My name is Kris Berg and I am director of jazz studies at Collin College in Texas and a longtime composer/arranger for Alfred. I get many, many questions from young jazz students, but these are two of the most common:
How do I get started writing a big band chart? What’s up with all those “chicken” charts?
It’s true; I have written a bucket full of chicken charts. I believe number 13 is in the works! It all started last century with an arrangement I did of a tune called “The Chicken,” composed by Alfred James “Pee Wee” Ellis, a sax player with James Brown and Van Morrison, and popularized by one of my favorite bass players, Jaco Pastorius. I actually wrote the arrangement as a grad student in college and then years later had the blessing of getting it published. I’m proud to say that “The Chicken” has gone on to become one of the best-selling big band charts of all time. Again, another blessing and I thank everyone for playing the chart (keep posting those videos on Youtube, they’re great!). More importantly, that chart has egged on an entire franchise of fun funk tunes, all with chicken titles. If you are familiar with some of these, you know that they are all funky, blues-based tunes with challenging lines for everyone, especially the bass player. For example; “Tastes Like Chicken,” “Chicken Scratch,” “Poultry in Motion,” “R U Chicken?,” “Fowl Play,” “Pecking Order,” “Rule the Roost,” “Flew The Coop,” “Feather Report,” “No Spring Chicken,” and the most recent chart, new for 2012, “Talk is Cheep.” I am not sure which will happen first, running out of ideas for tunes or running out of titles!
So where do I get all those ideas for new chicken tunes. I think the key here is listening — lots and lots of listening. When learning to improvise, we (jazz musicians) listen all the time to great players. We learn their licks in all 12 keys and we learn how to manipulate those licks to fit into our playing. The same idea is true for arrangers and composers. We listen. We listen to jazz, we listen to classical, we listen to just about every type of music. As a writer of music, everything you listen to becomes part of you — it’s mentally digested and becomes part of your internal jazz vocabulary. It can help suggest an idea for a new tune or possibly solve a problem with particular part of a chart. When I look back at the flock of chicken tunes I have written, I see influences from listening to a lot of funky music. Sometimes it’s Tower of Power, sometimes it’s Jaco Pastorius, sometimes it’s James Brown’s great recordings. The Internet has led me to newer groups like Groove Collection and Dirty Loops. It’s so easy to listen now — take advantage of the technology!
Let’s look at the tune “Feather Report.” The inspiration for that tune came about from the obvious word play in the title. To stay true to that inspiration, I pulled out many years of Weather Report recordings. They are one of my favorite groups and I have numerous albums, CDs and downloads I can listen to and I did — a lot! I listened for groove ideas, as that band has always had wonderful bassists and drummers. I listened for chords and chord progressions typical for that group. They have a very distinctive harmonic sound and it was important for me to try and capture that. I also listened to sounds the group uses, especially the synthesizer sounds from the great Joe Zawinul. This last part inspired several orchestration ideas as I tried to imitate those sounds and colors. For example, altos saxes blending with Harmon-mute trumpets and sub-tone tenors with a flugelhorn up an octave.
This leads me to the other question that students often ask me: How do I get started writing a big band chart? That first big band chart can appear like quite a daunting task. Aside from learning theory and melody building, a technique that I use that helps my arranging students is the concept of modeling. Let’s say you want to write a blues tune for big band. Start listening and put together a playlist of big band blues tunes that you like. From there start noticing how the charts are put together. Is there a BIG intro or maybe just a piano solo at the top? Which idea do you like better? Whatever it is, make that part of your chart. Who plays the melody? Is it saxes, trombones, trumpets, or some combination of horns? Which idea do you like better? Whatever it is, make that part of your chart. What do the rest of the horns do behind the melody? Are there counter lines maybe or punch-figures? Which do you like better? Use those ideas. Modeling can help you with the big picture. Where do solos typically come in? How long are they? How many are there? How does the writer build up backgrounds behind the solos? If there is a sax soli, where does that come in? Maybe you hear a great trombone or bass solo? Where does the shout chorus come in? How long does it last? What kind of range in the lead trumpet gets you excited? Are there any restrictions to lead trumpet range for the band you are writing for? Does the chart end with a repeat of the melody or something else? Does it end loud and exciting or does it bring it back down dynamically? The list of what you can learn from listening to big band charts goes on and on and on. So I highly recommend you begin now!
Thanks for taking some time with me. I hope you will check out my new big band CD, This Time/Last Year featuring Wayne Bergeron, Delfeayo Marsalis, Clay Jenkins, and Chris Vadala. It features some of my favorite Belwin Jazz charts, “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” and “R U Chicken?” Check it out — available now at www.krisbergjazz.com.
Kris Berg, Alfred Author
Awesome article, Kris! Keep “pecking away” at those charts….
Thanks for the comment, Dale!