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What Instrument Do You Play?

David Berger



The usual conversation starter:

What do you do?

“I'm a musician.”

Really? That's so great. What do you play?


If you're a musician, you know how this goes. Today, on the bus on the way to the airport, a young woman stinking from cigarettes sat down in the seat next to me. We quickly got into a conversation, and within a minute, we got to the above exchange. Instead of asking me more about what I do, she told me that she played saxophone in high school. Naturally, I asked her where, thinking that I might have judged her band or done a clinic with them. She told me some place in New Hampshire. Hmm. Didn't ring a bell, so I asked if her band played any Ellington music. And then she told me, "No, we mostly played Beatles." Beatles?


Now, I might be able to understand if you played guitar and played Beatles songs, but why would you want to play that music on a saxophone? I immediately pictured her high school jazz band all set up in their band room in rows of saxes, trombones and trumpets with a rhythm section to the side playing triadic harmonies that bear no relationship to jazz whatsoever. My point here is that each instrument has its own history and repertoire. If I played the violin, I'd want to play the great violin concertos. I grew up playing the trumpet. To me that meant Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. In my teens I discovered Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham and Clifford Brown. Then along came Freddie Hubbard. I knew the swing players from all the famous records that everyone knew. That music wasn't very old. It was our parents' pop music. I found Artie Shaw's Stardust, which starts with Billy Butterfield's gorgeous trumpet solo along with Benny Goodman's And The Angels Sing featuring Ziggy Elman in my parents' record collection amongst all the Broadway show albums and Classical music. These guys could really play the trumpet!


Modern big bands evolved from the dance bands of the Swing Era. They started with three  brass and three saxes and steadily grew to a full complement of seven or eight brass and five saxes. The orchestration and harmonies were created to suit the music of the day, which accompanied swing dancers. As time went on, jazz arrangers kept pushing boundaries until the dancers became superfluous and the commercial big bands followed suit.


Now, a half century later, it's common to play in a big band and never play a note of swing or blues. The joy of playing saxophone solis is unknown to most young musicians. Back in the late '60s, I used to go to the Village Vanguard on Monday nights and sit right in front of the sax section. What a thrill it was when they would stand up to play their soli on Three And One. I was sitting at the bar when Thad's copyist brought in Groove Merchant and the band sight-read it. The chart wasn't even finished. Thad only got as far as the end of the sax soli, but that didn't stop him from playing it again the next set--something I never saw him do before or since.


Each instrument in a jazz band has its own tradition based on the great soloists of the past and the arrangers who wrote for the top bands. As an arranger, you want to build on those traditions while tailoring your music to suit the players you are writing for and developing your own aesthetic.  My aesthetic comes out of the music I heard and played as a teen and young man, so basically the music of the '60s and early '70s. I loved the music of my idols, but I was never content to just mimic them. My music had to be personal to feel satisfying. Even if I played a set trumpet solo, like Concerto for Cootie or Boy Meets Horn, I needed to put my own little spin on it. As Oscar Wilde supposedly said, "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken."


I never consciously set out to create my own style. It just developed over time. Or maybe it was always there. When I was young, you could hear the influence of Thad and Brookmeyer in just about everything I wrote. As I became more interested in Ellington’s music, I branched out and found the real me.


One of the nicest compliments I ever got was from saxophonist George Young. When I wrote Understanding Depression for the National Jazz Ensemble, George was playing lead alto. He called it sirloin steak for big band. By that he meant that all the instruments got to play fulfilling parts that we could all sink our teeth into. It was modern (employing a 12-tone row and dense harmonies), while mostly couched in a classic swing form—the blues. 


Over the past 10 years or so I've revisited a bunch of my compositions from 40 or 50 years ago. In most cases I've only made subtle changes. Not all of my charts have stood the test of time, but for those that have, it's still fun for me to play them. They still sound fresh to me, and the band enjoys playing them.


When I think about the big band charts that the big publishers churn out every year for high school and college bands, I can't help but wonder how many of those have held up over the years. Do those charts address the idiomatic contributions that each instrument has made over the last century, or do they service band directors looking for superficial music that can be prepared for a concert with the least amount of knowledge, imagination and effort? We need to challenge our students as well as our listeners. Better to perform a great piece of music poorly than ten mediocre pieces well. Let's be serious--starting today.

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  • Phil on

    I’ve played Rock-N-Roll in big bands and it just doesn’t work. In fact it’s comical but I console myself in the assumption that practically everyone out there is tone deaf. Something I don’t assume when I play any of the great Big Band charts.

  • David Berger on

    And I owned polyester pants in the ‘70s. Not my finest moment.

  • Hans on

    Basie played some Beatles songs, with a big band.

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