music played in world-wide venues and jazz festivals by groups such as the US Army Jazz Ambassadors, the USAF Airmen of Note, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops Orchestra and many others. As a professional writer and an educator of composer-arrangers, I’ve seen the importance of what I call “global planning” (I’m not talking about carbon footprints here) with regard to a clear, compelling structure for a composition or arrangement.

Many new writers have already developed a solid basic vocabulary of harmony, melodic concepts and the most important component in jazz composition or improvisation, RHYTHM. The challenge is assembling these components into a musical “story” with an effective arc that unfolds in the time allotted for the piece. I think the challenge is very similar to the one faced by improvisers: “I’ve spent all of this time working on ii–V patterns, bebop scales, hip licks, and learning the changes, now how do I put this all of this vocabulary and technique together to tell a story?”

Developing a master plan for a chart helps to sort out these “global” organizational issues prior to working out the very important “local” issues of reharmonization, voicings, orchestration, and so on. This process is not very time-intensive and will yield great results.

A simple, but useful exercise for writers is to carefully think through the chart. The writer should be able to summarize the concept of the chart in no more than 2 sentences. Example: “RECORDA ME” is a setting of composer Joe Henderson’s jazz classic for medium-advanced big band. Use the original Latin groove as a point of departure and be set in the standard key.
• This provides clarity and focus in the initial sketch score process.
• The concept can change mid-stream and that’s okay.
• Develop the concept from the perspective of the conductor: where would I program this chart in the concert program design?

So, what would a chart outline look like? Here’s an example of one I used for my new arrangement of Freddie Hubbard’s great tune “The Intrepid Fox.” The timeline helps to see how I ensure the chart maintains the artistic balance frequently cited as “unity vs. variety”.
• A general sense of how the structure unfolds reduces the probability of a piece that is too long (common error) or too short or unbalanced (e.g., wide open spaces for improvised solos with little substantive ensemble writing).

Example: “The Intrepid Fox”
Comp. Freddie Hubbard Arr. Eric Richards
CONCEPT: An up-tempo medium-advanced arrangement of Freddie Hubbard’s classic that features trumpet 2 and the saxophone section.
TEMPO/FEEL: quarter note = 240+/straight-ahead groove
LENGTH: 5–6 minutes PROGRAMMING: Opener, central anchor, or closer.
FORM: AABA (melodic form); solos: modified variant on A


  • Intro: full band into brief free-drum solo
  • Groove (bar 11): drums sets up straight-ahead groove in rhythm section, band layers in.
  • A1 (bar 28): saxophones, trumpet 2 and guitar on head
  • A2 (2nd X): add brass commentary (Harmon trumpets, open trombones)
  • B (bar 51): parallel 11th chords, open brass
  • A3 (bar 59): saxophones and trumpet 2 on head, open brass commentary but more assertive
  • Set up solos (bar 75): reference intro to setup solo section
  • Solo chorus 1 (bars 81–102): backgrounds as desired: sparse, comping trombones derived from opening rhythm section groove @ m. 11 w/sparse melodic references in saxophones and trumpets.
  • Chorus 2 (bars 103–124): increase energy by adding more assertive brass section figures derived from trombone figures beginning in m. 81.
  • Short interlude (bar 125): modal riff functions to dissipate energy and set up lighter feel for the beginning of the 4 horn soli with rhythm section.
  • Small band soli (bars 133–154): lighter texture for 4-horn soli. Voiced in octaves, build to shout chorus
  • Shout chorus (bar 155): climax of chart. Maximum range demands within guidelines.
  • B recap variant (bars 179–186): variant on B w/drum solo over rhythm section figures, brass layer in to add energy setting up final A statement.
  • Final A section (bar 195): final restatement of A phrase in saxophones, trumpet 2 and guitar, open brass.
  • Outro (bar 211): closing variant on introduction.

Not all details will be in the initial draft of the outline, but there should be enough detail/structure so that the writer has a big picture sense (global) of where things are going before starting to sketch the detailed notes and rhythms (local). If the concept changes while the chart is in progress, that is okay—be flexible. However, do update the timeline/outline. The whole point of the timeline/outline phase is to separate the “big picture” issues like form and architecture from the details like voicings and rhythms, etc. For composers, arrangers, and conductors, spending some time on the BIG picture issues will yield BIG results!

Best wishes,
Eric Richards
Assistant Professor of Composition/Jazz Studies
University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Music